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.

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Why we’re not loyal to one cruise line

cruise ships in portOn more than one occasion in the past we have referred to ourselves as (if you will pardon the expression) “cruise whores.”  In other words, we are not monogamous – we cruise around so to speak.  Despite the fact that we have never taken a cruise that we didn’t enjoy, we have been making our way around the industry (avoiding several specific lines because of personal experience and research).  We might even describe our behavior as moving up the cruise food chain so to speak.  Here’s our story.

We like to travel.  We like to travel by plane, train (well, not train so much after that overnight “hotel train” between Paris and Barcelona a few years ago), limo, car, foot etc.  We just like to experience new places.  We sometimes stay in one place for a while; sometimes we stay only a day and move on, either by car or by ship.  Despite the snotty travelers who are disdainful of the ‘travel’ value of a cruise, we do enjoy them.  They are our way to sample many different places in the world, some of which we have returned to for longer visits.  The point is that cruise travel is just one more way for us to see the world.  We no longer book cruises just for that week in the sun in the middle of the winter.  We’re not knocking that, but for us cruising has taken on another whole dimension.

The first cruise: Carnival

Our first cruise plans began much like any other family’s vacation plans.  We had a young child, we wanted to escape the winter briefly, and we had only a week or two of winter vacation.  So, we contacted our trusty travel agent (if you want to know why we use a travel agent, you might want to read Why you need a travel agent…really) who chose Carnival cruises for that first trip.

“I would never put you on Carnival if you were going by yourselves,” he said, knowing our tastes and preferences.  “But since you’re taking a child, I’d recommend this to you.”

And so we booked a verandah cabin and made our way to Miami.  Needless to say we had a wonderful time.  This was in spite of the multitude of drunken spring-breakers who spent the entire cruise camped out on the deck, never once even making it into the dining room.  The dining was therefore blissful! The kids’ club was a real treat for our young son, and we were introduced to a number of Caribbean islands that we had not at that time visited.  We’ve been back many times since, but we have never returned to Carnival.

Why have we not returned to Carnival? You might ask.  The reason is the same one that keeps us off NCL and Royal Caribbean: not our kind of experience.  The glitzy décor, the loud passengers, the too-happy cruise directors, the big, showy performances nightly (OK unless you’ve seen a London West End show or been to Broadway in New York) – well, let’s just say that we’ve evolved.  So it was on to Holland America.

Setting sail on Holland America

We sailed on Holland America three times, including our wonderful Christmas Cruise.  We started out in what was then referred to as a Superior Verandah suite (now called the Signature Suite) for the size enhancement, but that began our upward move toward larger and larger suites.  The next two cruises on HAL were in Deluxe Verandah suites (now called the Neptune Suite) and we would actually return to this line for the right itinerary.

 Celebrity: Second time not up to expectations

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.
The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit.

We spent our twentieth wedding anniversary on the Celebrity Century in the Mediterranean.  Splurging on a Royal suite, we didn’t realize that we were setting ourselves up for a few expensive vacations.  After this kind of accommodation – and being in the Med – how could we ever return to a ‘normal’ cruise in the Caribbean in a regular stateroom?  Well, we couldn’t.  Our return to Celebrity was a couple of winters ago when we wanted to sail out of Puerto Rico; unfortunately, the experience didn’t meet our expectations despite the Jacuzzi on our large, private verandah on the Millennium(although we did enjoy ourselves as always).

Cruise lines always say they want to “exceed your expectations.”  The problem with that is when your expectations, like ours evidently tend to be, are very high, it’s difficult if not impossible for the line to accomplish this.  If a line can meet our expectations, we’re delighted.  Exceed?  Well maybe this upcoming one will (more about that later).

Moving up the cruise food chain: Regent Seven Seas

Our desire to move up in terms of luxury cruising (despite their “modern luxury” advertising tag line, Celebrity does not fall into this category: they would be considered premium) led us to Regent.  We embarked on our first Regent cruise on the Navigator in a Navigator Suite (448 square feet) in Fort Lauderdale to set sail for a Western Caribbean cruise including Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, places we wanted to visit – or revisit in the case of Mexico.

Regent was our first so-called real luxury cruise experience, and the first one that is all-inclusive.  This is a wonderful addition since you never have to take out your key card to sign for your drinks, and your suite is equipped with a well-stocked, included bar.  If you don’t want to socialize, you simply pour yourself a drink and repair to your private verandah.

