After Renaissance Cruises declared bankruptcy in 2001, eight of their 30,000-ton ships became available. Following short tenures with several smaller lines and tour operators, seven of the eight now sail for three major lines: three with Oceania, three with Princess and two with Celebrity under their Azamara brand.

OCEANIA

In 2002, when the media and past-passengers of Renaissance Cruise Line received notices that two of their former ships (R1 and R2) would sail again for a new company, Oceania Cruises, there wasn’t a great deal of optimism. Most felt whoever was resurrecting these ships, their future was questionable.

However, the prophets of doom have been far off the mark. Although originally acquired from bankruptcy under a long-term lease, the ships were subsequently purchased, a third vessel (the R5) was acquired and Oceania and the original investors have been bought out by Apollo, a private equity firm that also owns 50% of Norwegian Cruise Line.

The three vessels, renamed Regatta, Insignia and Nautica, have proven three of the most popular ships afloat, gaining wide acclaim for their superior dining, service and ambiance. At 30,277 tons and carrying no more than 684 passengers on exotic, longer world-wide itineraries (and at highly competitive prices), Oceania quickly rose to the top of the premium cruise market.

The atmosphere is intimate, warm and cosy, similar to some of the small luxury ships, yet the size of the vessels afford more public areas and facilities. Most observers place Oceania in a special niche between the premium and luxury markets, which the line aptly describes as “upper premium”. Over the past year, various renovations and remodelling took place on all three ships, further establishing their pre-eminence.

All of the dining venues, from the elegant, open-seating main dining room and two speciality restaurants to the buffet facility, feature the highest quality products, the most imaginative presentation and attentive service.

Polo, the clubby steakhouse, specialising in giant cuts of prime beef and seafood, and Toscana, the romantic, multi-course, gourmet Italian restaurant, are both available on a reservation-only basis at no extra charge. The Terrace Caf� is possibly one of the best buffet-style restaurants at sea and it converts into a more casual venue in the evenings serving tapas, sushi and sashimi, as well as most of the items offered in the dining rooms.

Country club casual attire is suggested and jackets and ties are never required. The 24-hour room service includes items offered in the main dining room. Espresso and cappuccino are available at all dining venues gratis, but there is still a charge for alcoholic beverages.

The ships are elegantly and tastefully decorated similar to a Ritz Carlton hotel. Corridors are laden with floral runner-style carpets; stairways are adorned with antiques and works of art; and lounges, the main dining room, the library and public areas are furnished with rich, dark woods as well as expensive classical-period French and English furnishings. The d�cor is ingeniously orchestrated to create a feeling of understated elegance and grand refinement without glitz or ostentation.

Evening entertainment on my cruises has been exceptional, albeit cabaret acts and not Las Vegas-style extravaganzas. In addition, there are ballroom dancing, a casino and audience participation games. During days at sea, they offer enrichment lectures, port talks, wine tastings, culinary demonstrations, audience participation games and other more sophisticated programmes.

Facilities include a gym, spa, centrally located pool/lido area with comfortable lounges (several built for couples), two outdoor whirlpools, two shops, a photo gallery, panoramic observation lounge, library, Internet caf�, card room and a walking/jogging track. There are no special facilities for children, and I’d advise taking children only where the purpose is to share time with their parents and expose them to worldwide itineraries.

The biggest shortcoming of the ex-Renaissance ships is the size of the cabins, closets and bathrooms in the interior, ocean view and veranda staterooms, which range from 158-175sq ft. While this is not small compared to most ships, it is not particularly generous at the top of the premium market.

The mini-suites (266sq ft) and full suites (440-560sq ft) afford much more space and about three-quarters have verandas. Every accommodation includes all of the desired furnishings and amenities such as thick mattresses with 700-thread count Egyptian cotton linens and duvets, LG flat-panel LCD TVs and DVD players, mini-bars, hairdryers and small sitting areas.

Most itineraries range from 12-24 days, with overnight sojourns in the more popular ports. The line also has two 65,000-ton vessels on order for 2010 and 2011.

The ships seem to appeal to more seasoned travellers, seeking a club-like atmosphere with fine dining and pampered service while visiting more exotic ports of call on a longer itinerary with overnight visits to the more desired ports.


The R-Class Story

While Oceania was basking in its success, other lines were taking notice and it soon became apparent there was a demand for ships this size that offered an upscale product while offering longer, more interesting itineraries.

