Can a cruise be a true travel experience? Oceania showed us how

We left Papeete at 10 pm one hot, sticky February night.
We left Papeete at 10 pm one hot, sticky February night.

Over the years we’ve observed that there are only two kinds of travelers who scoff at the notion that cruise travel could be a wonderful way to see the world. They fall into one of the following two categories: those who have never been on a cruise, and those who have been on one and chose the wrong (for them) cruise line.

The truth is that we’ve actually seen converts to cruise travel, but this only happens if the traveler is discerning enough to select the right cruise. We’ve told stories before about why we’re not loyal to one cruise line, and our most recent trip only supported our discerning approach to seeing the world via cruise ships (although to be truthful, it is certainly not the only way we travel). The most recent experience that supports our continuing adherence to this policy started one beautiful day in Papeete, Tahiti about seven weeks ago.

We have been on beautiful ships before – the Queen Mary 2 comes immediately to mind – but the Oceania Marina was something else again. And the cruise line itself was a brilliant ‘find.’ The trip really didn’t start there, though. It actually began last winter in St. Martin where we ended a Caribbean cruise on the Seabourn Spirit. The Seabourn cruise – a luxurious experience to top the list – was certainly at the top of our list until last month, but it was because of the Seabourn experience that we even ended up on Oceania.

Marina's elegant foyer
Marina’s elegant foyer

With only four ships and ten years of cruise-line experience, Oceania hadn’t even appeared on our travel radar. It wasn’t until we were having dinner one evening on the French side of St. Martin when our dinner companions, an American couple who had just disembarked from the Seabourn ship at the same time we did, asked us if we’d ever tried Oceania. Given that they had just stepped off a 204-passenger, ultra-luxury ship that had impressed all of us with their guest service and attention to detail, and yet they were recommending another line, it seemed that we should listen to them.

So, months later when we were examining itineraries for this winter, we happened upon Oceania’s and decided that since it fit our requirements, we’d book. Our only hesitation was that the ship would have 1200 guests, a worrisome increase in numbers. We did know, though, that the amenities offered in a larger ship might offset our apprehension about the larger numbers ( it has to be mentioned here that we would never even consider a ship with more than about 2000 passengers and the closer to 500 the better).

It’s difficult to truly capture the elegant sophistication of the décor and ambience of the Marina in a few words. Our brief video tour might do it more justice.

In spite of our delight in dressing up over the years, we seem to have evolved to a point where taking gowns and tuxedos on long holidays is losing its luster. But the truth is that on mainstream cruise lines, people actually do behave better when they’re dressed up a bit. We weren’t sure what to make of the “country club casual” dress code before we left. Surely ‘country club’ means different things depending on where you’re from and whether or not you’ve actually ever been to a country club. To their credit, the passengers on the Marina were by and large beautifully dressed. In the evenings, although there was no requirement to dress up, the vast majority of passengers did step it up and present themselves elegantly – if a bit more casually than you might see on the Queen Mary. We were very happy with the ambience.

Our Penthouse suite was, from our previous experiences, a bit tight. At 420 square feet (we believe that must include the verandah), it should have been large enough. The 376 sq. ft. Penthouse on Regent’s Mariner seemed more spacious. We have concluded it has to do with the excessive amount of furniture that makes it feel tight. But well-appointed it was. In fact, it was probably the prettiest suite we’ve ever been in (we can’t compare it in size to some of the others since many of them were in higher categories).

And here it is…

 

The penthouse suite was beautifully appointed, if stuffed with furniture.
The penthouse suite was beautifully appointed, if stuffed with furniture.

Other highlights of this cruise were the staff (to a person they were smiling, friendly, guest-oriented, and efficient), the dining (possibly the best we’ve ever experienced at sea) and the onboard culinary institute.

We registered in advance for three two-hour cooking classes in their state-of-the-art teaching kitchen and found it to be the best organized, most interesting and informative activity on a cruise ship. And Oceania is the only line that has this on two of its ships. Other lines offer cooking demonstrations, but Oceania offers much more.   These classes on the Marina, accommodating only 24 guests at a time, were hands-on classes. We came home with some wonderful new recipes and several new technical skills.

