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Cruise Ship Review

Insignia - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

A cruise on Oceania's Insignia raises the question: "What makes a cruise a luxury experience?" The cruise line, founded by now-defunct Renaissance Cruises' Frank del Rio and Crystal Cruises' Joe Watters, adamantly rejects the notion that it's a luxury line. Yet Insignia does offer a mid-sized ship (frankly, these days, we're beginning to feel that 700-passenger vessels qualify as small ones) experience with decidedly upscale touches. Dining venues offer Jacques Pepin's gourmet cuisine and open seating with no additional charges for alternative restaurants. Service throughout is impeccable. Most cabins offer balconies.

On the other hand, Insignia, like its fleetmates Regatta and Nautica, is dabbling in the kind of big-ship features that the mega vessels introduce as luxury elements. A concierge-level verandah category offers passengers special perks, such as in-cabin mini-fridges, priority embarkation, and restaurant reservations in Toscana and The Polo Grill. Private, top-of-ship cabanas with waiter service can be rented by the day or by the cruise. A new line of exclusive culinary shore excursions mixes the local experience with fabulous wines and lunches for a unique day out.

Ultimately, two things keep the ship from rivaling the vessels of Crystal and Regent, and they go hand in hand: cabin size and price. Unlike the all-suite, all-balcony ships on other lines, Insignia's introductory cabins are small insides and outsides. Even its standard balcony cabins are smaller than comparable staterooms on luxury ships. And the ship is not all-inclusive -- charging for bottled water, soft drinks, alcohol and gratuities -- and with none of the free shuttles or shoreside events of the luxury lines. But while some guests may complain of being "nickel and dimed" (Insignia's onboard charges did strike us as a little higher than average), others recognize they're accessing Insignia's upscale experience at a cruise fare that's significantly lower than offered by the more traditional luxury lines. Even after you add up all the a la carte wine and water, a comparable cabin can be cheaper on Oceania than on a true luxury line. And the range of cabins (and cabin prices) makes the ship accessible to both premium cruisers wishing to upgrade and luxury travelers looking for a deal.

Call it what you will, but Insignia won me over from the first moment I stepped onboard and into an inviting living room area that could have been in someone's home, but was actually just the ship's reception area. My jet-lagged body blessed the ship for its luxurious linens and mattresses. My ever-growling stomach found solace in poolside milkshakes and some of the best pasta and Parmigiana Reggiano this side of Italy. Every teak lounger, easy chair or leather couch on the ship seemed to coo "sit on me," whether located in the gorgeous library with its ceiling murals and artfully placed telescopes or on the pool deck under a shady overhang. And while the line's hallmark port-intensive itineraries (mixing been-there-done-that destinations with more offbeat ports of call) kept me enthralled with Europe's diverse delights, I almost wished for a few more sea days, just to spend more time appreciating the little "luxuries" of deluxe, upscale or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Insignia.

Dining

Insignia, like all Oceania ships (all of which are ex-Renaissance vessels), operates four main restaurants. All are open seating, which means you pick your tablemates and dining time. The Grand Dining Room is the main venue for dining and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast offers a pleasing variety of menus, as does lunch, but dinner is the highlight of the day. Menus feature "American-inspired Continental cuisine." You can always order simple food -- grilled sirloin, salmon filet, pasta -- and each night there's also spa fare. The adjacent Grand Bar is a cozy "living room" lounge for a pre- or post-dinner drink (it seems to be forgotten at all other times).

Insignia's two alternative restaurants are also superlative. Toscana features an elegant Italian experience, and the multi-course menu offers old standards (minestrone soup and caprese salad) along with more daring fare (filet mignon in a Piedmont truffle sauce). Unique touches include a selection of olive oils (basil, chili pepper or regular) for dipping bread, a huge wheel of Parmigiana Reggiana available for guests to chip off wedges of cheese, and a grappa bar. The plates here are by Versace.

The Polo Grill, located opposite, features steakhouse cuisine in the expected clubby atmosphere -- leather chairs and dark woods. Meat lovers should not miss the 32 ounce bone-in King's Cut prime rib or the 16 ounce boneless Queen's Cut. The restaurant's small bar specializes in Scotch whisky. Neither alternative restaurant charges a service fee, but reservations are almost always required. Polo Grill and Toscana each have half a dozen two-tops, so demand is great for tables for two. Guests are typically accommodated at tables for four, either alone or paired with another couple.

