A cruise to the Western Caribbean, with ports of call like Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Key West, is one of the most sun-and-fun staples of big ship cruising. It's great for beaches, harbor-front bars and the occasional cultural foray to ancient ruins. What we want to know is this: If your ideal Caribbean cruise is focused more on culinary and wine, wellness and fitness, and laidback relaxation, can you find serenity on this itinerary?
On the 1,200-passenger Oceania Riviera, we're setting out to do just that: We love smaller ship cruises, we want to relax and we want to make new discoveries -- whether it's wine, wellness, reconnecting with each other or meeting new friends.
Come along with us on our 10-day cruise from Miami. We'll call at Mexico's Cozumel and Costa Maya, the Belizean private island of Harvest Caye, Guatemala's Santo Tomas, Honduras' Roatan, the Cayman Islands' Grand Cayman and, finally, Key West, before we head back to Miami.
The first thing I noticed as I was touring Riviera just after embarking at PortMiami, is how relaxed fellow passengers were, seemingly immediately. A man was swimming in the pool, numerous people were tucked into cushy lounge chairs with Kindles in hand and my husband Teijo had already claimed his new favorite discovery -- a comfy alfresco armchair just outside Baristas, overlooking the pool. Bigger ships were docked alongside us, preparing to depart on their cruises with booming music and boogying travelers, and our Riviera already felt like an oasis.
On our itinerary, eight of 10 days are in port. In other regions of the world, like Alaska, Asia and the Mediterranean, all places that Oceania visits, that would point to a very busy, very immersive cruise, with lots of frantic sightseeing. And that's understandable. What's so nice about the low-key Western Caribbean is you can mix it up -- balancing more ambitious in-port treks with lazy, slow schedules.
There are tons of activities to keep you busy onboard, even today before we depart. For our part, we stayed out on the upper dock as Riviera pulled out of Miami -- surely one of the most beautiful sail-aways in the world, particularly in the dark with the skyline lit up like a colorful palette. After, we segued straight into dinner at Red Ginger. On my last trip on Oceania Marina, Riviera's twin, Red Ginger was an Asian standout. That was a few years ago though. Would it hold up?
It did. And then some. Arguably the best Asian restaurant at sea, you've got to try the ginger-infused calamari, so light and fluffy and flavorful, and the sea bass that was so delicious and healthy. Lobster pad Thai is a signature dish here. Dessert stood out, too; we loved the lavender creme brulee and the steamed ginger cake with apple-cardamom ice cream.
Even better: Red Ginger is so popular with Oceania guests that it's the first onboard restaurant to be featured as one of the Culinary Center's themed kitchen classes, and we'll later learn to make the ginger cake, which means we can take a bit of Red Ginger home with us. Here's a tip: The chance to learn to cook some of its classics, which also include lobster pad Thai and duck and watermelon salad, is super appealing so if this class is offered on your next sailing, sign up via Oceania's website before leaving home!
One of the best things about an itinerary that starts with a sea day is that you get to take your time exploring shipboard life, chill out and have random fascinating conversations with strangers (who, of course, are no longer strangers), and, if you choose, engage in a full day of activity. At the Culinary Center, budding chefs created Argentinian food and if you're wondering why South America was chosen instead of Caribbean regional dishes, well, this leads into the first fascinating conversation of the day.
Hanging out in Horizons, the top-of-the-ship lounge this morning, I chanced upon a chat with Kathryn Kelly, the executive chef of Oceania's best-in-cruise culinary program for passengers. She oversees the Culinary Center, found onboard Riviera and Marina, and also travels the world creating custom culinary tours on various itineraries. She told us that an Argentinian focus may not immediately make sense on a Caribbean cruise but that so many South American influences have found their way into regional cuisine here.
What makes Oceania's Culinary Center such an innovator in the cruise industry? "It's 100 percent Bob Binder [Oceania's president]," Kelly says, "who in ports of call would go out to the markets and bring back bags for the chefs. Then, chefs encouraged him to create a cooking school. And the lightbulb went off for a hands-on style of cooking school.
"From the very early days," she adds, "you could see the appreciation and joy that passengers got from learning about food and wine. They were learning to make dishes, not decorating cupcakes. They are here to learn and, yes, we want you to have a good time and we also want you to leave feeling enriched."