Our only complaint was about the evening entertainment. It seemed to be geared to the over-eighty crowd. The potential in the musicians was there, but when they mechanically launched into “The Tennessee Waltz” we wondered when the nurses would be around with the medications! A little tweak there and it just might be the perfect cruise line for the discerning travelers among us!

Of course, the real highlight of the trip was the travel part – to parts of the South Pacific that we thought we might never see. Put Bora Bora on your bucket list and come along with us next week as we take you to the top of the volcano in the center of the island.

The Seabourn cruise – A luxurious experience to top the list

Seabourn lays out the red carpet on the pier for its guests.
Seabourn lays out the red carpet on the pier for its guests.

On a six-star, so-called luxury cruise a few years ago, we were in the bar one evening, everyone dressed to the nines, sipping cocktails and getting to know one another.  We asked a selection of our new friends who hailed from various parts of the world, what the term luxury meant to them.  Most of them said that they had never really thought about it.  Indeed, these were people who, by all external standards, might be considered to live a luxurious life as a result of their income and standard of living.  They were, however, not among the idle rich.  All were successful in their chosen fields: medicine, law, business (the latter of which seem to have the most money of all).

When they were finally able to answer the question, they didn’t suggest jewelry, designer duds and handbags, or even private jets (although, admittedly, the private jet experience might be a luxury we might enjoy – but only if the service was terrific – which is at the heart of this story).  Luxury to them included things like “having someone to wash my hair every day for me,” and “fresh sheets on my bed every single day.”  Not quite what you might have imagined.  But luxury means different things to different people, and for these discerning travelers, service is at the heart of the luxurious experience.  Our recent cruise on the Yachts of Seabourn (on the Seabourn Spirit) was, then, one of the most luxurious experiences we’ve ever had.  Bar none.

After five wonderful days at The House in Barbados (the subject of our last post), we thought that the service they gave could not be topped.  We were wrong.

The hot tub forward deck on the Seabourn Spirit
The hot tub forward deck on the Seabourn Spirit

Arriving at the cruise terminal in Bridgetown, Barbados, we were greeted by a Seabourn representative who had our luggage whisked away, and directed us to the private transport.  We mention this only because two years ago when we cruised from Bridgetown on Seabourn’s competitor in the luxury cruise business, Silversea, they put us on buses with hot, dirty and damp revelers from several other mega-ships who all looked at us as if we had three heads, and gave us the stink eye for taking up space with our hand luggage.  Not this time, though.  The transport was just for Seabourn’s embarking guests.

If you’ve ever been on a mainstream cruise, especially one that leaves from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, then you’re familiar with the cavernous cruise terminals where the lineups are legion.  Even if you’re in a suite and have a dedicated, priority boarding line, the crowds are daunting and the service brisk if friendly.  This is where the luxury cruise lines have all of those others beat: personalized service where you feel important right from the start.

Once on board, we were ushered into a lounge where embarking passengers were sipping champagne and registering.  Before long we had had our photos taken, our credit card registered and were on our way to our suite.

Patty poses in our suite one evening.
Patty poses in our suite one evening.

We have been in many lovely suites in our lives, and this one was attractive – not outstanding, but delightful nonetheless.  Our suite stewardess arrived in due course to provide us with another glass of champagne (to add to the bottle chilling in a silver ice bucket on the dining table in the suite) and offer us a selection of high-end soaps (Hermes, Salvatore Ferragamo, Molton Brown).  All of this is very nice, but if the service isn’t terrific, then the experience is not luxurious.  We were not to be disappointed!

After unpacking our suitcases which arrived in record time and settling everything nicely into the very spacious suite with oodles of storage space, we attended the life boat drill, explored the admittedly small ship and eventually made our way to the dining room for dinner.  As we approached the Maître d’ he greeted us by name and asked us for our table preference, since we can eat whenever we want with whomever we want – even just ourselves.  This ability to identify the guests by sight on first meeting is impressive – no doubt they have access to all of our photos!

The food was really wonderful, but the service was even better.  Every day we were on board, we ate at least two meals in the dining room and were impressed with the service from everyone from the bus boys through the servers to the sommelier who was particularly service-oriented.

Art enjoys the impeccable service at Restaurant II while docked in Antigua one evening.
Art enjoys the impeccable service at Restaurant II while docked in Antigua one evening.

