While there were a couple of families with babies on our trip (and boy did other passengers grumble, even though the tots were quite well-behaved!), this is not a ship I'd recommend for families with kids under the age of 16. There are no special facilities at all for children.
After a 14-hour shore excursion in Cairo -- and the long, hard slog to Alexandria, where Oceania's Nautica was docked -- everyone was pretty worn out. You could visibly see the exhaustion of the more than 500 folks (of the 650-plus sailing) as they straggled back to the ship from a sea of motor coaches. They were, to be sure, thinking longingly of a relaxing cocktail, a quick buffet dinner ... and then bed.
But just as passengers approached a red carpet that snaked out onto the dock from the gangway, they heard the strains of "When the Saints Come Marching In," by the Nautica Orchestra, tucked up on Deck 5's promenade. A banner hung above the ship's entrance saying "Welcome Home." Passengers were offered fresh juices and hot towels. There was an immediate change in mood as the passengers stood up straighter, smiled genuinely and shook off their weariness. They were jazzed by the reception -- and so were the staffers on hand lining the red carpet saying hello. Christopher, a member of the ship's entertainment team, occasionally broke out into a jig; Bruno, the ship's concierge, broke ranks to greet a familiar passenger with a warm handshake.
This was the most moving of many, many wonderful moments, big and small, that were experienced on a recent Mediterranean cruise aboard Nautica, Oceania's newest ship. Others included the joie de vivre of officers and staff who competed in putting, Ping-Pong and shuffleboard with passengers in a rousing "Officers Challenge Day" tournament. I overheard a guest ask cruise director Leslie Jon what events were planned for the day -- and appreciated the gentle kindness with which he detailed them (he could have just told her to read the daily program). No matter how intense the dinner table conversation, we always enjoyed an interruption by the nightly "Pascal and Andrea" meet-and-greet, in which the ship's chef and restaurant manager visited most, if not all, tables, chatting and laughing. Mind you, these represent just a sampling of special moments.
Nautica is the third ship to join Oceania's fleet, and is in many ways identical to Regatta and Insignia, which have preceded it. The strategy, since the beginning, has been to create an ambience far more reminiscent of an English country house hotel than a cruise ship. There's an adequate range of facilities, yet the atmosphere is cozy and intimate. Decor is similar fleetwide, and all vessels have restaurants such as the Polo Grill, Toscana, and Tapas on the Terrace, along with a Mandara spa and cyber lab. Staff and crew routinely rotate among the three ships, so a returning passenger on any of them is likely to recognize friendly faces. That could also be because Oceania treats its employees well -- and they return, contract after contract.
I sailed on Insignia two years ago and loved it then; what was amazing to me is how much the experience has evolved since. Nautica has benefited from the launch of its older two siblings, and it reflects Oceania's more recent brainwaves (the other ships are being upgraded with Nautica's perks as well). These include the installation of all-teak decking around the pool, the creation of private cabanas, the gentle refurbishment of public rooms and the slight redesign of the Grand Restaurant to accommodate more tables for two. The Vista and Owner's Suites have received complete makeovers. There has also been a strong focus on courting experienced employees -- and you'll find that many of the officers, crew and staff members hail from luxury lines like Crystal and Silversea.
The shore excursions arena has improved enormously, and if the line still pretty much limits itself to mass sightseeing tours via motor coach, it's perhaps because the more mature demographic it primarily attracts won't yet support more adventurous offerings.
Someday, maybe. In the meantime, in an era in which ships are becoming so big that even the Panama Canal plans to expand to accommodate them, Nautica, along with its siblings, occupies the most unique niche in the cruise industry, offering small-ship luxury -- at moderate prices. Even better: The experience is anything but pretentious.
If you define luxury as unparalleled service, outstanding cuisine, an intimately sized ship with just enough of the key bells and whistles (variety of dining options, a gorgeous spa, a range of entertainment venues), intriguing itineraries, and an ambience of warmth, then this ship definitely belongs in that niche. On the other hand, there are also "mass market" factors that don't necessarily hew to luxury standards: Drinks and other extras are priced on an a la carte basis, standard cabins can be small (cozy, but small) with shower-only bathrooms, and there are plenty of inside cabins.
