For all the hoopla about the gourmet food on the Marina, Oceania Cruises' newest ship, one might think it is the house that Jacques built.
Guests can dine on Frog Legs with Parisian Herb Gnocchi in Riesling Sauce and Cassoulet au Confit de Canard in Jacques, the restaurant named for legendary chef Jacques Pepin, who is Oceania's executive culinary director. They can eat Malaysian Beef Penaeng and a salad of watermelon and duck foie gras in Red Ginger, a pan-Asian restaurant whose menu Pepin also oversees. Those are in addition to the main dining room, the steakhouse and the Italian restaurant that carried over from Oceania's older ships and gave the company a reputation for great food.
But Marina is really the house that Frank and Bob built.
The ship incorporates the vision of Frank del Rio, CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, Oceania's parent company, and Bob Binder, president of Oceania Cruises, who were heavily involved in the ship's design and decor. They chose the colors of the walls and carpets; the chandeliers and lamps, some of the china, stemware and flatware; and even some of the wine. They put favorite dishes from their travels on the menu at Red Ginger, and chose all the furnishings, seeking to give the ship the feel of a luxurious home.
"You can see our fingerprints in every room on the ship," del Rio said.
Most cruise lines hire a company that specializes in finding art for big ships, but Oceania's executives hand-picked every piece of art.
"Let's just say I was given a budget for art and I went way over," said del Rio, showing off some of the 16 signed Picasso lithographs he bought for the ship.
The Marina was christened in Miami on Feb. 5. It is the first new ship built for Oceania, which has been operating for eight years with three smaller ships formerly owned by the defunct Renaissance cruise line. A twin to Marina, the Riviera, is under construction in a shipyard in Genoa, Italy, and is scheduled to join the Oceania fleet in April 2012. The two new ships, which cost about $600 million each, will more than double Oceania's capacity. Each of the three older ships has berths for 684 passengers; the new ships will hold 1,250 each.
But more significantly, the new ships will reinforce Oceania's niche as what del Rio calls an "upper premium" line catering to experienced travelers -- generally smaller ships, more space and staff per passenger than Celebrity, Princess or Holland America, but bigger and less intimate than luxury lines like Seabourn and Silversea. Unlike most premium ships, Oceania doesn't charge an extra fee for dining in alternative restaurants. Unlike the luxury lines, gratuities, wine and spirits are not included in the cost of an Oceania cruise.
Oceania's guests view the line's cruises as a good value, said Susan Reder, president of Frosch Classic Cruise & Travel in Southern California.
Although prices aren't exactly comparable because cabin sizes, itineraries and amenities are different, per-person per-night fares on Marina generally run significantly less than on Seabourn, Silversea, or Crystal, and significantly more than Celebrity, Princess, Holland America or Azamara Club Cruises, another super-premium line that uses the same model of former Renaissance ships as Oceania's older ships, but with different decor.
The Marina is a graceful ship -- plush and elegant, incorporating contemporary and classic design elements. It has intimate nooks in public spaces and an overall sense that this is a place to relax (there are no tie racks in the closets). Overall the decor is understated, in shades of browns, beiges, blues and burgundy, but it is accented by splashy art and a few over-the-top pieces: a Lalique staircase on the main deck, the lavender lighting in the Casino Bar and the Dakota Jackson electric piano in Martinis.
"Oceania is where it is today because they have been so fabulous with the food and service," said Reder. "Now the hardware they have added ... is going to be amazing the cabin sizes, the design, the public spaces, the restaurants. The ship is going to be very hot."
One reason is the dining, which was consistently good and often outstanding on a preview cruise last month.
Although Pepin has been Oceania's executive culinary director since the company was established eight years ago, his role is much more visible on the Marina because his first restaurant is on the ship.
Pepin -- chef, cookbook author and host of several food shows on TV -- oversees the development of menus and recipes, and he's always aware of who the clientele are.
"I would say that the people that come on our ship are pretty sophisticated," he said. "They have been in the best restaurants. You are not going to fool them. They are knowledgeable about food. They're ready to be happy, and unless you really screw up, they're going to be happy."
