Oceania shaking out kinks on Regatta

ABOARD THE REGATTA -- What a difference a couple of months makes. When Travel Weekly dropped in on startup Oceania Cruises during its inaugural sailing in early July, we found new, often hotel-trained staff eager to please but not yet up-to-speed.

Flash forward to mid-September, with five cruises under the Regatta's keel, and the situation shows marked improvement, though some procedures still are being fine-tuned.

On the plus side, staff in the main Grand Dining Room and in the Toscana and Polo Grill alternative restaurants now are crack troops.

As Oceania CEO Frank Del Rio promised, the three-hour dinners we found in July now are down to a more comfortable two -- enough time to relax and enjoy the cuisine but not so much time that passengers are left twiddling their thumbs.

As befits Oceania's goal of being an "upper-premium" line with a "country-club-casual" ambience, service in the restaurants and elsewhere balances precision with friendliness.

In the bars, staff remembered my drink of choice by the second day (and after only one order), and my cabin stewardess never failed to greet me by name in the corridor. It's a winning vibe that seems to be going over well with passengers.

Despite the successes, this is a new line with a new staff, so a certain amount of shaking out still needs to be done, a fact acknowledged by Oceania chairman Joseph Watters during an onboard press briefing.

Although some early problems have been remedied -- notably the difficulty of obtaining reservations at Toscana and Polo (passengers now can make two reservations at any time during the cruise and add their name to a waiting list for further openings) -- others still need work.

Breakfast and lunch in the Terrace Cafe, for example, can be chaotic. The layout of the buffet area has no sense of flow.

Ditto for the poolside grill, which Oceania has set up with table service, linens and silverware for a more upscale feel. A fine idea, but on sea days the number of guests ordering here far exceeds the number of servers and dedicated tables.

As a result, passengers and waiters rub elbows at the counter, both giving their orders to a head server attempting to look gracious amid the hubbub. It seems to me that the line will go full-casual on this grill eventually, a concept most passengers are familiar with and seem to want anyway.

This casual impulse already has led to changes at Tapas on the Terrace, the dinner option at the buffet's open stern deck. Originally intended as a traditional Spanish tapas venue, it's morphed into a more typical casual dinner option, with passengers choosing the same menu items from the indoor buffet before heading out to a table.

The line also needs work in the destination services department. In the Portuguese ports of Oporto and Lisbon, information and transportation were inadequate. Not only were there few staff on duty to point passengers in the right direction, but handout maps of the city didn't even note the location of the docks, leaving guests in the dark as to how to get back to the ship.

My overall impression? "A" for effort, "B" for execution -- so far.

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