We just returned from the 10-day Caribbean Hideaways cruise on the Riviera. Our last cruise had been on Azamara's Journey, an 'R' ship that is about half the size of the Riviera -- both in terms of size and passenger count. One of our curiosities was whether or not we'd experience that 'small ship' feel on Riviera that we so enjoyed on the Journey -- and we were not disappointed! Our overall experience was wonderful, and we'd gladly recommend an Oceania experience to anyone on the fence.
Embarkation: Very fast and uneventful, although our ID cards had been misplaced at the check-in counter and couldn't be located. The concierge escorted us aboard and had new ones printed for us on the spot. With a 6:00pm cast-off from Miami, we had about 4-5 hours to become acquainted with the ship before watching our departure.
Cabin: We had sailed in one of the aft Owner's Suites on the Journey, and completely fell in love with the aft-view on the ship. Outside of the three Owner's suites on the Riviera -- that span the entire width of the ship, and the two Oceania Suites on deck 11, the only other aft-facing cabins are the two Penthouse Suites (PH3) on deck 7 on the port and starboard sides. The cabins are 'side-facing' and have an enlarged veranda -- as do the other Penthouse suites on deck 7. But what sets these two cabins apart is the 'wrap-around' extension of the veranda that faces directly aft and provides an unprecedented amount of privacy. The trade-off is a slightly narrower cabin and slightly less closet space than the other PH3s, but the added veranda space and privacy more than made up for it. (In fact, we held a gathering in our cabin one evening for 6 and while it was 'cozy' it was not uncomfortable.) We'd asked for two full sized recliners to be placed on the aft extension, and we spent many an afternoon and evening just watching the ocean go by. We had a large veranda on the Journey as well, but one noticeable difference was that the bulkhead on the 'R' ships extends up about 3 ft from the deck, whereas there are railings on the Riviera -- giving you a more open and full view of the ocean when you're lying in a recliner. This cabin is a true hidden gem and may well be the best bargain on the ship.
The Ship: Riviera is in her maiden year so we expected her to be a very clean ship. And she is. Others have mentioned the varied artwork that appears on the walls, in the stairwells, etc -- and while neither of us are art aficionados, we couldn't help but notice and appreciate the variety of paintings, sculptures and displays that were present all around the ship. Being a smaller ship, Riviera was a bit more at the mercy of the seas than larger ships, but even though we encountered some choppy seas when the winds kicked up, she was very stable, and I never heard of anyone not feeling well due to the ship's motion. As for the 'size' of the ship, I can honestly say we had the exact same 'feeling' that we did on the Journey. There were really no lines to speak of, none of the public rooms felt 'crowded' and we never waited for anything. The two ships are laid out very similarly, but the overall area of each room on the Riviera is simply larger. We did hear of issues concerning deck chairs around the pool, but we never encountered that as we spent most of our time on our own veranda. We did make good use of the fitness center each day (in a vain attempt to ward off the effects of each night's meal) We tend to use cardio equipment free weights and resistance equipment and we found the equipment to be very good. It did get fairly crowded at times, but just before the lunch hour each day seemed to work very well.
Crew and Staff: The staff was extremely friendly and went out of their way to make us feel 'welcomed' at every turn -- from the waiters, to the deckhands. Being in a suite, we were afforded our own butler -- 'Binod' -- who was a gem.. We had previously booked our reservations at the specialty restaurants online, and we made our own shore excursion arrangements, but Binod gladly organized our cocktail gathering and delivered our breakfast and afternoon canapes with a smile every day. The mark of a good butler is his availability, promptness and unobtrusiveness, and Binod was tops in all three! I will say, one glaring difference in our two cruise experiences concerned the crew. We were very fortunate to have had Capt Johannes Tysee as our ship's master on our Journey cruise. I have never met a more affable, outgoing, charismatic sea captain anywhere. But charisma is not a prerequisite for being a good master, and while Captain Romtveit displayed some real deftness -- especially with our 'parallel parking' in Barbados, the only time we saw him the entire voyage was at the Farewell Show.
