We embarked in Istanbul and disembarked in Athens. We got a penthouse suite that was extremely comfortable and had unexpected amenities such as a fantastic bathroom with a wonderful shower. Our stateroom was on the 8th deck very close to the bridge and it was very quiet. Unfortunately, we heard that guests who stayed in our deck (for about 500 dollars more per person because of a 'supposedly' preferred location when it came to pitch) whose suites were directly below the pool area (on deck 9) heard the staff arranging pool chairs late at night and early in the morning. They never got a proper night's sleep.
We found the service on Nautica to be extraordinary; professional and friendly. The only exception was on deck 11. We rented a cabana for privacy. The waiters were so eager to please that they would come in every 10 or 15 minutes (sometimes even more often) to offer drinks and food. I was woken up on a number of occasions from what would have otherwise been wonderful naps. Nautica provides house phones in every cabana, so there was no need to come up unless called.
Embarkation and disembarkation were efficiently handled and organization was very good. It made us feel safe that should there be an emergency, the staff knew the drill. The only glitch in organization we encountered happened while in port in Istanbul, and it was a serious one. We signed up (independently) for a tour that required us having our passports. The passports were not at the Purser's office (they were somewhere on land) when we needed them even though we had given the Purser 12-hours notice (as soon as we boarded the ship for the first time and relinquished our passports). It frightens me to be in a foreign country and 1) have someone other than me in control of my travel documents and 2) not have ready access to them. Fortunately, we are citizens of another country as well, so we used our second passports and nothing was lost, but I really think that personal documents should never leave the ship and ought to be available for retrieval at all times.
The ports of call vary enormously in terms of importance or interest. Istanbul and Athens are obviously fantastic ports of call, but others are frankly not worth it. The port of Nessebur, in Bulgaria, is very quaint in spite of how commercial it is. The 13th and 14th-century churches are little jewels. Their frescoes are in good shape and the cobble-stone streets are precious. The jewel of the town, though, is the icon museum. The collection is small but very well chosen. We took a private tour to Bourgas with a stop in St. George's monastery along the way (it is a quaint structure from the mid-19th century with some pretty non-school icons). Bourgas proved to be especially interesting to my husband because of the exceptional beauty of its women, but the city doesn't offer much. Nessebur is lovely, but it takes just 3 hours to walk it. Not much more to do than sit by the pool. Fine, but I can do that at home.
The next port on the itinerary, Constanta, has little to offer other than blue-collar beach resorts. The ruins in Histria (and the tiny museum) are not worth the drive and the other local trip option, the monument in Tropaeum Traiani, is a modern (1977) reproduction of a less than stunning classical monument commemorating Trajan's victory over the Dacians (you can't do both; we did Histria and it is blah). There is an option to go to Bucharest; the ride takes 2.5 hours (250 km) but, when we sailed, the road was under construction and the drive took 4 hours each way. Did not take that option.
Odessa was interesting. We took a private tour. It was a treat to see the homes of Bialik, Alechem, Babel, Jabotinsky and so many other impressive intellects. We had typically Ukrainian food at mediocre restaurant, but at least the golubzie my husband ordered were quite good. Then came Sebastopol. The Balaklava valley is as beautiful as the French Champagne country and the historical interest is considerable. We also stopped in Bakhchisaray and paid homage to Pushkin, and we were lucky to catch a Tatar wedding in the palace's mosque. The food (the bread, fried stuff, yoghurt, and tea in particular) in the Tatar villages is delicious. We found all of the Ukraine impeccably clean and we could eat in the markets and buy from fruit stalls everywhere. The produce all over the Black Sea is extraordinary in the late summer and we ate extremely well on shore. Best grapes, eggplant, peaches, figs, peppers, and tomatoes ever. Lamb was succulent and perfectly prepared no matter how you ordered it. I'll come to food on board later.
Although Yalta is just a short drive from Sebastopol, Oceania takes you to Sochi first, and they do it slow. That sail can be accomplished overnight and they do it instead in two nights and a day on the way going, and overnight on the way back to Yalta (48 hours total sail time). The eastern Black Sea was fairly aggressive and my husband (and a good number of the passengers) got sick during that sail. The patch was obviously not enough for him and many others.
After the long sail we finally got there. Sochi is beautiful geographically but of absolutely no interest. Furthermore, no one had a Russian visa, so we were obliged to be escorted at all times. The tour options were dismal: a tea plantation or Stalin's Green Grove with a stop at a spa with sulfur springs built during the Soviet era. Would have loved a peek at the amenities of the rather monstrous “spa,” but they wouldn't let us near it. All we saw was the spring. Not at all culturally interesting.
The dacha is one of many Stalin had, contains no original furniture other that a bed and a desk, and I'm sure someone is making it a home when the tourists are gone. There was a very moldy foam kickboard by the indoor pool, for example, of a much later vintage than anything Joe saw. Oceania doesn't give you the option of securing a visa (like they do for St. Petersburg, for example) probably because they know that there is very little to see in Sochi and it's neither worth the money nor the trouble. The port is not worth visiting, at least not with what it currently has to offer and much less to pay for 2 days' sailing to do so.
