Norovirus broke out on this cruise at the end of the first day, this blighted the whole cruise and resulted in around 10% of the passengers being confined to their cabins. The virus defensive measures were introduced on day two and remained in force for the rest of the fourteen-day cruise. This resulted in many areas and activities being closed or restricted and the whole ship was dripping with disinfectant to the extent that it started to cause lifts to malfunction and door locks to fail. Surfaces of tables and furniture were wet or sticky and all hand rails were at times dripping disinfectant. Whilst I was fortunate to avoid getting the virus, the impact of it blighted the whole cruise experience as both passengers and crew were feeling the impact. Whilst any ship can have the virus taken on board, I understand that Riviera has had six different outbreaks, of varying scale, over the last four months whilst operating out of Miami. Given this history it seems almost negligent that Oceania did not implement preventative measures right from the start of the cruise, a practice adopted by some other cruise lines, and then relax them when it was clear that there was no further risk.
I have tried to write this review to differentiate issues associated with the Norovirus outbreak from other aspects of the cruise. I have added some notes on the ports of call and excursions, where taken, at the end of the review.
Having had a wonderful time on Riviera in 2014, this 14-day circuit of the southern and eastern Caribbean was too good to miss so I booked cruise only and made my own flight and accommodation arrangements as I wanted a couple of days in Miami before the cruise and 5 nights in Key West and another 3 nights at the new Margaritaville resort in Hollywood Beach after the cruise. (I will post separate reviews on these)
My flights were in premium economy with Virgin Atlantic and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was on their new 787 Dream liners. A very big improvement on the old 747s. The only downside was nearly 3 hours in the passport queue at Miami airport. I have now got my Global Entry applications approved so, in theory, the wait should not be as long in future, I hope!
After a pleasant couple of days in Miami I took a taxi to the cruise port and arrived at 10.30 for an 11.00 check in time. Dropping off the bags and getting through security was very easy and after a short wait, I was checked in and boarding Riviera at 11.15.
Since I have been on both Riviera and Marina in the past, I was very familiar with the layout of the ship and as I had booked the same Penthouse Suite on deck 10 that I had in 2014 I knew what to expect.
I have previously been very impressed with Oceania’s service and by most other standards, it was mostly good on this cruise. However, there were a few times when it appeared as if staff numbers have been reduced, as has been the case with some other cruise lines. Bar service was where the reduction of staff was most noticeable and the time taken to eat in the Grand Dining room was also noticeably longer. By contrast, the service in Toscana and Jacque’s was still excellent. The nationality mix of staff has changes somewhat and there were some staff who fell short of the capabilities required to deliver the Oceania service that I remember from previous cruises. Some waiters lacked basic service skills often reaching across guests to serve and not waiting for everyone to finish their course before clearing plates.
Riviera as a ship
Riviera is one of Oceania two 1,250 passenger ships which at 66,000 tons makes her very spacious and relaxed. The ship is very tastefully decorated and has some very unusual works of art. I have to say that I found some of the paintings are quite bizarre but I thought that the sculptures and glass work very attractive, especially around the main staircase. Public rooms comprise of three bar/lounges, a show lounge, the Culinary Academy, Artists Loft and the Canyon Ranch spa and fitness center. With nine dining venues, it is no surprise that the food is one of the main features on Riviera. There are a couple of small shops but thankfully no photographers to pester you at every turn.
The pool area and outside decks are very spacious for the number of passengers and the deck furniture is to a good standard. The area is well maintained by the pool butlers and the loungers are all soft cushioned with white covers that are replaced daily. There is a plentiful supply of towels in addition to the one placed on each lounger.
The atmosphere on board is country club casual and most guests dressed smart casual for dinner. With no set dining times, you can book a table in some of the restaurants but others are open seating.
The ship never feels crowded and getting lifts is easy other than during embarkation and disembarkation.
The Best Food at Sea
Oceania claim to offer the best food at sea and are alleged to spend more on food than other cruise line. I was very impressed with the food on my first two cruises with Oceania, but I have to say that my experience this time was not as exceptional as before. Don’t get me wrong, it is not bad, but it feels as if little cuts have been made here and there and it no longer seems to live up to my earlier experiences. I hope this is not a sign of NCL finance staff getting their claws into Oceania as it could all too easily cause them to fall behind competitors like Azamara and Viking.
The most noticeable differences were in the Terrace Café and the Grand Dining room and some things were small like the butter is no longer French, the after dinner mints have gone from the dining room etc.
The food quality, presentation and service in Jacques and Toscana was excellent and the daily afternoon tea, served in The Horizon lounge is, based on my experience, the best afternoon tea at sea although the selection of items was smaller than I remember and the trolleys used to serve guests seem to have gone in favour of more self-service. This was the first time that I have heard longstanding Oceania cruisers complain about resuction in standards.
I have never been a fan of Red Ginger and my experience this time has done nothing to change my view.
Pool Grill is a competent steak house but this time the experience was no better than other steak houses at sea.