In Jacques, Pepin says the menu is built around classic French comfort food. "My philosophy is the best ingredients and the least possible fussing. This is not the place for innovation or creation or nouvelle cuisine. It's dishes from the '50s and '60s," he said, citing the garlic-marinated rack of veal, cassoulet, French onion soup with real Gruyere.
Guests have responded to Oceania's emphasis on gourmet food and its alternative restaurants, said Deborah Brye, an agent with Unique Travel of Palm Beach. "They love the dining. It's open seating and there's no additional cost. They can go to the main dining room when they want. The food is outstanding. That's where they put the money on all their ships. When our clients come back from a cruise, they're very happy."
This report is based on a three-night preview cruise for media, travel agents, business associates and VIPs. With about 1,150 guests, the ship was nearly full, but not crowded. Service was friendly; there were some slip-ups, but they were minor and probably could be attributed to the newness of the ship.
Marina has two specialty restaurants, Jacques and Red Ginger, not on Oceania's smaller ships; two specialty restaurants from its older ships, Toscana and the Polo Grill; the Grand Dining Room, the Terrace Cafe (pool deck buffet) and Waves (pool deck grill).
Jacques features classic French dishes such as Dover sole, veal stew, Coquilles St. Jacques, roast chicken, steak frite, two preparations of duck foie gras and escargot in a garlicky cream sauce under puff pastry.
The big surprise is Red Ginger, which serves a variety of creatively composed Asian dishes such as tiny medallions of lobster served on raw tuna and thin crisp slices of lotus root; spicy caramelized tiger prawns; an Asian-spiced lamb tenderloin with kohlrabi puree; and an unexpectedly subtle and delicious chocolate-lemongrass creme brulee.
Polo Grill is an English-style steakhouse with various cuts of 28-day aged beef, veal, lamb, free-range pork, lobster, scampi and mahi mahi; classic appetizers and sides like crabcake, oysters Rockefeller, creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes. Toscano serves pastas, risottos and such main courses as lobster fra diavolo, grilled veal chop with a terrific porcini sauce, pan-seared sea bass and veal marsala. The Grand Dining Room -- the main dining room -- offers Continental cuisine plus lighter, healthier dishes.
*Baristas, a no-fee coffee bar serving specialty coffee drinks.
*Privee, a private dining room that seats up to 10 guests. There is no extra charge for the customized eight- or nine-course menu, but there is a $1,000 fee for the room; wine is extra.
*La Reserve by Wine Spectator, a 24-seat dining room which again carries no fee for the seven-course meal, but does charge $89.50 for the wines served with each course.
*Marina has 625 staterooms, all but 34 of which have balconies. The basic verandah stateroom, of which there are 444, is roomy at 248 square feet plus a 36-square-foot balcony. Two-hundred of the verandah staterooms include access to a Concierge Lounge.
*Three Owner's suites at the rear of the ship span its width and total more than 2,000 square feet each. These suites have a music room, living room and dining area and a small fitness room.
*Eight Vista suites overlook the bow and measure 1,200-1,500 square feet, including a large living room. Twelve Oceania suites measure 1,000 square feet.
*The ship also has 124 penthouse suites with 420 square feet and 24-hour butler service.
*On the smaller side, Marina has 20 oceanview staterooms that are the same as the verandah staterooms minus the balconies, and 14 inside cabins at 174 square feet.
*All Oceania ships have a Canyon Ranch Spa, but unlike the spas on the smaller ships -- and on most ships of any line -- all guests have free access to the spa lounge, sauna, steam room and hot tubs.
*Oceania has partnered with Bon Appetit magazine to offer hands-on cooking classes in its Culinary Center, which has 24 individual cooking stations, making it the largest at sea. Courses start at $49 for a two-hour class and include some multisession courses for higher fees.
*The casino offers blackjack, poker, craps, roulette and slots.
*There is an old-fashioned English-inspired library with 2,000 volumes and a computer center.
*High tea is served daily, with scones, finger sandwiches and music by a string quartet.