Yalta is interesting for historical reasons and is also beautiful geographically. It is full of spas (called sanatoria) and very green. Unlike Russia, the Ukraine doesn't impose any restrictions on visitors, at least not if you arrive on a cruise, and you can walk on your own and explore. Much nicer experience.
Then comes crossing the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Nautica reaches the Bosphorus at 4 pm and enters the Mediterranean at sundown. The views of Istanbul are magical and the coast of Gallipoli impressive. At dawn you are back in a different Turkey: slow-paced, quiet, bucolic. Ephesus, especially the terraced houses, is unforgettable. The museography is as wondrous as the one that holds the Ephesus marbles in Vienna: stainless steel and glass.
Our guide took us to a market in Selcuk that has a lovely antiquities museum; we the had lunch at a simple restaurant that had some of the most wonderful mezze, and different, too. One dish was that inimitable Turkish yoghurt that shines like porcelain and has the consistency of mayonnaise mixed with fresh purslane. Simple, gorgeous, and delicious.
Next was Santorini, with its marvelous blues and whites. The village is no longer, for the locals have sold their homes to store owners, restauranteurs, and hostel/hotel people. The views continue to be magnificent but traditional life is now dedicated to tourism. We had a starter of marinated octopus, for no money at all, that was perfect.
The cruise culminated in Athens. A great way to end the trip. Now, would we cruise again with this company? Most definitely not. We chose Oceania partly because it is less stuffy than other luxury companies in that you don't have to really dress up, but partly also on the reputation of Jacques Pepin. One reason we are displeased is that we felt that those two wasted days at sea to get to Sochi are unforgivable at the prices one pays for a luxury cruise, but the real reason is that the food on board was just awful. Mostly, it tasted like Business Class airplane fare. Of the more than 30 meals we had to have on board, we only had 3 dishes that were delicious: a bouillabaisse and a whole leg of beef done by Chef Henrique Sparrow in Tapas, where, by the way, you could always find a very nicely prepared (although nothing extraordinary) soup, usually (but not always) a good roast, simple crisp mixed veggies (boring but well made) and good salads; and a fettuccine with a duck ragout in Toscana. That's it. We also had honest meals in Waves, where the hamburgers were quite good (don't get the hot dogs) but I can get those for a lot less than what we were paying for food per day on Nautica. In the Grand Dining Room we had one meal and did not go back. I had veal medallions with crab, béchamel sauce and a demiglace that was sweet. It tasted (and looked) like airplane food with the béchamel dry and hard like mashed potatoes. In Toscana (reservations needed and you can only go there once if in a regular stateroom, twice if in a suite) I got a Maine lobster Fra diavolo that had been frozen too long and too late, for it was fishy and stringy. I did not dare eat it. In the steak house, Polo (same difficulty getting in as in Toscana), my prime rib (ordered medium rare) came in grey, no juice, and with a rainbow on the surface because it had been sliced several hours before. The filet mignon was also grey and dry. We cancelled our second reservation there.
The only good thing I have to say about the chefs and cooks is that they are attentive. When we wrote in the mid-cruise evaluation that the lobster was fishy, executive chef Wolfgang Meier called us to apologize. When the prime rib and the filet mignon at Polo's were served and returned, one of the sous chefs appeared and Meier later contacted us to apologize for having overcooked both. When I asked him how come they had fresh broccoli and cauliflower every day at Tapas but in Toscana the vegetables were either canned or frozen, he said that most everything is frozen. It shows. Unbelievable, since we saw and tasted the fantastic produce in markets all over the Black Sea. One cook told us that when he was recruited, he was told that Nautica's restaurants (in spite of all being cooked centrally midway and then finished in the restaurant kitchens), were fast approaching a Michelin one star. Other sous chefs (and some of the cooks) whom I won't mention by name so as not to get them in trouble, once they saw we knew food, told us in no uncertain terms that the food is really touch and go and generally overcooked. Some of them, in fact, would discretely say no with their heads if they saw we were about to order or pick something that was especially bad. Yes, THAT bad. Great people, bad ingredients, worse systems.
Finally, the reason we will never cruise again with Oceania is that, when it comes to technology, they are terribly behind. There are no Movies on Demand on the TVs and, when we went to the front desk to ask for the list of available CD titles to check out, we were told that they had 4 hard copies of the list and they were lost. They could not print out another one because that document was not at the front desk computers. The young woman was a sweetheart, though, (I cannot stress enough the quality of the staff), and said that she could recommend a light movie for us and went and got it. Lufthansa had about 20 digitized movies on Business Class for a 10-hour flight and Oceania had none for a 12-day cruise. But probably as bad as the horrible food was the atrocious Internet access. Dial-up service at 95 cents a minute. It cost 2 to 3 dollars just for the browser to launch! An average session just to check email (not respond to it, God forbid) was about 10 dollars a pop. OK, maybe at sea it might have to be dial-up, but in port? Can't believe it.