La Reserve’s food and wine pairing diner was excellent and we had a very good table to share the experience with making it one of the most enjoyable evening meals of the cruise.
The wine list was a disappointment this time as it looked to offer a smaller selection than I remember on previous cruises. It was also far too Californian centric for my taste with very few examples of New Zealand, Australian and Chilean wines. The wines in the package that was on offer were very uninspiring and generally wine and drinks prices are somewhat higher than the competition, especially when you add the 18% service charge. (Gin and Tonic $10.62 and a Corona $8.26)
This was the first time that I have experienced Oceania running out of basic supplies but some mineral water ran out five days before the end of the cruise and some wines had run out by the 12th day. These are not perishable items so should be readily available when sailing from Oceania’s home port.
As this was a “special” anniversary cruise I booked a Penthouse Suite again and secured the same one that I had last time I was on Riviera. I like to be on deck 10 as there is a significant overhang above deck 11, where most of the Penthouse suites are located, this blocks out much of the sunshine.
The suite was beautifully presented and I am not sure that I would ever need or use any more space. They are effectively very large open plan cabins but the space is very well divided up to provide a separate desk (with a lap top computer), a vanity unit, a lounge area and a good size dining table and 2 chairs. The stone clad bathroom is also large with a full size bath with shower and a good size separate shower. A walk in wardrobe together with the drawers in the vanity unit provides more than ample storage for everything you bring with you. There is a small fridge that is stocked with soft drinks that are complimentary and are replenished daily. The good sized balcony has two reclining arm chairs, with nice thick cushions, and a small table.
There are plenty of electric sockets but most are American style with 2 being Continental style so you will need to take adapters with you if you wish to use electrical items.
The stewards kept the suite immaculate and readily replaced anything that started to look used and the butler provided excellent service, which mostly consisted of delivering breakfast and the afternoon canapes.
The passengers were, for the most part, retired or near to retirement. The vast majority of passengers were American but there was a small quota of Canadians and British and I noticed a few Australians and Dutch. I met some lovely people from all nationalities but I have never before encountered so many arrogant, impatient and at times rude Americans before. I do not know how the staff managed to maintain their composure and courteous approach at times.
I had not attended any of the Culinary classes on my previous cruises but the pasta class caught my eye this time so my wife and I joined the first session on our first sea day. We are both reasonable cooks and we enjoy pasta but have never before made fresh pasta. This class was very enjoyable, very informative and we sampled some wonderfully tasty but simple pasta dishes. The pasta machine that has been languishing in the cupboard is going to be dusted down when I get home.
During the second day at sea, the Captain announced that there were a number of guests with symptoms of Noro virus. The ship instigated its Norovirus sanitation plan which meant an extraordinary amount of extra work for the crew. This regime remained in force for the rest of the cruise with significant impact on many aspects of the cruise experience. The main impact to on board services for the majority of guests was a constant smell of disinfectant with wet hand rails and door handles. Every table and chair and all flat surfaces were liberally spread with sanitizing fluid that took ages to dry, and when it did, it left the surfaces sticky to the touch and difficult to use.
The dining locations took on a very stark look as nothing was pre set on the tables, this destroyed the ambiance of all the lovely restaurants. Tables were at a premium in the Terrace Café and Waves Grill as they had to be sanitised between use. Most group activities such as the Culinary Academy, the Artists Loft, the library, the Internet Café, the launderettes and some sports activities were restricted or closed during the outbreak which effectively meant for 13 days of the 14-day cruise.
One of the biggest impacts was that the authorities in Aruba would not let Riviera dock, but there were many frustrating announcements that kept everyone’s hopes alive as we were left hanging around all day. It would have been much better if we were told the real reason for not docking much earlier in the day.
But by far the biggest impact was the fear that I would become one of the next victims so I made sure not to attend any shows and lectures as well as other activities where large groups gather which again eroded the cruise experience. The good news, if there is any, was that I did manage to avoid the virus but the cruise experience was a disaster and nothing like my previous experience on Riviera.
Discussions with crew and some research on the CDC Web site suggest that this was the third reportable outbreak of the virus since December and there were a number of other outbreaks that did not involve 3% of the passengers and were therefore not reportable. Given this track record, I cannot believe that Oceania did not do more to alert passengers before the cruise and implement a containment regime from the start of the cruise to isolate any cases early, and limit the spread and the duration of the impact. This is something that some cruise lines do as a matter of routine at the start of cruises.
I am also not convinced that Oceania’s claim that passengers are to blame for the outbreak is not necessarily true. CDC reports on Riviera highlight a number of staff related issues as well as poor practices.
My previous experience of disembarking Oceania cruises has not been good and I am afraid leaving Riviera this time was also chaos. Everyone’s allocated colour coded groups and times for disembarkation but when clearance was finally given they announced nine groups at once. This caused chaos as people converged on the one small gangway from all directions. It also caused unnecessary congestion and queues in the baggage hall and through customs. At times the lines were so long that it was difficult to cross the lines to reach your baggage. The queuing continued outside the terminal for taxis. More sensible sequencing of the groups could easily have avoided much of the congestion.
