Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oceania Cruises - Ship Inspection of the Regatta Made Me Smile...Really.

I flew down to Miami yesterday to do a ship inspection of the Oceania Regatta; one of three virtually identical ships operated by Oceania Cruise Lines.  I was not really expecting it to be very interesting - from an inspection point of view - since I had previously inspected the Azamara Journey...which is a sistership in a former life as part of Renaissance Cruise Lines.  Being the skeptic I am I was, however, wondering if I could get some real input and feel as to the effect of Apollo Management's impact on the Oceania product and approach...and how the "Prestige Cruise Holdings owns Oceania and Regent" affects same, and what downsides exist, if any (as it relates to Oceania).

Verdict: I literally came away with a smile.  Honestly.  As a was walking out of the terminal one of the security guards stopped me and said, "You look like you had a good time.  Nice smile."

For those of you not familiar with the ships, they are mid-size ships holding 684 passengers with some suites, but mostly fairly compact cabins.  As Oceania emphasizes, it is NOT a luxury cruise line, but a premium one.  The cabins (with or without balconies) are small at 164 square feet, but are tastefully well designed and comfortable save two major flaws:  extremely small bathrooms with "overly friendly" shower curtains and mini-sofas that just aren't comfortable.  (The Penthouse and higher suites do not suffer from either of these flaws and, in fact, have bathtubs, plenty of room and comfortable furniture.)  Personally, I like the cabin finishes better on Azamara, but not enough to really have it as a factor when choosing which line to cruise.

You will pay as you go for water, drinks and liquor.  There are no complimentary shuttle buses into town.  You will pay gratuities (unless you book one of its special promotions before the end of March 2009). Smoking is forbidden and children are specifically discouraged.  Men can cruise for weeks without ever donning a jacket, though many do wear sport coats to dinner.  Other than the specialty restaurants, it is open seating.

The public spaces are very nice with a country club feel (i.e. casual but elegant), two specialty restaurants (Polo for steak and Toscano for Italian, but without additional charge for either) plus the main dining room and the casual venue, which has a portion (even outdoors) transformed to a tapas restaurant in the evenings.  There are very nice cabanas which you can rent for a day or an entire cruise that give you a fairly luxurious retreat.

The food I had was very good.  Now, while I know a bit of a show is put on for travel agents, what was served does indicate what Oceania does with its cuisine.  We started with a nice serving of caviar over a potato terrine of sorts, followed by lobster risotto, beef fillet and a chocolate dessert.  What my impressions were are very Jacques Pepin (who designed the menu):  Good quality ingredients served in a simple, honest way that looks and tastes good.  My beef was ordered medium rare and it was served medium rare...and cut with a fork.  (By way of comparison I found the presentation, flavors and taste to be superior to its sister line, Regent Seven Seas.)

A note on service:  It appears to be solid, but not as polished as one would expect on a luxury line.  Oceania not being a luxury line would seem to make this an irrelevant observation, right?  Well, the overall impression is such that you cannot help but consider same.  (That is a compliment.)

Okay, so you are reading this and saying, "This doesn't sound like the Eric I know."  Well, here goes...A nice cabin and a good meal does not make me smile.  People make me smile.  The people on Oceania from the room stewardesses to the Chief Financial Officer were warm, friendly and, most importantly, were proud of their product and were absolutely beaming with the personal pride of being on a team that wants to do the best they possibly can.  For me, even if things are not perfect, if someone is genuinely giving their all and want to improve what they do, I willingly embrace any minor slip-ups because they are part of a very productive process.

I had a very enjoyable lunch with the Prestige Cruise Holding's Director of Communications, Chief Financial Officer and others.  We discussed Oceania's philosophy, efforts during refits, happiness of the crew, etc.  I even was introduced to a couple of very happy former Seabourn folks (who spoke with such kind words about Seabourn!).  To be sure, however, I made sure that we spoke of some of the issues regarding Regent, the interrelationship, etc.  What I walked away with was these are the sort of people I, personally, want to do business with.  And, if I want to do business with them, it gives me great comfort in encouraging my clients to cruise with Oceania.

I close with the inevitable comparison:  Oceania versus Regent.  To me this is not even close:

     1.  Food:  This is, hands down, to Oceania.  Not only did I have a meal onboard, I snooped around and saw what was being offered to the paying passengers.  I know that Oceania spends more per passenger on quality ingredients than Regent does.  I understand and appreciate the philosophy of an elegant piece of beef fillet you can cut with a fork trumps a giant rib eye falling off of a plate.

     2.  Service:  I used the term once before, "Comfortable in its own skin" and Oceania's service is just that.  It is solid, but imperfect.  But is offered with a smile, a desire to do it better each and every time and with an intangible warmth.  Regent struggles with uneven service, confused waiters and a lack of polish.  It is working on "it", but Oceania has "it".

     3.  Itineraries:  This is not even close.  Check out Oceania's itineraries.  If you want to see the world, they are so much stronger than Regent's.

     4.  Cabins:  Regent is must stronger, even in most suites.  It is, to me, the only "ace in the hole" Regent has.  That said, the Penthouses on Oceania are nice, though the bathrooms (even with a tub) are a bit spartan.  The upper suites are competitive, though.

     5.  Ships:  If you take the Regent Navigator out of the mix, the pubic areas are both fine.  I do find that most of Oceania's public spaces are more to my liking...with the caveat that I have not been back on the Regent ships since their recent refit.  The style of Oceania works for me, but I would not chose or dismiss either line because of their public areas.

     6.  Value:  If you read this far you know the answer:  Oceania by far.  You could not possibly drink enough or pay enough in gratuities to even begin to justify the price difference. 

So, if you are looking for a value cruise or prefer to pay ala carte (non-drinkers, for example), take a good look at Oceania.  I am confident you will like what you see...especially for the price.