Oceania's Marina: A Cruise Ship Fit for Foodies

The exterior of Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
By Matt Hannafin; edited by Hannah Norman

Oceania Cruises has been in business for more than ten years, but it wasn't until February 2011 that it launched its first purpose-built new ship -- that is, the first ship that hadn't previously sailed for some other company (in this case, long-defunct Renaissance Cruises).

With that long a wait, and the company flush with cash from deep-pocket investors, it was pretty certain that Marina would shine. It turns out that she does.

In a cruise world that's increasingly reliant on the marine equivalent of Hollywood special effects to lure guests to its new ships, Marina shines in a beautifully counter-trending way: by being quiet, calm, and homey, but with just enough glitz to remind you that you deserve to be treated well.

Photo Caption: Oceania Marina at dock in Nassau, Bahamas.
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Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
The word on Marina is "detail." Reportedly, line founder Frank Del Rio (now chairman and CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, Oceania's parent company) and company President Bob Binder had a hand in just about every aspect of Marina's design, outfitting, and programming. It shows. From hand-selecting all the artwork and furnishings to choosing restaurant stemware and wines (and even suggesting some recipes), the fingerprints of the two executives can be seen in pretty much every room on the ship. In the abstract, that could be either a good or a very bad thing. Here, it worked out fine.

From the beginning, Oceania Cruises has sought to create its own niche in the cruise market -- above mainstream (Carnival, Royal Caribbean) and above premium, too (Celebrity, Holland America), but not up in the pricey stratosphere with Silversea or Regent Seven Seas. According to one marketing exec, Oceania's customers are people who may have sailed on Holland America or Princess in the past and who now want to try something more refined without totally breaking the bank.

Marina was, in essence, custom-made for that group. Her décor offers the classic feel of Holland America (and mimics the size of HAL's older Statendam-class ships), but with more per-passenger space. Where Princess boasts of "big ship choice and small-ship feel," Marina just goes with small(ish)-ship feel and upgrades the choices -- not to mention the service -- to near-luxe levels. Where the mainstream and premium lines all charge extra for specialty dining, Marina (and the other Oceania ships) bundle it all into the rates, so you can dine, say, in the world's only Jacques Pépin restaurant without paying an extra dime.

Photo Caption: The view from one of Marina's lavish Owners Suites.
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The luxurious spa aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
Part of making Marina extra special was partnering with noted designers and lifestyle companies -- for example, Canyon Ranch, which created and operates the ship's Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Sitting up toward the bow on Deck 14, the 10,000-square-foot facility offers a Thermal Suite comprised of an aromatic steam room, a Finnish sauna, and an "Experiential Rain experience" (a New Age shower); a thalassotherapy pool (a New Age hot tub) on a private sundeck; indoor and outdoor relaxation areas; a salon; and a small gym with both group and private fitness sessions.

Guests can choose from a menu of about 50 private spa treatments, including reflexology, acupuncture, standard-issue massages and facials, and specialty treatments like the "Ocean Scrub" exfoliating body treatment and "Organic Seaweed Body Wraps" using hand-harvested seaweed from Ireland's northwest coast.

Photo Caption: Relaxation space in Marina's Canyon Ranch SpaClub.
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A view of the sun deck aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
In addition to a midsize pool deck (a nice relief from the high-energy "pool deck as family game park" vibe on some megaships), Marina offers a handful of small sunning spots. This one is the best: an outdoor relaxation space near the spa, where spa guests (or anyone who wants to buy a day pass) can feel like they're aboard their own private yacht.

Photo Caption: The spa sundeck aboard Marina.
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Jacques restaurant aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
The actor Burt Lancaster is reputed to have said, "I judge a restaurant by the bread and by the coffee." And on that note, here's my recommendation for Jacques, the first restaurant ever created (on land or at sea) by celebrity chef Jacques Pépin: It serves, bar none, the best bread I've ever had on a cruise ship -- and in fact, some of the best bread I've ever had. I could have just had a few rolls and left happy -- then come back every day after for more.

