High-end cruising, with lots of sparkle

Oceania Cruises' ship Marina arriving in Miami in 2011 after its maiden voyage from Barcelona, Spain, carrying 1,250 guests. It features 10 dining venues among other highlights (DAVID ADAME / AP Images for Oceania Cruises).
Oceania Cruises' ship Marina arriving in Miami in 2011 after its maiden voyage from Barcelona, Spain, carrying 1,250 guests. It features 10 dining venues among other highlights (DAVID ADAME / AP Images for Oceania Cruises). (DAVID ADAME / AP Images for Oceania Cruises)
Posted: March 11, 2013

BARCELONA, Spain - Frank Del Rio won't use the L word to describe his cruise ship the Riviera - or its almost identical two-year-old sister, the Marina.

He prefers the term upper premium over luxury to describe the experience of a transatlantic voyage on one of Oceania Cruises' newest 1,250-guest vessels. "We underpromise and overdeliver," said Del Rio, chairman and chief executive officerof Oceania parent company Prestige Holdings.

The Miami-based Oceania Cruises, which caters mostly to active baby boomers, prides itself on providing a luxury experience, even if they won't call it that. Indeed, it can be difficult to bypass that intention as soon as you walk into the foyer and are greeted by the sleek, grand Lalique staircase and sparkling crystal chandeliers - not to mention the eclectic art collection throughout the ship.

But with cruise ships in general getting bigger, better, and more sophisticated, how is this newest ship - which took its maiden voyage in May - able to set itself apart from the pack?

The Riviera and Marina specifically target epicureans and food lovers. Oceania went as far as to anoint Cat Cora, the Food Network's Iron Chef, as Riviera's godmother.

"As the mother of four boys, I finally got a girl, and isn't she beautiful," Cora said of Riviera during christening ceremonies in Barcelona, moments before launching an oversized bottle of champagne into the ship's hull.

While it's unlikely you'll find Cora in the ship's Bon Appetit Culinary Center, other master chefs from around the world are brought in to help chef Kathryn Kelly lead classes at this state-of-the-art, hands-on cooking school. The classes cover all types of cooking, last up to two hours, and cost extra.

But most travelers intend to eat, not cook, during their vacation, and as such there are 10 venues to choose from, including: the Polo Grill steak house, Toscana (an Italian eatery that has a separate olive oil menu), Red Ginger (Japanese), Jacques (a French bistro led by chef and author Jacques Pepin), La Reserve (which offers seven-course wine and food pairings), and Privee (a decadent private dining room).

While reservations are required at those restaurants (La Reserve and Privee have additional costs), the stately Grand Dining Room and more casual Terrace Cafe and Waves are just as popular with guests.

For its debut season, Riviera spent the summer in the Mediterranean, with 10- and 12-day voyages that included sailings from Barcelona to Lisbon, Lisbon to Rome, and Rome to Venice. Each voyage included almost daily stops at ports such as the Canary Islands; Casablanca; Monte Carlo; Valencia, Spain; Florence, Italy; and Corfu, Greece. For the 2013 season, Riviera will venture out farther to Istanbul, Turkey, the British Isles, and the Baltics.

With arrivals as early as 8 a.m., and some departures as late as 10 p.m., guests have time to do shore excursions or explore the cities on their own. The cruise line provides free shuttles into town anytime the port is not within walking distance of the city's center. While the excursions offer the opportunity to catch many of the city highlights, self-exploration can be just as satisfying.

One exception may be special excursions such as one offered during the Barcelona stop in which a small group tour included tapas cooking lessons at Aula Gastronomica, followed by olive oil and wine tastings and a visit to the Santa Catarina Market.

Most of Riviera's cruises originate outside the United States, but their free airfare program provides flights from more than 25 U.S. cities at no additional charge.

Still, a trip on Oceania's Riviera is not cheap, with full rates starting at around $5,000 for the spacious 242-square-foot inside stateroom on shorter voyages to $14,000 for the 282-square-foot concierge-level veranda stateroom on a longer trip. Of course, many people take advantage of frequent fare specials.

For instance, promotional fares for an 11-day voyage in November from Miami to Miami (with stops that included St. Maarten, Antigua, and Puerto Rico) started at $2,900. And that included food (alcoholic beverages are extra).

At the core of any cruise experience is service provided by its staff, which Del Rio calls "the soul of the ship."

With just 625 cabins (or 1,250 maximum guests), Riviera boasts a staff of more than 800, with 24-hour free room service and butler service for every suite.

While guests are lounging on the pool deck, it's common for staff members to offer a cool towel or cocktail. Enrichment programs at Artists Loft include lectures and hands-on demonstrations, and you'll find acupuncture seminars at Canyon Ranch Spa.

Want to just relax and read but forgot to bring your book? Adjacent to its coffee bar, Riviera has an impressive library with cozy seating areas and shelves of best sellers and reference materials.

And if you're into high tea, the 15th floor Horizons (it's a dance club at night) hosts an hourlong tea with finger sandwiches, scones, petit fours - all while you're being serenaded by a string quartet.

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