The remaining R-Class Renaissance vessels were owned by smaller, foreign companies, but could be acquired for the right price. In 2002 and 2003, Princess Cruises bought the former R3 and R4 and renamed them Pacific and Tahitian Princess. In 2007, the ex-R8, which had been sailing as Minerva II for Swan Hellenic, was transferred to Princess and renamed Royal Princess.

Although physically almost identical to the other ex-Renaissance ships, Princess has absorbed them into their fleet with a similar onboard product to their other craft, but in a more intimate setting, visiting ports not accessible by their larger vessels.

Soon it became time for Royal Caribbean to get their hands on a piece of this lucrative phenomenon. R6 and R7 were owned by Pullmantur, a Spanish cruise line, sailing as Blue Dream and Blue Moon.

Royal Caribbean acquired Pullmantur (most believe for the purpose of acquiring these two vessels, as well as a foothold in the Spanish market) and transferred the ships to subsidiary Celebrity Cruises. Celebrity, in turn, moved the Zenith to Pullmantur.

Originally, the ships were to sail as Celebrity Journey and Quest under a Celebrity Xpeditions brand. Subsequently, in spring 2007, it was decided to create an entirely new brand, Azamara Cruises, to compete in the upper end of the premium market, a notch above Celebrity, and in direct competition with Oceania. The ships were subsequently named Azamara Journey and Quest.

Unlike its nemesis, Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean possessed no luxury-class cruise ships, nor any smaller vessels. Acquiring these ships gave them a foot in the door to attract seasoned cruisers desiring a smaller, more intimate ship with longer itineraries.


AZAMARA

Upon transfer to the new Azamara brand, Journey and Quest underwent a %17m refurbishment, renovating and redecorating 32 new Veranda suites on each ship (known as Sky Suites), adding new bedding and soft goods, new carpeting, flooring and art work, expanding the casinos, plus adding Celebrity signature facilities like the Martini Bar, Cova Caf�, Michaels’s Club, Aqua Spa by Elemis, Acupuncture at Sea and Internet caf�.

Apart from those additions, the Oceania and Azamara ships are physically similar with a few nuances. As pointed out under Oceania, the biggest shortcoming is the size of the cabins, closets and bathrooms in the interior, ocean view and veranda staterooms.

All staterooms include twin beds convertible to queen size, European bedding, flowers, fresh fruit, Elemis toiletries, Frette cotton robes, slippers, flat-screen TVs, in-room movies through pay-for-view, hairdryers and various other amenities.

Although the ships boast butler service, some passengers commented the butlers merely carried out some of the same functions normally performed by the cabin attendants and room service – and sometimes not as well. This most likely will change in the future.

Dining possibilities include an open-seating main dining room, Windows Caf�, offering a buffet-style breakfast and lunch with casual evening dining, Prime-C speciality steak house, Aqualina restaurant featuring a gourmet menu with Mediterranean overtones, the pool grill, an all-purpose bar (similar to Cova Caf� on Celebrity ships) with numerous tables looking down on the atrium lobby and serving speciality coffees, pastries, snacks, martinis and other beverages, plus 24-hour room service.

Suite guests receive two free dinners in the speciality restaurants, whereas stateroom guests receive only one. For additional visits, there is a %25 surcharge. The offerings in all the restaurants were enticing; however, the servers seemed in need of some additional training. There are no formal nights and resort-casual wear is acceptable in all venues.

Public areas are pretty much identical to those on Oceania with the additions noted above. There are no formal children’s programmes and a no smoking policy prevails throughout, except in two designated areas (one inside and one outside).

The gym has modern cardio-machines with personal TVs; there are numerous spa facilities; steam rooms in the locker areas; and an outside relaxation/sun deck with a whirlpool available for those taking spa treatments (at a surcharge for others).

The pool/lido areas are quite nice with comfortable lounges, pretty much identical to those on Oceania. In addition to cabaret shows, there is nightly dancing in the romantic Observation Lounge, and sometimes on pool deck when weather permits.

I sailed on the Quest on one of its first voyages and passengers complained about service in the dining areas and the seemingly inexperienced Indian and Filipino crew. However, the hotel and restaurant departments are overseen by seasoned cruise personnel who are dedicated to bringing the operation up to its full potential. I look forward to revisiting these ships in the future.