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Oceania cruises: fledgling line carving out a niche with mid-size ships offering big value.

Many experienced cruisers regret the passing of what used to be called the medium-sized cruise ship of some 20,000-30,000 gross register tons. Cruise liners this size are large enough to provide great comfort and a full range of amenities, but small enough for intimacy. Fondly remembered vessels from now-defunct lines such as Sitmar, Home Lines, and Norwegian America crone to mind. More recently, you could find this seagoing experience mostly aboard highly rated upscale ships. These offer superlative amenities but are beyond the means of a large segment of the cruising public.

Now Oceania Cruises, with 30,277-gross-register-ton ships accommodating 680 passengers, offers an additional chance to experience that "we are all in the same boat" feeling that makes for friendly interaction among passengers and a life at sea quite different from that aboard the modern city at sea, the megaship. Per-person/per-diems on Oceania average $200-250, often less, and as an extra attraction, the ship size allows itineraries to small, out-of-the way ports. The standards of cuisine and service provided make this an extremely good value.

Although Oceania was established in 2003, the ships themselves date from 1998-2000. They offer modern cabins but have public rooms that evoke nostalgia for the prewar age of travel by sea. On a more contemporary note, dress aboard is informal (somewhat enigmatically styled "business casual"), three alternative dining venues are featured, and the main dining room is open seating (you may choose to enjoy any meal here-breakfast, lunch, or dinner--whether the ship is at sea or in port; no need to go to the buffet just because most passengers are ashore).

The cruise lifestyle has much of the freedom of NCL's "Freestyle" but is more upscale. A very slight variation from NCL is that there are two seatings by reservation in two of the alternative restaurants, Polo (steak and seafood) and Toscana (Italian), but there is no extra charge for either. These restaurants provide a welcome change of pace, but most passengers find the food and service in the main dining room, not to mention the surroundings, to be the equal of the specialized venues.

Speaking aboard the line's Insignia recently, Oceania chairman Joe Watters stated, "We offer most of the amenities of luxury lines, but at premium prices." By premium prices, he meant the fares normally associated with lines like Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess.

Currently Oceania sister ships Regatta and Insignia summer in European waters then winter in the Western Hemisphere--in 2004-2005, the line is offering both Caribbean and South American itineraries. Next year's addition of third sister Nautica (currently under charter) will make it possible to expand the line's itineraries to the Far East in 2005-2006.

In keeping with its aim to provide food that is among the best afloat, the line has engaged noted chef Jacques Pepin as culinary director and the marine catering firm of Apollo (the latter serves Celebrity and a number of other lines). After a learning curve in the opening months of service last year, the mostly Eastern European staff now provide a degree of service that has much in common with upscale cruise lines. You won't find the lavish production shows or entertainment stars as featured on the mega-ships, but with its fine cuisine and alternative service, Oceania brings back a more gracious era at sea without the stiff dress codes that often went with it. Business casual? Aboard Oceania this means there are few if any ties, and no tuxes or gowns. Men wear jackets only if they choose to, but jeans are not seen at dinner.

Stepping into the entrance halls of either vessel makes quite an impression. This is what it must have been like to board, as a first-class passenger, Cunard's Franconia of 1923--but the Oceanic lobby is more spacious and less utilitarian. Just inside, one finds the purser's desk, concierge, and a grand staircase leading to the floor above, which is the main public-room deck.

But in other aspects, the Insignia and Regatta (and soon, the Nautica) offer modern refinements undreamed of in the heyday of the Franconia. These include a teak-surrounded central swimming pool of the modern type (amidships, sheltered, surrounded by an overhanging "mezzanine" deck), a dining veranda, and balconies in 68 percent of the cabins. The ships lack a shaded, walk-around promenade, but a more exposed track for walking laps is available on the "mezzanine" overlooking the pool. (Interestingly positioned, looking out at the walkway, is a library that is unusually good by shipboard standards; an illuminated dome adds to the airy feel inside among the fine collection of contemporary books provided by the same vendor stocking Cunard's Queen Mary 2.)

Cruise-industry wisdom says that you can't make real money with ships this size unless someone else builds them and takes a loss in selling them to you. This is exactly what happened in the case of Oceania.

