As some cruise lines seek to add bigger and bigger ships to their fleet, often resembling floating cities at sea, many cruisers, myself included, prefer the smaller ships with more personal service, easier access to interesting ports and above all, no crowds. For me the sweet spot at sea are ships that carry about 600 passengers. This means plenty of restaurants, bars, space, and activities, yet enough people to keep things interesting, yet without crowds so service is swift.
Several years ago I sailed on Oceania’s perfectly sized Nautica on a marvelous 20-day voyage from Bangkok to Beijing. When I learned it had undergone a full facelift from September 2021 to March 2022 sparing no expense, with a price tag of nearly $100 Million, I jumped at the chance to see and experience the refurbishment and sail on this upper premium class cruise. On this 10-day jaunt last month from Trieste, Italy to Barcelona, Spain, we stopped in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Italy, and France.
Every cent of the refurbishment was well spent. Though I had vague muscle memory of where everything was on Nautica, she now carries herself as a brand-new ship. On stateroom decks, blue and gray/beige patterned carpets mimic the Mediterranean, while gray, French toile-like patterned fabrics line the hallway walls. The spacious Grand Dining Room’s massive, teardrop chandelier is breathtaking and the elegant, gold-trimmed, floral Le Jardin de Versace China by Rosenthal, makes the space feels elegantly chic, but not stuffy.
Nautica has a maximum capacity of 684-passengers – this voyage had 600 – and 400 well-trained crew, so waiting isn’t on the menu and happily, crowds don’t exist. The refurbished staterooms have flat-screen TVs, work area, minibar, sleek closets, plenty of cabinets, drawers and niches, and most staterooms have private verandas to enjoy the views. Remodeled bathrooms have Bulgari amenities, and the entire ship has new fixtures. The large pool area with two Jacuzzis has incredibly comfortable azure blue loungers and deck furnishings with nautical designs.
Onboard activities are geared toward mature but active guests, ranging from afternoon tea and wine tastings to an array of exercise classes at the state-of-the-art fitness center with Technogym equipment. This ensured I could happily enjoy the onboard feasts without succumbing to residual guilt. Entertainment offerings included an enrichment series, musical acts, comedic routines, movies, and a full casino. The large, well-stocked library was terrific for curling up with a book. Craft cocktails beckoned at Martinis, and inspiring views complemented cocktails at Horizons.
One of my favorite spots onboard was Aquamar Spa + Vitality Center with its comprehensive selection of top-notch services in a relaxing, Zen-like setting. I had such a talented masseuse that I returned twice more during my voyage trying different treatments. I also fell profoundly in love with the large outdoor Thalassotherapy pool and deck located at the bow that provided a sense of suspended animation. The Salon and Barber Shop, with its mesmerizing floor-to-ceiling windows, and designer details including imprinted recessed ceiling inserts, likewise had a full complement of hair and nail services for both men and women. The best part: pricing for the spa and salon were on par with that of urban settings and had daily discounted specials.
Oceania is known for ‘The Finest Cuisine at Sea’ and Nautica doesn’t disappoint. Nautica’s five restaurants, includes the Terrace Cafe, with an excellent selection of fresh items. Terrace Café also has themed dining such as “Chef’s Market Dinner” where Executive Chef Simon Hockley sends team members to local markets for specialty items. Fortunately for guests on that voyage, the two Market Dinners took place in Amalfi and Rome, resulting in delectable charcuterie, Cioppino and cannoli, among other culinary delights. Like Marlon Brando as Don Corleone made clear, “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
For alfresco dining near the pool, Waves Grill was a perennial favorite. This had as much to do with its extensive menu – boasting a salad bar, smoothies, healthy power bowls and excellent grilled items, including one of the best grilled Ahi sandwiches with wasabi mayo I can recall – as its gelato stand with daily flavor changes.
In the elegant Grand Dining Room, guests can choose from food and wine pairing dinners, Global Cuisine, Aquamar Vitality Cuisine with exquisite plant-based, creative gourmet menu items deliciously satisfying even for the carnivores among us, a selection of appetizers and entrees that change daily in addition to Jacques Pépin’s signature salmon, steak, and chicken dishes. Coupled with impeccable service in a gorgeous atmosphere, that these many wonderful choices can happen in one restaurant is quite the culinary feat.
At Toscana, a minimalist, white backdropped, uber-chic design, is a delight from start to finish. With an extensive wine list, over a dozen gourmet olive oils and balsamics to complement warm breads and grilled garlic, I would’ve been in bliss with just that. However, I would’ve been remiss had I missed the stuffed artichokes hearts, house-made pastas, Dover sole and of course, the tantalizing Tiramisu. Polo Grill is Oceania’s signature steakhouse. It’s club-like atmosphere, with deep leather seating was the perfect ambience for enjoying traditional Cesar salads and a wide variety of steaks cooked to perfection. For those seeking to curb their carnivorous leanings, Maine lobster tails, Jumbo shrimp scampi, swordfish and tuna will delight. For those diners who simply can’t decide, the Polo Quintet provides five deserts to sample.
Another benefit being on a smaller ship is closer access to docking ports so that guests can simply walk off the ship and head into town or meet their excursions pier side. Of the 10 stops Nautica made on this voyage, six were docked. A great aspect of Oceania is their extensive shore excursion list including ‘Oceania Exclusives’ that ensures only a handful of guests partake allowing for more intimate experiences. In Sicily our guide and driver took just four guests in a fabulously frigid Mercedes Sprinter to view the breathtaking sites of the eastern coast, perused Taormina’s Old Town by foot with its delicate mélange of Italian, Byzantine and Levantine architecture, followed by an afternoon at Mt. Etna, imposing at 10,810 feet high with its 93-mile circumference. While Etna means “it burns,” it should mean “it erupts,” as it does on average yearly continuing to add to its massive height. While we mere mortals shall come and go, Etna towers over us, remaining for the ages while making her presence known.
After stops in quaint Korcula, Croatia and alluring Kotor, Montenegro, Nautica also made two interesting stops in Greece. The first was Igoumenitsa, near the Albanian border, also home to Parga, a sweet, summer seaside town with candy-colored cliffside, vertical homes, and waterfront restaurants. The second was Argostoli. Its nearby Costa Costa beach was one of the most idllyic sandy beaches and perfect water I’ve experienced anywhere in Greece. Stopping also in Almafi, an excursion took us on a mesmerizing 30-minute boat ride to Positano, one of those places than no matter how many times one visits, it stuns. Churches, monasteries, and homes impossibly built into the vertical landscape are surrounded by terraced vineyards, rock formations and stone-constructed watchtowers. Small, narrow winding streets sell supple, handmade Italian leather sandals, pottery, and of course, some of the finest ice cream on planet earth.
After 10-days it was sadly time to disembark. Though flying across the pond had its challenges this summer and Europe was certainly busy, locals in every port were congenial and happy to see us despite record-breaking heat. And after the last couple years, like a dieter set loose on Willy Wonka’s factory floor, travellers are beyond happy to be seeing the world once again. Nowhere is this truer than aboard Oceania’s Nautica.