Cruise Adviser’s Anthony Pearce joins Oceania Cruises on the beautiful Riviera to sail from Rome to Venice and sample what is said to be the finest cuisine at sea
It doesn’t take us long to settle into a rhythm on Oceania Cruises. Having made our way across a sweltering Rome from the chaotic Fiumicino airport to the Civitavecchia cruise terminal, we are welcomed on board the elegant, air-conditioned Riviera by a small army of smiling, immaculately dressed staff, guiding us in the correct direction.
Any lingering stress is extinguished immediately and the question we came here to pose – how has luxury cruising become one of the travel industry’s recent success stories? – is answered quickly. Our home for the next eight nights, a beautiful stateroom, boasting a spacious veranda, marbled bathroom, queen-size bed, shower and generously sized bathtub, is positively palatial. It’s easy to see why customers, accustomed to the elegance of four and five-star hotels, have turned to cruise lines, allowing them to take in multiple exotic, exciting destinations without forgoing comfort and style. On this trip, the line’s Isles & Empires, we’ll take in seven incredible destinations – Sorrento, Sicily, Greece, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia, finishing in Venice – in the knowledge our beautiful hotel is docked near by.
Having arrived in that awkward post-lunch, pre-evening meal period, we immediately take advantage of the complimentary room service and our friendly waiter arrives promptly, delicious roast chicken and bacon sandwich in hand. It’s our first taster of food on Oceania Cruises, a line that proudly proclaims to serve “the finest cuisine at sea”. Its trophy cabinet, bursting with ‘best food’ awards, certainly offers veracity to the statement, as do the many return guests who enthusiastically describe the ship’s multiple eateries, offering glowing reviews of each when we tell them it’s our first time.
On Riviera, which entered service in 2012, there are four reservation-only restaurants in addition to the ‘walk-in’ Grand Dining Room, Waves Bar and Terrace Café. On most cruise lines they would fall under the category of additional fee ‘speciality’ restaurants, but here they remain complimentary. They are Polo Grill, a steakhouse; Red Ginger, which serves Asian fusion food; Toscana, an Italian; and Jacques, serving French dishes dreamt up by celebrated chef Jacques Pépin (and cooked by him, if you’re lucky enough to be on the right cruise). Then there’s Priveé, an exclusive 10-seater restaurant, and La Reservé, for wine lovers, where surcharges apply.
Unsurprisingly, each restaurant is heavily subscribed and guests are only allowed a table in each restaurant once. We’re yet to book so, that evening, we dine at the Grand Dining Room. The stirring sounds of a string quartet greet us as we make our way through the Grand Bar on the sixth deck, past the casino and its bar, and into Martinis, the ship’s suave, low-light cocktail bar. A pianist plays gently and we’re persuaded to stop and sample the bar’s signature drink, opting for its Hendricks gin, vermouth and cucumber variation.
At dinner, I have an inventive butternut squash and mango salad starter, exceptional sea bass with tomato ratatouille main and indulgent strawberry cheesecake for desert, as the ship pulls out of Rome.
The vessel’s outstanding staff-to-passenger ratio (800:1,200) means you’re never left waiting or staring at dirty plates, particularly here in the main dining room. Not only are waiters plentiful, they’re cheerful, helpful, know the menu inside out and are genuinely enthusiastic about it. It’s one of the many reasons we begin to look forward to the evening meal as much as we do the port visits.
The next morning, having arrived in Sorrento, we tender across, having a quick explore of the city, with its pastel houses and imposing Hotel Excelsior Vittoria sitting precariously on dramatic cliffs edge, before taking a boat to Capri. There, we hop on the funicular and take in the panoramic views at the top (pictured above), Mount Vesuvius faintly visible in the distance, the neat gardens and houses below. We explore the old town, getting lost down narrow alleys, admiring the balconied windows with bright, neatly arranged flowers boxes above, and verdant gardens where lemons grow naturally.
