Refurbished R cruise ships R as classy as ever – Oceania’s smallish Sirena shines after $50 million upgrade (but most of the bathrooms still are tiny)

Oceania's Sirena near Saint-Tropez, France
Oceania’s Sirena near Saint-Tropez, France

Anchored in the Mediterranean off Saint-Tropez, Oceania Cruise’s sparkling Sirena looked like it belonged near the beaches and playgrounds of the French Riviera this summer. The 17-year-old ship, fresh from a $50-million drydock makeover, was as good, if not better than it has ever been.

The 684-passenger Sirena, which was built as one of the famed R-class ships of the old Renaissance Cruises line, is comfortable and intimate.

The ship, which arrives in Miami Nov. 25 (2016), has a boutique hotel feel, with plenty of nooks and crannies, a library for quiet relaxing, and several restaurant choices, including an elegant main dining room designed for passengers who want dinner without a set time or assigned table.

The walk from one end of the ship to the other is quick and easy. Fore and aft each has an arty stairwell (and elevators of course, if you must).

“I love the hominess of it,” said a passenger from Toronto. “I sit in the bar, which feels like a living room, and I see the same people walking by, whom I saw yesterday and the day before.”

In Sirena’s major refurbishment, Oceania not only replaced all the usual furniture and fabrics, but also added Red Ginger, an outstanding Asian restaurant popular on the line’s bigger Marina and Riviera (and yet to be added to sister R-class Oceania ships Insignia, Regatta and Nautica).

Sirena stairwells, a feature on all R-class ships, are like those of a classic boutique hotel.
Sirena stairwells, a feature on all R-class ships, are like those of a classic boutique hotel.

A second alternative restaurant is Tuscan Steakhouse, a new concept that combines the line’s Toscana and Polo Grill from other ships.

Certain to be a big hit with cruisers who like to eat well — a theme throughout Oceania ships — is the lunch-only Bistro created for Sirena by chef Jacques Pepin, and served daily in the ship’s main dining room.

The menu includes such dishes as Dover sole, escargot, veal blanquette, and roast chicken with mashed potatoes. No new ship does French bistro cuisine better. French music plays in the background.

Oceania also added a major modern art collection to Sirena and is spiffing up its entertainment with new music and dance shows.

The primary complaint that I hear today on R-class ships is about the size of bathrooms in most cabins. On Sirena, they have a more modern look, but are as tight as cruise ship bathrooms were in 1999. A large wall hairdryer has been transformed into a nightlight (a handheld hairdryer is provided elsewhere). If this just won’t do, you may book a much better bathroom in Sirena’s significantly upgraded (and more expensive) owners, vista and penthouse suites.

Savoring the fleet of R ships

With new ships built bigger for economic reasons, old ships growing older, and full-scale shipyard drydock refurbishments becoming more difficult and expensive, the fleet of smaller, upscale (but not higher-priced luxury) cruise ships like Sirena is shrinking.

Each day on Sirena, a menu board explains the lunch fare at Jacques Pepin’s Bistro
Each day on Sirena, a menu board explains the lunch fare at Jacques Pepin’s Bistro

Passenger capacity on contemporary and premium cruise line vessels seems to grow with each new build. Most North Americans look for low-cost vacations on cruise ships that provide the latest, hottest accoutrements and restaurants, so cruise lines add cabins when building new ships, keeping their base rates competitively low and profits rolling in.

That’s why contemporary ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian now carry 3,000 – 5,400 passengers, more when gobs of children are onboard in summer.

In the slightly more expensive premium lines, the newest ships start at 930 passengers on Viking Ocean, 1,250 on Oceania, 2,650 on Holland America, 3,046 on Celebrity, and 3,560 on Princess. (Luxury brand ships are getting bigger, too. Regent’s new Seven Seas Explorer carries 750, and Seabourn’s new Encore will hold 604 on its inaugural voyage in January.)

The eight R-class ships, built between 1998 to 2001 for the now defunct Renaissance Cruises, were ahead of their time with such features as balcony cabins (68% of accommodations) and alternative restaurants beyond the main dining room. Six of the eight ships — they were numbered One through Eight — have been refurbished significantly for the premium market, two by Azamara and four by Oceania (the other two are operated by Princess and Fathom).

In previous lives, Sirena was R Four, then the Tahitian Princess, later the Ocean Princess.

Sirena has a proper library of quiet and dark wood
Sirena has a proper library of quiet and dark wood

Refurbishing a 17-year-old ship to the tune of $50 million is not an easy decision for a publicly held cruise company that is judged by investors with an eye on the bottom line.

Frank J. Del Rio, president and chief executive officer of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd., says he is happy with Oceania’s four R-class ships, but he will not add another of the class to his fleet.

“I love these ships. They are regal and profitable,” said Del Rio, who was aboard Sirena in July in the Mediterranean. “They have soul and a classic, rich Ritz-Carlton look. But I have no plans to acquire another. We have half of them. That’s enough. You can’t go to the well too often.”

What about future ships for the cruise line?

“I don’t know what Oceania’s ship number seven will be. Haven’t a clue. But its name will end in ‘a’ like all the others. For Sirena, we considered every such word in the Dictionary.”

Sirena leaves Miami November 25 for Los Angeles and cruises in the Pacific.

David Molyneaux writes regularly about cruising news, tips and trends at TravelMavenBlog.com. His cruise trends column is published in U.S. newspapers, including the Miami Herald, Dallas Morning News, and on Internet sites, including AllThingsCruise.   He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com .

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