Bar service (any drink you desire, sir), deck service (would you like a drink, sorbet in the afternoon, a cool towel?), spa service (how can we help?), front desk service (is there anything you’d like fixed in your suite?  Yes?  Done!).

All in all, a vacation to remember – and a luxurious experience to repeat – which we certainly will.  Seabourn, you’ve beaten Silversea and Regent.

And we haven’t even told you yet about caviar (and champagne) in the surf – but we will!

Come along with us and tour our suite: Owner’s Suite #5 on the Spirit.

And…then tour the ship if you have a few minutes…

The ‘suite experiment’: Celebrity cruises ‘royal suite’ fails the test

The Celebrity ‘royal suite” living room & dining room.

It all started as the grand experiment: the discerning travelers would return to the scene of their first cruise ship suite experience, and travel in a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship.  We’re just back from that cruise and the verdict is in: the Royal Suite was not royal, and either we’ve changed, or Celebrity cruises has faced the recession by short-changing their highest paying per-person-per-day cruisers (we say that because the only suites larger are the two penthouses which seem to mostly be occupied by multiples whose cost-per-day can be kept down by sleeping on pull-out couches and sharing a bathroom!).

The experiment needs a bit of background: after our first suite experience, we were convinced that this was the only way to travel, thus took another Celebrity cruise in the same category suite as well as two Regent cruises and one on Silversea.  Both of these last two are billed as “six-star” luxury cruise lines and are all-suite accommodation (although the term suite covers a lot of ground).  We also sailed aboard the Cunard Queen Mary 2 in a Queen’s Grill suite last year, a singular experience if ever there was one.

We first need to say that we had a wonderful time on our vacation, the staff on the ship (especially in the dining room) adding considerably to that favorable experience.  However, as the “suite experience” goes, it failed the test of discerning travel.  When is a suite not a suite?  When it lacks the suite experience.

This was our third Celebrity Royal Suite experience.  At just under 540 square feet with a living room, dining room, bathroom with double sink, Jacuzzi tub and stand-up shower, as well as a 195 square foot verandah, as cruise ship accommodations go, these should be luxurious.  Well, that depends on how much you pay – and we paid a lot.

Art – need we say more?

All of the suite experiences we had on luxury lines (Silversea and Regent, as well as the Queens Grill suite on Cunard) were terrific – but as anyone who knows anything about cruising recognizes, they are very expensive in relative terms.  For example, aboard a Silversea ship for a comparable cruise in a comparable suite we paid almost double the cost of the Celebrity.  Silversea is however, all inclusive, but does that justify the price?  How much can you possibly drink in a week or two?   At this stage, we think the Silversea price is justified.  But you need the rest of the story.

We boarded the Celebrity Summit in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Unlike on the more exclusive lines, there are inevitable line-ups.  Although there is a dedicated line for suite guests, there is a wait nonetheless.  Last year when we boarded the Silversea Silver Spirit in Barbados, we were warmly greeted by staff and directed immediately to the ship where the check-in procedures took place.  At Celebrity we were perfunctorily directed by a pointing finger wagged by a young man who looked to be fourteen years old.  He directed us to stand behind an older woman who had decided to take the opportunity to have every single question about the cruise answered.  Hmm…

Then we were directed to get our keys from the maître d’ next door who informed us that as suite guests we could dine “for free” that evening in the specialty restaurant of our choice.  We chose our restaurant and our time and were promptly told we could not be thus accommodated.  So, we opted out. (Later, our butler was able to procure a reservation at one of them – and not our first choice –  after considerable haggling as he told it). But specialty dining is another story.

We boarded to find ourselves greeted by a tray of drinks and little else.  (Oh, for the Cunard, Silversea or Regent greeting where they take your hand luggage and show you to you suite with a smile!).  We found the staircase and made it to our suite on our own.  When our butler found us, we were delighted to find that he was the same one we had had on the Celebrity Century almost five years ago in our first suite experience – so we expected to have exactly the same service.  Well, things seem to have changed.

