Oceania Sirena Baja California – Mexico Cruise December 11-21 2016
Why this cruise? We are experienced cruisers with 34 ocean and 3 river cruises over the past 17 years, enjoying Crystal, Oceania, Celebrity, Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Commodore, Azamara, Princess and Holland America ships, as well as Viking, Avalon and Ama Waterways river boats.
We have always enjoyed the “small ship” cruises we have done on Azamara Quest as well as Oceania’s Insignia and Nautilus. We do not particularly enjoy the pre-Christmas commercial rush and noise, so this seemed like a good opportunity for a relaxing time.
Getting there and Embarkation. We considered driving from our home in Phoenix to a Long Beach CA hotel and leaving our car there until our return. We did this on our first cruise with Carnival in 1999, but finally decided that since we could avoid the crowds and confusion of LAX by flying directly into the Long Beach Airport on Sunday morning, we would do that. This airport is quite small and easy to navigate, and had only one other flight on the ground; so this proved to be a good way to go. The timing was virtually perfect and we went through the embarkation process at the Los Angeles Cruise Terminal in a few minutes. While waiting for the elevator upon boarding, we were pleased to hear that our deck’s staterooms were ready and available so we dropped our carry on belongings off, went to the buffet for lunch and then proceeded to the beautiful library on deck 10 to pick up some reading material. Since Sirena has only been sailing since the spring, the book selection was very up to date.
Our Stateroom. The eight identical Renaissance ships; named without much imagination as Renaissance I through Renaissance VIII; were built between 1998 and 2001. So they all suffer from the somewhat dated design ideas of 20 years ago. This means that the “standard” verandah cabin is rather small, 204 square feet including 34 square feet of verandah. The Penthouse suite has 332 square feet which includes 66 square feet of verandah. We had chosen this suite for our initial cruise from Manaus out the Amazon to Barbados on Insignia, and been upgraded by Oceania to this class on a Mediterranean cruise. Our third Oceania trip was in a standard Verandah class, but since this seemed cramped we opted for the larger suite on Azamara Quest, (an identical Renaissance ship), in 2015, and chose it again for this trip.
Our stateroom was 8010. The prime motif was dark wood, with light grey textured walls, a large mirror on one wall, and a nice, modern painting above the sofa. The desk arrangement was convenient, and next to it was the decent sized sofa. There were two arm chairs and a small table, probably adequate for room service (which we never use on any cruise). The verandah was good sized with two adjustable cane arm chairs that could be fitted with a padded seat and back cushion. There was a small table and a faux teak deck. The bed had two gooseneck directed focused reading lamps as well as
normal wall lamps. These focused lamps made reading in bed very easy. The desk held a good sized laptop with internet service, which due to our suite status and prior sailing record, was free. I normally used the available computers in the Oceania @Sea computer room on Deck 9, since I like a mouse. We also enjoyed the full glass wall with the door leading out to the verandah, as it provided nice light all day.
The bathroom had a full sized, obviously new shower, with both a rain shower head, a hand held spray head and a towel rack holding huge bath towels in addition to the normal sized bath towels and other towels on racks in the bathroom. There was a single sink, but cabinets and drawers on both sides providing all the room needed for toiletries.
The closet was good sized with an easily sufficient number of nice quality clothes hangers provided. As usual on board ship, there was more than enough drawer space for all we brought aboard. The additional room provided in a suite meant that the stateroom was easy to navigate and well designed for relaxation. We liked Oceania’s layout better than the jazzy new design for these suites that we experienced on Azamara Quest on our cruise to Norway in July 2015. We had the prototype of this suite, and this meant that it was visited by the company CEO to show to a group of travel agents on our full day in port in Edinburgh prior to sailing. But the Azamara version has an open space between the closet and the desk, which is located all the way over to the verandah wall. This means that there is no sofa. In addition, the Azamara cabin chairs were less comfortable.
In short, we think Oceania’s Penthouse suite on the ships is a good idea for a more comfortable journey with some nice amenities. However, if one really wants a great ship’s cabin experience the penthouse suites on Oceania’s Marina and Riviera, with more than 400 square feet, are a most delightful way to sail away.
The ship itself. Sirena was launched as Renaissance IV in 1999, purchased by Princess Cruises and sailed as Ocean Princess for that line until bought by Oceania in 2015. Its “maiden sailing” for this line was in April 2017. The refurbishing done in connection with this acquisition shows up in many ways. Virtually all the furniture is new, as are some of the bathrooms, such as ours. The carpeting is new and the art work along the corridors and stairwells also, reflecting a very nice taste in non-objective art (if you like this art, as we do). Apparently the poolside decking was replaced also, as it looked very new and attractive. There were one or two blemishes or “dings” in two of the elevator doors, but we don’t know if these occurred before or after refurbishment.
