An Ionian Passage cruise with Oceania Cruises is an opportunity to savour gourmet cuisine and exquisite destinations, discovers James Litston

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Food, glorious food. If there’s one thing you can be sure of when embarking on a cruise, it’s knowing that you won’t be going hungry. From bountiful buffets to grand dining rooms via signature restaurants and afternoon tea, the choice of food on board can often seem endless. All of which was good news for a foodie like me. Stepping on board Oceania Cruises’s Riviera for a week-long jaunt round the Med, I waved farewell to willpower and prepared to indulge.

Now I’m not normally one to condone gluttony, but holding back on an Oceania cruise would really mean missing out. The company prides itself on serving ‘the finest food at sea’, which is rather an audacious claim given the high standards on today’s luxury cruise lines. But customer feedback repeatedly rates Oceania Cruises’s food as its strongest asset. Better still, last year saw their restaurant Red Ginger win Cruise International’s prestigious ‘Best Onboard Restaurant’ award. I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Elegant but relaxed

That said, I had some reservations.With Oceania Cruises positioning itself in the luxury bracket, I’d worried that Riviera might be old school and stuffy. Happily, it turned out to be anything but. Contemporary décor made the ship feel modern and stylish throughout, while the ‘country club casual’ dress code fostered a grown-up ambiance that was elegant but relaxed.

This vibe was especially evident in the onboard restaurants. As well as the Terrace Café (buffet) and aptly-named Grand Dining Room, Riviera and sister ship Marina feature four speciality restaurants – Jacques (French), Toscana (Italian), Polo Grill (steak) and Red Ginger (Asian) – with décor as individual as the menus.

Heading for the Asian option

Spurred by its award-winning reputation, I made a beeline for Red Ginger, bagging a table on the first night of my Ionian Passage cruise. Everything about the experience was exceptional, from the opulent black, gold and ruby-red interior to the wonderful service and, of course, the food. An exquisite duck and watermelon salad was a real highlight, while my delicately-spiced beef teriyaki was genuinely out of this world.

One of the nice things about dining on Riviera was that all the speciality restaurants were included in the price. In fact, other than alcoholic drinks, just about every little treat you’d care to mention – from a morning cappuccino to a gelato by the pool – could be enjoyed without a cover charge.

Decadent dining

Decadent dining may be Oceania Cruises’s trump card, but the company excels in other areas, too. In particular, Riviera’s staterooms and suites are widely regarded as industry leaders. My penthouse suite was certainly spacious and came with dedicated butler service and a balcony with reclining wicker armchairs – perfect for catching the afternoon rays. Inside, sophisticated, dark wood features were complemented by soft furnishings in pale blue, oatmeal and bronze. Real orchids and quality bedding were a bonus, as was the large bathroom featuring granite surfaces, full tub and a separate, walk-in shower.

Good design and exceptional artwork characterized the public areas, too. Some spaces took on a classic air, such as Horizons Lounge (home of afternoon tea and late-night cocktails), which called to mind the lobby bar of a grande dame hotel. Also in this bracket was the library: a cosy retreat complete with leather armchairs, faux fireplace and plenty of interesting books. The bars, meanwhile, showcased edgier design with mood lighting and dramatic statement pieces (think button-backed banquettes and a double-ended chaise longue) done out in tactile fabrics.

Flawless food and a dignified air

Sophistication, great design, flawless food and a dignified air – these are the hallmarks of luxury, and all are in Oceania Cruises’s DNA. In today’s busy world, though, privacy, space and quality time are also highly-prized. Riviera embraces these tenets in its mid-sized stature (both Riviera and Marina carry 1,250 passengers), so at no point did the ship feel crowded. And with 800 staff on board (that’s 1.5 per passenger), service was always prompt, professional and disarmingly personal. What’s more, the absence of children further enhanced the grown-up ambience. (Oceania Cruises does welcome kids, but the lack of activities tailored towards them makes the brand less appealing to the family market.)

Unsurprisingly, the bars were Riviera’s social hub.The vibe here was decidedly laid-back and I loved the gentle pace. Nightlife was similarly low-key, with most guests following an evening routine of cocktails, dinner, show and bed. There was certainly plenty of evening entertainment, from comedy, concerts and musical performances in the theatre to poolside screenings of movies and shows. But as the witching hour approached, the vast majority called it a night.

The early nights left me free to dine, relax and explore ashore. By day, Riviera offered a well-designed pool deck and lots of comfy alcoves, plus a quieter sun deck accessible via the spa. But with so many intriguing options on shore, it was hard to find time to sit back.

Interesting ports of call

Being mid-sized, Riviera could stop at interesting ports of call that many larger ships would struggle to access. Dubrovnik, for example, was heaving with other cruise passengers at the time of our visit. By contrast, in Sorrento, Amalfi and Zakynthos, ours was the only ship in port. This meant time ashore here felt uncrowded, authentic and far more enjoyable.

I particularly enjoyed our day in Sicily, where I joined a group tour to the charming hilltop town of Taormina. We toured the Greek-era theatre overlooked by Mount Etna and sought Sicilian souvenirs – painted ceramics and Godfather T-shirts – on shaded, pedestrian streets. The ports along the west Italian coast, meanwhile, were small enough to explore alone: I shopped for local limoncello in Amalfi and took a train from sleepy Sorrento to the ruins of Pompeii.

Hitting the cookery school

The highlight of my trip, though, was Corfu. True to the foodie theme, Oceania Cruises offers culinary-inspired excursions in every destination. For my Culinary Traditions & Greek Cooking tour, we hit the covered market in Corfu Town and jostled with black-clad grandmothers to buy island produce. Then we explored the town’s colonnaded streets, stopped for lunch at a pavement cafe and headed back to Riviera to put our purchases to good use.

Reconvening in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center – the only hands-on cookery school at sea – we watched how to make the perfect Greek salad before having a go ourselves at our own cooking stations. As we worked, kitchen porters fussed about and tidied our inevitable mess. Then at the end, we ate what we’d made, savouring the fresh, Mediterranean flavours.

If you want to experience a culinary tour, it’s worth noting that many of these were booked up before we’d even set sail. My only other concern was for my waistline. Faced with Oceania’s gourmet greatness, holding back was never an option. Sometimes it’s no bad thing to give into temptation.

GETTING THERE: A seven night cruise on Oceania Cruises Riviera leaving 11 June 2014 from Venice to Rome, calling at Dubrovnik (Croatia); Corfu (Greece); Taormina, Amalfi and Olbia (Italy) costs from £1,689pp. For more information visit oceaniacruises.com or call 0845 505 1920.

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