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The Bon Appetit Culinary Center, the only hands-on cooking school at sea, attracts a steady crowd of food enthusiasts. As I tie my apron and stand behind my own kitchen bench with produce prepared and ready to go, I feel a rush of excitement. I’m standing in one of the most upmarket, well-stocked kitchens I have ever seen. I’m on board the super-sleek Oceania Riviera cruising around the Mediterranean. And with stops and side tours to visit local markets, wineries and restaurants, it’s a food-lover’s holiday dream.
The spacious cooking school with 12 individual cooking stations (two guests per station) is the perfect environment for the budding home cook and culinary enthusiast. Our chef instructor, Noelle Barille, is well informed and also well travelled, and it shows in her local knowledge and cooking expertise. She is the ultimate tutor and makes each class entertaining. Growing up in an Italian-American family, Barille says, “I love when student’s eyes light up because they learn how to properly cook something, understand why the pan must be hot before sautéing and appreciate how to use all their senses when cooking.”
Oceania Cruises was launched in 2003 by a small group of industry veterans, and the fleet now covers five mid-sized ships, each with capacity for around 1250 passengers and 800 staff. Superb cuisine, destination-oriented itineraries and outstanding value for money define the five-star Oceania experience. It’s hard not to enjoy this relaxed environment, and the laid-back setting seems to appeal to a broad range of cruisers – many of them younger than expected. I’m on board the 2012-floated Riviera for the next 10 nights, enjoying an itinerary that will take me from Athens to Monte Carlo with dozens of stops along the way.
THE SUITE LIFE
In between cooking classes, I retire to my extremely comfortable Concierge Veranda Stateroom, where I have access to the exclusive Concierge Lounge, featuring a library and live satellite TV. My suite also has internet access, so I feel completely connected while at sea. If I want to tune out and switch off, I can immerse myself in the ship, keeping up to date with daily activities via a newsletter published each morning, serving as the agenda of each day’s activities and shore excursions.
I also take time out at the Canyon Ranch Spa, with its private sundeck high on the bow of the ship, offering tremendous views, steam and sauna facilities, giant open-air whirlpool spas and a range of face and body treatments. It’s the perfect escape. I enjoy a reflexology treatment with Oscar, who is a master when it comes to therapeutic foot massage to improve circulation and energy. I tell anyone on board who will listen to me: “Go and see Oscar, he is a reflexology guru.”
The Riviera features a collection of fine-dining options by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin, namely: The Grand Dining Room, Jacques, Red Ginger, Toscana, Polo Grill and the Terrace Café.
In the afternoon, Waves Grill offers casual poolside snacks and meals in the sun or under an umbrella. There are also additional private dining options including La Reserve and Privée – slickly designed spaces replete with butlers. Despite the high culinary standards, there’s no black-tie dress expectations at any of the restaurants – the opposite, in fact, with passengers requested to follow a country club-casual dress code. I don’t think I have ever been on a cruise with such an extensive range of quality restaurants on offer. Passengers can enjoy unlimited complimentary soft drinks, bottled water, specialty coffees, teas and juices, and can also purchase beverage packages including wine, beer and spirits.
As we set off from Athens, I settle in to Red Ginger, one of my favourite dining experiences on the ship, with its feng shui-inspired design and menu of Asian favourites. This new concept dining space has won numerous awards and rightly so – every dish I sample is delicious.
We travel to the Greek island of Santorini, formed after one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in history, which occurred around 1600 B.C. Santorini’s beautiful villages are perched on top of steep cliffs overlooking peaceful rocky bays and coves, offering some of the most stunning views in Greece.
We disembark in the port of Athinios, and the tour bus takes us to the highest peak on the island: the Profitis Ilias Monastery, with amazing vistas taking in the entire island. The streets of the villages of Santorini are lined with boutiques and cafes. Since grapes thrive in Santorini’s soil, local wines are a popular purchase. However, it’s the replicas of Minoan jewellery and a collection of ceramics that come home with me. In Oia, the art galleries are all worth exploring as well. Picture-perfect Fira, the island’s capital, provides a dramatic experience, its cobblestone streets winding between shops and cafes with a jaw-dropping outlook of the bay below.
I enjoy lunch while gazing over whitewashed buildings against a backdrop of bright blue sea. As this is my first visit to Greece, ordering classic Greek dips – taramosalata and tzatziki – plus grilled fish and baklava to finish seems obligatory. Reaching the port of Skala by either cable car or donkey – I opt for the former – we are then tendered back to the ship.
That night for dinner at The Grand Dining Room, the dramatic centrepiece is a spectacular chandelier.
The room feels spacious with tables set with European bone china, Riedel crystal and a daily changing menu that includes healthy Canyon Ranch options. With a concise menu of at least six starters and eight mains each night, the service is world class.
