Cruising French Polynesia, Brian Johnston channels his inner cast away in supreme comfort with Oceania Cruises.
When you’re lying on a lounger with a good book, rufßed by a PaciÞc breeze with the sun glinting off a blue lagoon, you’re in a mighty Þne place. Even better, you donÕt have to scavenge for crabs or build a thatched hut like Robinson Crusoe to enjoy being cast away. Not at all. A pampering spa and several Þne-dining restaurants are a short shufße away. This is the good life, and Marina supplies it in spades.
IÕm sailing on OceaniaÕs 10-day Sparkling South PaciÞc cruise from Papeete around the French Polynesian islands. Ten days or longer is standard for Oceania, which generally eschews short cruises for a more considered look at its destinations, often with port overnights Ð Bora Bora and Nuka Hiva on my cruise.
This is an itinerary on which to admire voluptuous emerald peaks and clear lagoons where turtles paddle. Each island provides chances to scuba dive, swim, take
cultural excursions or ride Jeeps into interiors tumbling with orchid-studded rainforest and waterfalls.
Ten days enables me to enjoy the ship’s many dining options. Oceania has a reputation for its food overseen by French celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, and has several specialty restaurants at no additional cost. Menus and wine lists offer considerable choice, and there’s no stinting on quality ingredients: Maine lobster, prime Angus and Kobe beef, foie gras, scallops. The pool grill, Waves, dishes up delectable pork belly, and even the Illy coffee is great, properly served in Baristas cafe.
The Grand Dining Room, the main restaurant, provides a nightly, four-course romp through the likes of red onion soup, peppercorn steak in brandy sauce, and citrus tart with pistachio ice-cream. Thumbs up to the healthy and vegetarian options, and for featuring dishes from some of Marina’s specialty restaurants.
However, it’s the speciality restaurants that stand out. Jacques has bistro-style roasts and classic French dishes such as escargots, Provencal lamb and lavender-infused crème brûlée, not to mention excellent cheese trolleys. Toscana is the full Italian extravaganza – you can even choose your olive oil, while pan-Asian Red Ginger runs the gamut from spicy roast duck salad to Thai curries, Malaysian beef to red snapper in banana leaf.
The ship’s culinary credentials don’t end at the restaurant door. Marina’s Culinary Center offers enjoyable, hands-on cooking classes. You might learn about Latin American cuisine, seafood or classic French dishes, after which you can devour your creations. Some signature shore excursions are culinary themed, too. In Raiatea, both a ship and a local chef accompany us to market, where we learn about breadfruit, taro and other relatively unfamiliar ingredients. Then we head to a
vegetable farm and on to a hotel kitchen for a cookery demonstration and traditional Polynesian meal.
Raiatea is an island notable for its ancient temples, allowing a glimpse into Polynesian history. Our next stop, Huahine is also historically important, though now delightfully sleepy. Marina anchors in a kingÞsher-blue bay, lush hillsides rising on either side and the scent of vanilla in the air. For many passengers though, legendary Bora Bora a few days earlier was the highlight for its staggeringly beautiful landscapes and shimmering, crystal-clear lagoon. A coastal road winds past thatched huts among the banana trees and islanders are psychedelic in red and pink. Wherever we are, we also encounter Polynesia’s fascinating blend of indigenous and French culture.
Despite the gorgeous islands, I’m never reluctant to return to
Marina. Launched in 2011, the Oceania ship was refurbished in 2016 and still appears impeccably youthful, with an elegant, contemporary but casual ambiance that reminds me of a posh country club. Many restaurant venues are agreeably intimate, and some suites are designed by Ralph Lauren. It has designer chic without any over-the-top bling, and a considered, browse-worthy art collection that includes sketches by Miro and Picasso graces its walls. Some of the Murano glass chandeliers that hang from ceilings are lovely, too. The only really show-off part of the ship is Marina’s lobby, with its pillars, huge ßower display and double staircase created by Lalique.
Marina carries 1,250 passengers and is either a better-than-most premium ship or a less-thaninclusive luxury ship depending on your viewpoint. What’s certain is that, for its size and price point, it has a laudable range of inclusive Þne-dining restaurants, an upmarket look and feels considerably spacious. Its open deck has a heated swimming pool and whirlpool spas, and there’s ample other deck space where I Þnd places to sink into wicker chairs or loungers as joggers circulate; it’s 10 laps of the deck to the mile, apparently. The full-service, luxe Canyon Ranch Spa is impressive. It has a saltwater pool, aromatic steam room, Þtness centre and much more.
Croquet, shufßeboard, mini-golf and ping-pong can pass the idle hours. My two days at sea pass disappointing quickly, as there’s plenty to do: bridge and golf putting, ballroom dancing and team trivia. The ship’s theatre hosts good enrichment lectures and the usual cruise assortment of evening singers, comedians and magicians.
You don’t board an Oceania ship looking for mad pool parties and nightclubs, but Marina has some pleasant bars. Martinis is a lively spot pre-dinner, where the piano tinkles and the cocktail shakers rattle. (I acquire a fondness for the passionfruit martini, which blends Bacardi with peach schnapps, cranberry and lemon juices and passionfruit syrup.) Horizons has a small dance ßoor Ð a shufße ßoor, really, and is surprisingly lively of an evening. It’s also popular for afternoon tea presided over by waiters with treat-laden trolleys. A few spaces seem seldom used, however, such as the glowing purple Casino Bar.
Various other nooks and quiet corners invite me to curl up with a book, have a snooze or just watch the passing waves. I like the library, deeply satisfying for its stereotypes (leather armchairs, Þreplace, wooden bookcases) and atmosphere of sophisticated calm, not to mention a choice of some 2,000 books. The couches of the Grand Bar also envelop me in comfort as I chat to newfound friends.
My cabin is, of course, an agreeable retreat, too. IÕm in a Concierge Level Veranda suite, midway in the pecking order of ship’s cabins. It’s a good size (26 square metres) with a pleasant brown-and-blue decor lacking in wow factor but with plenty of creature comforts, not least a rather excellent bed, pillows plump as French geese, and linens that would encourage me to slumber all morning if it weren’t for the lure of buffet breakfasts.
I have my own balcony and lounge area, and always a scintillating outlook onto Polynesia’s emerald and sapphire ocean. The bathroom has a separate shower and a bathtub actually big enough to wallow in, though the surprisingly cramped shower requires some tucking in of elbows.
Concierge suites have a host of privileges, such as concierge service, priority restaurant reservations and complimentary laundry, WiFi and laptop use. A bottle of champagne awaits on boarding, nicely chilled, and every night Belgian chocolates appear after turndown. This is the good life indeed. Robinson Crusoe updated for the 21st century.