St. Bart’s, you were but a vision seen from afar.
Last night’s New Year’s resolution to maintain a sunny disposition in the face of adversity was called upon this morning as Oceania’s Insignia anchored off St. Barthelemy. The sea was as tipsy as some of the passengers after ringing in the New Year, the swells too high for passengers to safely board tenders headed into port. The captain announced he would wait an hour for the sea to calm. When the hour passed and the forecast remained for high waves, he canceled our call to this upscale French island, pulled up anchor and cruised away turning our two-day return to Miami into three days at sea.
Along with many passengers, I was sorely disappointed. Gustavia, the capital of St. Barthelemy, sat crouched below green hills on our port side, a sprinkling of expensive yachts in the distance between us. I had not visited this island with its exclusive shops, fine restaurants and beaches and felt cheated. Bill was looking forward to a stroll along a French Riviera-style beach.
But Oceania rightly puts safety first. Peering over Insignia’s railing at the tender bouncing alongside, I could see that stepping aboard would be a challenge for even the most agile among us. In fact, the tender crew needed several attempts to bring the vessel to the starboard side and rig it up to the ropes and pulleys that would hoist it on board. One false move could easily send a man overboard and possibly pinned between the wildly bucking tender and the anchored ship.
So I needed an attitude adjustment and got one when an hour later the ship delivered a revised schedule of the day’s activities to our stateroom. We decided to try a few that had so far eluded us: bingo, team trivia, shuffleboard, golf on the putting green, baggo bean, table tennis and talks by the guest lecturer. With plenty of time spent poolside and forays into the large library for more books to read, it would be a full three days.
I also spent the time reflecting on the cruise itself, the good, the not-so-good. I was struck by the high number of passengers who had cruised on Oceania ships in the past. One dinner companion had been on 11 Oceania cruises and I was told another on board was on his 21st cruise. Obviously, the cruise line is doing something right to keep these folks coming back. This is not to say there weren’t complaints; no cruise is perfect and passengers can be nitpicky, particularly those cruising on a luxury line. This is our first cruise on Oceania, so I can only compare it to the dozen or more cruises I’ve taken on other lines and I weigh my opinion against comments I heard from those who’ve been aboard Oceania’s six ships on prior cruises.
Staterooms: We were on deck 7 in a concierge stateroom, probably middle of the pack between lower-priced rooms and more expensive suites. It was pretty much as I expected, a snug fit for two adults, but we found plenty of room to stow our belongings. The shower was small, a common complaint. Our king bed was quite comfortable, covered in 1,000 thread count Egyptian cotton linens. The beds are such a hit with passengers that Oceania makes its entire bed collection available for sale, including the seven-zone mattress with 400 encapsulated springs and two-inch-thick gel pillow top wrapped in chamomile-infused fiber.
Some passengers complained their veranda was too small. With two chairs and a table, we thought it adequate. The desk with U.S. and European electrical outlets, two each, held my laptop with plenty of room to spare. We made use of the TV and DVD player, borrowing titles from the library, and appreciated the mini-frig stocked with complimentary soft drinks. A loveseat and two cashmere throws were great for lounging, but the glass table in the center of the sitting area was constantly in our way. The complimentary bottle of Champagne on our arrival was a nice touch. On other cruise lines, appetizers or fruit were brought to our room daily and I missed this on Insignia.
Our cabin steward and her attendant kept things tidy with morning cleaning and nightly turn down, chocolates on our pillows. One evening we were relaxing in our stateroom after showering and phoned for ice and a Champagne bucket to cool down the welcome bottle we hadn’t finished. Bill barely had time to put on his pants when they were at the door with both.
Size and service: When we asked passengers why they chose Insignia the No. 1 answer was its size. With 684 passengers it’s in the mid-size range, and with 400 crew members the ratio of 1.71 passengers to crew keeps the level of service high. Smiling crew members were constantly wishing us a good day, asking if we needed anything. They hailed from more than 50 countries, sommeliers from Honduras and Russia, waiters from India and Italy, bartenders from Guatemala and Ukraine, omelet maker from the Philippines, all well trained and English speaking.
