Guest bloggers John and Sandra Nowlan enjoy culinary cruising in the Caribbean on Oceania Marina.
Even the mandatory pre-cruise safety drill was gracious and polite. As we gathered with our lifejackets in the main lounge, the British leader asked us to pay careful attention to the upcoming announcements, “with a small amount of hush.” Sure beats, “Be quiet!”
Boarding cruise ships, even in a port as efficient as Miami, can be chaotic. Oceania, with its small fleet of medium-sized vessels, seems to have perfected the process. It’s in keeping with the overall sophistication and professionalism of our ship. Marina, built in 2011 for 1200 guests, is supported by a well-trained crew of 800 (among the best passenger/staff ratios at sea).
Marina is classed as an “upper-premium” cruise ship, one step down from “luxury.” It doesn’t offer complimentary excursions, free wi-fi or wine with lunch and dinner but prices are more moderate than top lines like Regent or Crystal. However, from our ten days aboard Marina, we can state that the culinary cruising was better than on any other cruise ship, and the level of service was second to none. There are no facilities for children and almost all the guests were over fifty. Most were veteran cruisers who appreciated the casual “country club” atmosphere (jackets and ties not required for men in the evening) and luxury touches.
Twelve hundred guests is an ideal size for a cruise ship. Small enough to get around easily (the giant ships with 4000-6,000 passengers take a week to fully explore) but big enough to offer a wide variety of culinary and entertainment options. The bright atrium with its glass elevators and the many public rooms all felt like a cozy club with comfortable chairs and great lighting. The library is huge with a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction. The ship was built in Italy and its heritage shows with lots of polished granite and sophisticated artworks on staircases and in lounges.
Our standard balcony cabin was large by industry standards (270 sq. feet ) with plenty of storage space, good AC, a very comfortable bed (sheets with 1000-thread count) and a generous-sized bathroom with Bulgari toiletries. The bathtub had a shower but there was also a separate shower stall, something that could have been eliminated to make the bathroom even more spacious. All rooms have a mini-fridge stocked with complimentary bottled water, pop and juice (extra cost on most lines). The high def TV offered movies and several news channels (BBC, Sky News, Fox and MSNBC – but no CNN).
The pool deck is very generous in size with scores of well-padded recliners surrounding a deep salt water swimming pool. Unfortunately, smoking is still allowed in one corner of the pool deck and, when the wind is right, the smell permeates the entire pool area.
For a relatively small ship, the evening entertainment was first-rate. The ship has a troupe of six singers and six dancers, all very talented, complemented by a six-piece band. During our 10-day cruise, we enjoyed four excellent and highly choreographed production shows. The band plays in other venues as well and a string quartet performs every afternoon (at high tea) and in the evening.
Culinary cruising: Food Glorious Food
From its beginning in 2003, Oceania has stressed fine dining and Marina excels in providing outstanding cuisine in its main dining room and four no-extra-cost specialty restaurants. The ship employs 140 chefs and cooks. Celebrity Chef Jacques Pepin is Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director and his influence is evident in the quality and presentation of all meals. His namesake restaurant – Jacques – is like a high-end French bistro with plenty of foie gras, caviar and rotisserie meats. His Dover Sole, prepared tableside, was particularly good and, as expected, the cheese trolley was a standout.
The other specialty restaurants were Polo Grill (classic steakhouse with crab cakes, massive steaks and Maritime lobster), Toscana (wonderful lasagna, pan-seared sea bass and an extensive olive oil menu) and Red Ginger (Asian fusion specialties including spicy duck, Thai beef and an extraordinary Lobster Pad Thai).
The well-named Grand Dining Room is also open every day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and offers an extensive menu with food and service that’s a match for the most luxurious high-end ships. The informal Terrace Café on the 12th deck (with several outside tables) is a buffet restaurant with a wide choice of freshly prepared dishes (the almond croissants at breakfast were better than any we’ve had at big city cafés). There’s also a specialty coffee corner next to the library and an informal Waves Grill near the pool with excellent hamburgers (including a decadent Wagyu beef burger) and fish burgers (we loved the tuna).
Ports and excursions
Many Caribbean cruises have ho-hum itineraries but Oceania planned this one to hit some fascinating ports. In the Cayman Islands, we just wandered around George Town admiring the colonial architecture and enjoying the beachside fresh fish market.
Cozumel was a highlight as we were bussed to an elaborate Mexican cooking class at Playa Mia where humourous Chef Luis helped us prepare tortilla with shrimp, grilled grouper with tamarind sauce and caramelized plantain with chocolate tequila sauce. We then enjoyed our creations with bottomless margaritas. Cozumel has a great port facility with good, competitive shopping. Even Mexican beer was available at two for $3.00.
Our next stop, Costa Maya, Mexico, offered a wonderful historic tour to the Mayan Ruins of Chacchoben. Just an hour west of Costa Maya, the remarkable pyramids and sacred temples date back 1500 years and weren’t discovered until 1972 by an archaeologist working for the Royal Ontario Museum. Many buildings are still being unearthed from centuries of extensive jungle growth. Costa Maya has a modern port facility but shopping should be avoided. Souvenirs are expensive and the beer that cost $1.50 in Cozumel is $6.00 here.
In Central America, we visited the fascinating countries of Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. The highlight was Guatemala where we boarded a panga boat and headed along the tropical coast to the isolated fishing port of Livingston. We then sailed up the Rio Dulce River and visited a unique vocational boarding school in the jungle with 600 students. Taught in Q’eqchi Mayan, Spanish and English, junior and senior high students thrive without electricity and with limited facilities. In Belize, we enjoyed a beach day on a private island, Harvest Caye, developed just months ago to serve Norwegian and Oceania cruise guests. It’s a great facility with free beach chairs and beach umbrellas.
As we reluctantly returned to Miami (a scheduled stop at Key West had to be abandoned because of high winds) several well-traveled guests told us why they love cruising with Oceania. One said he appreciated that wine and beer could be brought aboard and that there were no in-your-face photographers or Baked Alaska parades! Most just commented that fellow guests were informed and interesting and that the food and service were “unbelievably good.”
All good things must come to an end
As always, we recommend arriving at a cruise port a day or two ahead of schedule. In our case we were fortunate to get a room at the elegant 1 Hotel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach (spacious rooms, excellent dining and a luxurious rooftop pool). A bonus on our trip was a visit to the annual South Beach Wine and Food Festival, another tasty excuse to visit Miami.
**John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All photography courtesy of the Nowlans.
IF YOU GO
Disclosure: The Nowlans were guests of Oceania Marina but any opinions expressed in this post are their own.