It’s an incredible day when we arrive at Kuşadasi, Turkey, with a lot to see, beginning with a trip to the remains of the House of the Virgin Mary. It is recorded that St John the Apostle brought the Virgin Mary to Ephesus after the death of Christ, and she allegedly spent her last days here.
Ephesus is one of the most magnificent ancient cities in the world and it is absolutely astounding to behold, especially considering that most of the Roman ruins still haven’t been excavated. You can walk among the ruins of the Odeon theatre, public baths and the Grand Theatre where St Peter once preached – it accommodates almost 24,000 people.
Nearby, I buy a Turkish carpet from one of the Oceania-recommended stores, Barok – it specialises in carpets with an enormous range on offer, and the company also ship worldwide. It’s an interesting experience negotiating prices, but by far the most difficult part is selecting which carpet to purchase, as they come in every size, shape, colour and pattern imaginable.
Back on board Riviera, I take the Turkish Arabesque cooking class after our day in Kuşadasi. Learning about the basic ingredients and dishes of the Ottoman Empire and its elaborate kitchens, I have become a complete convert for Turkish cuisine. It may have something to do with spending the morning visiting a local market and sampling Turkish delight – like nothing I have enjoyed before – pistachios and fresh pomegranate. Interestingly, this type of market is known as a pazar, from which the word bazaar is derived.
At the on-board cooking school, we learn how to make chicken kebabs, with walnuts, yoghurt, sumac and onions. The layers of flavours through the “veiled pilaf” pastry dome are incredible – this is a dish I want to make for friends and family at home and dazzle them with my newfound skills. The hazelnut cakes, with honey syrup, were also easy to make, not to mention delicious.
Classes are extremely popular, particularly the Culinary Discovery Tours, and need to be booked before boarding to avoid disappointment. The other class I took was Pasta from A to Z. We learn to make this Italian staple from scratch, including gnocchi and stuffed pasta, with simple tips and tricks taught, including how to roll the dough, cutting and cooking it properly and serving it with a range of sauces. The recipes are easy to follow and will become family favourites in no time: I’ve already served up Sicilian Pasta with Grilled Vegetables to my lot, and have tried walnut-sage-butter and pesto sauces as well.
Waking up and looking from my veranda to see Mount Etna – one of the world’s most active volcanoes and the highest in Europe – in Taormina, Sicily, was an amazing start to the day. The smoking volcano has erupted many times and has four active craters at the summit. It is a must-see attraction.
I make a scumptious discovery during the day when I sample the local zeppole di riso, a moreish finger-shaped rice concoction that is deep-fried. The rice is cooked in milk and fried with lemon zest before being bathed in a honey-and-orange syrup. It is beyond delicious and I have since been scouring the internet to find an easy-to-make recipe.
The nearby wine-making towns, such as Motta Camastra and Linguaglossa, are almost unknown, yet it takes just 40 minutes to drive to them from the Riviera. This area has a microclimate of cold winters, temperate summers and abundant rain, with the grape growth further enhanced by the volcanic soil, which is rich in potassium and mineral salts. The drive to get here is beautiful, ascending from the foothills of Mt Etna and providing excellent views of the sea and the volcano. The Sicilian countryside is a seductive blur of stonewall terraces, citrus trees and prickly pear cacti.
Returning to the ship, Toscana restaurant is the perfect place to finish the day. Here, the cuisine pays homage to Tuscany, with many of the recipes sourced from the grandmothers and mothers of the Rivieria’s own Italian culinary staff. On-board sommeliers come from long lines of wine-producing families and have a good understanding of the perfect match between Italian wines and Tuscan cuisine. My starter of handmade ravioli transported me to the simple trattorias that dot the countryside, washed down with an exquisite crisp Italian white.
Approaching Positano by sea, I’m bewitched by the multi-coloured Moorish-style houses clinging to rugged slopes. Wandering the streets, I buy a pair of handmade loafers and hand-painted ceramic Christmas decorations, and discover the most beautiful hotel: Palazzo Murat, whose gardens and buildings are spectacular. John Steinbeck once wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” I have to agree. Returning to Amalfi’s sparkling bay filled with fishing boats, I visit the 12th century Capuchin monastery and the 11th century cathedral and cloister.
It’s often the people you meet on holiday, and the dinners you share together, that you remember most clearly when you return home. John and Cathie from Florida were first-time cruisers and we all bonded over lunch – and a couple of bottles of very drinkable Italian wine. As the cork is pulled on the second bottle, Cathie says: “This place is magical, but meeting like-minded folk who enjoy good food and wine is the icing on the cake.” Sitting with them in a family-run trattoria, complete with red-and-white checked tablecloths and full of Italian families was like a scene out of an Italian movie, and one of the best lunch experiences in the Mediterranean. John and Cathie became friends of mine for the rest of the cruise, and we found ourselves meeting for drinks and seeing different parts of the Med together wherever we anchored.