We were surprised then that service was often slow in the Grand Dining Room. Even when we entered at 7:30 pm we often missed the beginning of the 9:30 show. We realize Americans are accustomed to speedy meal service, but dining companions from Germany and the U.K. also said they found the arrival of courses lagging.
Food: Oceania has a reputation for some of the best cuisine afloat. Our New Year’s Brunch in the dining room was especially impressive with an array of hot and cold buffet items, carving station, bread table and sumptuous dessert bar with elaborate sculptures in chocolate.
Oceania’s executive culinary director, the acclaimed chef Jacques Pepin, has supervised five-star menus on all of Oceania’s six ships. Insignia’s Executive Chef Farid Oudir came up with some wonderful main dishes at dinner–lobster thermidor, roasted guinea fowl, sea bass, prime rib, Vermont turkey, red snapper, osso buco—with creative starters, soups, salads and desserts. The right side of the dinner menu always included Pepin’s signature dishes (steak, chicken, salmon) and selections from Red Ginger and Jacques, the two specialty restaurants on Oceania’s larger ships. On the left side were healthy choices chosen by the ship’s spa and a four-course degustation menu with suggestions for wine pairing.
Still reviews among passengers were mixed. Some were pleased, others felt the food on previous Oceania cruises had been better. Some singled out certain dishes they found lacking. As for me, I enjoyed every dinner course but two on our 12-day cruise. Not a bad batting average.
Alternatives to the dining room include reservations-only specialty restaurants, Polo Grill and Toscano, which seemed to please most passengers, including us. The Waves Grill on the pool deck had a salad bar and made-to-order sandwiches, including a Kobe beef burger. We had breakfast every morning in the Terrace Café and loved the amazing variety of buffet items—eggs, salmon, cheese, fruit, breakfast meats, cereal, yogurt, potatoes. The staff puts your selections on plates for you; healthier than allowing guests to serve themselves. One night when we didn’t feel like getting gussied up for the dining room, we had dinner in the Terrace Café, expecting burgers and hot dogs. Not so. Many of the menu items served at dinner downstairs on deck 5 appear on the buffet up on deck 9. We had lobster and grilled-to-order steak.
We never made use of room service. Bill felt it would feel too confining, but some passengers seemed to appreciate the convenience of dining in their staterooms. One, however, said she complained to the concierge that her morning coffee and evening soup were both cold.
Entertainment: Reviews of Insignia’s lineup of nightly entertainment were mixed, too. Most passengers seemed to enjoy the guest comedian and pianist, others were lukewarm on the guest singer and ventriloquist. The on-board cast, from the U.S. and U.K., sang and danced their hearts out at night, though some guests seemed not to appreciate their performances. On the first night I looked around the Insignia Lounge and noticed some were actually asleep. During the day the Four Seasons String Quartet played in the Hall and Horizons Lounge. In the evening Constantine tickled the ivories in Martinis and the Insignia Show Band backed up performers in the Insignia Lounge.
Cruise Director Leslie Jon, whose long career as a performer put him in the Hollywood Bowl, Japan’s Mikado Theatre and the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, among many others, kept the ship running smoothly, overseeing the nightly entertainment and daytime activities, including the many special events on our holiday cruise.
Fellow passengers: Among the most positive aspects of a cruise on Insignia, its relatively small size gives passengers the opportunity to get to know each other. We didn’t meet every Tom, Dick, and Harry but did have dinner with one of each, along with their spouses.
There is no assigned seating or time for dinner in the Grand Dining Room and two specialty restaurants. Passengers usually have the option of dining alone or at a table with others. We met people from Germany, the U.K. and states across the U.S. and overhead conversations in Italian, French and Spanish. Aside from a handful of grumps, people we met seemed to be having a good time. After some grousing and nitpicking over dinner one night, a fellow diner agreed his time on Insignia had been positive overall. As he put it, “If you can’t enjoy yourself on a cruise you should stay home.”
Photos by Katherine Rodeghier