Overall, the cruise was wonderful.  The Navigator was, up until that point in our lives, the smallest ship we’d ever been on: 490 passengers.  We loved that part of the experience, but were unaware that Regent cruises from Florida carried a much higher number of older passengers.  To be clear: we were in our fifties-sixties and were among the youngest dozen passengers on the ship!  One evening we took a foray into the piano lounge to find it resembling the day room in a high-priced senior’s home!

Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro.  It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.
Art on board the Regent Seven Seas Mariner in Montenegro. It was a great trip, but not a ship we want to revisit this winter in the Caribbean.

Our next Regent experience was on the larger Mariner leaving from Monte Carlo onward to Venice.  Our Penthouse suite was a bit smaller than the Navigator suite, but with its floor to ceiling windows we could sit inside when the weather in the Adriatic was cool and watch the shoreline as we cruised the fjords of Montenegro.

We will probably return to Regent someday.

Moving up again: Embarking on Silversea

After six days at the Crane Resort in Barbados, we boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown for a cruise to Fort Lauderdale.  With a capacity of only 296 passengers, we were moving down again, even as we were moving up.  And moving up we were.

The oldest ship in Silversea’s fleet, the Silver Cloud was nonetheless extraordinary.  But more important than that, the service was impeccable.  We truly thought we had died and gone to heaven.  Little did we know that we were only part-way to heaven.

Our transatlantic voyage

Everyone should do it once.  Of course we’re talking about a true transatlantic voyage on a real ocean liner – not a cruise ship.  Three years ago we boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton and spent seven wonderful days at sea making our way across the North Atlantic to New York.  What truly made this a step up even from Silversea was that we booked into a Queen’s Grill suite and found ourselves in a ship within a ship.  Make no mistake: Cunard has three classes and Queen’s Grill is first class all the way.

With its private dining room and bar, the Queen’s Grill provides passengers with the best of both worlds: the intimacy of small ship service and the amenities and entertainment of a large ship.

A family portrait aboard Cunard's Queen Mary 2 last summer.  It's the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son.  A great opportunity when we're all dressed up.
A family portrait aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 last summer. It’s the only way for the three of us to get a professional portrait since we live on a different continent than our son. A great opportunity when we’re all dressed up.

Although we would not do a transatlantic voyage again, we will certainly return to Cunard for the right itinerary (there it is again: itinerary).

The pinnacle of luxury perhaps?

Last year we booked passage on a 204 passenger luxury cruise ship: the Seabourn Spirit.  After almost a week at the luxurious property The House in Barbados, once again we sailed from Bridgetown.  This time, however, it was to ports and islands where large ships can never go.

Everything about the Seabourn experience (caviar and champagne on the beach, anyone?) was above and beyond.  The service was superb, as was the food and the accommodation.  It truly was like a country club and we savored every minute of this super-luxury experience followed by six days in St. Martin.  How could we possibly top that?

Onward and upward?

We aren’t sure we can top that last experience, but we’re going to try.  Art is retiring from his private family medicine practice in a few weeks and we’re off to that ultimate, post-retirement reward.

After five days in Tahiti, we’ll board the Oceania Marina for almost three weeks meandering through French Polynesia, Samoa and the east coast of Australia, ending with five days in Sydney.  Why Oceania?

Last winter while in St. Martin following the Seabourn experience, we dined one evening with fellow passengers from the Spirit.  They asked us if we’d ever sailed on Oceania.  We had not.  Given that they had just disembarked from a Seabourn cruise which they enjoyed, we had to take seriously their recommendation that we give Oceania a try.  But what we were really looking for was an itinerary that would take us to new places.

We hit on Oceania’s South Pacific cruise and the rest is history.  Stay with us for a while and come along on that special vacation as we try live blogging and tweeting for the first time.

Ireland by castle!

Blarney Castle & gardens
Blarney Castle & gardens

Castle – the very word conjures up images of knights and ladies, opulence and intrigue.  And a trip to Ireland would not be complete without a few castles.  So, when we planned our recent chauffeured tour of the Emerald Isle, we made sure that there were castles along the way, both to visit and to stay.  So, come along with us for a trip into history and share our castle experience.