The beauty of Nautica is its ability to keep a steady foot in both camps. It offers enough of the sophisticated amenities that will only become more important as cruising continues to evolve (and attract a new type of passenger). At the same time, the line is savvy in positioning its fares for a range of travelers, from those who consider suites and butlers necessary amenities to those who value luxury without the Mercedes price tag. In the process, Nautica -- not to mention its siblings Regatta and Insignia -- offers the best all-around value in cruising today.
For a ship that seriously has some of the best cuisine at sea, surprisingly, it is not necessarily a given that you will gain weight on Nautica. That's because so many of the offerings lean toward healthy fare -- lots of salads, fruits and fish (including delicious sushi and sashimi every night at Tapas on the Terrace).
Having said that, you probably will (gain weight). The food is that good. I'm embarrassed to reveal that, for the first time in my life, I capped off a delicious lunch in the Grand Dining Room by ordering not one but two desserts. And I don't even have a sweet tooth!
Nautica, like its Oceania siblings, is an all-open seating flex-dining ship. There are four restaurants: The Grand, its main eatery; the Terrace Cafe (which becomes Tapas on the Terrace for dinner), its buffet venue; Polo Grill, for an elegant steak-and-chops experience; and Toscana, featuring upscale Italian.
The Grand is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and its menus reflect the cruise line's partnership with celebrity chef Jacques Pepin (definitely don't miss his signature dishes, such as steak frites, poached salmon and salad nicoise). Breakfast is "standard" gourmet -- with options that range from the usual (omelets and eggs Benedict) to the more exotic (such as lamb chops and steamed haddock). There's a nice "express breakfast" option (scrambled eggs, toast, bacon) for folks who want to eat fast -- while avoiding the buffet mayhem.
At lunch and dinner, The Grand offers marvelous variety. Each menu includes spa cuisine selections (a meal of grilled scallops could be accompanied by a beef consomme, for instance) and a variety of courses, starting with appetizers and finishing, natch, with dessert. You'll always find soups and salads along with a pasta of the day, a highlighted vegetarian dish and a wok selection. At dinner, you could conceivably tuck into a six course extravaganza -- but since portions are moderate, you won't feel overly indulgent.
The Terrace Cafe is open for buffet breakfast and lunch. Breakfast offerings are pretty much in range with buffets everywhere -- not too many surprises here -- with items ranging from breads and cereals to steam table pancakes and cooked-to-order omelets. What sets this venue apart from so many, however, is the superb service; wait staff is quick to take plates out of hands (it was particularly pleasing to note that they really kept an eye out for more fragile folks and were assisting these passengers before even they knew they needed a hand!) and refill coffee and juice. At lunch, the selection is more varied from day to day, with the occasional theme spreads (Asian and Mexican among them).
The cafe has indoor and outdoor seating (its "terrace" on the back of the ship is an absolutely charming spot in good weather). Adjacent is the Waves Grill, which features lunchtime fare such as grilled fish and burgers.
Nautica has two other restaurants; folks onboard don't like to position them as alternatives to the main dining experience (in the manner of other cruise lines), but in fact, they offer just that: an alternative. Polo Grill features steaks, chops and seafood in a pubby, clubby atmosphere. The menu is more traditionally Continental, with dishes like veal chop, lobster and rack of lamb (also available are a good range of fish dishes, like ahi tuna and mahi mahi). Accompaniments come in the way of side orders, and you can get potatoes prepared mashed, au gratin, baked and so forth; veggies include creamed spinach and asparagus. If you can make it to the dessert course, this ship has the best cheesecake I've ever tasted.
Next door, Toscana is seriously Italian; favorites include the "trio Toscana" starter, which features tastes of gnocchi, fettuccine carbonara and mushroom risotto. The fried calamari is as delicate as the Tuscan bean soup is hearty. For starters, options include veal shank, lamb chops, rotisserie chicken (the galley actually has its own rotisserie) and sea bass. Chocolate lovers shouldn't miss out on the "Lasagne al Cioccolota."