During the day, the Terrace Grill (with its lovely outdoor seating area, aft) fulfills casual dining needs, offering the usual buffet suspects, such as fresh fruit and berries, pastries, pancakes and hot and cold cereal for breakfast, and salads, sandwiches and pizza for lunch. The buffet is mostly not self-service with staff ladling out hot items, salads and desserts. Waves Grill is the ship's poolside venue and offers sandwich fare -- creative burgers and paninis, whose recipes came from Oceania's staff -- and waiter service! Its milkshake bar is popular with kids and the young at heart on hot days.

At night, the lido buffet is transformed into Tapas on the Terrace, serving small-plate style fare that isn't necessarily Spanish, but is delicious nevertheless. Hot and cold "tapas" (we tried hummus on pita, mushroom duxelles on peppers and a tomato stuffed with mozzarella) are served alongside sushi, made-to-order pasta and Caesar salad. Tempting dessert options include small bites, slices of cake, a hot dessert (such as cobbler or bread pudding) and an ice cream bar. In a nod to tapas' Spanish roots, freshly made sangria can be ordered by the glass or carafe.

Definitely don't miss afternoon tea (do we detect Watters' Crystal touch here?) -- it's held in the Horizon Lounge each afternoon. We indulged in scones with jam and clotted cream, but you can also select finger sandwiches, cookies and cakes from the trolleys that come around. For early risers, coffee, tea, juice and pastries are available in the Horizons Lounge for a quiet morning bite to eat.

Room service is available from a separate in-room dining menu, including Continental breakfast, sandwiches and desserts. We found delivery to be impressively speedy. The ship is not equipped to offer hot breakfast items, which makes the Terrace Cafe more appealing for al fresco morning meals.

Public Rooms

First impressions are important, and the ship's main two-level atrium area conveys an English country house feel (complete with a staircase out of "Titanic"). The Lower Hall is the business area, housing the purser's desk, shore excursions information center and a lovely living-room-like seating area. The Upper Hall holds the forgettable ship shops, which sell the standard logo items, jewelry and sundries, and Park West's art auction outpost.

On Deck 9, the Internet cafe has 18 computer stations, so you shouldn't have to wait for a terminal. Internet use costs 95 cents a minute, with discounted packages of 100, 200 and 500 minutes (connection speed is slow but decent for shipboard Internet -- however, on our cruise, the service was constantly crashing, remaining unavailable for hours in port). Oceania@Sea instructors teach courses on photo editing and scrapbooking (priced free to $25). Next door, a card room has tables set up for card and game playing.

Insignia has two primary lounges, and we picked our favorites based on time of day. The lively Martinis is adjacent to the small casino, which is an incongruous mix of slot machines and tasteful Oriental rugs. On days in port Martinis was a lovely, quiet spot for relaxing on comfy couches by a faux fireplace, while in the evenings, it becomes the raucous home to fiercely competitive trivia competitions and late-night singalongs. Horizon Lounge, located at the front of the ship with floor-to-ceiling windows, is the place for gorgeous sunset vistas.

Insignia easily has one of the most beautiful libraries at sea. It's well stocked and well furnished with comfy, deep chairs and couches and yet another faux fireplace -- and we often saw folks snoozing peaceably.

Nightly shows are held in the Insignia Lounge (it doubles as the staging area for guests going on shore excursions). The tiny, cabaret-style theater has a small stage and dance floor, but low ceilings and a flat rather than tiered floor make for poor sightlines. A self-service launderette is located on Deck 7. Detergent is free, but laundry tokens must be purchased at reception for the cost of $1.50 per load ($3 for wash and dry).

Cabins

Renaissance was a pioneer in the concept of affordable balconies, which means Insignia has plenty of standard cabins with lovely verandahs featuring comfortable mesh furnishings. However, cabins are on the small side for an upscale line. All balcony cabins are 216 square ft. (including the balcony), outsides range from 143 to 165 square ft. and insides are 160 square ft. -- interestingly, inside cabins are larger than the lowest-tier outside cabins, as if making up for the lack of natural light with extra space.

All standard cabins -- insides, outsides and balcony staterooms -- are outfitted in an attractive blue and white color scheme with dark wood accents. The line's famous Tranquility Beds are the best part of each room, with snuggly duvet covers, 700-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and fluffy pillows. Rooms come with beds in the twin or queen configuration, along with a desk/vanity (with both 110 and 220 outlets), a loveseat and plenty of built-in cabinets (though the drawers are on the small side). Flat-screen TV's with a variety of channels, DVD player and in-room safe are found in every cabin.