The essential layout of the ship remained the same, of course with its handy concept of “eat aft” and “enjoy forward”. The one exception to this rule was that the daily tea was served in the delightful Horizon Room, forward on Deck 10. This site offers excellent views, forward, port and starboard from comfortable seats, with a small dance floor in the center. It is used for some daytime activities and ship sponsored gatherings, as well as late night music and dancing. The center section of Deck 10 is open to the pool below, with a walking deck leading aft. This is where you find the two specialty restaurants, Tuscan Steak and Red Ginger, as well as the most attractive small library at sea.
Deck 9 has the buffet aft, the pool area and the Spa and Gym forward. Decks 8, 7 and 6 are all cabins, with the bridge, forward of course, on Deck 8. Deck 5 has the show lounge forward, the casino, shops, the main bar, “Martinis” an “Upper Hall” seating area and the main dining room aft. Deck 4 has cabins and the Reception Desk, Destination Services and the Concierge, as well as the Medical Center. There are a few cabins on Deck 3 as well as the tender exits.
Generally speaking the ship was well taken care of, with crew members frequently in evidence maintaining furnishings and ensuring cleanliness. All in all, Sirena is a compact, nicely designed, easily navigated and attractive vessel.
Dining and such. Oceania has a well deserved reputation for providing a quality dining experience. Our personal favorite remains Crystal, and to be fair, we have not sailed on Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn or Silverseas ships. But Oceania comes in as our second favorite dining cruise line. It should be noted that Marina and Riviera, with four rather than two specialty restaurants, are a cut above the other four Oceania Renaissance class dining venues. Oceania does not have any added charges for its specialty restaurants and I believe that this is true for the other three high end cruise lines referenced above. All of the other major cruise lines have a range of extra charges for food venues beyond the main dining rooms and buffets.
Sirena offers 5 dining options in four locations. This arises from the creation of “Jacques’ Bistro” as a separate lunch option in the main dining room. We tried it once and it was quite nice with an orientation to French food as might be expected in a restaurant named after Oceania’s cuisine supervisor, Jacques Pepin. The buffet offered a pleasant dinner option having the tables set up with linen table cloths and nice tableware. I have mentioned the specialty restaurants on Deck 10; Tuscan Steak and Red Ginger. The menu for the latter is Asian fusion, while the former, as one might expect from the name, features beef and Italian dishes.
Without going into detail about our meals, it is enough to say that we were very satisfied. If Crystal scores 97 out of 100, and Marina 95, Sirena would reach 93. The range of ships in the Celebrity line would make it a little more difficult to reach an exact rating, but we think the probable score would be around 90. Azamara would come in about the same level, although, like Celebrity, it has additional charges for its specialty restaurants. We especially loved Red Ginger, dining there three times. We did not visit Tuscan Steak since we are not into that style of food. We did hear that the service there was not that great, that they tried to sell ordinary lobster tails as “Maine Lobster” but that the small filet mignon was great according to one diner. The main dining room has one level, and is a trifle noisy. The staff worked hard and was very pleasant, with no glitches in delivery. Open seating is the rule everywhere, and we used both the option to dine by ourselves or with others with no problem. Since the dining rooms open at 6:30 each night, there were lines at that time, but the maître d’ handled the rush very well. The menu selection was good with very little duplication of choices over 10 days. As noted, we ate at Red Ginger three nights. We loved this venue on our two Marina cruises, and were not disappointed here. The hostess; Alina, I believe, was charming and efficient, and the overall service level very high. The décor is very attractive and the venue quieter than the main dining room, with just enough bustle and activity to make it a charming experience. We ate one luncheon at Jacques’ Bistro, where the menu is fashioned after a Paris bistro, and thought that this was a great idea with a small but excellent menu and equally fine service. It was not too crowded, but probably draws enough patronage to justify its continued place in the dining firmament. We ate every breakfast and most lunches at the buffet. The “small ship” limitations was evident here in that the size of the service area was limited and that limits the extent of the menu. Despite this, the food was generally extremely good, and the selection broad enough for most tastes. The selection of fruit for breakfast was as large and good as on any ship. The service here was occasionally spotty. Edith liked to order cappuccino for her breakfast coffee, and sometimes delivery was slow.
It should be noted that the tableware in all venues was first class. The dining room featured Rosenthal Versace dishes, and all other venues used well designed ware from Schoenwald. This is “hotel” china, and not porcelain of course, but I used to sell fine china in a school job long ago at a classy Georgetown D.C. store, and have kept my love of good tableware ever since. The glass ware and utensils were of equal quality.