Dining: One of the things we had heard that set Oceania apart from other cruise lines was the food. And now we are believers! In addition to the Grand Dining Room (which was beautiful, but where we only ate at once), the nightly buffet at Terraces is so extensive that you could make that your sole restaurant and not be disappointed! We ate at each of the 5 'Specialty' restaurants once. La Reserve -- which provides an intimate, truly gourmet experience -- was outstanding and should not be missed if you sail on this ship! There is a small surcharge (even for suite owners), but it's well worth the cost and one of the great culinary memories you'll take home. Toscana, Red Ginger, The Polo Grill and Jacques were all very good and varied and we encountered very attentive service in all of them. But one unique feature of Oceania in addition to the specialty restaurants is the Bon Appetit Culinary Center -- a 'cooking class at sea'!. Chef Noelle does a fantastic job of actually teaching you 'technique', she makes it lots of fun and informative -- and you get to eat and drink everything you make! We were able to book a class the second day at sea without any problems, but the class sizes are small, so you shouldn't' wait too long to do so.
Ports of Call and Shore Excursions: One of the jokes about a Caribbean cruise is that you really only visit one island, you merely leave port, they change the scenery a bit and you return the next morning. We selected this itinerary as we'd only visited one of the islands previously and they all had something different to offer. That said, we had long ago become disenchanted with cruise-sponsored shore excursions -- regardless of the cruise line. We had heard ahead of time, and verified by those on board, that Oceania's excursions were very expensive -- so we used reviews and suggestions from the Cruise Critic site as well as others to plan our own on-shore itineraries. In Tortola, we took the ferry from the adjacent terminal to Virgin Gorda and spent the day at The Baths -- which are very impressive if you haven't experienced them before. The "Top of the Bath's" restaurant overlooks the bay and surrounding islands and has a free wifi connection if you want to reconnect while away. It was uncrowded and a very relaxing day. In Antigua, we booked an excursion with WCT Tours -- a 4-hr hour snorkel and sightseeing trip on our own 2-man, 12-ft motorboat. It was the highlight of the trip and one of the most breathtaking things (from a scenic as well as exhilaration standpoint) that we've ever done. We rented a car in Barbados -- which I would probably not do again. Driving on the left with the steering wheel on the right is a challenge, the many 'roundabouts' on the island are more of a challenge, and the virtually unmarked roads top it off. We did use a 'Garmin GPS-compatible' map that can be downloaded to your Garmin for free (BajanNav) that was very helpful -- but our car did not have a functioning cigarette lighter and when the GPS battery died, we had to head back to port. In St Lucia we booked a tour with Spencer Ambrose and spent that day at the Sugar Beach Resort (on Jalousie Beach) -- literally between the two 2000 ft tall pitons. It was spectacular. St Lucia is a very hilly island and travel by car can be brutal. What would have taken nearly 2 hours by car, Spencer got us there by boat in 20 mins -- we avoided the crowds and had roughly 5 -6 hours to enjoy the amazing scenery -- with lunch and refreshments provided. I would highly recommend Spencer's 'Jalousie Beach Break' tour to anyone. St Barts was the only island we dropped anchor and tendered in. The port was busy, crowded and chaotic, but taxis were abundant and it was easy to get to a beach -- albeit expensive. St Barts is a very expensive island but we found St Jean's beach (Tom's Beach Resort) to be accommodating and the beachside restaurant was relatively affordable. A note of warning -- the beach is 'clothing optional' and as is the case at most of those beaches: "...some do that probably shouldn't......"
Passengers: Oceania and Azamara are both upscale lines, and most of the passengers are older. We're in our mid-50s and felt like we were on the 'younger' end of the spectrum, but by no means did we feel out of place. In fact, we found everyone to be very friendly, very outgoing and genuinely very happy. I didn't hear any complaints the entire 10 days of our trip. I would say the Riviera had a slightly younger demographic than the Journey did, but we felt right at home on both ships, and wouldn't hesitate to do either one again.
Debarkation: if there was one small criticism, it would be with the debarkation process. Everyone was able to select a time they wished to leave the ship (with 9:00am being the final time). We were in the final group (as I'm sure many on board were -- just so they could delay the inevitable). But this final 'rush' resulted in a very crowded baggage holding area and subsequent clamoring to get through customs. One elderly gentleman was inadvertently knocked over by someone in a rush, he suffered a laceration and medical personnel had to intervene. It's a shame to end a cruise that way, and a situation I would think Oceania could do a better job of avoiding. While waiting for our limo to the airport we encountered some passengers on the next cruise headed aboard -- at 10:00am. If a more orderly debarkation could be achieved by pushing back the final debarkation time at the expense of letting the next group on 8 hours before sailing, I would think that's something to be considered.
Summary: This was a fantastic trip. I wasn't sure that any ship could reach the bar that had been set by Azamara, but I would say Oceania has done it. Others have said if you are torn between the two then pick the itinerary -- and I would agree. We would not hesitate to travel on the Riviera again -- in fact we look forward to it!