Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This cruise ship 'close to perfect'

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While I was busy with the christening of the Avalon Vista, Bob and Nancy Dunn of our Ports and Bows team were covering the christening of the Oceania Riviera in Barcelona. Here is their report:

The Oceania Riviera is a new cruise ship in a new class, and both the ship and its class are being mentioned in the same breath as the word "perfect" -- or as perfect as a cruise ship and a class can ever be.

This Riviera, christened two weeks ago in Barcelona, is a carbon copy of her year-older sister Marina. So if they're carbon copies, how can one be more perfect?

"We thought Marina was perfect," says Oceania founder Frank Del Rio, who is biased. "With Riviera, we made 727 changes. On Marina, we had 2,200 warranty claims against the yard. On Riviera, we have three. That's as close to perfection as one can have, through our eyes."

The "upper-premium" is new only because no other cruise line belongs to it: a step down for the really rich, a step up for those who'd like to be. Del Rio knows the domination is temporary.

"The demarcation lines are becoming blurred," he says. "It used to be when your parents were well off, they drove a Cadillac. If they were upper middle class, they drove a Buick. If they were middle class, they drove a Ford or a Chrysler. Now, how many different types of car do you have? There's a lot of blurring taking place in our industry."

Oceania was both unlucky and lucky with launching two ships in this untested class, a vessel carrying 1,200 passengers in quasi-luxury. Unlucky, because the order for both was placed in 2007, a year before the economy tanked. Lucky, because the response to both ships made it look like a stroke of genius.

Despite the economy, Marina was ship of the year to many who rank cruise ships, erasing any fears the company may have had about adding Riviera, which will spend the summer sailing the Mediterranean from Barcelona before re-locating to Miami for next winter.

"The biggest complaint we get from customers is they can't get on, and they're booking eight, nine, 10 months in advance," says Del Rio. "What was that Yogi Berra saying: 'Nobody goes there any more because it's always full.' I was afraid that would happen to us."

The latest iteration in Oceania's upper-premium monopoly, the Riviera, has what Kunal Kamlani, president of Prestige Cruise Holdings, calls "nuanced changes" from the Marina. How nuanced is stepping into the bathtub and finding both it and the shower have hand-held shower attachments? That's the most visible change.

The Riviera's crew-to-passenger ratio is 1:5, and it showed on the christening cruise when the ship was over capacity. It also has a launderette on every floor, 10 places to eat its "gourmet" food, millions of dollars of artwork and the seemingly unvarnished endorsement of its customers.

And who might they be?

If they follow the Oceania blueprint, they will be 77 per cent American, eight per cent Canadian, six per cent Australian, four per cent British and five per cent rest of the world. According to Kamlani, they will earn between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, be 55-plus, and have a net worth between $500,000 and $1 million.

The Riviera feels like a bigger ship, probably because it has a relatively smaller population.

"This is the maximum size for upper-premium class," adds Del Rio. "We're happy with the size. The game plan is to straddle premium and luxury."

When Riviera and Marina get a new sibling or two depends on the reception to Riviera.

There is one other difference between the ships. Cat Cora is Riviera's godmother, following in the high heels of Mary Hart, Marina's godmother. The fact the Riviera has the world's only female Iron Chef on a ship catering to gourmands is a match that's... well, perfect.

-- Postmedia News

Visit portsandbows.com for daily updates on the latest cruise news, best deals and behind-the-scenes stories from the industry. You can also sign up for an email newsletter on the site for even more cruise information. Phil can be contacted directly at portsandbows@gmail.com .

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 9, 2012 D6

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