In Rome, a visit to the Vatican and St Peters, the largest church in the world, should not be missed. We follow our visit with lunch in a side street where we feast on typical Roman dishes while nuns and priests stroll by. The next day, a trip to Florence begins at the Gucci museum before moving on to check out Michelangelo’s David – the gallery collection also includes other sculptures by Michelangelo and paintings by Botticelli.
Back on the ship I chat to senior executive chef Alban Gjoka, who grew up in Northern Italy and as a child would sit and watch his grandmother cook. “There would be 30 or 40 people for Sunday lunch and I would sit and watch her make pasta from scratch; she was a very good cook,” he tells me. Her love of cooking was certainly handed down to her grandson, although Gjoka’s cooking is now showcased on a much larger scale. “We have 147 cooks on board and my role now is very much involved in the logistics and procurement, also making sure each dish that leaves the kitchen is perfect. While in Europe, most of our fresh produce comes from the Amsterdam markets with the beef being flown in from the States,” he says. On the behind-the-scenes tour I take, I see first-hand how the vast kitchen is run with military precision. “The best part of my job is working with the range of cultures and meeting different people,” says Gjoka.
The Polo Grill, just one of the restaurants Gjoka oversees, is like a traditional steakhouse on the high seas, using prime cuts that have been dry-aged for 28 days for flavour. The result is inspired cooking, with seafood and fabulous salads rounding out the menu.
Oceania Cruises makes every attempt to accommodate special dietary requests and the Canyon Ranch dining options also make for a healthy alternative. At the other end of the spectrum is Jacques, which is decorated with heirloom antiques and art from Jacque Pepin’s personal collection. The dining room resembles a Parisian bistro and the cuisine is pure French, with classics such as steak frites, coq au vin and rotisserie chicken all featuring on the menu.
Marseille is France’s second-largest city and its largest port. North of Marseille, we drive to the charming town of Aix-en-Provence and enjoy a walking tour beginning in the grand Cours Mirabeau, a wide avenue built on the city’s medieval ramparts and shaded by 200-year-old trees. I gaze up at wrought iron balconies and carved doorways adorning private mansions and imagine artists such as Paul Cezanne strolling along. You can actually visit Cezanne’s house while in town and take in the landscapes he painted throughout his career.
At a town square I discover a farmers’ market, where producers sell cheeses, fruit and vegetables and charcuterie; there are cosy cafes and shops piled high with soaps, vinegars and oils. It is perhaps the small art galleries I enjoy the most and the constant snacking on French delicacies.
Returning to the ship, I sit in the Concierge Lounge and flick though the cookbook, The Art Of French Baking (Phaidon) by Ginette Mathiot. Having just sampled a Saint Honore cake on shore, I scribble out the recipe in hope of one day making it at home.
Our last port of call is Monte Carlo in the small principality of Monaco, with an overnight stay. Less than one kilometre from the cruise terminal, I find the Prince’s Palace where the Grimaldi family reside – luxury fashion house, Louis Vuitton, recently launched its spring/summer 2015 Cruise Collection in front of the palace. Visiting the Cathedral of Monaco, also known as Saint Nicholas, which houses the royal family’s tombs including the beloved Princess Grace, some devoted pilgrims were a little disappointed to find a bunch of plastic flowers on top of her tomb.
The Oceanographic Museum is worth visiting as is the casino, even with an entrance fee – it all feels very James Bond, with flash cars parked outside. The building looks much like the Paris Opera House, and I find out that the buildings have the same designer and architect: Charles Garnier. Built in an attempt to fund the small principality, the casino’s façade is Neoclassical with an array of angels along the rooftop and the interior is no less ornate.
If you are a foodie and want to get hands-on in cooking food from the different destinations you have just visited and meet interesting people with similar food passions, then an Oceania Cruise is for you. Dig in.
Join MiNDFOOD editor-in-chief Michael McHugh and Oceania Cruises on the inaugural MiNDFOOD Mediterranean Food & Wine Cruise. The 11-night cruise from October 1-14, 2015, takes you through some of the most stunning destinations in the Mediterranean, beginning in Venice and ending in Monte Carlo. Rates start from AU$4995 per person, twin share, and include a host of benefits:
• One night pre-cruise deluxe hotel stay in Venice with private airport and ship transfers
• A 10-night upper-premium cruise from Venice to Monte Carlo aboard Oceania Marina
• A welcome bottle of wine in your stateroom on embarkation
• An exclusive welcome aboard and farewell cocktail reception
• A 90-minute cooking class in the world’s only culinary centre at sea
• An evening of private dining in La Reserve including delectable cuisine, champagne and fine wines
• A Culinary Discovery Shore Tour in Venice
• Optional shore tour experiences in other ports of call.
For airfares and more details about the MiNDFOOD cruise, contact Janette at Cruiseabout Castlecrag, +61 2 9958 3522, [email protected]