Bathrooms are small, shower-only and functional. There's no good place to hang up used towels -- or anything else, for that matter. All cabins offer Oceania's proprietary bath products in a rainbow of colors (shampoo, conditioner, body scrub, body wash, lotion and body splash -- we don't know what that is either), and suites with tubs have bath salts as well. The toiletries are watery and disappointing, so you may want to bring your own.

Passengers in Concierge Level verandah staterooms, which are no different in size from the standard verandah staterooms, get special treatment -- such as priority embarkation and restaurant reservations, free pressing, a welcome bottle of champagne and a tote bag.

Suite options include Owner's and Vista Suites, which range in size from 786 to almost 1,000 square ft., and 322 square ft. Penthouse Suites. The Penthouse Suites more closely resemble expanded verandah cabins, with bathrooms and living spaces supersized. Owner's and Vista Suites are spacious corner cabins with wraparound balconies, separate sleeping and sitting rooms and even a second bathroom. Folks in suites get not only more space, but butler service, course-by-course in-suite dining, evening canapes, Jacuzzi tubs and laptop computers.

Entertainment

During the day, entertainment onboard Insignia runs pretty much toward the usual: bridge games, bingo, art auctions and dance classes. More unusual are the once-per-cruise martini tasting ($9) and a comprehensive list of the aforementioned Internet classes (up to $25).

At night, there's lounge music in places like Martinis and some kind of "main event" show (on our trip examples included a magician, a revue of theme songs from movies and a lounge singer who impersonated notable Vegas celebrities) in the Insignia Lounge, though not as elaborate as those on the big ships. The singers, comedians and magicians who perform can be hit or miss, and often the ship's own roster of musicians are the best entertainers.

Shore excursions are a low point on this ship -- overpriced, run-of-the-mill and often canceled. For example, your standard half-day tour from Monaco to St. Paul de Vence (scenic drive, guided tour of old town, free time, return -- pleasant, but uninspired) cost $109 on my Oceania cruise -- only a year earlier, it cost $44 on a Holland America cruise. The exceptions to this rule are the pricey but worthwhile Food and Wine Trails tours, which combine culinary experiences with interactions with local people (and interesting to all types, not just foodies). On my Mediterranean cruise, I did the tour on offer in Marseilles, where our archaeologist-cum-winemaker, impeccable English-speaking guide took us to a chateau in Provence, gave us a tour of some Roman ruins on the premises that he had helped excavate, then led us on the most in-depth wine tasting session I've ever had (and I live in northern California, about two hours from wine country). After a multicourse lunch (paired with wine, of course), we had two hours of free time to explore nearby Aix en Provence, with the guide handing out maps and giving suggestions for sights not to miss. It was incredibly interesting and fun, and quite different from the ho-hum group tour otherwise on offer.

For independent-minded travelers, a representative of the local tourist office will often come onboard or be stationed right outside the ship to offer maps and advice. If you're planning to venture farther afield on your own or have specific interests, it's recommended that you do as much research as possible before you board the ship. (I, for instance, seemed to know more about how to get from Monaco to Nice by bus, having done some pre-trip Web research, than the young man in the information booth on the pier whom I asked for directions to the bus stop). If you just want a city map and general recommendations about key sights, the representatives can certainly point you in the right direction.

Fitness and Recreation

Insignia has a lovely, compact spa and beauty salon that offers the usual gamut of services -- massages, body wraps, pedicures. The spa is operated by Mandara, the Balinese-style offshoot of the industry's ubiquitous Steiner.

Easily missed is the thalassotherapy pool located forward of the spa -- it's free for an hour prior to a spa treatment, otherwise there's a $25 per day charge. On our visit, we had the entire little sun deck all to ourselves for a peaceful 45 minutes.

A small fitness center adjacent to the spa features the usual cardio machines and free weights. Pilates and yoga classes are available for $11 a class, while stretching classes and detox seminars are typically free (we were amused to see a signup sheet for a Body Detox Seminar that featured martinis -- our kind of detox! -- until we realized Martinis was the location not the amenity). On our port-intensive cruise, the classes were mostly ignored, but on other itineraries, we're told they can be packed. There's a walking track above the pool area (13 laps is a mile). The solo salt-water pool is quite deep (5'6") and has two adjacent whirlpools, as well as fresh-water showers.

Family

This is not a ship I'd recommend for families with kids under the age of 16, as there are no special facilities for children. That said, our height-of-summer Mediterranean cruise did have quite a number of children onboard (ranging in age from nine or so to late teens) often as part of large family groups. They seemed to enjoy the ports by day and the hot tubs by night.

