If you're wondering what exactly an "ultra-premium" cruise ship is, look no further than Marina, the first new-build Oceania built back in 2011.
It's the kind of ship where you can book an inside cabin, but still enjoy four specialty restaurants with no additional fees and never have to wait in a long queue. Where you can book a luxurious suite designed by Dakota Jackson or Ralph Lauren, but choose whether you want to pay for a beverage package or shore excursions rather than having those inclusions bump up your base fare. It's a ship that carries multiple types of French flour to make daytime and evening baguettes, devotes lots of onboard space to galleys and dining venues and serves a proper afternoon tea with white-glove service, scones with clotted cream and a string quartet. Where you can order a vegan smoothie or energy bowl after your morning workout, down wine during a cooking class and order multiple desserts after a long sea day of lying in the sun.
The 1,250-passenger Marina is ultimately a hybrid, balancing luxurious amenities with less-inclusive fares than the luxury lines. With Marina, Oceania expanded what its older, R-class ships do so well: food, intimacy, destinations and an egalitarian spirit. The ship looks high-end, with an extensive art collection reflecting the personal tastes of the line's co-founders Frank del Rio and Bob Binder, and lounge seating that could come straight from a five-star hotel. You won't lack for high-end ingredients like whole Maine lobsters and foie gras. Yet, the atmosphere is not stuffy or snooty, and plentiful daytime activities from art or cooking classes to Ping-Pong and beanbag toss tournaments, mean sea days aren't snooze fests (unless you want them to be).
The cruise line is at its best on longer itineraries, 10 nights and up; look for plenty of overnights and a minimum of sea days on many sailings. The line's culinary tours are not to be missed if you are interested in the interplay of food and culture, and appreciate small-sized tour groups.
Cabins are spacious and nicely appointed -- a welcome change from the R-class's tight fits -- and the suites are gorgeous. Four specialty restaurants -- French, Italian, Asian and steak -- supplement the main restaurant nicely and provide welcome dining variety. A Culinary Center and Artist Loft are designed specifically for enrichment classes; the library is a sleeper hit with inviting leather chairs and quiet nooks adjacent to a coffee shop. The pool deck is beautiful, with just the right number of soft padded loungers to accommodate everyone on a sunny sea day.
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Marina does have its weaknesses. Its dining system doesn't work so well on weeklong cruises, forcing passengers to miss out on the much-touted specialty restaurants or eat rather late. While we enjoyed every meal and loved the variety, we weren't always blown away by main courses (though some are standouts), and desserts were lacking. Spa treatments and shore excursions seem overpriced for the industry, and service is not as proactive as one might expect on so small and nice a ship. Many on our cruise complained about long waits for service for food and drink.
At the end of the day, though, the ship has the right vibe for its clientele. You meet all types of people on Marina: frequent luxury line cruisers taking a chance on a bigger ship for the right itinerary; past mega-ship passengers looking for a more inclusive experience, fewer kids and a more intimate vessel; first-timers wanting to explore. Most seem to be enjoying the sailing, whether or not it's the ship for them. It's hard to stay grouchy when a plush mattress topped with 1,000-thread-count sheets is waiting in your cabin or when a comforting soup or milkshake is always close at hand. Or an amazing destination is at your doorstep, and there's not an enormous queue standing between you and that next adventure ashore.
Travelers tend to fall into the older age ranges (50 and up), are well traveled (and often avid cruisers) and hail mostly from the U.S. and Canada, with Brits and Australians making up the balance. On our school break sailing, we did see a handful of kids and younger adult travelers. We found folks to be friendly, and the atmosphere not at all stuffy.
Think casual-but-elegant throughout the ship, both day and night; you won't find formal nights on Marina. Tank tops and swimwear are discouraged at all times from any of the restaurants, while shorts, jeans, T-shirts, sneakers and sandals are banned from all dinner venues except the Terrace Cafe. Men can't go wrong with blazers and slacks after sunset, while women will feel comfortable in dresses, nice pants outfits or skirts with blouses. On our Caribbean cruise, we found that people generally looked nice, but not overly fancy or fashionista at dinner; we saw more skirts or slacks with blouses than little black dresses at night.
Unlike many upscale cruise lines, Oceania's fares are not overly inclusive. Bottled water, soda and coffee drinks are free of charge, whether ordered at a bar or stocked in your cabin's mini-fridge. Nearly all specialty restaurants (minus La Reserve) do not have a cover charge. You will need to pay for alcoholic drinks, self-service laundry, shore excursions, Wi-Fi and gratuities.
Tips are automatically charged to your onboard account at the rate of $16 per person, per day (half to housekeeping and half to dining staff). Passengers in suites with butler service (Penthouse, Vista, Oceania and Owner's suites) are charged an additional $7 per person, per day. You are welcome to give additional tips to individuals who go above and beyond at your discretion. It's expected that those bringing room service will be tipped (anywhere from $1 to $5, depending on what's ordered) as items are delivered. An 18 percent gratuity is automatically tacked on to bills for spa services, bar drinks and dinner at La Reserve.
An Unexpected Adventure on the High Seas. Never Got to Lima or Machu Picchu