It seemed only slightly ironic that as we were talking about the joy of traveling through the lenses of food and wine, some 100 feet away a spa lecturer was preaching the virtues of "Fitness after 50," with some pretty graphic talk about colons, burning fat fast and the perils of acid reflux to an small but enraptured crowd.
One of the things that gets lost about an itinerary that focuses on the Greater Antilles' ports of the Western Caribbean is that it's even more of a draw for active travelers, with tubing, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking and cycling all featured in Oceania shore excursions in various ports of call. For the more daring among us, you can rent stand-up paddleboats and speedboats for water skiing.
The fact that this region is celebrating a new active-in-nature image over the party-hearty reputation of the past is particularly felt in Cozumel, where we call today. Sure, you can still venture out to Senor Frogs or Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, but you get the sense that many other passengers on Oceania Riviera want to experience something more.
If you limit your touring of Cozumel to San Miguel, its downtown -- with duty-free shops and touristic restaurants -- you may think there's nothing much here. And you'd miss what makes Cozumel special. Cozumel, just off the Yucatan Peninsula, is surrounded by a beautiful coral reef that encircles it. The island's efforts to preserve undersea life have resulted in the creation of the Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, and there are numerous opportunities for diving and snorkeling.
We opted for a different kind of recreation on our visit today; we booked an e-bike tour of the western coast that took us well away from the scramble of San Miguel. First, if you haven't tried an electric bike, it's a revolution. It's got a battery that helps you along -- but you still get a pedaling workout. And the scrubby wild western coast is so beautiful with its vast empty beaches and festive food shacks that cook up local snacks on the grill. Stop for a bite and pop a frosty bottle of the cerveza of San Miguel. It feels so much more remote than it really is (Cozumel itself is 30 miles long and 10 miles wide) and is simply another world.
Still, this afternoon I embraced my inner tourist. Los Cinco Soles, in the heart of downtown San Miguel, is a darling boutique-style department store that sells all manner of Mexican-made crafts, jewelry, clothing, vanilla and also has a huge tequila selection. It wraps around a courtyard garden, where Pancho's Backyard, one of my favorite restaurants in the Caribbean, serves Mexican cuisine adapted to American palates. I like the food but that's not what brings me back over and over again (estimating this is about my 15th visit).
Partly, it's the garden ambiance and the pair of local musicians playing sappy 1960s tunes. It's the capacious margaritas, the restaurant's specialty drink. It's the happy feel of the place, the way that the waiters and waitresses genuinely and warmly interact with those of us who've come off cruise ships. We're all tourists and we linger well past our lunches, just to be enfolded into a joyful scene.
Oh, and if you like bananas...don't miss the caramelized version with simple (and local) vanilla ice cream. There was nothing touristy about that dish!
Back onboard, one lesson learned: If you are dining at La Reserve by Wine Spectator, Oceania's penultimate restaurant on Riviera and sister ship Marina, don't have a late, heavy Mexican lunch! La Reserve, which seats just 24 at three different tables, offers four different wine-paired tasting menus. Tonight's: La Cuisine Bourgeoise was created by Jacques Pepin, Oceania's executive chef, from his memories of home food. Here's a hint: It's probably not the home food you remember from childhood -- and since mine was anything out of a can or box -- this will enchant your palate. Think cheese souffle with lobster, filet of sole with a buttery creamy sauce and black truffles, beef tenderloin, a pared-down cheese course with Brie that's studded with nuts and dried cranberries (and the most delicious simple salad) and, finally, for a sweet ending it was baked Alaska. With (small) flames.
And the paired wines were superb. I've never been a big fan of Sancerre but this one was so smooth I took a photo of the label to try and find it at home. Same went for the Meursault, the pinot noir and the Bordeaux grand cru.
We literally staggered from the table but what stays with me throughout the event was the storytelling; at each course and with each wine, we learned about what made them special beyond the delicious factor. The dinner, three tables seating just eight passengers apiece, is a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow travelers, especially Evelyn Fein, who was marking her 33rd Oceania cruise -- she has been sailing with the line since it was founded in 2003. I peppered her with questions about cruising (one of my favorite topics!). She told me why she keeps coming back: No matter which Oceania ship you're on, the crew, make you feel like a part of the family.
