Liz Jarvis joins a short sailing on board Oceania Cruises for a taste of the luxury cruise line’s cuisine and lifestyle

Paella in Spain © AWL Images
Paella in Spain © AWL Images

We’re sitting in a tapas bar in the centre of Barcelona, being plied with copious quantities of pan con tomate, tangy chorizo and salami, calamari, sizzling flame-grilled garlic prawns and local wine. It’s basically foodie heaven, and it’s all part of an excursion on a cruise line renowned for its onboard food, too.

Oceania Cruises won the hotly contested Best for Food accolade at the Cruise International Awards 2016, so I couldn’t wait to try out their cuisine for myself. Sailing on board Insignia from Civitavecchia, we had the opportunity to dine at several of the cruise line’s speciality restaurants, including the Polo Grill, where I choose Oysters Rockefeller to start, followed by filet mignon – with a side order of beautifully whipped truffle mashed potatoes. And another side order of lobster mac and cheese (yes, really), so tangy and moreish it’s impossible not to finish, which I do  with a little help from my friends. I’m not even sorry.

Of course, it’s not just about the food. What Oceania Cruises offers is a luxurious but relaxed style of cruising. It’s not remotely stuffy, it’s just comfortable elegance. The cruise line defines it as ‘country club casual’, and that sums it up perfectly.

Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona © Getty Images
Passeig de Gràcia, Barcelona © Getty Images

The atrium and public areas on board Insignia have neo-classical furnishings. Highlights on board include the spacious (teak) pool deck, with its fantastic selection of loungers, an idyllic spot for soaking up the sun as we sail towards Barcelona. The library is rather fabulous, with a charming fresco on the ceiling and more than 2,000 books. There’s a friendly IT manager to help you connect at sea, a casino, and a theatre with nightly performances and a resident pianist. Insignia is small but absolutely perfectly formed.

My concierge level stateroom has Bulgari amenities and a mini bar with complimentary soft drinks, and while the bathroom could do with a little updating, the Queen-sized bed has 1,000-thread count linens.

There’s a comprehensive onboard wellness programme, with complimentary classes ranging from gentle stretching, pilates and yoga to more intense conditioning, weight training and strength training.

I’ve never been one for gyms, preferring to power walk round the running track with the sea breeze in my hair, and I notch up several nautical miles during our mini cruise, which sort of makes up for everything we’re eating. Sort of.

CanyonRanch Spa Club on board Insignia © Oceania Cruises
CanyonRanch Spa Club on board Insignia © Oceania Cruises

The Canyon Ranch SpaClub rapidly becomes a favourite haunt, with its rainforest shower, sauna, beauty salon and treatments including hot stone massages, seaweed wraps and facials. With luxury cruises the detail is everything, and I’m delighted to discover the spa has a large fridge with complimentary sports drinks and cold towels. My concierge level stateroom also gave me access to the private Spa Terrace, a tranquil spot for relaxing in the late afternoon sun, and its own Jacuzzi.

Back to the food, though, and I’m particularly impressed with dinner at the Italian restaurant, Toscana, with its stunning Versace china and some of the best Italian food I’ve eaten outside Italy. I opt for carpaccio, followed by gnocchi… and then pan-seared sea bass. There are actually six or seven courses on offer, so I feel relatively restrained, and everything is perfectly cooked and delicious. The pièce de résistance is the dessert – a quintet including cannoli di ricotta and crème brûlée.

The Terrace Café on Insignia © Oceania Cruises
The Terrace Café on Insignia © Oceania Cruises

Afternoon tea is also extraordinary, possibly one of the best I’ve ever experienced on a cruise ship. The trolley is enormous, with four (count them) tiers, the cake selection exquisite, the choice of teas impressive, the scones warm and the sandwiches fresh. It’s accompanied by a fabulous string quartet and views of the ocean, and the incredibly friendly waiters who implore us to have more. Of everything. Resistance is, frankly, futile.

The Waves Grill, too, serves outstanding pool ‘snacks’ (I use this term loosely, they’re pretty substantial), including a Kobe Burger made with Wagyu Beef and Black Truffle Sauce that simply melts in your mouth.

Our ‘taster’ cruise has one port of call, Barcelona, one of my favourite cities in the world. Wandering the streets before the heat of the day has taken hold is an absolute joy, and we arrive at the Sagrada Família before the hoardes, giving us time to linger outside and take shots of Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, before the first of our two tapas stops at a restaurant on the Passeig de Gràcia.

A juicy burger at the Waves Grill © Oceania Cruises
A juicy burger at the Waves Grill © Oceania Cruises

There are more tapas offered at our third stop, in La Barceloneta, including a fantastic paella; but by that point I’m so full (yes, she’s finally full) I decide to hit the beach, where there are lots of families enjoying the sunshine and waves.

On our final night on board Insignia we dine al fresco at the Terrace Café, with a magnificent seafood buffet on offer, and the added attraction of a glorious sunset, the kind you only really get at sea. As the sky blazes vermillion, gold and orange, I sip on a Cosmopolitan cocktail and reflect that the social media hashtag for Oceania Cruises is “Love the O Life”. Oh, I definitely do.

GETTING THERE: A 10-day Mediterranean Magic cruise sailing 6-16 October 2017 is priced from £2,859pp for a veranda stateroom. Calls include Barcelona, Valencia, Rome (Civitavecchia), Monte Carlo and Provence (Marseille). For details call 0345 505 1920 or visit oceaniacruises.com.