All three vessels were built for Renaissance Cruises--the R1 (Insignia) and R2 (Regatta) in 1998, and the R5 (Nautical in 2000 and were virtually identical, including the interiors. The onboard product was well-received by passengers, but Renaissance had some severe problems. Refusing to market primarily through travel agents, the company never developed a distribution network sufficient for its growing fleet. On top of this, the line over-expanded, quickly adding eight sister ships operating worldwide itineraries. By the time Renaissance changed its policy to encourage travel agents to sell its cruises, it was too late. In any case, 9/11 and the subsequent decline in international travel ended all hope of recovery. Renaissance ceased operations September 25, 2001.

The Alstom Group, builders of the QM2, constructed the "R" ships and also played a major role in financing the Renaissance fleet. CruiseInvest, managers of what was now an inactive flotilla, began to sell and charter the ships to various operators, including Princess, Swan Hellenic, and others.

One of the investors, encountered by this writer aboard the Insignia, indicated that while Oceania ships are currently operated on charter, a lease-purchase agreement is in place giving the line the right to buy the vessels at 40 percent of the original construction price. The Regatta was christened in Barcelona June 26, 2003, and in spite of recession and the SARS scare, sold out her first season, according to the line. Spokesmen indicate that the firm is currently in the black. The Insignia received her new name in Monaco last March 28, in the presence of His Serene Highness, Prince Albert. Just as Mrs. Frank Del Rio, wife of Oceania's president and CEO named the Regatta, so Mrs. Joseph Watters, wife of the line's chairman, did the honors in Monaco. Frank Del Rio was executive vice president and, finally, co-CEO for Renaissance; Joe Watters was president of Crystal Cruises from 1994 to 2004.

Although Oceania's product is more upscale than Renaissance's was, it was unnecessary to drastically upgrade the ships, which were in like-new condition. Oceania has installed a themed Italian restaurant, the Toscana; added teak floors to balconies; and has provided such amenities as Tranquility Beds, 300 thread-count cotton sheets, and English-milled toiletries for cabins. Of course, some of the $12 million spent so far has been for technical maintenance behind the scenes.

The typical stateroom with balcony offers 216 square feet of space, while the 52 322-sq.-ft. Penthouse Suites compare nicely to deluxe cabins aboard the megaships. The six Owner's Suites and four Vista Suites can more than double this size. All suite accommodations come with butler service for extra help with packing, unpacking, restaurant reservations, shore tours, and such. A number of other balconied staterooms have recently been elevated to a "Concierge Level" that boasts an array of new amenities.

Looking at all aspects of the onboard experience, the cuisine has to be considered a standout. While the aforementioned Polo Grill and Toscana alternative restaurants are reservations-only, you can enter the Grand Dining Room anytime between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. to dine according to your whim of the moment. If you are fooded-out after several days of eating on this scale, you can enjoy tapas and other Mediterranean fare in the Terrace Cafe, with its open veranda overlooking the stem. Another choice is 24-hour room service. To many, buffets in an informal deck-side restaurant will never equal a civilized lunch in the dining room, an option that is always available on an Oceania ship--in addition to deck-side burgers and a fine butter. Full English tea is served at 4 p.m. daily in the Observation Lounge, with a wide choice of teas (though bagged, rather than brewed).

While the ships lack the polished production shows now standard on most cruise ships, the quality of the instrumental groups in the lounges was excellent. For those not otherwise engaged, a good selection of in-cabin movies was always available. The small casino pleased the gamblers onboard.

Public rooms exploit the ship's intimate size, offering extremely comfortable accommodations in the form of an observation lounge high and forward; a martini bar amidships; and a smaller bar adjoining the Grand Dining Room. There are numerous other intimate seating areas, notably around the main central staircase.

The experienced cruise passenger will find that Oceania is a worthy successor to those smaller companies operating ships of intimate dimensions now greatly missed by many. In fact, whether one speaks of style or the creature comforts, Oceania improves on most of the earlier versions of the fine, medium-sized cruise ship.

For more information contact your travel agent or Oceania Cruises (Cruise Travel Magazine), 8120 NW 53rd St., Miami, FL 33166; or log on to www.oceaniacruiscs.com.
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Title Annotation:Company Profile
Author:Miller, Laurence
Publication:Cruise Travel
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:1603
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