Reservations are required for both restaurants (and trust me, make them at the beginning of the cruise to avoid disappointment as they are extremely popular). All guests are guaranteed a reservation at least once in each. There's no extra fee to dine in either Polo Grill or Toscana. Another tip: if you can be flexible and can't get a reservation, ask to dine late -- 9 p.m. or so. You also stand a better chance of making extra visits if you're willing to share a table with others.
The last (but by no means least) option for dinner is Tapas on the Terrace. The buffet venue, quite elegant to begin with, is gussied up a bit with linen tablecloths (and you can dine outdoors on nice evenings). A different menu each night, selections boast a myriad of small tastes (hence the tapas moniker), and include cold dishes (seared tuna loin, smoked salmon for instance), hot ones (chicken fritters or escargot), and a hot and cold buffet. There are also stations for pasta, Asian dishes and carved meats. And in keeping with the Spanish theme, the restaurant offers house-made sangria.
Room service is excellent; a 24-hour menu includes hot dishes like steak and spaghetti, and sandwiches, from burgers to ham and cheese. For those desiring breakfast food, however, only a Continental breakfast is available through room service (unless you're a suite inhabitant).
Afternoon tea is served daily in the Horizons Lounge, and it's as elegant as it gets, with scones (clotted cream included), small sandwiches and cakes to go with the tea. The ship's classical musicians perform at tea time, providing a backdrop to the event.
For drinks, the Terrace Cafe has 24-hour coffee, tea and juice. Cappuccino and espresso are complimentary at meals. Wine and cocktails are on the pricey side -- but we'll offer kudos where they're due: Alongside the more expensive wine-by-the-glass options (at $9 plus), a house red and white is available for $5.50. The ship's wine list is fantastic, with a good representation of old and new world wines. The mark up, though, is pretty steep; a glass of LaCrema chardonnay is $9 -- you can buy a bottle for that at home. Also, a bottle of Jordan chardonnay, a favorite of ours that's typically priced at $50 on restaurant menus, is $58 here. The ship's sommeliers tend to be very well educated, and some very excellent recommendations gave me a chance to try a few new wines.Very unusual for a cruise ship's main dining room, all dishes are prepared to order -- and that extra effort definitely comes through in the consistently high quality of the cuisine.
A major improvement on Nautica, which had undergone a considerable redesign of its main restaurant, is that there are now numerous tables for two; you won't be forced into a shared dining situation if what you want is to dine quietly.
Nautica's library is one of the most beautiful -- and functional -- at sea. Not only is the room simply gorgeous, with its faux fireplace, garden-esque ceiling murals, cozy chair and table settings, and views out to three sides of the ship -- it also has an excellent book selection. I found several new releases that I hadn't been able to get at my local library. And even better? They don't insult passengers by locking the bookshelves. The whole facility, which also includes a couple of Internet-connected computers, is open around the clock (a note for those whose laptops have wireless capabilities: It was an extremely pleasant place to check daily e-mails).
The Internet cafe is quite active, particularly while at sea, with various classes being offered, including Adobe Photoshop, Windows for Beginners, etc. One downside to the huge popularity of Oceania@Sea, which hosts the classes, is that on sea days, the Internet cafe is frequently out of service for folks who simply want to send e-mails or surf the Net. There are of course two terminals in the library, but that's not nearly enough. Wireless access is available in public areas for those who tote their own laptops. A note: The Internet service is incredibly slow, and while Oceania, like other lines, is trying to solve the problem, it is not yet solved. Also the rates are pricey, starting at 90 cents per minute (packages for heavy Internet users may bring costs down to about 60 cents per minute).
The ship's casino is almost an afterthought; there are a handful of table games and a few rows of slots.
