Simon Leeming enjoys a Highland Fling on board Oceania’s Marina and is delighted to discover ‘casual county-club’ dining without a dickie bow in sight
The luxury cruise market has often been misunderstood. The image of stuffy, formal cruises requiring bow ties and dinner jackets to be worn at every meal has often put ‘new to cruise’ customers off from making their first booking.
But as the cruise market changes and becomes more welcoming and accessible to new customers, through the widespread use of innovative technology and entertainment on board, dress codes are also changing, and a more casual approach to clothing when dining in speciality restaurants has begun to be adopted across every cruise line, including those at the higher end of the market.
But there is one cruise line that has always adhered to a more casual approach to cruising. Advertising itself as a country club at sea, Oceania Cruises offers a more laid back atmosphere while offering upmarket furnishing and facilities along with first-class service.
Over the coming two years, a $100 million refurbishment programme will update Oceania’s Regatta Class ships, which until now have felt more like English country hotels, to fit the more relaxed country club approach.
Oceania doesn’t have formal nights but instead offers guests the opportunity to dine in each of its four speciality restaurants, which range from a Parisienne-style French brasserie to Pan Asian fusion, at least once during their cruise.
Nine dining options are available altogether, including 24-hour complimentary room service, and a sumptuous afternoon tea served daily in the lounge.
For a fee, customers on board Marina and Riviera can enjoy a wine paired tasting menu in La Reserve. Guests celebrating a special occasion with a group can reserve the exclusive Privée, a private dining experience where they can choose a combination of courses from the Polo Grill and Toscana restaurant.
I joined Marina, one of Oceania’s two largest and youngest ships in the fleet, in Newhaven for a cruise around the Scottish Highlands. While being almost twice the size of the other four ships in the fleet, at 1,250 guests, Marina and Riviera feel like there are only a handful of guests on board.
We embarked by tender, a new experience for me, and emerged from the bowels of the ship to the beautiful grand atrium, surrounded by an exquisite art collection. Art plays a
key part of life on board, with self-guided tours available. It was topped off by an incredible chandelier in the grand dining room constructed of Swarovski crystals.
‘Country club casual’ is the dress code, although I would still enter the dining rooms with trepidation fearing I would be surrounded by dickie bows. With relief, I found this not to be true and bar the wearing of shorts and jeans while dining, almost anything goes.
Proclaiming itself to have the finest cuisine at sea, Oceania says it spend more per guest on food than any other cruise line. And it’s not all steak and lobster. It has embraced the societal shift towards plant-based lifestyles, and in addition to catering for vegetarians and those with food intolerances, it now also offers a daily vegan menu inspired by dishes from the speciality restaurants. Requests can also be made for afternoon tea.
A set number of free excursions are included during the cruise. As we were visiting the Scottish Highlands, we were given a broad range of options to choose from, including discovering Jacobean castles, hunting for Nessie, visiting famous battlefields and touring St Andrews golf course. Oceania also offers a range of small group tours, with a maximum size of 16 people, so that guests can visit their favourite locations in a more intimate environment.
Marina’s smaller size enabled us to dock in pretty fishing towns such as Ullapool, which larger ships skip. This allowed us to visit the beautiful Inverewe Gardens, the world’s most northerly botanical garden, accompanied by a picturesque drive along lochs and through the glens. We even saw a majestic stag – the Monarch of the Glen – high on the hillside above us.
On another day, we opted for a wonderful small group whisky tasting excursion from Invergordon, which visited the famous Glenmorangie distillery – and gave us free time to explore the nearby Dalmore distillery.
Exceptional service was received from everyone on board, the crew truly nailing the expectations of the casual cruiser who appreciates great food and exceptional service in a five-star setting. Cue also gourmet dining, happy hour in the Martini bar, string quartets and late-night karaoke.
So if you have customers who are keen to try luxury cruising but aren’t quite ready for the likes of Cunard and Seabourn, Oceania offers the perfect experience for first timers.