But of course, the restaurant also serves full meals, with a menu that focuses on traditional French country cuisine and pumps it up with a little zest. The room itself is beautiful, too, with traditional oak floors (a super-rarity at sea, where fire-safety regulations severely limit the amount of wood in any one room), antique furniture, trophies and other items from Pépin's own collection. There are also paintings by the chef himself -- and they're not bad, either.

Other specialty restaurants on board include the excellent Red Ginger, a pan-Asian with a hip, contemporary design; the Polo Grill steakhouse, decorated with equestrian motifs; and the Mediterranean Toscana. The main Grand Dining Room is designed to look like something out of a 1930s Hollywood movie. The sloping entranceway makes you feel as if the room is opening up the farther you walk in.

Photo Caption: A romantic table for two at Jacques.
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The teaching kitchen aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
Marina offers the cruise world's only hands-on teaching kitchen, created by the folks at Bon Appétit magazine. Outfitted with 12 cooking stations, each with its own burners, cutting board, and sink, the full kitchen offers classes for up to 24 passengers (two per station), on topics including modern Greek cuisine, American classics, special breakfasts, chocolate desserts, southwestern cuisine, homemade pasta, and recipes from Oceania's restaurants. 

Photo Caption: Marina's Culinary Center, the only hands-on teaching kitchen at sea.
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The coffee bar aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
Is a trend emerging in the cruise world? Some of my favorite spaces aboard two new ships (Disney Dream and Marina) are the specialty coffee bars, each of which is set in a central but inconspicuous indoor spot on or near the pool deck.

On Marina, Baristas coffee bar overlooks the pool deck from a perch on Deck 14. The rounded space sits at the point of a small complex that serves as the ship's headquarters for urban intellectuals: You get your coffee, your old-world library, your Internet center, and your boardroom all in one convenient location, set off from the rest of the ship. On the counter at Baristas, small domed dishes hold tiny biscotti and other mini-pastries, making the experience all the sweeter.

Photo Caption: Passengers caffeinate at the Baristas coffee bar.
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Privee aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
Oceania doesn't charge for its specialty dining experiences, except when it comes to Privée.

Set behind closed doors in the stern on Deck 14, the 10-seat room looks like a place for VIPs. Even the company's own description calls it "outlandishly decorated," but in a fun way, with a gleaming oval table surrounded by oversize white baby crocodile throne chairs. White walls with Baroque millwork accentuate the vivid red carpeting underfoot, and a Venini glass chandelier dangles above.

The room, which has one wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, is only available for private dining at a full-room rental rate. That gets you and your guests a seven-course gourmet tasting menu that's created just for you after a meeting with the ship's executive chef.

Photo Caption: Privée, an ultra-private dining experience.
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The grand staircase aboard Oceania's Marina. Oceania Cruises
But let's get back to what I was saying before about the detail-work around the ship, and how it was virtually custom-made for its target audience of way-above-median but not fully luxe cruisers. Had Oceania been targeting true super-monied cognoscenti, it might've gone with an atrium design that looked like, oh, I dunno, the Shore Club in Miami. Instead, the company chose to put the first glimpse passengers get of the ship into the hands of French crystal and glassware designer company Lalique, which embellished the double-staircase space (designed to evoke the lobby stairways on the line's earlier ships) with crystal pillars and medallions, scrolled ironwork, a crystal chandelier, and a crystal "Cactus" table holding a vase with fresh flowers. The results are classic but not nostalgic, upmarket but neither stuffy nor severe.

Something to watch for: When I was aboard, the raised marble floor was edged with yellow-and-black construction tape and fronted by a velvet rope. Seems the floor is so shiny and so black and so seamless that no one could see there was a step there. Let's see what solution the line comes up with for that one.

Photo Caption: Marina's grand staircase, by the folks at Lalique.
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A detailed shot of the Steinway piano aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
Oceania's focus on getting every detail of Marina right included commissioning a custom baby-grand piano from Steinway, with an exterior designed by American furniture icon Dakota Jackson. One of the line's PR people indicated that they'd spent something like $300,000 on the piano, which graces Marina's Martinis lounge. A carry-over from the older Oceania ships, Martinis is a spacious and stylish but informal lounge located just forward of the casino on Deck 6.