Nautica's two-deck atrium starts on Deck 4 in a beautiful country house living room setting (lots of plush, comfortable couches and chairs -- this is a great place for those looking for quiet nooks). Here's where the business of the cruise is conducted, and where you'll find the purser's desk, the shore excursion area and the concierge. Ascend the lovely "Titanic"-like curving staircase to Deck 5, and you'll find two shops with some surprisingly interesting finds, such as the whimsical (and alas outrageously pricey) evening purses handcrafted by Mary Frances.
There are also couch and table groupings in this area of the ship -- and while there's no bar, folks who want to order a drink can simply walk next door to Martinis.
There is one laundromat on Deck 7; you buy tokens for the machines at the purser's desk. On sea days it's a free-for-all (splurge and just send your clothes to the ship's laundry!).
|Fitness and Recreation|
The pool area is simply gorgeous -- intimate and well designed, with teak lounges framing the solo pool; they're covered in thick blue cushions that are protected by white terry cloth covers. Some of the lounges are doubles, a lovely treat for couples. The deck is outfitted in teak as well.
Two whirlpools surround the pool.
For folks who prefer to sit in the shade, Nautica has taken an under-cover space behind the pools and converted it into a gorgeous living area, boasting plush couches and deep armchairs -- and a view of all the goings on.
On Deck 11, all the way forward, Nautica has created a sanctuary of sorts, with private cabins outfitted with double chaise lounges facing out to sea. The glass fronts provide protection from the wind, but the framing of the cabanas includes a ceiling that can be peeled back to let in light and air. These cabanas cost $50 per day in port and $100 while at sea. Beyond the privacy, passengers are entitled to waiter service, a free ten minute chair massage, a $25 discount on any spa service that can be performed in the cabana, and even the delivery of high tea.
The spa and fitness facility is managed by Mandara, the Balinese-style offshoot of the industry's ubiquitous Steiner. The fitness facility wraps around the outside (offering floor-to-ceiling views) and is adequately outfitted with Cybex equipment.Numerous classes are offered, including circuit training, "awesome arms," "stretch and relaxation," "detox for weight loss," and "abdominal attack" among others. These are free of charge. "Pathway to pilates" and "pathway to yoga" are featured nearly every day for $12 per class.
The spa is one of the nicest at sea -- truly! It's compact but feels intimate and serene. There are four treatment rooms; services range from basic massage to fancier fare, such as a four hands massage, an exotic coconut rub and milk ritual (with or without massage), and a series of facials. Men's and women's locker rooms have steam and two showers. A day or so after embarking, I tried the "hot lava rock massage," and it was performed expertly -- it managed to repair the damage that a long flight in a tight seat had caused.
Keep an eye out for discounts. My hot lava rock massage normally costs $171 (it was the 50 minute option; you can also opt for 80); on this port day it was $155. Value prices, which are listed on the spa sheet at the front desk, are available from 8 a.m. - 2 p.m., on port days only. I was tempted by a 20 percent off special on the Frangipani Body Nourish Wrap with a 50 minute massage; the value price was $263, but the discount brought it down even further to about $230.
The difference isn't huge -- but every bit helps!
Sometimes there were special treatment combos; these were usually listed in the day's Oceania Currents. I tried one that was offered by the beauty salon, a frangipani hair and scalp treatment, with a head massage, and a neck and shoulder massage. At $69 it was marvelous.
On the whole, though, the prices seem higher than average -- with a basic pedicure priced at $53 and a basic 50-minute massage at $132.
And you may get the famous Steiner product pitch (Mandara's parent company sells a line of beauty products and has been known for its therapists' aggressive sales tactics), whether you want it or not. My conscientious massage therapist insisted on making such suggestions -- "I'm required to," she said -- but she kept it low-key.
Don't miss out on the fantastic thalassotherapy pool and sun deck area for spa-goers only (it's free for one hour before or after a treatment; you can also pay $18 a day to use it without a spa service). It's got steamer chairs outfitted with cozy cushions, tables, and the pool, whose water temperature is just above body temperature. It's very private (though on this ship the main pool area never really gets too crazy to begin with).
Gratuities are automatically included on the bill at 18 percent.
