In the current, ever-changing environment, traveling safely is of paramount concern for discerning travelers. However, traveling well is also key. Having cruised on several ships since becoming fully vaccinated – all of which required that all crew and all guests be fully vaccinated – my recent adults only, 10-day round-trip voyage from Miami to the Eastern Caribbean on Oceania’s Riviera was the first mid-size ship on which I had cruised in this “new normal” era. Happily, I felt completely safe and had an excellent experience.
The Riviera was built in 2012 and refurbished in 2019. It has a maximum capacity of 1,250 passengers, with 800 crew from over 50 countries. On this mid-December voyage, there were 750 guests on board, all of whom were also COVID tested at the cruise terminal prior to embarkation. (Guests were also strongly advised by Oceania to get tested prior to flying to the embarkation city. This is something I always do anyway; who wants to find out they had been COVID compromised away from home?) This naturally added to a strong sense of health security.
All crew and all guests were fully vaccinated, so in keeping with the Center for Disease Control guidelines then in effect for sailings originating and returning to the U.S., guests were not required to mask onboard. However, all crew were at all times masked, except when eating or drinking. Additionally, staterooms had up-to-date flyers contained local masking regulations for each port call along with travel-sized hand sanitizer and extra masks. Admittedly, it first felt strange to be on the ship indoors with several hundred unmasked – though somewhat socially distant – strangers. While a few passengers remained masked, on the second day my mask was removed while onboard for the voyage’s duration. Frankly, given crew and passengers testing and vaccination status, I felt safer on board the Riviera than I have during the past 18 months at my local chain supermarket. This naturally allowed me to fully enjoy the plethora of onboard experiences. ***
Eaters, feeders, readers and music lovers will find joy
Oceania takes dining very seriously and this results in seriously good dining. The Riviera has seven restaurants, including four non-surcharge specialty restaurants – pan-Asian Red Ginger, classic steakhouse Polo Grill, traditional French Jacques, and Italian Toscana. There are also impressive gourmet vegetarian and plant-based menu options courtesy of Aquamar Vitality Cuisine in the Grand Dining Room, Terrace Café and Waves Grill. For the food fanatics among us, La Reserve by Wine Spectator is a culinary oenological marriage made in heaven.
In 10 days aboard I dined at each space, doubling up at most. Whether the lobster Pad Thai or miso-glazed sea bass at Red Ginger, a perfectly prepared steak at Polo, foie gras terrine or tender Dover sole at Jacques or Toscana’s veal scallopini, each meal was delightfully presented, and more importantly, delicious. The Terrace Café buffet had tasty choices for every taste, all served by waitstaff, and for optimal protection, kept behind clear protection. Never a huge buffet fan anywhere – the exercise of any semblance of personal restraint is too challenging – I hope buffets continue to be waitstaff served once COVID becomes a sad, historical footnote. In addition to obvious culinary hygiene, it’s far harder to politely request five glorious pastries than to semi-discreetly self-slide them onto one’s plate.
Dining at La Reserve, overseen by immensely talented Senior Executive Chef Frederic Godineau, was one of the most delectable, visually gorgeous and enjoyable dining adventures at sea. With 18 guests – and a maximum of 24 – we delighted in an eight-course fixed menu coupled with exquisitely paired select champagnes, and Italian, French and California wines. That evening the Odyssey Menu was served and what an odyssey it was. Suffice it say my gastronomic heart may have been forever stolen and it is entirely probable that the next clan member of mine will be named Frederic.
If guests want to learn a few culinary secrets, there are cooking demonstrations and classes in a modern, dedicated kitchen. Some courses are technique-based, some are ingredient-driven, while others are destination-based. The chef instructor onboard was the engaging Stephanie Hersh. Well-known and sought after, Chef Hersh also spent 15 years with the unforgettable Julia Child and several with Master Chef Jacques Pépin, Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director.
The Riviera’s well-equipped fitness center with floor-to-ceiling windows and a separate exercise studio had classes including Pilates mat, spinning and yoga. For me it meant jaw-wiring surgery wasn’t in my foreseeable future. With a configuration of smaller areas within a larger space, the Riviera’s large onboard library was inviting with enveloping chairs, ottomans and about 2,000 books. Its enticing location next to Baristas, serving Illy coffees and highly addictive frozen Illy Creme – think Frappuccino, only much better – caused a real risk I would forever stowaway.
Music lovers were well-entertained by pianist Jason Lyle Black. He kept audiences enthralled with stellar performances of his orchestral masterpieces, famous movie scores, and evident love of music. Black continued to display his talent even while astonishingly playing upside down. The beauty of the several performances of the Bellissimo String Quartet – and they were bellissimo – was breathtaking.
Bliss awaits for art aficionados and spa goers
Without doubt, the Riviera has one of the best art collections at sea. It felt more a floating art museum than a grand ship with impeccably curated art. Often an interesting piece of art waylaid me causing me to be impossibly late to wherever I was headed. The Riviera has over 250 pieces of art in its collection just in the public areas and restaurants alone. The assemblage contains not only those by well-known artists such as Picasso – including several etchings on Montval paper – but also a marvelous array of emerging artists from around the world including a fantastic, thought-provoking collection by several Cuban artists. If that weren’t enough, there's the enormous Lalique Grand Staircase with its signature chandelier containing over two tons of handcrafted Lalique crystals. Everywhere one turns on the Riviera, there is something astonishingly beautiful to admire.
Many passengers use cruising as an opportunity to indulge in new types of spa treatments or continue with familiar ones. In its first season on the Riviera, Aquamar Spa + Vitality Center has an in-depth spa menu including several rejuvenation facial treatments using Elemis products. There's also a full-service salon with complete barber services. A dedicated onboard spa physician has specialized training to administer Restylane, Dysport and Thermage treatments further aiding in turning back the hands of time.
Aquamar Spa is airy and relaxing and many treatment rooms having stunning ocean views, some with oversized bathtubs. A big believer in the restorative health value of spas, I sampled several different massage and salon treatments during the voyage. Technicians were some of the best available, on the high seas or on land.
The journey itself as an inspiring destination
On this voyage, the Riviera stopped in Mexico’s Cozumel and Costa Maya, Belize, Honduras, and personally most important, Guatemala. As a young child my first international trip had been a several week trip to Guatemala with family friends. Given the lifelong travel trajectory it originally sparked, returning to Guatemala was notably poignant. An excursion to a rural indigenous boarding school within a small community on the banks of the Rio Dulce to learn about their educational progress was particularly inspiring.
Though I always disembark at every port when cruising either on a small group excursion or solo, since I’d been to Belize City several times I deliberately stayed onboard that day. Leisurely doing many activities onboard became its own kind of Nirvana. Finally I understood how repeat cruisers can enjoy cruising simply to cruise. Given Oceania’s devotion to truly delicious food, its delightfully welcoming crew, top quality entertainment, and beautiful, art-filled environment, it’s no small wonder Oceania generally, and the Riviera particularly, has a devoted, repeat cruising clientele. With Oceania’s continuing commitment to safe cruising as we all negotiate this new normal, that loud sound you hear is my tapping foot waiting impatiently to return to the high seas. Happy travels!
*** Prompted by the Omicron surge and after consulting with various medical experts, Oceania has since initiated a mandatory mask policy for all guests while indoors and not eating or drinking. Other cruises I’d taken since August with vaccinated crew and passenger also had mandatory indoor masking. It was a minuscule price to pay for the ability to keep cruising and seeing the world. Accordingly, even with mandatory masking I will gladly cruise again on an adults only mid-size or smaller ship.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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