It's definitely been clear, from our Cruise Critic meet-and-greet onward, there are an inordinate amount of travelers onboard who are passionate about Oceania. In fact, later we're told that the repeat rate on this particular sailing is a whopping 60 percent.
Today, being so beautiful and with just-right-temperatures, a lot of folks opted to hang out by the pool, either in the sun or in shaded spaces, in cushy lounges, rapt by their Kindles. What is immediately apparent on a day like this, when the pool is busy, is the difference between a big ship day-at-sea and a small ship one: It's the vibe and the space. Even now, there are plenty of empty loungers, and the mood and the music are chill.
Another highlight of the day: An enterprising group of Cruise Critic members, participating in our Roll Call feature, held a get-together in the Horizons Lounge during afternoon tea. Passengers hailed from Salt Lake City to Brussels, and it's always fun to put faces to the names who you've been communicating with on our forums, sometimes for as long as a year before the cruise starts. It's also a great place, as you plan your cruise, to get tips because they're on the same voyage you are -- which is how we landed an intriguing tour of Guatemala's Rio Dulce later this week. It was recommended by Cruise Critic member Beneta, who'd done it on a previous visit to Guatemala.
Tonight would be the equivalent of a formal night. I say "equivalent" because Oceania has a "country club casual" dress code for all nights, but this is when we meet all the officers who are charged with making our cruise a great one. Interestingly, once the ceremony was done, the bar staff kept pouring complimentary cocktails and everybody stayed put, dancing to torch songs and chatting with friends before we all spread out around the ship for dinner.
And here's another thing that marks Oceania as a more luxurious line: There are so many dining options to choose from. There's Red Ginger for sublime Asian (we dined there last night), Jacques for French, Polo Grill for steak and Toscana for Italian. Not enough for you? Both the Grand Restaurant, the ship's glamorous main venue, and the Terrace Cafe, its buffet restaurant, were featuring caviar and lobster tails.
Going beyond the tremendous choice we're offered on a ship of such a relatively intimate size is that there are only a handful of dining events (primarily wine tastings and La Reserve) that levy an extra charge. Nowhere else on Riviera will you have to ante up for entrance into a venue or pay an upcharge on a restaurant menu.
Today's port of call isn't traditional if you define a port as being centered around an existing town.
Costa Maya, which debuted in 2001, was carved out of the forest on this part of the Yucatan coast. Its premise, to provide a resort-like option right off the dock, incorporates a host of activities, from restaurants and pools to shopping and tequila. You can take part in a Mayan healing ritual and watch dolphins frolic. But if your experience doesn't stretch beyond the close-at-hand facility, you're missing the point of this cruise stop.
As always, Oceania's shore excursion menu provides insight into the truly meaningful experiences here. This is, as the name implies, Mayan country and Chacchoben, dating back some 1,500 years, is the big attraction. It was only recently excavated, having been discovered in the 1970s when an archeologist flew overhead and noticed grass-covered mounds (the terrain here is largely flat so any hills you see are likely to be ruins, covered in foliage, and as yet un-excavated). On a previous visit, we loved this place for its serene atmosphere. Don't miss the chance to climb up Gran Basamento, its hallmark temple, for wonderful jungle views.
Just outside Costa Maya, there is a real town to explore; Majahual is a one-time fishing village boosted by its five-minute proximity (via taxi) to the port facility. It's got a lovely beach and is just the spot for swimming, kayaking, paddle-boarding and snorkeling. It's also known for its cheap beach massages. And finally, it's a great place to capture a shot of your ship at the dock!
And one more thing: Maya, an adventure and watersports theme park, a relatively new addition to the area, has become our Costa Maya happy place.
Here, the 1940s jungle outpost-themed park offers ziplining, water slides and a host of pools. It's all themed around the 1940s and Maya is probably best suited to families (there were so many, hailing mostly from bigger ships also docked here today). My husband and I didn't spy any fellow Oceania guests, and yet we had such a blast. He loved the zipline/ropes course combination in which you fly over the jungle, I adored meandering down the lazy river in an inner tube, and we both got the kind of cheap, great massages you find in Majahual. The experience brought out the kid in both of us.
