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Basking on the Riviera

6 March 2012




Oceania’s Riviera is billed as the most chic ship to launch in the past 50 years. CEO Frank del Rio talks interiors.


"The bigger the better; in everything," Freddie Mercury once noted, with typical rock-star hubris. He was referring to the size of his audience, but the sentiment could function more broadly as a motto for our times. As skyscrapers grow ever taller and shopping malls more sprawling, our appetite for the grandiose shows little sign of abating.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the cruise industry. Over the past few decades, cruise ships have become larger and more imposing, with leviathan vessels fast becoming the norm. Quite apart from their scale, the popularity of large cruise ships has much to do with the choice of activities onboard. With their busy itineraries and ambitious themes, these ships convey the sense of being a world unto themselves, offering entertainment on a plate.

Nonetheless, the vogue for supersizing is not without its detractors. In a market now saturated with megaships - the most capacious holding more than 6,000 passengers - a counter-trend is emerging, challenging the association between 'bigger' and 'better'.

Chief among the naysayers is Frank del Rio, CEO of Prestige Cruise Holdings, Oceania Cruises' parent company. "Ships have become, in my belief, a bit commercial, a bit industrial; they look institution-like," he says. "That's not what the Oceania brand is all about. Our ships look residential - in fact, we went out of our way to buy residential furniture as opposed to what you'd typically find in cruise ships."

The archetypal Oceania passenger is unlikely to be dazzled by bombast. Generally aged over 50 and worldly wise, these are seasoned cruisers who know what they like. They are looking for a pleasant experience, rather than a palatial setting; comfort rather than ostentation; an atmosphere of quiet elegance as opposed to something visually overblown.

Sister ships

Billed as the most sophisticated ship of recent years, the line's newest vessel, the Riviera, is due to launch in May. Sister to the Marina, whose maiden voyage took place in January 2011, the design has been upgraded in several areas. There is a new thalassotherapy pool on the spa deck, the ceilings on deck 14 have been raised and the decor in the Grand Bar has been refreshed. Still, del Rio affirms the similarities outweigh the differences. "It's difficult to improve on perfection," he says.

Like its precursor, the ship has a capacity of 1,258 passengers and a tonnage of 66,084. A destination-orientated cruise line, it sits squarely in the upper premium bracket, with the smart-casual ambience of a country club throughout. Tracksuits would be frowned upon, as would ties.

"These folks are not into fads. They don't want rock-climbing walls or ice-skating rinks. They want classic elegance and comfortable, beautiful surroundings."

"We cater to mature adults - we're not a family-orientated cruise line," says del Rio. "These folk are not into fads. They don't want rock-climbing walls or ice-skating rinks. They want classic elegance, world-class cuisine, white-glove service and comfortable, beautiful surroundings."

Del Rio himself has been intimately involved in the design process. Together with Bob Binder, vice-chairman of Prestige Cruise Holdings, he worked with the designers on all particulars, casting the final say over the fabrics and the furniture, and personally selecting the art on the walls.

"It has a very varied art collection, much like what you'd find in galleries and museums," says del Rio. "Every single piece of artwork onboard is an original. There are no prints, no lithographs: these are original oils and hand-carved sculptures. I think Riviera without question will have the best art collection of any ship in the world."

A similar sort of eclecticism applies to the overall design. While themed cruises are undoubtedly having their moment, Riviera is of staunchly traditional stock. "We think it's kind of tacky for an upscale cruise line to have themes per se," del Rio opines.

Deluxe design

The design, then, is determinedly heterogeneous, with several big names behind the scenes. The public areas are being developed by Y&S of Oslo, a Norwegian design firm with a wide portfolio of cruise ships to its credit. Speaking volumes about its ability to adapt, the team was also responsible for Riviera's antithesis: the child-centric fantasyland Disney Dream.

Within the quieter confines of this vessel, the suites are worth a moment's lingering gaze. Indeed, the three Owners' Suites are among the highlights of the ship. Spanning the entire beam of its deck, each comprises an entry foyer, sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, living room, fitness room, balcony and two Jacuzzis. At more than 2,000ft², they will be among the largest guestrooms at sea.

"The Owners' Suites are unabashedly opulent, featuring a baby grand piano, zebra-print upholstery, art deco furniture and a full bar.

"These suites were totally designed from the ground up, and furnished," says del Rio. "Everything in the suite is by Ralph Lauren - the furniture, the towels, the sheets, the headboard, the sofa.

"And then the 20 Vista and Oceania suites were also designed from scratch, with everything within them supplied by Dakota Jackson."

The Owners' Suites are unabashedly opulent. Conceived by New York firm SBL interiors, they feature a baby grand piano, zebra-print upholstery, art deco furniture and a full bar. The aesthetic is broadly 'estate home meets latter-day movie set'. The Vista and Oceania suites, meanwhile, boast a sleeker, sharper look.

Elsewhere on the ship, muted glamour holds sway: all rich woods and marble flooring; sumptuous leathers and fine wool carpets. The one real nod to grandiloquence is the three-storey atrium, which has been fitted out by French glassmaker Lalique.

"Lalique has a long history of being involved in the outfitting of cruise ships, dating back to the 1920s," says del Rio.

"We have brought them back. There are Lalique mirrors, glass cocktail tables, and lamps and vases. And there's this wonderful custom-made Lalique chandelier, overlooking the atrium - you've got to see it to believe it for yourself."

The centrepiece of the atrium is undoubtedly the double-tiered staircase, itself encased in customised Lalique glass panels. One of the signature elements of the Oceania brand, this staircase harks back to an earlier, statelier age for cruise ships. In the centenary year of the Titanic, this is a particularly evocative touch.

Epicurean emphasis

While the Riviera borrows elements from a diverse range of influences, we cannot delve too deep into its design without acknowledging the centrality of restaurants. Both Marina and Riviera are renowned as 'foodie' cruise lines, and with eight eateries onboard alongside a cooking school, this epicurean focus informs the ship's very superstructure.

"We think we have without question the most outstanding cuisine at sea. To have eight restaurants with only 1,250 guests is totally unprecedented."

"We think we have without question the most outstanding cuisine at sea," says del Rio, "and to have eight restaurants with only 1,250 guests is totally unprecedented. Each restaurant is designed to fit the menu it serves, and so has its own distinctive feel, environment and flair. We have also dedicated more galley space than any other cruise line by far: in essence, Marina and Riviera have twice the galley space you would expect to find on a ship that size."

This fixation with all things culinary is ideally suited to the Riviera's demographic. Because the ship stops off at a different port each morning, the expectation is that guests will be spending a full day ashore. When they get back onboard, they will want to wind down; there is no point putting them through their paces with a full-throttle activity programme.

"They want to kick back and relax," del Rio says. "They want to relax in their suite or their staterooms, be comfortable in the public areas, have a great meal in
a restaurant, see a show. The layout of our vessel is designed with that comfort in mind."

Comfort will be paramount on Riviera. As the designers put the finishing touches to the vessel, and its maiden voyage looms closer, cruisers are looking forward to the conviviality and sophistication they have already experienced on its sister ship.

"We give you the wanderlust without the stuffiness," del Rio says, thrilled to be welcoming this sleek new addition to his brand.

The Casino Bar is just one of the deluxe venues where guests can relax after a long day onshore.
The ship’s double-tiered staircase harks back to the stately age of the Titanic.
Frank del Rio is founder of Oceania Cruises.