by Liz Fleming

CaviarCourtesy Oceania

If you’d like some tasty and well-deserved self-indulgence, the elegant Oceania Marina, with its reputation for outstanding service and culinary excellence, will meet and exceed your every expectation.

Sometimes, it’s challenging to be the bigger sister.

A gorgeous member of the six-ship Oceania fleet, the Marina and her sister ship, the Riviera are each able to welcome nearly twice as many guests as their smaller sisters, the Nautica, Regatta, Insignia and Sirena. With 1,250 guests aboard, you might think that the larger vessels wouldn’t offer quite as personal a welcome but the opposite is true. Somehow, despite their size, the Riviera and the Marina – the ship we sailed on a wonderful seven-day itinerary out of Miami – retain every ounce of the small-ship, ultra-luxe atmosphere that has made their smaller sisters so popular. It’s truly a sprinkling of Oceania magic.

Oceania MarinaCourtesy Oceania

It begins with the elegance of the design and decor.  In the heart of the ship, a gorgeous Lalique crystal staircase curves gracefully upward – the perfect spot for photos – and it sets a tone of chic refinement for the rest of the ship. Creature comforts take priority on the Marina, we discovered when we wandered into the cozy, leathery library where guests curled up with a great book and a cup of coffee.  On the spacious, sunny pool deck, servers hovered with trays of icy drinks, but it was in the exquisite calm of the Canyon Ranch Spa and Sanctuary, that we loved the sense of privacy and relaxation.  We retreated there each afternoon to bask on the private sundeck and loll on the heated tile beds. Clearly, the Marina is a little piece of floating heaven.

Each night, talented performers sang and danced on the main stage and in the many shipboard lounges and every day, we enjoyed fantastic shore excursions in sunny spots like the Costa Maya, Roatan, Belize and Key West. Whether we were singing our hearts out at a friendly outdoor bar on the Key West strip, soaring on the zip line that carried us across the wide sandy beach at the private destination of Harvest Caye or paddling glass-bottomed kayaks in Belize, we loved every minute of our shore time.

Yes, the shore excursions were outstanding, but we were happy to head back to our ship at day’s end. It might have been the lure of our well-appointed suite, with its breezy balcony or it might have been the friendly bartenders, ready to welcome us back with something tall and cool, but in fact, what made us hurry back to the Marina after each day was our anticipation of the glorious meals that awaited us.

Duck and WatermelonDuck and watermelon salad - Courtesy Oceania

Oceania proudly bills itself as having “the finest cuisine at sea” – a bold claim, but one that  many enthusiastic returning guests would argue is absolutely true.  In the seven days spent aboard, we heard nothing but rave reviews from every guest we spoke with. People don’t simply enjoy the Marina’s dining offerings – they become the focus of every conversation and of course, a world of social media posts!

Knowing how popular the specialty dining venues are aboard the Marina, we’d made sure to book in advance. Note: as is the case on many ships, great restaurants require advance reservations so the wise cruiser sits down and gets clicking online as soon as the booking is finalized. Though we weren’t able to arrange a night at  La Reserve - an ultra-exclusive small venue that books up almost as soon as an itinerary opens –  we had all the others lined up and began our culinary adventures at Jacques – the signature restaurant created for Oceania by renowned chef Jacques Pépin himself.

Jacques PepinCourtesy Oceania

The restaurant is elegant, with crisp linens and gracious servers creating the feeling of a special retreat for gastronomes.  Our multi-course menu included traditional delights such as escargot drenched in a delicious garlic butter sauce, and a beef tenderloin more tender and flavorful than any we’d ever had. It was immediately after our timelessly perfect Crépes Suzette that we began to worry that perhaps we’d been foolish to start with Jacques. Would every other restaurant aboard pale by comparison and leave us disappointed?

We needn’t have been troubled. The next night at Red Ginger – a dining space that celebrates the exotic beauty of Asia and even features a selection of chopsticks ranging from hand-carved wooden beauties to a sleek sculpted steel variety – we joined friends to munch on crispy spring rolls, delectable seafood soups and creative, delicate symphonies of vegetable, duck, chicken, beef and fish lapped in delicious broths and sauces. The only thing more extensive than the chopstick selection was the tea menu, carefully explained by our gracious server and presented with great attention to the details of brewing and pouring. 

Polo GrillPolo Grill - Courtesy Oceania

Every day and evening offered different culinary experiences.  Toscana, a warmly authentic Italian restaurant, with a décor that combined elegance and the kind of open-hearted welcome you’d expect from your nonna – offered handmade pastas, lovingly-brewed sauces, and rich chunks of fresh parmigiana cheese along with tender veal parmesan and veal marsala – two long-time favorites prepared beautifully. The Polo Grill – the meat-lovers Mecca – treated us to a glorious feast of rare prime rib while the Grand Dining Room offered its own menu of delicious favorites (no reservations necessary). Each morning and noon hour, we basked in the sunshine as we gorged on the fabulous `a la minute offerings at the Terrace Café and Waves Grille and each afternoon, we enjoyed the oh-so-proper and delicious high tea, offered in the Grand Dining Room, accompanied by the sounds of a string quartet. Feathery light scones and Mozart – a glorious combination.

Lemon RavioliLemon Ravioli - Courtesy Oceania

Oceania’s reputation for top-notch cuisine doesn’t stop with the fleet’s dining rooms.  Serious food lovers rave about the Oceania Culinary Center and with good reason. The gleaming, full-on cooking classroom is a wonder to behold and a pleasure to learn and work in.  Featuring a roomful of well-outfitted cooking stations with fully functional range tops, individual sinks, and top-notch equipment, the Center provide the kind of high-quality knives, pots, pans and spatulas etc. that make you feel like the pro you’re fantasizing that you’ll become. The lucky guests who sign up (again, book well in advance) are treated to afternoon or even day-long programs that blend a rich cultural introduction to the region from which the food to be prepared originates, with comprehensive instruction in the techniques needed to prepare it.  When possible, the class incorporates a chef-led shore excursion element such as a trip to a farm, or a market. In our case, we visited a hydroponic farm where we all learnt about the quick and efficient growing of lettuce in a dry climate.

Culinary CenterCulinary Center - Courtesy Oceania

Back at the Culinary Center, Head Chef Kathryn Kelly showed us the alchemy involved in turning chicken, capers, lemons and panko bread crumbs into crisp, pieces of fried-chicken gold, and then fortified us with glasses of Limoncello. Glasses in hand, we learned the delicate stirring technique necessary to make the world’s creamiest risotto and then, to top off our food-fest, she taught us to make tiny, feathery lemon cakes, just the right size to pop into small bowls filled with more Limoncello, Bailey’s, or Grand Marnier.  Left for a few minutes, the tiny cakes soaked up the boozy baths below and became truly exquisite yet utterly simple desserts.

If there’s a more satisfying way to spend an afternoon, I can’t think what it might be and if there’s a more delectable way for cuisine-loving cruise enthusiasts to explore the Caribbean, I haven’t yet found it.  Our week aboard the Oceania Marina exceeded our every expectation – onboard and ashore - but still managed to leave us with an appetite for another Oceania cruise to come.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall 2017 issue.

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