There are plenty of options for lunching in Majahual, Costa Maya and the Maya adventure park, but Oceania's food is so good, we held out for a late lunch at Waves, onboard. Waves is open until 4 p.m., and you'll find it onboard every ship in the fleet. It's a decadently delicious gourmet grill (with terrific proximity, i.e., right alongside, the ship's ice cream and milkshake bar). Here you can find wagyu beef burgers; the "surf and turf," which is lobster and beef burger; and even a humble hot dog is made of superb ingredients. Waves is part of the pool deck and we found a table with a view of the dock, around which three other ships were tied up; there was great people-watching.
One of my goals for this trip is to reset the healthy-diet button. If that seems counterproductive on a cruise line with food as seriously good as is Oceania's, it's actually not. You get a lot of support onboard, with plenty of fresh fruit and lots of salad and veggie choices at most meals. Menus also identify vegetarian, lacto-ovo, vegan and gluten-free choices. And there's a new option on the block: Plant-based dining.
As a meat, potatoes and Dover sole kind of gal, on this trip I made a pledge to myself to embrace new and healthy foods, and it turns out that Oceania was just the right place to balance traditional favorites with healthier fare. Why is it the right place? Because the chefs here don't know to create a dish that isn't delicious. And its chefs have embraced the relatively new plant-based concept, which, as described by writer Christophe Berg on Medium.com, is "the craft of preparing dishes using 100 percent plant-based ingredients. Plant meals are naturally lactose and cholesterol free and tend to be low in saturated fats and refined ingredients especially when prepared from scratch."
Here's what resonates: "Plant-based meals are suitable for vegan people, plant eaters, vegetarians, flexitarians as well as any omnivorous eater looking for a different culinary experience."
Having just that sort of omnivorous inclination, I was a little nervous and, at one lunch balanced roast chicken and potatoes with my first foray into a plant-based option: The Osaka Power Bowl.
It's a revelation, out-of-the-garden fresh, with soba noodles, miso-glazed eggplant, edamame, ginger pickles, tofu and sweet potatoes. It was simple and delicious, so much so that I started experimenting with plant-based choices at other meals (there's always a choice on the Grand Dining Room menus for breakfast lunch and dinner).
The ship's healthy food station is the best-kept secret at breakfast. It's at the Waves Grill, next door to a choose-your-own-omelet station. The energy bowls are a great way to start the day; mine was made with blueberries, bananas, mylk (made from nuts and grains rather than coming from cows) and dates, and you can sprinkle almonds, coconut and raisins, among other toppings.
The raw juice bar sure has its following, too; why have a boring old orange juice when you can sip a Rise & Shine (made of orange, carrot, apple, beets and ginger), or a Yellow Sunshine smoothie (with orange, banana, mango and ginger)? Eating (and drinking) healthy has never been so satisfying to this plant-based neophyte.
Here's a tip: From Santo Tomas, one of the most interesting ports on our itinerary, book a tour. Otherwise, you won't have a good experience. That's because Santo Tomas is a cargo port. There's no fancy facilities (though there is a terminal where you can buy souvenirs), and nothing's nearby. And, as well, what's special about Guatemala, particularly this part of its Caribbean coast, is getting out into nature.
One of the trip's bucket list opportunities is a visit to the Mayan ruins of Tikal via a small plane; you can book that through Oceania, and it's a powerful tease. We opted for a more low-key excursion out to the Rio Dulce, Guatemala's "sweet river." It was a peaceful day as our eight-seater boat chugged away from Santo Tomas past beautiful seafront villas and then into the mouth of Rio Dulce, where you feel utter peace. It's framed by steep green canyons with limestone cliffs, toasty thermal waters, ponds of white lilies and small villages. We saw pelicans, cormorants and flamingos (but didn't spot any jaguars, who live in the jungle all around the river). We visited a school created to educate rural kids so that they could be prepared for productive lives as adults, and change family trajectories in this poor area.
Our tour finished with lunch in the bustling town of Livingston, at the river's mouth, where the fish was so fresh it still had its head, and tourists and locals alike plied the streets, shopping, sipping coffee and enjoying the view.
We love exploring in port but even the most indefatigable among us are craving some downtime onboard Oceania Riviera. There's something magical about staying onboard when most others are in port; there's an especially relaxed vibe for a ship that doesn't even feel crowded on a sea day.
