Nearer to heaven
We arrive in Pompeii in Naples and decide to travel to Capri for the day. Ascending to heaven must feel a little like this I think, as I sit bobbing in a chairlift up to the summit of Mount Solaro. Below are pretty Capri houses with well-kept terraced vegetable gardens and backyards filled with various crops. On my 12-minute trip to the top, 589 metres above sea level, I become nosy and look straight into windows of local houses. The view out across the Amalfi Coast and surrounding islands in the Bay of Naples is breathtaking. The horizon fades off so you can’t quite differentiate between sky and sea; in the distance you can see the mountains of Calabria. Tiny boats swirl around the coastline, leaving their white wake as seagulls play in the warm air. It is quite surreal looking down on this majestic scene, and one feels almost god-like peering down on the thick blanket of fog that forms around the summit. Locals often refer to Mount Solaro as “cloud catcher”, and I want to return one day.
Back onboard our secret hangout was The Dutch Café, complete with blue and white Delft inspired interiors. This was our go-to place for a coffee and a slice of something sweet after a day exploring from the ship. The chocolate profiteroles, almost the size of a baby’s head, are worth the potential tooth extraction – you will not be disappointed. Heerlijk! (That’s “delicious” in Dutch.)
In The Culinary Arts Center, The Smiths, then Elvis Costello, play overhead. By day, the cooking school and show kitchen is the place for those wanting to master pizza making, or learn Spanish-style seafood recipes. At night the Center transforms into a popular paddock-to-plate restaurant, the first I’ve seen at sea. Staff in denim shirts and aprons seem very relaxed with customers. Chef Tomas Kargol says, “Passengers are wanting to understand more where their food has come from, flavours are less complicated, and the ingredients are less played with. This place has a community gathering feeling to it.” A purple haze in the corner is a micro herb farm. They take five days to grow in their special light box from microgreen specialist Koppert Cress. “The herbs are very fresh and provide a simple seasoning, they are full of flavour,” adds Kargol. I started with the celery and kale risotto, followed by poached sea bass and fennel confit, and to finish a cheese plate and a tea that promised to make us sleep. As English speakers put it: delicious!
Next day: Palermo, the capital of Sicily, and a day spent wandering inside very old churches, discovering the local outdoor Ballarò market, dating back to the ninth century when Saracens ruled the island. With a colourful assortment of fruits and vegetables, fish and meats, vendors yell to anyone passing beneath vivid tarpaulins suspended to protect their wares from the sun.
It’s a riot of hues as blood oranges, artichokes, fish and herbs stretch out around a series of medieval streets and laneways. Lunch is at Bisso Bistrot on the corner of Via Maqueda 172, a wonderful Sicilian restaurant. Its concise menu uses fresh, local ingredients and changes every couple of days. It is well worth visiting, though after a big day of walking it was good to get back to the ship.
The Tamarind restaurant was one of my favourites onboard. Serving a mix of southeast Asian, Chinese and Japanese cuisine, it is located on the uppermost deck and the menu is based on the elements of water, wood, fire and earth. Chef Rudi Sodamin and specially trained Asian chefs pull together a very smart and special dining experience. I’m not a great lover of fusion food, yet this works. The mix of ingredients don’t jar the palate, but rather take you on a culinary ride through the Orient. Crisp fried soft shell crab, Peking duck with Chinese crepes, sushi and sashimi, curries, barramundi in banana leaf, sesame udon noodles … it’s a wonderful place to share plates and swap stories of the day’s shore excursions. (I don’t know how to write “delicious” in Chinese, Japanese or Thai, but it was just that!).
Flamingos and cakes
I have always wanted to visit Sardinia. With flamingos flying overhead, the beaches were the place to go. The weather was not on our side, however, so we hiked to the top of the city, visiting churches and strolling back though small laneways. We came across the artists’ area, got lost stopping for coffee and discovered a row of shops filled with local Sardinian baking. From the Gustavino Bakery we sampled aranzadas and formagella. Pretty local tilicca cakes, made of almond paste and honey frilled at the edges, came in myriad shapes and sizes. Later we discovered the Sardinian Hotel for lunch where we had Italian lobster spaghetti, beef in wine and garlic sauce, rolled crisp bread with olive oil and salt. The best ingredients, the simplest dishes, all washed down with Italian red wine. (Delizioso! That’s Italian.)
As if not full enough, we return to the ship for dinner. The main dining room extends across two floors and has a giant, whale-like rib cage linking both levels. The space is decorated in warm and inviting yellows with accents of red lighting and vases of freshly cut flowers on all tables while a spectacular copper-sheathed wine tower stretches up from the first floor to the second.
I love a day at sea. The pace slows and you can explore. At a games nook of daily crosswords, word games and an ongoing jigsaw puzzle, I meet a fellow passenger with a great recommendation. The Greenhouse Spa & Salon offers a deep-tissue hot stone massage. According to Francie Gingrich from Washington DC, who I meet across the jigsaw table at the Explorations Café, it’s “the best money I ever spent on myself”. And Gingrich wasn’t wrong. “My thumbs are my eyes,” says Kasha, my masseuse, while his digits look for and ease out the knots. The treatment room faces the sea and, as I watch the waves slip by, I drift off to sleep.
A Small ship feel
Captain Emiel de Vries has been with Holland America since 1997, and has spent the past year and a half on dock seeing the vessel being built. “It is a big ship with a small ship feel. Being at the shipyard enabled me to gain detailed insight into many areas of the ship,” he says proudly. Guests from the USA, Canada, Holland, Australia and New Zealand are all aboard on this, the third voyage. “It’s a well-designed ship, with a top speed of 24 knots. The propellers are different in design; they are quieter and the blades are thinner, with less fuel consumption.”
My onboard fuel consumption, however, is at the other end of the scale. The New York Deli & Pizza delivers authentic deli sandwiches piled high: the Reuben was the real deal with a side of a giant gerkins and fries. Thin crust pizzas and salads can be served up poolside – a popular spot for people-watching and lunch. At night you can snuggle up and watch movies under the stars, with a retractable roof above the pool. There’s nothing quite like munching snacks, watching the cinema and staring up at the stars in the middle of the ocean. Alongside the Lido pool is the Dive In burger bar, another great outlet for a quick lunch.
At the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula is the British territory of Gibraltar, were we spent a day exploring not only British high street stores but the “Rock”, where semi-wild Barbary monkeys run free. They move like lightening if they smell food – or think they can. I watched one cheeky monkey jump from a stone wall to the top of a tourist’s head, quickly skipping to another person as it chased a dropped piece of paper containing potential food. It’s a place of contrast: St Michael’s Cave, a limestone grotto network located within the upper rock nature reserve, more than 300 metres above sea level, was prepared for use as a hospital during World War II. Its illuminated stalactites are the backdrop for the Gibraltar World Music Festival and Miss Gibraltar beauty pageant each year.
We head to The Rock Hotel for afternoon tea. The veranda looks out to sea, as the venue was made famous as the hotel was where John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married.
Our last dinner onboard is at The Pinnacle Grill, where Northwest beef from the Washington State “Double R Ranch” is hand-selected for the restaurant. Holland America Line’s president Orlando Ashford has hand-picked a signature cut of steak for the discerning food lover. This huge bone-in rib eye is not for the faint hearted, and probably best shared. Tomorrow we leave the ship in Cadiz in Spain, so perhaps it’s best to sum up
life aboard the MS Koningsdam with some local vocabulary: delicioso!