For her first cruise, Liz Hoggard set sail on a Mediterranean voyage with Oceania Cruises – and quickly discovered the glamorous allure of life at sea

As I descend the double staircase to the lobby, I feel like I’m in a Hollywood movie. The banisters are set with medallions of Lalique glass; and above me hangs an Art Nouveau-style chandelier made of hundreds of crystal spheres.

My dress might be by Zara, but I feel like a million dollars. Welcome to life on board Oceania Cruises‘ luxury ship Riviera, which offers seven to 12-day ‘gastronomy-focused’ voyages of the Mediterranean.

I must admit I wasn’t sure if cruising and I would get along. I like my independence. My dream holiday is a city break where I can run around galleries and parks and have leisurely meals in neighbourhood restaurants. Plus I still have nightmares about taking the car ferry from Southampton to Le Havre as a child for our family French holidays.

Ultimate luxury

From the moment we stepped on board however it was clear that this was going to be no ordinary holiday. Riviera is like a floating five-star hotel. For a start, there are four speciality restaurants to choose from, plus two cocktail bars that wouldn’t look out of place at Claridge’s.

The ship has won all sorts of accolades. Best of all – for claustrophobic types like me – this itinerary (around Italy, the southern coast of France and northeastern Spain) means that you’re only really at sea for seven or eight hours a night.

It’s billed as a ‘port-intensive’ voyage. After a day of sightseeing in Rome or Marseille, you return to the comfortable embrace of the ship to dress for dinner.

Then, just as you’re tucking into your starter, you’re vaguely aware the ship is leaving port. But no worries, someone else is doing all the work.

After dinner, you can watch a musical in the ship’s theatre, have a nightcap or take a moonlit walk on the upper deck before you return to your stateroom, for eight hours’ sleep. Next day you awake, sun streaming through the window, to the sounds of another busy working harbour. “Hello, Barcelona. How did that happen?”

During a week’s cruising, apart from the views, I can honestly say I was barely aware we were at sea.

Sharing a Veranda stateroom with my friend, Geraldine, we had to be on our best behaviour (I recommend twin beds, earplugs and a civilised attitude towards the mirror).

But we had an external balcony with a table and chairs. “That makes all the difference to your relationship,” a cruise expert confided. Oh, it did.

And the ship’s public spaces are generous. At 15 decks, Riviera has capacity for 1,250 people, housed in 625 staterooms, but it feels much less thanks to ingeniously designed alcoves and lounge areas, bars and cafés.

Plenty of dining options

Each morning we’d breakfast in The Grand Dining Room, with its crisp white linen and tip-top service – a bespoke omelette maybe, or oatmeal with maple syrup and cinnamon. Then, if no excursion was planned, we’d amble up to deck 12, to the heated outdoor salt water pool.

On sea days, after a morning of swimming and sunbathing (with a dip in the hot tub), lunch would be at the buffet-style Terrace Café – salad, jumbo shrimps, sushi, or maybe a dish inspired by the port where we were docked.

Then, if we were slightly getting on each other’s nerves, one of us would go back to the cabin for a snooze, while the other curled up with a book in the Library.

The only really hard decision was where to have dinner each night. Riviera’s cuisine was developed in conjunction with legendary French chef Jacques Pepin. Whether your preference is for Asian, French country cuisine or authentic Italian, the food is amazing, with up to 10 appetisers, soups and salads, and 12 entrées to choose from at dinner.

Everything is included (you only pay on top for the two VIP dining spaces). Best of all, the restaurants are open seating. So you can dine when, and with whom, you want.

Tasteful décor

Riviera’s dress code is ‘country club casual’ – glam but not stuffy. There’s no dressing up in ball gowns and black ties for dinner at the captain’s table, but your fellow diners appreciate it if you make an effort. For pure theatrical glamour, we loved the Red Ginger restaurant, with its gold walls, deep red furnishings and ebony detail.

Here chefs create the best of Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese cooking with a contemporary twist – crispy avocado lobster salad, bay scallops with black lava salt and chives and miso-glazed sea bass. Often we didn’t know whether to eat the food or sculpt it.

Another favourite was gourmet Italian restaurant Toscana, where authentic Tuscan dishes are served on Versace china. I still dream of the penne pasta tossed with roasted porcini mushrooms in a delicate rosemary sauce and the special tiramisu (nothing like the tiramisu
you get here).

At night the 538-seat Grand Dining Room is also great for people watching (we spotted a few ladies in serious jewels) as you feast on continental-inspired dishes such as seaweed-flaked fillet of Atlantic turbot over zucchini with stuffed clams and Champagne foam.

If you’re on a health kick (ahem, we weren’t), there’s a low-calorie menu, and plentiful vegetarian and gluten-free treats. Geraldine is diabetic so sweets are usually off the menu,
but we hoovered up the ships’s sugar-free ice cream (pear, chocolate, coconut). Could someone do it in London, please?