The Mediterranean sun is punishing and we’re happy to get back on board, enjoy a swim and make use of the excellent gym. That evening, we eat at Polo Grill, where our wine, unfinished from the night before is quickly fetched (our waiter explains that’s it had already been moved to a cellar closer to the restaurant in anticipation). The lobster bisque starter, given a kick with a drop of brandy, is gorgeous, as too is the succulent rib-eye steak for main.
The next morning we wake to find the Sicilian coastline and the imposing view of Mount Etna outside our veranda. It’s the most active volcano in the world, and despite its summit standing some 11,000 feet high, smoke is clearly visible. We tender to the island early and take a coach to the ancient city of Taormina, perched on the side of a mountain, and built by the Greeks in the seventh century. The Greek influence remains, from the amphitheatre to the Trinacria, the symbol of Greek mythological origin, which appears on the Sicilian flag and in every tourist shop.
After a trip to Argostoli, on the island of Cephalonia, Greece, we proceed through the Bay of Kotor, known as the most southerly fjord in Europe, and a highlight of the trip so far. The towering mountains, cerulean waters, thick, vast forests and tiny, neat villages, with their terra cotta roofs, are truly breathtaking. Seemingly half of the ship is on the top deck taking pictures. At Red Ginger that evening, I opt for a gorgeous garlic and chilli prawn starter, overshadowed by the superbly inventive crispy duck, watermelon and cashew nut salad that comes next; the main, a wasabi-flavoured rack of lamb, is my favourite dish of the cruise so far, which explains why the restaurant is one of the ship’s most talked about.
We spend the next day in Croatia, bathing below the waterfalls of the Krka national park, the temperature pushing 40c outside the water, before sailing to the pretty city of Koper, Slovenia. Tucked away in southeastern Europe, this tiny, mountainous country is often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours, but it is blessed with natural and architectural beauty. The Venetian influence – remaining from the days of Venice’s marauding republic and felt across the region – is clearest here, giving us a taster for tomorrow’s headline event.
Before that is a chance to enjoy the gallic Jacques, the ship’s most famous, and for my mind, best restaurant. After a delicate goats cheese soufflé and, then, baked onion soup, I opt for the superb Maine lobster, served in its shell with a creamy mushroom sauce. In a lovely gesture, an exceedingly generous guest invites us to join him for a glass of champagne, sending a bottle over to our table.
There’s palpable excitement as we arrive in Venice the next morning, even from passengers seeing the Italian city for the third or fourth time. It’s our first and we’ve made sure we have time to make the most of it, booking a late flight back, giving ourselves almost two full days, and head out early on a waterbus. Saint Mark’s Square, comprising marble facades, the sky-reaching Campanile brick tower, the beautiful Basilica di San Marco, and a stadium’s worth of tourists, glistens in the late-morning sun. The heat and crowd make it a bit much, so we duck under a selfie stick or two, and head for the quiet and shade, meandering up through Castello’s streets, past endless canals until byzantine and baroque masterpieces give way to more modest properties and Venetians going about their business.
It’s a fantastic city to get lost in – conveniently, given we’ve forgotten our map – and our first day is spent absorbing its beautiful buildings, narrow, winding passageways and cafés. But the next day we attack with a plan, buying a day pass for the waterbus – costing 20 euros – and explore the city with ease (it may not be as romantic as a gondola but offers a far wider scope of the city). We visit the tranquil island of Murano, where the city’s famous glassblowers have practised their art since 1291, and the Isola dei Morti, the beautiful but eerie island cemetery, which offers proof that Venice can be seen away from other tourists.
After a final trip down the Grand Canal, taking in the famous Accedemia bridge, the sun beginning to set, we bid farewell to Venice and a holiday that had it all: luxury, comfort, adventure and some truly unbelievable food.
- Veranda stateroom on Oceania Cruises’ Isles & Empires £3,609. See p57 for more details