First look at Oceania Cruises' newest gem

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Riviera, the newest ship in the Oceania Cruises fleet, is now sailing on its inaugural cruise from Monaco to Venice, Italy. The christening ceremony (watch the video) was held mid-cruise in Barcelona on May 12, with Cat Cora, the Food Network’s only female Iron Chef, as the godmother.

Riviera is the sister ship to Marina, introduced in February 2011. Together, the two spacious and elegant new ships have redefined Oceania Cruises. Their biggest difference from Oceania's first three ships is their size: The combined passenger capacity of Marina and Riviera now accounts for two-thirds of the Oceania fleet.

Cat Cora is a fitting godmother, since culinary excellence is the new calling card for Oceania.  Cuisine has always been important to the line, but Riviera and Marina are specifically designed to appeal to guests who not only love consuming gourmet food, but also talking about it and even cooking it.

Seeing the Brand New Riviera

I just sailed on the first half of the ship's inaugural cruise and attended the christening ceremony. Like its sister Marina, Riviera is also an exquisite ship – in fact they are near duplicates. If you asked my professional opinion -- and I get asked this a lot -- I would say these ships are among the best at sea, in terms of the elements that comprise the ideal cruise for me.

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Why is Riviera so good? I believe there is a ship for everyone, but not everyone will like the same ship. For me, a great ship first of all is one built primarily for travel – I cruise to see the world, not to sit by a pool. And the best cruise travel also includes excellent cuisine, because eating well is one of life’s great pleasures. Finally, it must provide a night of perfect relaxation and sleep to restore me for the next port of call.

Oceania focuses on port-intensive itineraries -- often providing a port call every day of a cruise -- making it a great cruise line for travelers. For cuisine, Riviera and Marina both provide a formidable culinary consistency that I have rarely seen at sea, even on so-called luxury cruise lines. The staterooms are roomy and accommodating, with luxurious king-size beds and pillows featuring Ralph Lauren linens.

To top it off, Riviera is just a gorgeous ship, with beautiful décor, good entertainment and quiet but attentive service. Add the philosophy that exciting destinations are the primary reason to board a ship and Oceania is now among the best cruise experiences anywhere.

The Culinary Details

Most of the cuisine served on Oceania's ships was developed by the renowned French chef Jacques Pépin, known to many for his 1960s TV series on PBS. Pépin is now a 76-year-old sprite who is still far more obsessed with preparing amazing food than he is with branding his own name.

In fact, despite his television shows and library of recipe books, Pepin never opened a single restaurant in his own name until last year, when Oceania’s Marina set sail with the intimate and eponymous “Jacques” onboard.  And now there is a second “Jacques” on Riviera. His authentic French menu features classics like French black foot free-range chicken, warm pistachio and truffle sausage, pumpkin soup ladled from a real carved pumpkin, and Brittany-style Maine lobster. Best of all, there is no additional charge to dine there.

There is no surcharge to dine in any of the other five restaurants on Riviera and Marina. The other restaurants include the Polo Grill for steaks and chops, Toscana for abundant Italian, and the Grand Dining Room as the regular restaurant. In addition, there is Red Ginger, which qualifies as one of the best Asian Fusion restaurants at sea (with only Nobu aboard the Crystal ships as a rival). Rounding out the dining is the Terrace Cafe buffet - most efficient and with excellent selections.

For those who want to avoid excessive calories, Oceania is one of the few cruise lines affiliated with Canyon Ranch Spa for its "healthy choice" menu items.

The line does not include alcohol or gratuities in its cruise fare, but you can purchase a house wine and beer package for a very competitive $29.95 per person per day. To add spirits, the daily price is $49.95 per person.

Even More Culinary Ideas

People who love good wine can try the La Reserve program sponsored by Wine Spectator Magazine -- a series of tastings and seminars on wine pairings (cost: $95 plus gratuity).

Everyone should try the Bon Appétit Culinary Center - the only cooking classes at sea where not only the chef but also the guests have their own kitchen work-stations with sinks, induction heating elements, whisks, knives and real ingredients. Other cruise lines only have show kitchens where you can watch the chef. On Riviera, I made my own frittatas, scones and poached eggs. Add this to some time watching the 24-hour Jacques Pépin channel on the stateroom TV and I feel ready to open my own restaurant.

Other Onboard Attractions

Other Riviera onboard attractions include arts and crafts classes, with hands-on materials supplied, and an expansive library. For inspiration, both new ships come with an extensive multi-million dollar, all-original art collection, with the exception of a few limited-editions Picasso prints on each ship.

Each ship has a production-show theater with a 10-piece show ensemble and seven-piece orchestra. The theaters are nice, although not the high-tech extravaganza venues you see on mega-ships. But the advantage to that is Oceania's stage shows (produced by industry veteran Jean Ann Ryan) place more emphasis on artistic talent than on “special effects.” The tribute band “Beatlemania Now” appeared on my cruise, but different special artists will appear on various cruises.

The Spa offerings, such as massage and facials, also come from Canyon Ranch Spa. Oceania is one of the few cruise lines in the world not to use Steiner Leisure for its shipboard spa services. One of the few rare differences aboard the new Riviera is a thelassotherapy pool in the spa area in place of two hot tubs on sister ship Marina.

But other than décor and the spa pool, the two new ships are nearly identical. When these two new ships were originally announced in 2007, Oceania CEO Frank Del Rio said “Good things come in threes.” But times change, and on this cruise he commented casually, “If there is to be a new ship it will probably go to Regent within a few years.” Regent is the luxury cruise line that is a sister to Oceania, and Del Rio is CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, the parent company for both.

Comparing Oceania to Other Cruise Lines

Oceania is considered an “upscale” cruise line, which is technically a step below “luxury” in the cruise industry. This mostly originated with Oceania's original smaller ships, which now only make up a third of the fleet's capacity. Still, “luxury cruise lines” today are typically defined as including alcoholic beverages and gratuities in the cruise fare – which Oceania does not offer. But this is the only real difference. As far as décor, service and cuisine are concerned, the Oceania ships come as close to “luxury” as possible.

To my thinking, the closest comparison to the new Oceania ships is Crystal Cruises. Both lines offer luxury-style cruising on mid-size ships (about 65,000 tons). Now, Crystal is an inclusive luxury cruise line and Oceania is considered a category lower, but comparing Oceania to Crystal is a huge compliment to both lines, in my mind. I much prefer the somewhat larger and more active lifestyle of these ships over the smaller “yacht-like” luxury ships -- which are frankly far too austere and languid for me, especially with repeated days at sea with little to do except wait for the next meal.