The average person gains 7lb on a seven-day cruise, so we knew we needed to move around a lot. And a Riviera cruise is the perfect incentive – a veritable ‘necklace’ of boutique ports to explore.

We joined the ship at Rome’s Civitavecchia port after a day of sightseeing (Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, all ticked off). Exhilarated but exhausted, we fell on the complimentary bottle of Champagne in the stateroom.

Cultural excursions

Next day the ship docked at Livorno, with the chance to explore Florence, Pisa and Lucca. Oceania offers hundreds of shore excursions, focusing on culture, history, adventure and cuisine, so you’re spoiled for choice.

Ideally you would choose places you haven’t been before (although some tours do involve a long coach trip). But the guides are terrific and you get to see the landscape.

Sometimes when the ship has to dock outside the harbour, you climb on board the tender boats to reach your destination. I was so keen to visit the Picasso Museum at Antibes (and yes, I admit, try out the ‘Green Fairy’ at the famous Absinthe Bar) that I braved a major downpour. Memo to self – lose the flip-flops.

Our poor French guide had to smuggle us in a nearby church for 40 minutes to dry off. But then it was wonderful to see Picasso’s paintings of his lover and muse, Françoise Gilot (housed in the Château Grimaldi where he had a studio during 1946) and walk around the Provencal food market, and the cobbled streets of Antibes.

After such an intimate trip, I was slightly dreading our tour of Marseille by coach. But actually the city has changed so much since I was there 12 years ago – with the renovation of the Docks and new buildings by architects Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel – that it was a great way to cover so much ground.

We visited the Vieux-Port with its ancient walls, Roman docks and temples, climbed the beautiful Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde (a famous Romanesque-Byzantine church) and then sat in the sun by the harbour, admiring the yachts and tweeting pictures of Norman Foster’s brilliant mirrored canopy that reflects visitors walking beneath it.

Occasionally you long for a second day to explore properly, but a cruise is all about edited highlights. “I’m definitely coming back here again,” I promise myself.

And, as your confidence grows, you take charge of the map-reading. We were determined to master Barcelona without a guide, for example.

The port’s hopper bus dropped us at the Columbus Monument at the lower end of La Rambla. From there it was only a few stops on the metro to Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia church. Then we got a local bus up the hill to leafy Park Güell, to view Gaudí’s dazzling mosaic buildings (originally intended as a village to house factory workers).

The queues are relentless and I panicked slightly about timings. But Geraldine, who is more reckless (and more fun) than me, flagged down a passing bus – and 40 minutes later we were back at La Rambla, having lunch and admiring the newly refurbished Gothic Quarter of the city.

Expert cruise advice

Oceania Cruises caters to a well-heeled, older crowd. “We were independent travellers in our younger days,” one delightful couple told us.

“But now it’s wonderful to travel and feel safe. We choose Riviera because it’s like staying in a five-star hotel with Michelin restaurants and a West End theatre next door.”

Spotting that we were cruise virgins, they gave us lots of practical advice – use the hand sanitisers before every meal; don’t forget the complimentary pressing service (hand over your two most crumpled outfits); the Afternoon Tea in the Horizons lounge is a must – dainty finger sandwiches, scones and cream served to the backdrop of a classical string quartet.

Because they’ve already travelled the world, many of Riviera’s silver surfers prefer to enjoy life on board their floating hotel. You can take cooking classes, paint in the Artists’ Loft, play table tennis or golf, or use the state-of-the-art gym, while the Canyon Ranch Spa offers pampering facials, body scrubs and massages. A high staff-to-guest ratio means you rarely end up queuing for anything. And the staff work so hard and are so endlessly cheerful it’s humbling.

I also appreciated the way you pay a set amount for staff tips ($96 per person) – rather than fumbling around in embarrassment for the wrong notes.

Geraldine loved completely switching off from the real world. As a news junkie, that was harder for me – but I really appreciated the laptop and free wifi in our stateroom and access to the concierge lounge (free newspapers, coffee, snacks). And the ship is an art gallery in itself, with paintings from Cuban and Latin American artists and a stunning installation of glass flowers by artist Dale Chihuly.

A shared stateroom is a test of friendship for a week, so I’d be interested in trying a solo stateroom on my next cruise adventure.

But to wake up in a new city every day without a mad dash to the airport is a complete privilege. I’m already missing my bespoke omelette in the Grand Dining Room.

GETTING THERE Oceania’s all-inclusive cruise packages include flights and transfers. A 12-day cruise departing Barcelona on Riviera in November 2016 starts from £1,414pp. Ports of call include Palma de Mallorca, Spain; Sète, France; Monte Carlo, Monaco; Portofino, Italy; Cinque Terre (La Spezia), Italy; Florence, Pisa and Tuscany (Livorno), Italy; Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy. For more details, call 0345 505 1920 or visit oceaniacruises.com.