Dakota Jackson also designed Marina's Oceania and Vista Suites
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The casino bar aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
While Marina's overall look is relatively classic and subdued, it does have its startling moments -- such as when you're walking from the very traditional Grand Dining Room, through the adjacent (and also traditional) Grand Lounge, and suddenly you notice that everything off to your left is glowing magenta.

That's the Casino Bar, with its LED-backlit onyx wall and bar panels, Picasso prints, and silvery, Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy chairs and barstools. It's the most completely outré room on the ship, a refuge for free-thinkers and night owls. No word yet on whether its afterimage stays on your retina 'til the next morning.

Photo Caption: The Casino Bar aboard Oceania's Marina.
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The pool deck aboard Oceania's Marina. Oceania Cruises
As is true of the older Oceania ships, Marina's best attribute is her sense of unrushed, take-things-at-your-own-pace leisure. In this, Oceania is really more in the psychic space of the luxury lines, where activities, announcements, and directives are few, and passengers are left alone to do whatever they like. Activities are few, calm, and orderly: cooking classes at the culinary center, casual art classes across the hall at the Artist Loft, and the occasional enrichment lecture or Ping-Pong tournament. There's dancing at night at Horizons nightclub, a pianist at Martinis, and a string quartet in the atrium. A string quartet! If that doesn't say "quiet evenings," I don't know what would.

Photo Caption: Marina's intimate pool deck.
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One of the owner's suites aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
This is how Marina's upper crust lives: in lavish Owners Suites that spread across the entire 105-foot beam of the ship on Decks 8, 9, and 10. Designed by the folks at Ralph Lauren and outfitted with furniture, fabrics, bedding, and other accouterments from the Ralph Lauren Home collection, each offers a dramatic entry-foyer/bar/music-room, a large living room with dining area, a separate bedroom with king-size Tranquility Bed (about which, more in the next slide), an enormous balcony with Jacuzzi tub, a marble-and-granite bathroom with another Jacuzzi tub, a private fitness room, a walk-in closet, three LCD flat-screen TVs, two laptops with wireless access, and an over-the-top design scheme featuring zebra-print upholstery, furniture with a midcentury-modern vibe, 1930s and '40s glamour photos, and little Kleig lights on wooden tripods to complete the Hollywood image.

Photo Caption: The living room in one of Marina's Owners Suites.
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A veranda stateroom aboard Oceania's Marina. Matt Hannafin
I've been knocked out by Oceania's branded "Tranquility Beds" since the line sailed its first cruises back in 2003, and things have only gotten better aboard Marina, where super-plush beds are the centerpiece amid dark, traditional wood wall panels and desks, comfortable sitting areas and balconies, and spacious and elegant marble bathrooms. The rooms all have a real sense of space too, and you never feel the need to crabwalk. Closet space could be a bit more generous considering the line's generally longish itineraries, and shower stalls will be a challenge for anyone taller than about 6'2", but otherwise the ship's standard staterooms get a big thumbs-up.

About those beds: Each "Prestige Tranquility Bed
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Oceania's Marina ship. Oceania Cruises
Marina gets five stars based on Frommer's ship-rating system, but a few deficiencies (an unusually small gym, for instance, and decor that, while perfectly nice, isn't a complete knockout) almost knocked her down to 4½. Like the luxury ships she emulates in so many ways, Marina also completely lacks when it comes to children's center or children's programming -- lacks literally, that is, meaning there is none. The Oceania experience is just not designed to cater to families with kids, and so, as is our practice with the luxury lines, I've excluded consideration of kids' options from the star rating.

Marina's past trips include a 18-night Panama Canal cruise, a 10-nighter in the Mediterranean, as well as ocean stretches such as passage from San Francisco to Miami. 

Photo Caption: Oceania's Marina sets sail.
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