BARCELONA, Spain - Frank Del Rio won't use the 'L' word to describe his brand-new cruise ship the Riviera - or her almost identical year-old sister, the Marina.
He prefers the term "upper premium" over luxury to describe the experience of a trans-Atlantic voyage on one of Oceania Cruises' newest 1,250-guest vessels. "We underpromise and overdeliver," said Del Rio, chairman and CEO of Oceania parent company Prestige Holdings, days before the Riviera set sail in mid-May on its 10-day maiden voyage from Venice, Italy, to Athens, Greece.
The Miami-based Oceania Cruises, which caters mostly to active baby boomers, prides itself on providing a luxury experience - even if they won't call it that. Indeed, it can be difficult to bypass that intention as soon as you walk into the foyer and are greeted by the sleek, grand Lalique staircase and sparkling crystal chandeliers - not to mention the eclectic art collection throughout the ship.
But with cruise ships in general getting bigger, better and more sophisticated, how is this newest ship able to set itself apart from the pack?
The Riviera and Marina specifically target epicureans and food lovers. Oceania went as far to anoint Cat Cora, the Food Network's Iron Chef, as Riviera's godmother.
"As the mother of four boys, I finally got a girl, and isn't she beautiful," Cora said of Riviera during christening ceremonies last month in Barcelona, moments before launching an oversized bottle of champagne into the ship's hull.
While it's unlikely that you'll find Cora in the ship's Bon Appetite Culinary Center (she'll be busy co-hosting Bravo TV's "Around the World in 80 Plates"), other master chefs from around the world are brought in to help chef Kathryn Kelly lead classes at this state-of-the-art, hands-on cooking school. The classes cover all types of cooking, last up to two hours and cost extra.
But most travelers intend to eat, not cook, during their vacation, and as such there are 10 venues to choose from, including: the Polo Grill steak house, Toscana (an Italian eatery that has a separate olive oil menu), Red Ginger (Japanese), Jacques (a French bistro led by internationally known chef and author Jacques Pepin), La Reserve (which offers seven-course wine and food pairings) and Privee (a decadent private dining room).
While reservations are required at those restaurants (La Reserve and Privee have additional costs), the stately Grand Dining Room and more casual Terrace Café and Waves are just as popular with guests.
For its debut season, Riviera will spend the summer in the Mediterranean, with 10- and 12-day voyages that will include sailings from Barcelona to Lisbon, Lisbon to Rome and Rome to Venice. Each voyage includes almost daily stops at ports such as the Canary Islands; Casablanca; Monte Carlo; Valencia, Spain; Florence, Italy; and Corfu, Greece. For the 2013 season, Riviera will venture out farther to Istanbul, Turkey, the British Isles and the Baltics.
With arrivals as early as 8 a.m., and some departures as late as 10 p.m., guests have time to do shore excursions or explore the cities on their own. The cruise line provides free shuttles into town anytime the port is not within walking distance of the city's center. While the excursions offer the opportunity to catch many of the city highlights, self-exploration can be just as satisfying.
One exception may be special excursions such as one offered during the Barcelona stop in which a small group tour included tapas cooking lessons at Aula Gastronómica, followed by olive oil and wine tastings and a visit to the Santa Catarina Market.
Most of Riviera's cruises originate outside the United States, but their free airfare program provides flights from more than 25 U.S. cities, including Atlanta and Savannah, at no additional charge.
Still, a trip on Oceania's Riviera is not cheap, with full rates starting at around $5,000 for the spacious 242-square-foot inside stateroom on shorter voyages to $14,000 for the 282-square-foot concierge level veranda stateroom on a longer trip. Of course, few people pay the full rate, with ongoing 2-for-1 fare specials, as well as additional savings of up to $3,000 per stateroom.
For instance, promotional fares for an upcoming 10-day voyage from Rome to Barcelona start at $3,602 per guest and include air fare. An 11-day voyage in November from Miami to Miami (with stops that include St. Maarten, Antigua, and Puerto Rico) start at $2,900. And that includes food (alcoholic beverages are extra).
At the core of any cruise experience is service provided by its staff, which Del Rio calls "the soul of the ship."
With just 625 cabins (or 1,250 maximum guests), Riviera boasts a staff of more than 800, with 24-hour free room service and butler service for every suite.
While guests are lounging on the pool deck, it's common for staff members to offer a cool towel or cocktail. Enrichment programs at Artists Loft include lectures and hands-on demonstrations, and you'll find acupuncture seminars at Canyon Ranch Spa.
Want to just relax and read but forgot to bring your book? Adjacent to its coffee bar, Riviera has an impressive library with cozy seating areas and shelves of best sellers and reference materials.
And if you're into high tea, the 15th floor Horizons (it's a dance club at night) hosts an hourlong tea with finger sandwiches, scones, petit fours - all while you're being serenaded by a string quartet.
EXPLORE THE SHIPS
Oceania Cruises has four ships in its fleet: Riviera, Marina, Regatta and Nautica. Passports are required on all trips, even those with Caribbean destinations. For information on upcoming voyages and promotions, go to http://oceaniacruises.com or call 1-800-531-5658. Cruises may also be booked through travel agents, who can help you plan a trip that best fits your interests and budget.
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