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A Gourmet Mediterranean Cruise

A Gourmet Mediterranean Cruise
Image: Frank Millar
It’s a sparkling morning in early October as I embark the Nieuw Amsterdam in Barcelona for a Gourmet Mediterranean cruise. And while autumn might have tightened its grip at home in London it’s still gloriously late summer in the Med. By Helen Hokin
 
A cruise virgin I have few expectations other than the promise of fine food and long, hot lazy days at sea on a circuit that includes Palermo, Naples, Rome, Livorno and Toulon.
 
At the gangway I pause to look up, dwarfed by the sheer enormity of the 87,000 ton superstructure – the likes of which I’ve only ever seen from a distance. Close up, it is bewildering and all the while swallowing up some 2000 passengers around me through a single doorway in its midnight-blue hull.
 
Holland America has been sailing for almost 140 years and accordingly holds tradition dear. This is instantly apparent, at first glance, from its interiors: From the black and white nautical prints adorning the walls of the long corridors leading to my ocean-view stateroom, to the extravagant use of wood. So far it feels elegant and understated.
 
On board, it’s all systems go and before we can even think cocktail we’re instructed to ‘muster’ on deck. Thankfully, I have as my travelling companion my Dad who picked up a little maritime speak from his Dad who was a merchant sailor. It means we have to assemble next to our assigned lifeboat for a practice drill, he explains.
 
We stay on deck afterwards to watch as we get underway and for all her 87,000 tonnage the Nieuw Amsterdam glides out of Barcelona with the silence and grace of a punt.
 
And thus lies ahead a week of cocooning, eating and drinking and this, being a full-on resort ship, a host of
A Gourmet Mediterranean Cruise
Image: Frank Millar
on-board activities at our disposal, or not, as we choose.  
 
We’re scheduled to sail non-stop from Barcelona to Palermo over a day and two nights which makes our first day a ‘sea day’, and as I’m about to find out, the perfect opportunity to take full advantage of the luxuries on board.
 
After a decadent multi-cultural buffet breakfast in the Lido restaurant, I check in for a massage and a lovely long wallow in the spa, which to my surprise, given there are 2000 passengers on board, I have all to myself. This still being late summer, a spot of sunbathing by the outdoor pool is also in order, with cocktails, naturally, on demand.
 
My Dad meanwhile spends his first morning browsing the shelves in the library which is housed in the Crow’s Nest punctuated by return visits to the Lido restaurant which is serving all day. He doesn't know it but I've spotted him, from my vantage point in the whirl-pool, moving back and forth between the library and the ice cream counter at least three times on the one morning. And who can blame him when all the snacks and drinks you can manage from the Lido are included in the already very modest price.
 
Afternoons are a time to get busy and I choose from a panoply of activities that amongst others include a Champagne Art Auction Preview, a Mixology Class and, who’d have imagined, Ice Sculpting. I plump for a Flavours of Spain Cooking Demonstration hosted by rising star Chef David Greenwood in the gleaming Culinary Arts Centre.
 
David cut his teeth in Vancouver under David Hawksworth, one of Canada’s leading culinary talents and one-time Canadian Chef of the Year. Our on board chef has clearly learned his craft well as he deftly multi-tasks his way through the finicky business of pulling off a mixed seafood and meat paella before the live audience.  A taster of the finished dish, with its rice-with-bite, plump mussels and spicy chorizo would confirm Chef Greenwood’s future in the firmament.
 
I’ve never been one for cold soups so I love David’s next dish. His gazpacho salad takes all the ingredients of the summery Andalucian soup and reimagines them into a refreshing salad vibrant with Mediterranean colour.
 
Later in the week I join David a second time for a hands-on cookery class where he teaches me the finer points of searing foie gras, how to create a delicate ballotine of quail and a new-found enthusiasm for one of my least-liked ingredients. Rather than preparing couscous using the usual hot water method and producing a monotonously flavoured, ho-hum side-dish David, instead, has me fry the uncooked grain in a little olive oil, turning it repeatedly until it develops a golden hue and nutty flavour. Next we transfer the toasted grain to a lidded pan to infuse in green tea. The result is surprisingly good and more flavoursome than any couscous I’ve tried before.
 
On port days when most passengers head ashore, stay-behinds like myself, have free run of the ship. Lazy hours sunning by the pool, decadent day-time cocktails, manicures, hot stone beds, long breakfasts that somehow extend into lunch, sometimes ordered in my stateroom at no extra cost – are all for the taking without the queues.
 