Let’s start by making sure we know what the term castle means (trust us; this is important if you’re to understand the experience!).

Most people think that castles are home to royalty and their servants (that would be a palace by actual definition), but the real definition of a castle has more to do with fortifications and protection – and it was not always for royalty, although given the resources needed to actually build one, clearly they were not erected by the common man – or woman.  So when you consider visiting – or staying in – a castle, you’re really going to be experiencing an historical creation that might have been built by royalty, but more likely was built by other powerful leaders or even families who needed to protect villages or families, or both.

Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!
Waiting to kiss the Blarney Stone!

As we left Dublin we headed south toward Blarney, home to the famous Blarney Castle with its legendary stone that must be kissed (we’ll get to that!).  Built some six centuries ago by a powerful Irish chieftain, Blarney Castle itself might take you by surprise.  It is a tower castle, and as such when you go inside you are on the bottom floor of a relatively small tower that once had a number of stories each of whose floor was at one time made of wood so now no longer exists – you can see right up through to the sky.  But you need to make your way up to the top via a narrow, well-worn stone stairway, and as you do, think about what it must have been like to fight your way up or down those narrow stairs!  When we reached the top we were rewarded by a breathtaking view of Blarney Castle’s gardens which were fabulous in their early-spring glory.  And at the top, the Blarney Stone awaits.

blarney stoneIn case you’ve forgotten, the whole point of kissing the stone is so that you can acquire the ‘gift of the gab.’  Well, anyone who has ever met Patty in particular will know that this is wholly redundant! But she reluctantly took her place on her back on the stone floor of the open-air battlement, and duly hung her head out backwards into the opening in the stone work as you must, since the Blarney stone must be kissed from underneath while one’s head hangs out hundreds of feet above ground.  In position, she decided that she didn’t really need to kiss the place that hundreds of other lips had just passed over.  But it was worth it all the same.  One legend has it that a certain goddess told the builder of Blarney Castle, who was at the time embroiled in a lawsuit, to kiss the first stone he saw on his way out the door for the gift of eloquence which evidently was bestowed up on him by the ritual.

Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.
Beautiful Ashford Castle from the lakefront view.

After that first castle experience we visited a number of other tower castles, eventually making our way to County Mayo and the wonderful Ashford Castle, a very different sort of experience.  Here we stayed for two nights on this magnificent estate whose origins date to 1228.  Through the ensuing centuries, pieces were added until the estate – castle and grounds on the shores of the lake Corrib – were acquired in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the Guinness beer fame.    It was eventually sold; in 1939 it was first transformed into what was then referred to as a “first-class hotel.”  It passed through the hands of several owners until this day when it stands as a grand hotel that has been voted the number 1 hotel in Ireland by Condé Nast Traveller many times, and Trip Advisor’s number 1 European castle hotel; it has also garnered a mass of other accolades.

cheersSo we spent two days strolling the grounds and exploring the grand building, feeling a bit like royalty ourselves.  As we walked through the striking rooms, we found ourselves swept back in time.  The floors creak a bit but the décor is authentic – and priceless.  Our discerning scrutiny, as always, looks to the service as the piece that is most important in the end, and Ashford Castle did not disappoint (with one small exception of a surly bartender who was reformed by the following evening!).

We spent our last night in Ireland sitting in the magnificent lounge listening to a wonderful trio of singer, pianist and guitarist whose smooth melodies lulled us into complete relaxation.  Their rendition of The Fields of Athenry will always stay with us – haunting us, no doubt, until we return to the Emerald Isle.

Michelin stars: Discerning travelers beware!

The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!
The Cliff restaurant in Barbados: no Michelin stars, but worth the price of admission!

We do love to have new dining experiences when we travel.  We’ve waxed rapturously before about those times when we’ve had that defining experience that stays with us for years to come (The Cliff in Barbados comes to mind) – and despite opinions to the contrary, dining is not just about the food.

The concept of those restaurants that boast “stars” – you know the ones: those Michelin stars – is one that is intriguing for us when we travel.  Usually, we’ll want to splurge on one such experience during a trip, but our travel mantra is more focused on service and the overall experience, regardless of price or even some kind of external validation that is something like a Michelin star.

Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new.  St. Stephen's Green in April.
Dublin is a wonderful mix of the old and the new. St. Stephen’s Green in April.

Last month we had the pleasure of a wonderful trip to Ireland with a three-day stop in Dublin.  Searching for restaurants, we found Chapter One, and even our driver recommended it.  We stopped by the concierge at the wonderful Westin Dublin where we stayed, and miracle of miracles, he was able to procure for us a table for that very evening.  We had heard that you have to book weeks if not months in advance.  So we were excited.

Even when you “Google” Chapter One the heading on the web site as listed in the results says, “Chapter One Michelin Star Restaurant Dublin…”  So it would seem that this little star is important and that restaurants trade on it.  But what does it really mean and will it guarantee a great dining experience?

According to Michelin’s own web site, the stars are awarded based on a “clandestine” approach to evaluation wherein their “full-time professional inspectors” (!)  anonymously partake of repeated test meals.  In other words, the evaluators are unknown to the restaurant and they could be there any day without notice.  Their description of what the stars mean is very telling from our perspective: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate, meaning the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, mastering of cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year.” [from their web site]

The notion of stars referring to only what is actually on the plate says a lot to us as discerning diners: we now know not to expect much in terms of service, consideration of clients or even selection of wines or spirits.  Case in point: our recent visit to the one-starred Chapter One.

We arrived there one lovely April evening to be greeted by fantastically friendly staff, although to be truthful, we found everyone to a person in Ireland to have this same approach, so it was no surprise.  Although we arrived on time for our dinner reservation, we were led to a tiny bar to sit, order a drink and in due course actually see a menu and order food – all before going to our table.  This was surprising, but we accepted it as their “way.”  We ordered two Martini Biancos on the rocks only to be  told they had enough for only one.  So whose job is it to ensure that the bar is always fully stocked, we wondered?  Not to worry though, we enjoy other drinks.  Okay, we thought, so they don’t have it.  What about an Aperol spritz?  The waiter had never heard of Aperol.  Two strikes and we haven’t even seen the menu.  He eventually

What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.
What an Aperol spritz looks like in its country of origin: Italy.

consulted with someone else who procured a bottle with some Aperol left in it and proceeded to produce for us Aperol topped with soda.  Oh dear.  An Aperol spritz, as any worthy bartender ought to know is topped with Prosecco, not soda and is served with a slice or twist of orange in a large wine glass, not an old-fashioned!  However, we saw no point in getting off to a really bad start and looking like annoying tourists, so we sucked it up.  Then it was on to the menu.

It was interesting and we found several selections to look forward to.  A waiter then took our dinner order, and were eventually led to our table.  With a corner vantage point, we could see the small room well.  It was one of two connected rooms, and we could see a private dining area beyond.  What struck as the most al throughout the evening (and it was long – too long for our liking) was the feverish activity displayed by one and all.  The waiters flew back and forth past the table so fast it seemed as if they were in training for a sprint.  In our view, it’s fine to be busy, but there should be a degree of calmness exhibited in the presence of the guests so that they can enjoy a relaxed evening.  The stress level was palpable and could have been contagious if we hadn’t already had a drink!   In spite of all of the frenetic activity though, we had been in the place for an hour before we had an appetizer.

There’s something about the ambience that makes an evening special.  Wonderful food is nice – and the food that evening was nice, but hardly worth the price (we’ve had a lot better elsewhere) – but the feeling we had was that old army saying: “Hurry up and wait.”  Additionally, there was no background music at all to provide even a perception of peace.  So, for us, the evening was not worth the price we paid for it – and it was expensive.   In truth, the restaurant holds one star which Michelin defines as indicating “a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey.”   After several days in Dublin, we’d have to say that if you have limited time (and/or resources) there are much better places where the experience will be more delightful.  The Pearl, a lovely French restaurant comes to mind: we had a wonderful evening enjoying the food and the ambience, where the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the knack for French sauces had us swooning.

Our conclusion is that when selecting restaurants, those Michelin stars tell only part of the story – a story which is very clearly described on the Michelin web site itself: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate…” and even at that, you might not agree.  So for us Michelin stars don’t really provide the kind of discerning travel guidance we’re seeking.  We have just by happenstance landed in Michelin-starred restaurants before and enjoyed ourselves.  But you won’t need a Michelin star to do that!