Cruise Review: Costa neoRiviera

Part of Costa’s ‘neo collection’, Costa neoRiviera is an intimate ship with a touch of traditionalist charm, and in the Arabian Gulf cruise market, she punches way above her weight in value.

Costa neoRiviera is one of the smaller cruise ships in the Costa Cruises fleet, and as such, she exemplifies a more traditional style of cruising, where guest interaction and immersion in the destinations visited is prioritised above the bells and whistles that have become synonymous with the modern cruise industry.

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Don’t get us wrong though, Cruise Arabia & Africa loves the bells and whistles as much as any other 21st century cruise passenger – the dodgem cars, ice rinks, skydive and surf simulators have all opened this amazingly diverse industry up to an ever-growing number of passengers. But, there is still something to be said for the more relaxed pace of the ‘traditional’ cruise experience, where the ship is a floating hotel moving between ports and not an attraction within itself.

neoRiviera’s backstory

Built in 1999, Costa neoRiviera is entering the evening years of her cruise career, but there is nothing about the ship that would suggest she is approaching 18-years-old. Inside and out, she is immaculately maintained, with a full refit having been completed in 2013 when she entered service with Costa Cruises as part of their ‘neo collection’. Her passenger areas feel brand new and the cabins are on-par with other ships of her class in the global fleet, even the gargantuan new ones.

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For a couple with an excitable three-year-old, the outside superior we stayed in never felt cramped. With the Pullman berth in the wall deployed, however, the cabin does feel a lot smaller. We chose to have our son sleep in the bed with us during our 5-night Arabian Gulf cruise.

Is she good for cruising expats?

That’s another thing we decided to do differently. Unlike most of the European, American, Australian and South African passengers on the ship, we had selected the shorter cruise itinerary, omitting the overnight stay in port at the Dubai Cruise Terminal on either end of the voyage. The fact that Costa Cruises offers this as an option rather than the full week-long itinerary makes their Arabian Gulf cruises a lot more accessible to harried Middle East expats with limited time off from work.

Family friendly?

In fact, on our cruise there were several dozen residents of Dubai and the wider region board on the same day as us, many with their children in tow. Costa neoRiviera is a very family-friendly ship, with a ‘Sqouk’ kids club that accepts children three and up for structured activities throughout the day. These range from bridge visits and pool dance sessions to meet and greets with Peppa Pig. Best of all, this baby-sitting service is free of charge and runs until midnight so a sneaky drink by the pool after a visit to the nightclub on Deck 13 aft is totally possible.

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And if you do go aboard neoRiviera with your kids, you’ll want to take advantage of the Squok Club because there is so much going on aboard this ship at night. Everyone has their own unique tastes and preferences, but what we enjoyed was sampling wine in the Porquellos Bar on the boat deck before dinner and listening to the pianist. After dinner we’d watch the live band in the Saint Paul de Vence Lounge until around 10pm, when the nightclub starts to come alive. Its open until 3am so if you don’t have kids…

neoRiviera’s nightlife

On two of the nights on-board there was also a massive party on the pool deck. The first was Costa Cruises’ famous ‘White Party’ on the second night, during our port call in Muscat. We slipped our moorings and headed stern-first for the open waters of the Gulf of Oman with the bass-laden tunes of ‘Sunny’ by Bobby Hebb echoing off the mountains that surround Port Sultan Qaboos in the Omani capital, our strobe lights competing with those of Seabourn Encore, which slipped out to sea an hour before us at 11pm.

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The second major party on the pool deck was the following night, after a day at sea. Costa Cruises threw a Bollywood Party for all the Indian guests on-board, although most of the ship’s night owls got involved as well. There is something to be said for learning the moves to Jai Ho while cruising up the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Arabian Gulf, with Sir Bani Yas Island to look forward to in the morning.

Shore excursions

This wasn’t our first visit to Sir Bani Yas Island, but it was the first time we were going ashore to the new Sir Bani Yas Cruise Beach. The whole concept behind Sir Bani Yas Cruise Beach as an island stopover for the cruise lines frequenting the Arabian Gulf is that it gives the region a slight Caribbean flair, putting it on par with the cruise line-owned island resorts in the Bahamas. North American cruisers who have visited both will attest to the fact that Sir Bani Yas is anything but Caribbean in look or feel, but it has a charm of its very own despite that.