The ship has a few recreational facilities -- shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, and a walking/jogging track (13 times around makes a mile).
Quiz Question: "Who is the only person to play for the New York Rangers, New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Dodgers?" It's the end of another frenzied day in port, and you'd think that folks would be somewhere quiet, chilling out. But no way. Martinis is packed with passengers playing the daily Parlor Team Trivia. The answer to the above question -- which absolutely no one got -- was "Gladys Gooding," who, er, played the organ rather than shortstop or forward. The groans that followed were good-natured and the room erupted with lively chatter.
That pretty much describes Nautica's entertainment approach in a nutshell. The ship's daytime fare is pretty much modeled after old-school cruising traditions, but that doesn't mean they're not fun. They are interactive, in many cases, and designed to foster group enjoyment. Social bridge, board games (the ship has an excellent selection, including Monopoly and Scrabble), line dancing lessons and galley tours are among the regular offerings. On sea days, there's usually a guest enrichment lecture, though it was a contrast to the aforementioned get-togethers, as people basically watched slides and listened. Quality can vary. I sat in on a few minutes of "Feeding the Planet" and it was a tad too dry to hold my attention.
More interesting -- and this applies primarily when the ship visits major marquee ports -- was the shore excursion manager's presentation on Cairo and Alexandria. It wasn't limited, as on most cruise lines, to "here's what tours we have," but focused instead on a really solid, common sense "here's what you need to know -- regardless of what type of tourist you are." Her presentation was excellent.
Also intriguing was the line's first ever seminar on the "Introduction to the iPod" (it was successful enough that it will be rolled out on the rest of the fleet). I was impressed that nearly 100 passengers were on hand for that. (Even better, I finally was able to figure out how to use the dang thing.) There was also an interesting lecture on improving digital photos.
Oceania features other cruise traditions such as art auctions and bingo.
At night, there's lounge music in places like Martinis (where a pianist and his huge repertoire of torch songs made for a romantic spot); a "main event" show that varied from a classical guitarist who was a guest performer (fantastic) and a troupe of folkloric performers who came onboard in Istanbul, to song and dance revues by in-house entertainers (a fair diversion) and incredibly creative productions, like "Salute." This original Oceania show features the cast members and cruise director in a show that's a hodgepodge of scenes, culminating in a special appearance by "hundreds" -- which of course were the crew -- singing "We Are Family."
For more low-key fare, the Con Fuoco String Quartet plays in the Upper Hall. It is not really a venue, but merely an area in which people are passing through on the way to dinner or the casino. Still, it set an elegant tone to the evening.
Late night revelers -- and there weren't many to be honest, as the ship's destination-intensive itineraries tended to tucker us all out early -- headed to Horizons to dance and so forth.
While shore excursions -- which were efficiently managed -- tend mostly toward the tried-and-true motor coach expedition, the line has definitely improved on its quality and pricing since I last sailed on Insignia two years ago. First of all, the basic overview tours -- I took one in Tunisia that visited Carthage and Sidi Bou Said -- were solid if unsurprising; ours was well-run and fairly priced at $62 for about four hours. I noticed that the offerings were most creative in the marquee port on our itinerary -- Cairo/Alexandria -- which stretched beyond the pyramids and the Cairo museums to feature a separate tour of World War II battlefields (I met several folks, veterans, who'd taken it and had a marvelous time).
I was also impressed by the fact that though the medieval Cairo tour only drew the interest of six passengers (as opposed to "Classical Cairo" which pretty much occupied the rest of the ship), the ship simply downgraded the size of the bus, and the tour proceeded as usual. Most lines, luxury and mass market alike, would have canceled the trip outright.
Another point to note is that in many ports the line offers a chance to rent private cars and mini-buses with guides and/or drivers; it's an excellent alternative to the mass motor coach experience.
Oceania attracts mostly North American passengers, with a handful of Brits. On most cruises the passengers fall into the mature traveler category -- and most are well-traveled to begin with. In other cases, we were pleased to meet numerous newcomers to the line who represented first time cruisers. The fact that almost half of the folks onboard my cruise had already sailed on Oceania's other ships (remember, this is a cruise line that is just three years old!), speaks volumes about satisfaction.