One other change from our prior Oceania experiences was the switching of the small bar next to the main dining room to a Barista serving cappuccinos, lattes etc. all day long without charge. Since this location is on Deck 5, fairly close to the main bar, Martinis, it made sense to skip the duplication and provide a new and pleasant choice.
Entertainment. There were four forms of entertainment aboard. A pleasant lady offered some good lectures on sea days, all connected with Mexico and our ports. Martinis has a pianist “in residence” providing appropriate cocktail lounge music. There was a string quartet from Eastern Europe playing largely classical music in the evening in the Upper Hall near the boutiques on Deck 5, and every day at 4:00 in the Horizon Lounge for afternoon tea. They were enjoyable. Then there were the main shows every evening in the Sirena Lounge on Deck 5. The problem affecting these shows is that the lounge has two levels of flat floor, so most of the seats are directly behind other seats, limiting the view somewhat. This did not make a lot of difference for the solo singer, nor I would guess, the comedian whose shows we skipped. But it did limit views of the “production shows” and I would think, the magician, who we also chose not to see. The other issue we had was the schedule. There was only on show each night, and that was at 9:30. This was simply very late for us, and we were often tired, especially after shore visits.
We thought that the production shows, with three singers and three dancers were entertaining in a simplistic way; about par for the cruise ship course. The solo singer, Dale Kristien, had been the lead female singer in the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera as well as the original Los Angeles production; and performed it over 1700 times. She was very good, and had a nice selection of songs.
We don’t enjoy comedians, and as noted, were simply too tired at 9:30 for the magician, despite that fact that I enjoy these acts. Overall we found the entertainment about what you expect on a small ship. Only Crystal seems to have its act entirely together as far as entertainment and enrichment go, even though their ships are not exactly huge, Crystal Symphony carrying slightly less and Crystal Serenity slightly more than 1000 passengers.
The crew. By and large their performance was exemplary. Our cabin attendant, Carolina and her assistant had our cabin made up every morning by the time we returned from breakfast. Our butler, Dorian, was efficient and helpful, although we did not use him very much and could have done without the $14.00 daily gratuity. We really did not need the 5:00 P.M. daily serving of peanuts, and could have managed the reservation at Red Ginger ourselves. All the rest of the staff was usually smiling and friendly. We were told by the Captain that while there were 14 different nations represented by the 599 person passenger complement, the 400 crew members came from 46 different countries. There were a few minor language difficulties, but all needed communications were accomplished.
The Itinerary. This was not the most adventuresome trip we have done, but had enough places of interest to be enjoyable. Our initial sailing was “26 Miles Across the Bay” to Santa Catalina Island, where we had never been before. We took a local bus ride with a somewhat strange driver, but still enjoyed this unique place and the cozy little town of Avalon with its plethora of four passenger golf carts.
Cabo San Lucas was a partial tour failure. This was not a ships tour, and we did reach Todos Santos up the Pacific Coast for an abbreviated excursion. We received partial reimbursement.
La Paz on the Sea of Cortez side was about 11 miles from where we docked, but again a free shuttle was provided. We spent an hour or so there, and the waterfront with its Malecon is attractive.
Our private tour into the hills outside Matzalan was very worthwhile. This city has grown a lot, and the north waterfront area has a wide range of newer hotels, condos and apartments. The interior was more typical of rural Mexico, and we enjoyed walking in on a three baby baptismal ceremony in a local church. Since many of the relatives were using their cell phone cameras, we felt comfortable in using ours. Another church in our final destination, Copala, was built in 1565, and still dramatic.
There was another tour mix-up in Puerto Vallarta. But we did arrange a short tour downtown, with a full refund of our pre-paid charge. Since it was a Sunday, many stores were closed, but once again, the stunning growth of this area in the 16 years since our first visit was remarkable.
Summary. This was largely an enjoyable trip. One very pleasing facet of the small ship experience is the higher degree of contact with your fellow passengers. If you are cruising on a 5000 passenger Royal Caribbean monster, and have dinner with a nice couple, the odds that you will ever run into them again are miniscule. On a 600 passenger ship you will probably see them at the buffet, a show, or tea or in a boutique some other day. This makes for a friendly and cheerful atmosphere.
We also noted that almost all our fellow passengers were very experienced cruisers. While most were from the United States, there was a contingent, as always, from Canada, and some from Australia, as well as Europe. We were mostly senior citizens, and while Oceania does not have a children’s program, there were two young – about 10-12 years old – persons aboard, and they seemed to be doing fine.
We would recommend Sirena for any cruise up to 21 days. Beyond that its size limitations might make the sailing grow a little tiring and boring. But it is a first class ship and rates very highly among our cruising favorites. Read Less