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It lies low in the water, making it appear further off than it actually is, with large white awnings over the huge barbeque area, where permanent tables and a buffet station enable the serving of lunch to several thousand passengers. Row upon row of beach umbrellas and sun chairs line the sandy beach, which isn’t the powerdy white sand of the Caribbean, but rather the slightly coarser variety characteristic of this part of the world. The water was also very cold at the time of year that we went (December), but is just right at the very beginning and end of the cruise season (in early November and mid- to late-March). For the Europeans on our cruise, it seemed fine though, they dive right in where I feared to tread, so much of this is subjective. In terms of shore excursions on Sir Bani Yas Island, the mangrove kayaking and the game safari are highly recommended.

At Sir Bani Yas Island, there is no cruise dock, so one must tender to and from the ship, but neoRiviera kept up a constant back and forth of boats so once you’re on the island you aren’t stuck there and can return to the ship at any time. The return trips become quite busy after the barbeque lunch though, so don’t hang about after you’ve eaten. You should stay for lunch on the island though, because the al fresco buffet is wonderful. Costa Cruises laid on burgers, BBQ ribs, chicken, a selection of vegetables and pastas and mountains and salad.

Food options aboard neoRiviera

Speaking of pasta, the dining on-board isn’t something I’ve addressed yet and pasta is something that Costa does well. This is to be expected of course as they’re an Italian cruise line, but let’s not be dismissive of what is very nearly total perfection when it comes to their pasta. Even the pasta in the buffet restaurant on deck 12 aft was better than anything we’ve ever had in any restaurant in Dubai (and perhaps even Paris). The same can’t be said of everything else served there. The beef and turkey dishes tended to be dry or lacking slightly in taste, but the selection of fresh cold meats was prolific and of very good quality.

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We ate in the main dining room twice on the entire cruise and in hindsight wished we’d been more conscious of time and made more of an effort to make it to our first sitting slot. Every meal in the Cetara dining room is a completely different experience to the buffet, the food is of a much greater quality and the variety on the menu is truly impressive. What made dining at Cetara so special though was the staff, and that isn’t an empty platitude because Costa Cruises didn’t know that we were on-board for a cruise review.

The service

Our waiters Joselito and Jodel really made us feel welcome and looked after and never needed reminding of any particular quirks (my wife has a particular penchant for bland food and eschews all spices or anything that adds taste whatsoever) and Joselita was helpful in steering her toward the dishes she would most enjoy. He also made a great fuss of our son, who loved the attention. They ‘went the extra mile’ in little ways that not only showed that they really cared, but also made the night a little more special. Two examples were an origami rabbit he made for my son on the first night and a bird on the second. The bird was especially loved by Riley as it had flapping wings and was kept as a ‘pet’ for a week after the cruise.

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Noel, our cabin steward was similarly attentive, always finding time to make up the cabin at whatever odd hours of the day we chose to leave, and always ready with extra pillows or blankets or any of the other number of requests with which we burdened him. The service staff aboard neoRiviera are excellent, the same can’t be said of the uniformed management who were a little more hit and miss.

Final thoughts

That being said, Costa Cruises have cornered the market when it comes to price, they are definitely a lot cheaper than every other cruise line homeporting in Dubai each year. We paid AED1,800 (US $490) each for our 5-night cruise, which is much less than what you’d pay at any Dubai hotel for the same number of nights.

With three meals a day, round the clock entertainment and a new port to look forward to everyday, it’s no wonder that neoRiviera has operated at near full capacity throughout the 2016/17 Middle East cruise season. In fact, the cruise line is bringing a larger ship to Dubai next year to accommodate growing demand for its Arabian Gulf cruise itinerary. Having spent 5-nights aboard neoRiviera, Cruise Arabia & Africa is one of the first to book to do the same cruise again aboard Costa Mediteranea.

Standout memories:

  • The Voice at Sea show was particularly good
  • Drinking hot chocolate late at night in one of the many cabanas around the pool deck
  • My son’s face when he met Peppa Pig for the first time
  • The BBQ rids on Sir Bani Yas Island!
  • Ordering every desert on the menu in main dining room

The good:

  • Excellent wait staff in main dining room
  • Good variety of shows in the theatre each night
  • Smoking lounge starboard outside theatre and starboard at forward end of pool deck
  • Free baby-sitting services at Squok Club until midnight for over threes
  • The best hot chocolate available anywhere in the world is served on-board

The bad:

  • International adapters aren’t available on-board, not even for sale in shops
  • European management staff often come across as disinterested
  • We couldn’t put cash on our cruise card until the second day of the cruise as UAE dirhams weren’t accepted on the first night for reasons that remain a mystery
  • Between 11pm and 6am room service options are very limited

Costa neoRiviera at a glance:

Launched:                                    1999

Refurbished (most recent):            2013

GRT:                                           48,200

Length:                                       709’ (216m)

Beam:                                         94’ (28.8m)

Capacity (double occupancy):           1,700

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