First, there was the water.  We asked to have the expected carafe of ice water alongside the ice bucket on the suite bar only to be told that Celebrity had discontinued that service.  There was now a large bottle of water (for purchase) in the suite refrigerator.  When asked why this had been done (other than the obvious money grab), he told us that it had been done for health reasons.  What nonsense!  What’s the difference between the stainless steel carafe of water and the stainless steel bucket of ice beside it?  Or for that matter, the communal jug from which ice water is continually poured during dinner?  And what about their “save the waves” environmental program?  Bottled water?  Which reminds us: there is no recycling bin in the suite.

The cruise line web site indicates a number of impressive amenities in the suites.  Frette linens, Bulgari bath products etc.  However, a significant number of the expected (and listed amenities) failed to materialize:  second hair dryer, slippers, “pillow menu”, reserved theater seating, tote bag (come on people, a flimsy grocery bag is not a tote), and our personal bug-bear – there was no luggage valet service (presumably on offer for everyone aboard).  When we asked, we were told that it was in selected ports only – and we were further told that there was such an indication on the web site.  With respect, we beg to differ, as this screen capture from their web site indicates.  In any case, they did send us up a bottle of wine to compensate.  Nice, but not what was on offer.

The snip from the Celebrity web site – snipped after our return. No mention of “only in selected ports” here. Check it out at http://www.celebritycruises.com/onboard/singleColLanding.do?pagename=onboard_outstanding_service

We then went out to our verandah where we intended to spend a lot of time.  But the cushions were missing from the lounge chairs.  When asked, the butler informed us that the cruise line had removed them during the refit in January since they were considered (by someone) to be a fire hazard.  So, for two days we sat on loungers that were designed to be topped with comfy cushions until we could stand it no longer.  Guest relations promptly sent up the cabin attendant with cushions that are evidently now provided only on request.  If we had not been in the same suite previously, we would not have known that they were missing: we would only have known that Celebrity had the most uncomfortable lounge chairs known to man.   Evidently were not the first guests to complain either.

The chaises in the foreground. No cushions? What were they thinking?

There were two burned out light bulbs in the suite and one of the sinks in the bathroom lacked a stopper. Since these were not major inconveniences, we decided to see if anyone noticed during the eight days.  No one did.  It was often difficult to get service in a bar, and the debarkation process was chaos.  Part of what sets the six-star cruise lines apart from others whose bread and butter is not their highest-paying customers is the attention to detail – details that you expect not to be overlooked.

There were other parts of the cruise that now lead us to believe that the recession has taken a toll on service and amenities – but that’s a story for another post.

The bottom line is this for us:  when seeking a six-star suite experience, cruise on a six-star ship.  Suites on the other lines appear to be simply larger staterooms.  Pity.

The Celebrity Century: Welcome to our suite life!

If you have taken even one cruise, it is likely (at least the statistics say so) that you will take another one.  Oddly, when we asked out 22-year-old son a few months ago about his vacation preferences, even he said that his very favorite vacations were cruises.  So, evidently cruises are not just for the boomer-and-beyond crowd!  So, as you contemplate booking that next cruise – whether you’ve been on one or ten – with respect, please permit us to give you a wee piece of advice.

If you are thinking of upgrading to a larger, nicer, better-located-and-with-more-amenities stateroom, consider the answer to this question before you do:  Are you prepared to book this level of stateroom (or above) and pay the price for every cruise you will take in the future?  If the answer is no, then step away from the upgrade.  The fact is this: once you upgrade, you will never go back!

We know this because on our 20th wedding anniversary five years ago we decided to book a Royal Suite on a Celebrity ship to travel the Mediterranean for the first time.   Since then, we have been on half a dozen cruises and we have never been able to convince ourselves that we’d enjoy anything less.  Ouch, that can be expensive – but oh how you will enjoy your cruise!  From the perspective of the discerning traveler who is judicious about that luxury spending, it his worth every penny.   In our opinion, as we’ve mentioned before, bigger is not better when it comes to cruise ships – unless you’re referring to your suite!

Before we cruised only in suites, we didn’t know what we were missing.  That was just fine.  But we find now that the lines are using photos of their suites in much of their advertising.  If you’re a bit curious about what a suite is really like, come inside our suite on a recent cruise aboard the Celebrity Century.  In later posts we’ll take you aboard Regent and Silversea.  Promise!  Click on the photo to take you to the tour…