by Tracy Howard

A cruise aboard ms Riviera, offering both luxurious ship features and down-to-earth island experiences, delivers a fresh taste of the region

Oceania RivieraCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

As Julio, a bartender at the Bamboo Beach Bar & Grill in Trujillo, Honduras, proudly showed off his futbol team photos from the 1970s while the restaurant’s toucan squawked away, I realized this trip was exactly what I’d hoped it would be.

I’ve had the good fortune to have explored the Caribbean by both land and sea several times and initially wondered if this upscale seven-day voyage aboard Oceania’s ms Riviera could reveal a new side of the region and provide, along with elegance, immersive shore experiences.

I needn’t have worried. As Riviera’s general manager explained, Oceania prides itself on unique itineraries and inclusion of some largely uncharted ports, allowing guests to get as up close and personal with them as they choose. “Our guests are well-experienced travelers,” said the GM. “So we’re always looking for new ports of call, as well as offering something different one year to another.”

Trujillo is one of those “something different” destinations, having only opened its Banana Coast port in October 2014, as an alternative to nearby Roatán. While there, in addition to meeting Julio, who blended me a refresher made with Honduran lemon, cherry, grenadine and ice, I enjoyed witnessing the exuberance of local children still clearly finding cruise guests a novelty. I opted for the mocktail, having already sampled Salva Vida, the local beer, at rustic and open-air Café Vino Tinto, where I chatted about the area’s development with expats from New Orleans and Toronto.

The beverages were welcome refreshments after the sticky sightseeing I’d done earlier in the humid air. Not surprising for a town founded in 1525, and marking where Columbus first made landfall in Central America, Trujillo offers intriguing historical attractions. The most famous is Fortaleza de Santa Barbara, a fort built to (unsuccessfully) fend off pirates. Located on a bluff accessed via a steep stone walkway, the fort offers a panoramic view of Trujillo Bay, as well as remains and exhibits on the area’s colonial history.

While Trujillo is a find for those looking for a piece of the Caribbean that’s been largely off the tourist map, I also appreciated the classic destinations included in the mix.

Hemingway HomeCourtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum

Key West, Florida, unequivocally belongs in the latter category, yet the cruise marked my first visit there. The island-city is easy to tour on foot to take in the postcard-pretty mix of Conch houses and Victorian architecture.

To fuel up after walking, I stopped at Amigos Tortilla Bar on Greene Street. Finding the casual taqueria was a happy accident: its square tacos delivered Mexican flavors as vibrant as the homemade guacamole and chips I had snacked on in Cozumel earlier in the trip.

And then there was food for thought. At the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, a guide provided background on Hemingway’s time in Key West as well as on the site’s famous six-toed cats, some thought to be descendants of the writer’s feline. (The cats really do own the place, as our group discovered when what we took to be a stuffed replica placed on a bed decided to roll over.)

To get into the spirit of Hemingway, the bon vivant, I briefly stopped by his favorite Key West watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s. Although the current place, at the corner of Duval and Greene, is a block away from the location he frequented, with its live music and rollicking crowd, I think Papa Hemingway would have felt at home.

Not every shore experience centered on food and drink. Belize presented my first air-boat adventure. Excitement (or, more accurately, nerves) kicked in when the captain maneuvered the boat into a mangrove area in search of a crocodile that had laid her eggs there. While we didn’t see any reptiles, or the manatees that make nearby Almond Hill Lagoon their habitat, the excursion provided viewing of several tropical-bird species.

Oceania_StaircaseCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

As lively as the shore visits were, I always looked forward to reboarding Riviera. The 1,250-guest vessel has the feel of a supremely elegant hotel with subdued but luxurious decor interspersed with several show-stopper design features. Perhaps most impressive is the reception area’s two-storey crystal-bedecked double staircase designed by Lalique.

That attention to detail extends even to stateroom toiletries, provided by Italian luxury-goods brand Bvlgari. The General Manager explained that offering the amenities and accommodations of an upscale cruise line, but at lower than premium prices, is part of how Oceania caters to its savvy clientele. “We have more of an à la carte approach,” he said. “So you can customize the experience yourself.”

A key way to customize the Riviera experience is choosing between her restaurants, among the best I’ve sampled at sea. In addition to the Grand Dining Room and made-to-order selections at the Terrace Café, specialty restaurants (offered with no surcharge) present a delicious sampling of global cuisines. (After the day of casual Caribbean living in Honduras, it felt a little surreal to dine that evening on dishes like Vichyssoise with Ibérico ham and lavender crème brûlé at Jacques, the French-Country bistro named for Oceania’s legendary executive culinary director, Jacques Pépin.

Oceania_JacquesCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

The other exemplary specialty restaurants include Polo Grill steakhouse; Toscana, offering gourmet Italian; and Red Ginger, serving contemporary Asian.

Red Ginger’s miso-glazed sea bass was the talk of the ship from the beginning of the cruise, and happily, its sweet flavors and melt-in-your-mouth texture did not disappoint. Dishes like it and the Imperial Potato Roll with Shrimp, served in a theatrical Asian-inspired setting, left me convinced the restaurant would be a dining hot spot even if located in Toronto or New York City.  

Red GingerCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

Along with fine dining, Riviera also offers appealing spots for snacking. A favorite hangout was Baristas, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and complimentary espressos, cappuccinos and biscotti as delicious as any top-notch European coffee bar. Judging by the coffee breaks I saw being taken there by the captain, executive officer and executive chef, it’s a must for the crew as well.

Fortunately for waistlines, the tempting cuisine is balanced by Riviera’s well-equipped gym, operated by Canyon Ranch SpaClub. In addition to sampling fitness equipment, I participated in lively aerobics and abs classes during days at sea.

Canyon Ranch SpaCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

Culinary Arts CenterCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

Other options for experiencing the ship include hands-on cooking classes at The Culinary Center, art lessons at the Artist Loft and nightly concerts and Broadway-style entertainment in the Lounge.

While energized by onboard activities, one of the most memorable moments for me was entirely unplanned. After we departed our last port for the journey back to Miami, I returned to my stateroom. Hearing what sounded like birds, I walked onto the veranda only to see several small dolphins making playful arcs as they escorted us out to sea. I felt a little melancholy knowing that this was the cruise’s swan song, but, as farewells go, it was pretty sweet.

Veranda StateroomCourtesy of Oceania Cruises

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