Plan for country club casual and you'll be fine (pretty flowing skirt/pants outfits for women, jackets and, okay, maybe one tie for men at night, and casual tropical wear during the days onboard). Editor's Note: When going ashore, pay attention to Oceania's dress recommendations, which will depend on the ship's itinerary.
There are no formal evenings onboard, though many folks did dress for the welcome dinner.
Nautica levies an $11.50 per person, per day charge (payable on your onboard account). Folks in butler-category staterooms should add an extra $3.50 per person, per day.
Staterooms start out on the small side of the industry average with insides at 160 square ft., outsides with porthole at 150 - to 165 square ft., and standard verandah staterooms at 216 square ft. One plus: Nautica has plenty of standard cabins with balconies.
All are, however, outfitted in an attractive blue and gold color scheme with dark wood accents. Oceania has definitely upgraded where possible, adding duvet covers, plush top mattresses and high cotton count bedding, not to mention fabulous thirsty bath sheets in the bathroom. Rooms come with beds in the twin or queen configuration, along with a desk/vanity, a loveseat (in most cases), and plenty of built-in cabinets for storage. There's a television with a variety of channels, including CNN International, BBC, Fox News, and The Discovery Channel (though options could vary depending on location). The ship also offers a range of first run movies (an eclectic mix that featured everything from "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" to "Annie Hall," and from "The DaVinci Code" to "The Devil Wore Prada."
All cabins also come with an in-room safe. Closets and drawers are certainly adequate for a two-week trip.
Bathrooms are small, shower-only and functional. Bath products, such as lotion, shampoo and shower gel, are made of sea kelp and other ingredients from the ocean.
Nautica has a handful of cabins classified as "concierge," and though these are the same size and layout as the standard balcony staterooms, they come with a few added amenities; concierge passengers get a leg up on embarking early, securing restaurant reservations, and getting suite-level perks like the Caswell-Massey toiletries and free shoeshines.
For those wishing for more space -- and more service -- there are three different suite categories. In the "basic" penthouse, which is almost the width of two regular cabins, there's a full-size couch, a small dining table, television with DVD player (CD's work there as well) and a minibar, stocked with the usual sodas, beers, and splits of Mumm Champagne. It's decorated in the standard Oceania blues and golds. Bathrooms are completely adequate -- with soaking tubs and plenty of storage. In this category and beyond, the amenities are upgraded -- including a contemporary range of products from Caswell-Massey.
Balconies are longer as well, and include two reclining mesh chairs along with footstools and a small table. The flooring is a lovely teak. The only quibble? There's enough room on the balcony for a small, dining-worthy cafe table -- and in pleasant weather, breakfast on the verandah would be blissful.
One size larger is the Vista Suite (786 square ft.). The Owner's Suite (962 square ft.) is the largest onboard and includes a living room, dining room and bedroom layout, wraparound teak verandah, bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, and separate guest bathroom. Both suite categories have been entirely refurbished and sport gold and maroon color schemes.
All three suite categories are entitled to butler service, and ours was first-rate, bringing evening hors d'oeuvres that we didn't really need, arranging for dinner reservations, handling requests for dry cleaning and pressing, and delivering room service (inhabitants in these staterooms can order hot food at breakfast or enjoy course-by-course dining off the Grand's lunch and dinner menus). One interesting twist is that each morning we were presented with a canape menu from which we selected what we wanted for that day (if anything); choices ranged from quiche lorraine to a cheese platter, and from chocolate covered strawberries to a fruit brochette.
Other benefits in this arena include two free "pressings" upon embarkation, and an extra night's dining privilege, upon request, in both the Polo Grill and Toscana. The ship also has a voluminous library of complimentary DVD's for loan; a listing is provided to each cabin.
And if you're residing in a suite, make sure to take advantage of the free entrance to the spa's thalassotherapy pool. That's a major perk.
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