But two days in to the extended buffet routine and I figure out why the average cruiser gains 1 – 2lbs a day. In haste I sign up for a detox class held in the sleek gym complete with its wrap-around windows and stunning sea views.
 
I gather with a handful of like-minded passengers for an expert-led discussion on nutrition, exercise and detoxification which effectively amounts, according to our instructor, Stephen, to giving our system and mostly our liver a rest. It’s going to take more than one session to get the message across though as no sooner is the talk over that someone in the group suggests we carry on our discussion in the bar. My detox will have to wait until tomorrow.
 
Cruise customs, of which there are many, include the delightful ‘Sail Away’ party to mark the early evening departure from port. I absolutely got a thrill each time the fog horn sounded and the engines stirred into action ready to plough us from harbour back into the open sea.
 
We ‘sailed away’, as it turned out, every evening and on each occasion were treated to a spectacular feast, on deck, comprising the local destination’s gourmet specialty.
 
When departing Palermo, for example, it was the decadent Sicilian pastry dessert, canoli, up for grabs. These delicious deep fried pastry funnels filled with sweetened, creamy ricotta cheese and provided by a local Sicilian confectioner offered a really authentic bite of Sicily. On another evening, departing Naples after a fascinating day wandering the remains at Pompeii, it was pizza, naturally, and passengers were to be seen that night wandering the deck balancing a vast, salami topped pizza slice across the palm of their hand while equally intent on watching the sun sink behind the dark silhouette of Vesuvius. As we departed Toulon, and its fantastic Saturday food market, a pool-side Mediterranean-inspired barbecue marked the end of our sail away parties not to mention my appetite as I loaded up on slices of roast suckling pig, wafers of jamon Serrano, hunks of Parmesan hewn from a whole truckle and three different kinds of cake.
 
But that’s not the end. Because after an early evening sail away party it’s time to get ready for dinner.
 
After dark, in our best finery - tuxedos for guys and best frocks for us – it’s usual to imbibe a cocktail or two while deciding which of a handful of restaurants to choose from. This is a time to kick back and swap stories from the day.
 
I meet Dad for a glass of Prosecco in the Observation Deck's comfy bar positioned atop the entire ship now all-a-glitter and bobbing like a bauble in the midst of the dark sea.
 
There’s a restaurant for every night of our stay, just about.
 
The Pinnacle restaurant is formal and needs to be booked in advance. Here my lobster tail was sweet and delicate while my Dad’s veal chop, a super-sized portion weighing down the Bvlgari china plate it came on, was melt-in-the-mouth but just too much to finish. A Baked Alaska, with a tangy cherry ice-cream centre was flambéed at the table – a lovely old-fashioned touch. Big enough for two I pushed through and managed the whole thing alone.
 
The Manhattan restaurant, where we dined twice, bristles with late-night atmosphere and serves the likes of French onion soup, Grilled breast of chicken and Caesar salad – safe but skilfully executed dishes.
 
My favourite is The Tamarind with its all female servers and panoramic views both port and starboard. Its sublime fusion of the culinary riches of Southeast Asia, China and Japan trump, in my opinion, many of London’s leading counterparts. 
 
The menu, designed around the Chinese elements of water, wood, fire, and earth helps guide you in your choice. Fire dishes such as Szechuan shrimp with Thai basil are inevitably spicy and hot. Earth dishes on the other hand are all vegetarian like the toothsome, Japanese wheat noodles I tried stir-fried with tofu and veggies, and sprinkled with toasted peanuts and sesame seeds.
 
But it was the desserts that got us back in there for a second time like the Tempura ice-cream - a stunning chaud-froid of lightly battered Javanese coffee ice-cream elegantly lifted with a little lemongrass. Then there was the Trio of sorbets including passion fruit basil, lychee green tea both of which were brilliantly balanced with a third wasabi-flavoured one.
 
By the time we sail back into Barcelona, the proverbial fatted calves, we have visited three countries and six destinations in a week with each one offering a unique opportunity to sample the local cuisine and culture.
 
My only regret is that I’m not staying on board the Nieuw Amsterdam as she continues her journey onwards down the east coast of Spain through the straits of Gibraltar and across the Atlantic to Florida enviably following the sun.
 
Holland America Line is offering a seven night Mediterranean Glamour cruise onboard the ms Eurodam from just £749 per person cruise-only, based on two sharing an inside cabin.
Visit www.hollandamerica.co.uk or call 0843 374 2300
 
 
Further reading:
How to find and enjoy unforgettable cruise vacations
By Gary Bembridge
Full Flight Press 
ISBN 978-1-927557-04-4

 
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