As Oceania Cruises celebrates its 15th anniversary, Liz Jarvis discovers the delights of the award-winning cruise line’s culinary offering on a Caribbean sailing from Miami on Riviera

Barbecue Baby Back Rib Salad, served at the Red Ginger restaurant on board Riviera © Oceania Cruises
Barbecue Baby Back Rib Salad, served at the Red Ginger restaurant on board Riviera © Oceania Cruises

The sun is just starting to rise, turning the sky peach-pink, and I’m enjoying a cup of freshly brewed coffee on my veranda when I spot them; six dark shadows, skimming across the waves. At first I think they’re orcas, but they’re moving too quickly, and I realise it’s a pod of dolphins, performing a water ballet for everyone else who, like me, rose at 6am. For the rest of the day, it’s all anyone can talk about: “Did you see the dolphins?” “I thought they were sharks,” and so on.

But I feel a bit greedy. It’s my first time on Riviera, but it’s actually my second sighting of wild dolphins on this cruise – the first before we’d even left Miami, when one swam alongside the ship while it was still docked. I’m definitely impressed.

Twilight on Riviera © Oceania Cruises
Twilight on Riviera © Oceania Cruises

In fact, I’m being wowed by the entire experience on this Caribbean cruise itinerary. For a start, the ship is absolutely beautiful – incredibly spacious, with a refined, elegant air. There’s a big reception area, a glorious Lalique staircase, enormous library with lots of nooks and crannies, and some very cool bars.

Of course, the advantage of cruising in the Caribbean is that it’s balmy enough to sit outside in the evening, enjoying a cocktail as we listen to music; the ship looks rather spectacular at night, illuminated in purple, and there’s a really lively atmosphere. Everyone is chatty, possibly because of the two-for-one Happy Hour offer.

While Oceania Cruises is not all-inclusive, the onboard service does offer incredibly good value, not least because there are six superb speciality restaurants to choose from with no cover charge.

You can order a speciality coffee from the onboard café, Baristas, any time you feel like it, and the room service is probably some of the best I’ve had at sea, fast and freshly prepared to order. As an avocado on toast addict I go decidedly off menu for breakfast and this doesn’t phase the kitchen staff at all.

Breakfast on the veranda © Oceania Cruises
Breakfast on the veranda © Oceania Cruises

While I do sometimes venture to the Terrace café, with its fantastic al fresco space and superb omelettes cooked to order, breakfast on the balcony is for me one of cruising’s simple pleasures, and my Concierge level Veranda stateroom has a teak deck, a generous sitting area, as well as the supremely comfortable Prestige Tranquility bed, surely one of the best beds at sea (found in all levels of stateroom on Oceania Cruises’ ships).

Staying on the Concierge level also gives me, among many other benefits, free access to the Canyon Ranch SpaClub private Spa Terrace, with its whirlpool and salubrious, lounge chairs (highly sought-after on sea days); free unlimited internet; and, joy of joys, up to three bags of free laundry, as well as free pressing of two garments on embarkation. I send off two of my favourite cocktail dresses to be ironed, but as I quickly discover, while people do make an effort for dinner, no one gets really dressed up on board an Oceania Cruises
ship. It’s all very relaxed, and as much as I love glamming up, feeling comfortable in whatever you choose to wear is exactly what you want on a holiday, too.

Oceania Cruises has won numerous awards for its culinary offering, including Best for Food several years running at the Cruise International awards, and gastronomy is a massive part of the onboard experience, particularly on Riviera.

Sushi at Red Ginger © Oceania Cruises
Sushi at Red Ginger © Oceania Cruises

With its ebony and red theme, Asian-inspired Red Ginger has the look and feel of a big Hong Kong restaurant; the food is beautifully presented, and I’m delighted to be presented with a selection of chopsticks to choose from (I really have no idea what I’m doing, so the waitress makes helpful suggestions and I select a pair with silver handles) as well as an impressive selection of tea, though I opt for ice-cold Sake. The sushi is excellent, as is my beef teriyaki, which is as tender and flavoursome as you could wish for. I also try the sole tempura, which is light and fresh and served with a tangy orange ponzu dip. Although it’s far too much food, that doesn’t stop me from ordering the chocolate crème brûlée afterwards, which is absolutely divine, light and fluffy.

Italian restaurant Toscana serves authentic Tuscan dishes presented on stunning Versace china: mindful of my propensity to devour anything that’s put in front of me, I order vaguely sensibly: scallops followed by gnocchi, washed down with Prosecco and chased with Limoncello. It’s very good.

Pinney's Beach, St Kitts and Nevis © 4Corners
Pinney’s Beach, St Kitts and Nevis © 4Corners

The pretty French restaurant Jacques, created by the acclaimed chef Jacques Pépin (who used to work with the legendary Julia Child) has the look and feel of a Parisian bistro, with antiques and wood carvings and highly amusing, attentive waiters. Here even the bread basket is a work of art, offering warm crusty rolls stamped with Jacques, which I devour with butter (I never eat butter at home, but it feels as though I would be doing rolls a disservice not to have it here). My Crab Meat Salad with a Blood Orange Sauce is excellent, as are my Sautéed Scallops over Fondant Potatoes, which my waiter insists I have with asparagus. I’m almost too full for dessert. Almost. But I can’t resist Baba au Rhum, that exotic confection of sponge, cream and alcohol, and the waiter soaks it in so much delicious aged French island rum I’m guaranteed a good night’s sleep.

For me though the highlight of any voyage with Oceania Cruises is always going to be dinner at the Polo Grill, which reminds me of a Manhattan restaurant; it’s classy, understated, and again, the service is impeccable. My menu highlights here include the Oysters Rockefeller, Filet Mignon (which is cooked to perfection), and the Truffle Mashed Potatoes. But for me, the most delectable, moreish dish of all is the Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Trust me, once you’ve tried its salty deliciousness, you’ll be craving it for ever more.

Our ports of call include the private island of Great Stirrup Cay, with its white-sand beaches, where an outdoor barbecue is served; and St Kitts, where I opt for a tour that includes a high-octane power catamaran ride to the neighbouring island of Nevis, followed by trips to the hot springs and the saffron-coloured sand of Pinney’s Beach, which has a backdrop of Mount Nevis.

Colourful houses in Old San Juan © Getty Images
Colourful houses in Old San Juan © Getty Images

An unexpected detour to Puerto Rico instead of the Dominican Republic due to high seas gives me the welcome opportunity to explore Old San Juan for a second time; with its glorious colourfully painted architecture and laid-back vibe, it’s probably one of the most seductive cities in this region of the world, and easy to walk around.

Sea days are always a good opportunity to check out the spa, and the Canyon Ranch SpaClub is definitely one of my favourites; here I enjoy a superb pedicure and emerge 40 minutes later with gleaming polished nails and baby-soft feet.

Sadly I have to leave the ship in Antigua while it continues sailing round the Caribbean, and I fly back to a rain-sodden London; still craving that Lobster Mac ‘N’ Cheese.

GETTING THERE: A 10-day Sunny Charms cruise on Riviera departing 24 February 2019 round trip from Miami costs from £3,719pp including flights (oceaniacruises.com).