To Sum Up
All in all, this was a very disappointing cruise experience and not at all what we had expected for a special anniversary holiday. There is no doubt that the Norovirus outbreak had a lot to do with this but there are also clear signs of cut backs that mean that Oceania is not what it was 2 years ago.
Ports of Call
Santa Maria, Columbia
I really enjoyed a visit to Cartagena in Columbia a few years ago, such interesting Spanish architecture and some really old buildings left me delighted that the first port on this cruise was Santa Maria which is just along the coast from Cartagena. The arrival in the commercial port did not bode well as we moored up alongside a ship loading coal. I had booked a half day excursion called the Highlights of Santa Marta, a similar excursion to the one I did in Cartagena. But that was where the similarities ended. I had a good guide, but he kept stressing that Santa Marta was ransacked by pirates many times and all that remains now is a modern city with some areas dating back to the late 18th century so there was nothing like the grandeur of Cartagena. Santa Marta’s claim to fame is that Simon Bolivar died there and there’s a park dedicated to him, but that apart, I am afraid that Santa Marta has little to offer and the excursion seemed to be looking for things to make it viable.
I have visited Aruba a number of times before but none the less I was sorry that we were not able to visit it this time as it is one of the best shopping destinations on the itinerary and a cold beer and nachos at Iguana Joe’s has become a very enjoyable ritual on previous visits.
Bonaire, whilst the larger of the ABC islands in size is, with only 18,000 inhabitants the smallest of the big three islands in terms of population and as such does not have the large scale resorts and shopping found on Aruba and Caracas. The ship docks on the north pier which is right in the capital, Kralendijke.
Bonaire’s claim to fame, and the reason most people visit it, is the diving opportunities on the coral fringe of the island. You only need to look down from the pier or the promenade in Kralendijke to see the number of different brightly coloured fish.
I snorkeled last time I visited Bonaire so I took the short eco tuk tuk (electric) tour of Kralendijke which provided a very comfortable overview of the town and the history of the island which, unlike it’s bigger independent neighbours, remains a Dutch province with daily links to Amsterdam.
As we visited the island on Good Friday, most of the shops were closed, but a bar built on a pier over the sea provided a very refreshing opportunity to cool down with a beer in the sea breeze.
I have visited Grenada a number of times before and have visited many of the main attractions, but I never tire of a stroll along the water front of the old harbour which is fringed by many colonial buildings and warehouses. This time I took a stroll into St George’s and as most places were closed for Easter I took a ride on the Grenada Discovery Train which is a small road train that takes you all around St George’s. It was a good way to see and learn about St George’s but it was quite an “interesting” ride with no seat belts and side doors to keep you in your seat over the, at times, very steep hills. I am not sure it would meet UK safety standards!
Martinique proved that rain forests do get rain, but a short walk into Fort de France, dodging the rain showers, confirmed that Easter Monday was not a good day to visit the town as everything except a few local craft stalls was closed. Even McDonald’s was closed so no Internet access on that day!
I had never visited Guadeloupe before so I opted to take the half day Highlights of Guadeloupe tour offered by Oceania. From what I have read, Guadeloupe looked to be a very interesting island with much to offer, but if what we saw on the excursion were really the highlights then I might be wrong.
We visited one of the old forts that protected Pointe a Petrie which was on a very picturesque headland but the main part of the fort was not accessible on the day of our visit. We then stopped to have a look at an off shore island which was pretty but nothing more startling. The third stop was at what was supposed to be one of the most picturesque beach side villages in Guadeloupe, but since we were dropped off well outside the village at a “traditional” craft-market and only had 40 minutes, we could not get to what looked to be the most interesting part of the village. The last stop was a total waste of time so all in all I do not believe we saw much of the real highlights of Guadeloupe. The excursion was badly organised as there were three coaches doing the same agenda so they all travelled together which caused congestion and meant that we frequently could not hear our guide.
There were four cruise ships at St Kitts on the day we visited so Riviera, being the smallest, was required to tender. I had booked an excursion that I had enjoyed a number of years ago to visit Brimstone Hill Fort but when I saw the sea state and the way that the tenders were being bounced around, I decided to stay on board.
This was another tender port but as the seas looked a little less rough I braved the tender service. In reality, the tender to the island was very rough and the driver showed no concern for guests who were clearly not at all happy with the way the tender was being tossed about with water coming in through the side doors.
I enjoyed St Barts last time I visited and the weather was not too good when I arrived ashore so it was time for a coffee to recover from the tender experience. I had done the around the island tour last time I visited so chose not to do this in light of the weather. The good news was that after my coffee, the sky cleared and the sun graced us with its presence so I set off on a walk around Gustavia’s harbour and then over to Shell Bay, a pretty beach a few blocks from the harbour.
There are a number of bars for some liquid refreshment on the way back to the tender pier but the prices are high but I had remembered to take some Euros with me to avoid the additional penalty associated with their exchange rate to US $.