Fellow Passengers

Oceania attracts mostly North American passengers (80 to 90 percent), but as word gets out, more and more travelers from the U.K., Europe, South Africa and Australia/New Zealand are coming onboard. Many of these folks fall into the mature traveler category (average age is mid-60's) and have seen much of the world. However, the summer Mediterranean cruises (Insignia spends summers in the Med and winters in South America) skew younger. Passengers range from active 50-year-olds eager to explore to moneyed 70-year-olds perfectly content to enjoy their spacious suites on port days and everyone in between.

Dress Code

Plan for country club casual and you'll be fine (pretty flowing skirt/pants outfits or sundresses for women, jackets and, okay, maybe one tie for men). There are no formal evenings onboard. You can wear shorts and casual wear to dinner at Tapas on the Terrace, but that doesn't mean people won't talk about your style choices in appalled tones.

Gratuity

Insignia levies a $12.50 per-person, per-day charge, which is automatically added to your onboard account. Penthouse, Vista and Owner's Suite guests are charged an additional $4 per person, per day for your butler. Passengers who wish to adjust the amount of their gratuities may do so while onboard.

--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Associate EditorEditor's Note: Insignia will be leaving the Oceania fleet in early 2012. Germany-based Hapag-Lloyd has chartered the vessel for two-years; starting April 2012, the ship will be integrated into the Hapag fleet as Columbus 2. The move has not resulted in any cancellations of Insignia cruises.

A cruise on Oceania's Insignia raises the question: "What makes a cruise a luxury experience?" The cruise line, founded by now-defunct Renaissance Cruises' Frank del Rio and Crystal Cruises' Joe Watters, adamantly rejects the notion that it's a luxury line. Yet Insignia does offer a mid-sized ship (frankly, these days, we're beginning to feel that 700-passenger vessels qualify as small ones) experience with decidedly upscale touches. Dining venues offer Jacques Pepin's gourmet cuisine and open seating with no additional charges for alternative restaurants. Service throughout is impeccable. Most cabins offer balconies.

On the other hand, Insignia, like its fleetmates Regatta and Nautica, is dabbling in the kind of big-ship features that the mega vessels introduce as luxury elements. A concierge-level verandah category offers passengers special perks, such as in-cabin mini-fridges, priority embarkation, and restaurant reservations in Toscana and The Polo Grill. Private, top-of-ship cabanas with waiter service can be rented by the day or by the cruise. A new line of exclusive culinary shore excursions mixes the local experience with fabulous wines and lunches for a unique day out.

Ultimately, two things keep the ship from rivaling the vessels of Crystal and Regent, and they go hand in hand: cabin size and price. Unlike the all-suite, all-balcony ships on other lines, Insignia's introductory cabins are small insides and outsides. Even its standard balcony cabins are smaller than comparable staterooms on luxury ships. And the ship is not all-inclusive -- charging for bottled water, soft drinks, alcohol and gratuities -- and with none of the free shuttles or shoreside events of the luxury lines. But while some guests may complain of being "nickel and dimed" (Insignia's onboard charges did strike us as a little higher than average), others recognize they're accessing Insignia's upscale experience at a cruise fare that's significantly lower than offered by the more traditional luxury lines. Even after you add up all the a la carte wine and water, a comparable cabin can be cheaper on Oceania than on a true luxury line. And the range of cabins (and cabin prices) makes the ship accessible to both premium cruisers wishing to upgrade and luxury travelers looking for a deal.

Call it what you will, but Insignia won me over from the first moment I stepped onboard and into an inviting living room area that could have been in someone's home, but was actually just the ship's reception area. My jet-lagged body blessed the ship for its luxurious linens and mattresses. My ever-growling stomach found solace in poolside milkshakes and some of the best pasta and Parmigiana Reggiano this side of Italy. Every teak lounger, easy chair or leather couch on the ship seemed to coo "sit on me," whether located in the gorgeous library with its ceiling murals and artfully placed telescopes or on the pool deck under a shady overhang. And while the line's hallmark port-intensive itineraries (mixing been-there-done-that destinations with more offbeat ports of call) kept me enthralled with Europe's diverse delights, I almost wished for a few more sea days, just to spend more time appreciating the little "luxuries" of deluxe, upscale or whatever-you-want-to-call-it Insignia.

Gratuity

Insignia levies a $12.50 per-person, per-day charge, which is automatically added to your onboard account. Penthouse, Vista and Owner's Suite guests are charged an additional $4 per person, per day for your butler. Passengers who wish to adjust the amount of their gratuities may do so while onboard.

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