This was a day for a long, leisurely breakfast on the Terrace Cafe's alfresco terrace. The spa offered port-day discounts and we booked massages. The Grand, the ship's main dining venue, is, quite marvelously, open almost every day, even in port, for lunch and it's as beautiful at noon, with sunlight flowing in so that the ambiance glows, as it is at dinnertime. It's fun, too, to sit down at a large table and meet other travelers.
I discovered, too, that I'm not the only one who enjoys a day-off from a vacation; Currents, our ship newsletter, showcases activity pretty much throughout the day, even when in port. This afternoon in the Culinary Center, the theme was "Most Requested: Red Ginger," and we made some of the restaurant's most popular dishes, including lobster pad Thai, duck confit and watermelon salad, and soaked ginger cakes.
We simultaneously had fun and learned some new tricks and tips. Most memorable was a balance of flavors experiment with the duck and watermelon dish, where we tried it first without lime, then with the citrus, and really got how much the lime enhanced it. And a team of sous chefs handled most of the mise en place, the French expression for the way Rachael Ray cooks on television, with all her ingredients chopped and prepped so she can just throw them in a skillet. That was fun. Even more fun? Tasting the dishes we made. And everything was so good we just couldn't stop tasting.
At dinner at Toscana later that night with another couple who'd participated in the Culinary Center class, we were so stuffed we all sort of just sat there, staring at the small plates we felt we should order. Our tip: Some of the Culinary Center classes take place in the late afternoon, from 4–6 p.m.; plan to skip dinner that night!
As we have wondered whether you can have the same upmarket in-port experiences in the Western Caribbean that are readily available in other parts of the region, like St. Barts, St. Maarten/St. Martin, San Juan and the Virgin Islands, we're learning that we can. Today we're in Harvest Caye, which, like Costa Maya, is a built-from-scratch resort port.
Contrasting the rambling Costa Maya, Harvest Caye has been created as a private island experience, and is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Oceania's parent company. It's vast, chock-full of Superman-style ziplines (you fly vertically rather than horizontally), a lagoon with kayaks and the most darling electric powered boats, pools, restaurants and tourist shops, and white sand beaches, all wrapped around mangroves.
Harvest Caye is designed for big ships with thousands of travelers, and our smaller group of not-quite-1,000 had the run of the place. You can opt to rent a private oceanfront villa for the day on Harvest Caye -- and we dropped by to check them out and the hammocks that are tied up between pairs of palm trees are worth the price of admission, but you really didn't need to worry about space. There was plenty of it.
There were tours off the private island, with the river tubing experience receiving particular praise from some of our new pals onboard, but we enjoyed a relaxing island day. If there was one disappointment, I thought, as we strolled back to the ship, it was that there wasn't more of a local feel. We're in Belize, after all. And then I ran into a stall with the most beautiful baskets, with Racquelia, who comes over from the mainland to showcase them. She sat serenely, weaving fronds threaded through a needle, and I'd found my Harvest Caye memory.
After eight days in a part of the Caribbean that felt so exotic, and having spent so much time enjoying more recreational than cultural activities, our trip wound up in Key West, with just the right dash of sun-and-fun (and shopping -- the town has some excellent boutiques once you get past the T-shirt shops) to help us prepare for re-entry into our real world.
Heading home, we're taking more fresh memories than souvenirs. We'll treasure our discoveries and our fun familiar traditions in the Western Caribbean. And, just as importantly, we'll transform our home kitchen into a Red Ginger outpost, thanks to the Culinary Center recipes we get to take with us.
And, yes, for the first time on a Western Caribbean cruise we delved more deeply into the wild than we had on previous visits. No question, there wasn't as much of a culinary focus on land as there is in other parts of the vast Caribbean region, but we had the back-up of sailing on the cruise line that Cruise Critic's editors honored just this year for its fourth straight "best for dining" accolade.
The trip offered the perfect pairing.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic’s Chief Content Strategist, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for morre than 20 years. She’s began trawling Europe’s rivers while on assignment for The Washington Post and counts a dozen voyages along the Danube alone (and only two on the Seine; she's looking to increase her frequency on France's most iconic waterway). A Seine cruise's big appeal? The vast range of places to visit there, from imperial cities to villages so beautifully preserved they could be a film set.