Our cruise contributor checks out Oceania Cruises latest ship to hit the high seas.
I am sitting next to Jacques Pépin, Oceania’s executive culinary director, eyeing his escargots à la Bourguignonne. The dish is drawing ecstatic murmurs from around the table and seeing all that buttery, garlicky goodness makes me instantly regret my decision to be virtuous and order the shrimp and avocado cocktail instead.
Apparently my ogling game isn’t as subtle as I had thought, though, because a couple of snails in, Pépin looks up and asks, “Would you like to try some?”
Lesson learned: When eating with Pépin, order like Pépin.
It is day three of the inaugural voyage on the 684-passenger Oceania Sirena from Barcelona to Venice, and I am dining in the ship’s new Jacques Bistro with Pépin and his daughter—chef, cookbook author, and Sirena’s godmother, Claudine Pepin. (Travel + Leisure was invited aboard as a guest of Oceania Cruises to be among the first to experience the Sirena.) A first for Oceania, the restaurant takes over the ship’s Grand Dining Room every day at lunch, serving up classic French dishes like croque monsieur and five-peppercorn sirloin flap steak with brandy demi-glace, as well as daily specials scrawled on a chalkboard out front. For my entrée, I ordered the lemon sole with caper butter, lemon, and croutons. Delicate and rich with pops of crunch, it is roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head good.
Oceania’s ships have always had a rep as some of the best for foodies, and Sirena is no exception. Originally built for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises in 1999, the ship spent the last few years as the Ocean Princess before Princess Cruises delivered her to Oceania in March. On April 27, after a $50 million refurbishment, Sirena became Oceania’s fourth “R-class” ship, joining sister ships Regatta, Insignia, and Nautica, as well as two larger, 1,250-passenger vessels, Marina and Riviera.
As part of the makeover, common spaces have been totally redone and top-tier cabins have chic new designs: The vista and two-bedroom owner’s suites are now swathed in creams and cool muted hues, and every bathroom has a big glassed-in marble shower. Smaller staterooms have been upgraded with 1,000-thread-count linens and Oceania’s pillowy new “Ultra Tranquility” beds—mine was heaven to sink into at night after cocktails at the revamped Horizons lounge. Onboard entertainment options, long an afterthought on Oceania, have also been revved up, thanks to the influence of parent company Norwegian Cruise Lines. Four new productions are being rolled out first on Sirena, including the Rat Pack-inspired Tuxedo and the pop-song-filled Acoustic Sessions.
But it’s really all about the food. Jacques Pépin has been the line’s executive culinary director since its inception, and you can see his influence almost everywhere, especially in the Grand Dining Room, which, along with housing Jacques Bistro for lunch, offers a selection of his signature dishes on the dinner menu, including a juicy herb-crusted rotisserie chicken that was pure comfort-food yumminess.
My favorite dinner spot was the Asian-inspired Red Ginger, which before it arrived on Sirena could only be found on Oceania’s larger vessels, Marina and Riviera. I could have eaten a vat of the Thai beef salad, and the insanely delicious miso-glazed sea bass seems to have developed its own fan base. (About two-thirds of the diners I saw ordered it as their entrée.) I also may or may not have developed an addiction to the Kobe meatballs at the new Tuscan Steak, a hybrid of Oceania’s Italian eatery Toscana and steak restaurant Polo Grill.
To work off the nightly four-course feasts—not to mention the flaky chocolate croissants at the breakfast buffet and the occasional burger at the poolside Waves restaurant—I spent afternoons wandering hilly ports like St. Tropez and Monte Carlo, and as many mornings as I could hitting the cardio and weight machines at the light-drenched Canyon Ranch SpaClub’s gym. Four days into the trip, I headed back to the spa for a reiki session, which rebalanced my chakras and magically cured my jet lag, still raging after four days at sea. I also checked out Canyon Ranch’s private outdoor saltwater thalassotherapy pool, open only to spa clients and guests in concierge-level staterooms. Every time I stopped by during the voyage, all five lounge chairs were empty, making it a great spot to sit and mainline the Mediterranean sunshine, especially in the afternoon when the main pool deck tended to fill up.
Just when I was beginning to feel as if I was unraveling all of Sirena’s secrets, she docked in Civitavecchia and it was time to disembark. Sirena will continue to cruise the Mediterranean until October, but I am heading home to detox, book another reiki session—and maybe even learn to make my own version of that miso cod.