You know you're in love with a ship when you log on to the Port of Miami webcam because the ship is preparing for yet another journey and you just want to see her off.
In September I booked the Caribbean Hideaways January 3rd Riviera cruise to celebrate a milestone event in my husband's life and it was a great excuse to throw caution to the wind and spend more than we ever had before on a Caribbean cruise.
And then Oceania offered prepaid gratuities if you booked a cruise by 12/31 so unbeknownst to my husband I booked another cruise on the Riviera for January 2014. Usually this wouldn't be odd, but we hadn't even embarked on our first Oceania cruise. So on the first day of our cruise he said "This is an amazing ship; we have to do this again!" and I was able to reply with a smile ... "Good news!" In our entire time on the Riviera he couldn't find anything to complain about which made this wife a very happy woman.
I recently read my CC review of our last cruise on Celebrity Solstice. While there were undertones of disappointment in my review, I tried to wrap our experience with pretty ribbons. But what I remember now is telling my husband a couple of months later that my cruising days were over, that the ships were too big, too splashy, that too many cutbacks had occurred first on Holland America a few years back and now on the Celebrity I so loved.
Then along came a brochure from Oceania. And it's doubtful we'll ever cruise on any other line again. The passengers, the crew, our butler, the warm greeting at Reception and Destinations, the food in every venue ... all were nothing less than superb. I wrote on my comment form that the service was just the right blend of efficiency and a warm friendliness.
Simply stated, we were guests, not cargo. We loved it.
Because we booked a Penthouse Suite we could board at 12:00. We parked opposite the pier with incredible ease and literally breezed through check-in and onto the ship. This was just about the easiest, smoothest embarkation we've experienced and there was one thing missing: No photographers making us stand in front of a fake ship backdrop. Thank you, Oceania! Many such "extras" were missing on this cruise and we welcomed their absence.
Who Was Onboard:
Captain Gunnar Romtveit
General Manager Thierry Tholon
Cruise Director Nolan Dean
Senior Executive Chef Christophe Belin
Our Butler: Binod
Stateroom: We were in PH3 Suite 7128. I chose this for the deeper balcony and location. We had quick access to everything except the Riviera Lounge located forward. Everything else is aft and it was an easy run down to the Grand Dining Room, Reception or to get off in the ports. The extra large balcony was wonderful, but for us unnecessary. I loved looking straight down to the sea with no decks or lifeboats in the way. There was nothing more relaxing than pulling our wonderfully comfy reclining 'wicker' deck chairs over to the railing, putting our feet up and just gazing out to sea or surrounding islands while in port.
The PH3 suite is a very generous 420 sq. ft. with a large walk in closet. I could give up the space before the closet that made me virtually euphoric the entire trip. Any 'girl' out there can relate! I hung everything simply because I could yet there was also tons of drawer and cabinet space. My only complaint (if I have one at all) is the space taken from the shower in order to offer a bathtub. You can't shower in the tub without water everywhere and the shower was very tight. But other than that it was a splendiferous bathroom; granite and marble with a huge sink. I love the Bulgari products most especially the green tea body lotion ... to die for. The dead sea salt crystals worked magic on my hands ... simply luxurious. The entire cabin and balcony was spotless throughout the cruise and our cabin stewardesses were always smiling and so terribly sweet.
And the bed. The "tranquility" bed, so aptly named, is Euro-top, custom made in France I believe (but who cares), topped with a decadent layer of memory foam with gel and fibers with chamomile to soothe you. All this is wrapped in 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets along with a down comforter. All puff and fluff and soft and luxurious ... yum. Be still my heart. I got into bed the first night and thought I might lie there forever.
Dining: There are no words, but I always find them anyway. The first night we felt casual and went to the "buffet" in the Terrace Restaurant. Just toss any conception you may have about "buffets" and imagine yourself in a fine restaurant where you seat yourself wherever your heart desires and someone immediately appears to take your drink order and fill your glass with iced water. White tablecloths and crystal glasses adorn the table. Then imagine you're allowed to go into the kitchen of this fine restaurant and choose whatever your heart desires from whatever a variety of chefs have whipped up. We began with sushi and crab legs, green mussels, crusty breads and fine cheeses. And then, from the grill, lobster and baby lamb chops with mint jelly. I can't even go on ... we were in heaven.
We also enjoyed dinner in Jacques (succulent Duck l'Orange and perfectly cooked Dover Sole), Polo for prime rib and steamed lobster, Red Ginger for Miso Glazed Sea Bass and Toscana for more lobster, pasta and veal chop. My husband preferred Toscana to the others, but I liked Polo the best with Jacques a close second. Red Ginger was not my favorite, truthfully, though it was everyone else's that we spoke to. I think I ordered the wrong things there, but I'll definitely give it another try.
We loved the Grand Dining Room. The Eggs Benedict at breakfast were the best I've ever had, perfectly cooked. We always shared a table with 2 other couples and had the best time getting to know people from all over this country and beyond. And all the desserts in every venue were superb including the homemade ice cream, milkshakes, and a chocolate fountain with marshmallows and fruits to dip.
And then there's Afternoon Tea at 4:00 in Horizons and scones with clotted cream and .....
I know I've lost you ... you've left me to book an Oceania cruise, right?
Staff/Service: What can I say? Exemplary. We wanted for nothing. I know it seems like I'm fawning, but everyone working on that ship served us flawlessly and seemingly with no effort at all. I think what really rocked our world was after the last show when officers, chefs, butlers, stewards and other staff came into the lounge to salute US! And as we left they banked the sides applauding us as we applauded them. They made us feel that they were as happy to have us there as we were to have them.
We chose the PH because this was a special celebration. But the Butler seemed superfluous. Ha!!! Within minutes of entering our cabin, Binod arrived at our door and told us he was there for no other reason than to make us happy. Each day when I opened the door at dawn to see his smiling face with steaming hot coffee and fresh croissants, I was indeed very happy. On our last day I remarked that I wish he could come home with me; I'm sure this is not a new request. I moaned "Binod, we have to disembark tomorrow! (woeful face)" to which he replied "But you are here now, this moment. Enjoy today. Now is all that matters". It's so simple; it is so true. Carpe diem.
I really enjoyed working with Rosanna De Ria, our Oceania Club Ambassador. Both she and Sharon Miceli always had a friendly smile and Rosanna was so helpful even when I kept changing my mind about a future cruise.
Tours: Call me stupid because I know that the cruise line tours cost more than booking privately, but I feel safer using them. I know that no matter what happens the ship won't leave without me. We've been to the Caribbean many times and visited most of the islands both by land and sea. So for us the Riviera was our destination, but we did book 2 tours.
Antigua -- Lobster & Champagne Catamaran Cruise: This was a wonderful tour exploring the shores of Antigua, visited two beaches, and included lobster grilled off the stern of the catamaran along with delicious potatoes, salad, a rice dish we didn't really care for, and champagne. We don't drink alcohol, but it was fun to watch everyone kick back, relax and enjoy ... it's catching. The lobster was delicious which says a lot coming from this New Englander who honestly believes that there is no other lobster than Maine lobster. Maybe it was the ambiance, or the boat, or the magnificent turquoise waters, but that lobster tasted pretty darned yummy to me. All of us onboard really had fun on this tour and you can't put a price on a wonderful day you'll never forget.
Barbados -- Photo Adventure: Barbados is really an exquisite island. In the 80's we stayed on the island and we've visited since by sea, but I looked forward to returning for a view from the "inside". I was not disappointed. The host of this tour was Ronnie Carrington, a Barbadian photographer. On our way to the spectacular "Scotland District" on the east coast of Barbados, he showed us a number of his photographs. As an amateur photographer, I was in awe of some of his work. Our last stop was at the charming Atlantis Hotel on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, white louvre shutters thrown open to an azure sea, breezes gently swaying the palms, magnificent views ... just wonderful. Here we enjoyed a cold rum or fruit punch before returning to the ship.
I only hope I was able to capture some of the beauty along our route in my photographs. Barbados was just as I remembered. The only blemish on this day was dropping my brand new camera on a rock rendering it useless. How lucky was I to have brought along a "just in case" and had it with me on this tour.
As in so many ports, you need to get away from Bridgetown to really experience the island. And while some islands are often better enjoyed from the water, Barbados is an island you really need to explore from within.
Entertainment: The Jean Ann Ryan Company was the featured entertainment in the Riviera Lounge. We thought they were wonderful and saw all but one of their shows. I regret we missed some of the Entertainers onboard because we got so caught up in conversation at dinner that we couldn't tear ourselves away. But the entertainment we did see, we really enjoyed. What stood out for me was one of the Jean Ann Ryan singers performing " The Phantom of the Opera". She was as good, or better, than performers who have performed it on the New York stage.
I want to mention here that Nolan Dean was probably by far the best Cruise Director we've ever had ... at least in recent memory. First, he was so funny which in itself is enough for me. His self-deprecating humor had me from moment one and I believe he held all of us in the palm of his hand from that day forward. Nolan seemed to be everywhere. Maybe he fooled us all with an identical twin stashed away, because it seemed no matter where we were he was there with a huge smile.
We had a wonderful group anticipating this cruise on our CC Roll Call and we got more excited with every day. We had arranged to meet in Horizons our first morning at sea. Almost everyone showed up and my only regret is there wasn't more time to spend talking. We were a little rushed and in the way of an activity, but we were all in a pretty happy mood that morning and it was fun running into everyone throughout the cruise.
We met so many wonderful people from all corners the world. I don't think I ran into one grump the entire cruise. Even my husband was at his best! I would love to join all the people we met and sail off again one day, get to know them better. A couple of our fellow cruisers are already booked on our next cruise and I'm looking forward to seeing them again.
We requested 8:30. We were told everyone would leave the ship between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. Our number was called about 8:20, we were off the ship and through Customs within 25 minutes. With our drive of 1 hour 20 minutes we were back in our home at 10:00 a.m. Having walked out of our suite at 8:00, this was just amazing. Last year we experienced the worst disembarkation ever and this was definitely the best ever.
Our cruising days together began on the fun filled decks of the Cunard Countess in the early 80's and washed onto the Royal Viking Sea in the Mediterranean for our honeymoon. We sailed through the South Pacific waters on Wind Song and enjoyed the small feel of ships like Seawind Crown, Prinsendam and NCL's Windward (both formerly Royal Viking ships). I have been on 19 cruises, which for some may seem few, but neither are we cruise novices.
For years we enjoyed Holland America and then Celebrity, but as those lines tried to keep their fares low and their ships full, we felt the decline yet not unlike a wife trying to excuse her husband's faults, or vice versa, we overlooked a lot. But looking back today at my last review of Solstice I now know how generous I was because the tarnish was greater than I acknowledged.
So to board Oceania Riviera a few weeks ago, feel the luxury and the warmth that engulfed us, it really was like coming home and served as a reminder that you get what you pay for. And truth be known, even the lowest level on Oceania comes at a higher cost than the cruise lines we enjoyed in the past. But we've reached a time in our lives that if we're going to take ourselves out on the glorious ocean we so love, we're going to do it in style and we're going to do it on Oceania. I'd rather cruise less and do it on Oceania than accept anything less than what we experienced on the Riviera.