A Cruise Education: Using a Cruise to Learn Something New

 

A while back we mused about our 10 Rules of Engagement for Smooth Cruising. Among those “rules” was the following:

Rule #6: Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

Although we choose a cruise holiday for a relaxing way to visit new places while being waited on hand and foot, any cruise you might consider taking is also a wonderful opportunity to actually learn something new.

A relatively new phenomenon in the cruise industry, hands-on cooking classes are available on only a handful of ships on only two cruise lines that we know about at this point. Oceania cruises pioneered this approach and evidently – although we haven’t experienced this since we haven’t sailed on HAL for some years – Holland America now offers this experience on several of its ships. Oceania offers this to groups of 24 lucky guests who register early enough on their two larger ships: the Marina and the Riviera. And we have taken classes on both.

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The chef instructor’s demonstration counter with overhead cameras and two viewing screens so that we could see everything she was doing.

We had no idea what to expect that first morning when we arrived in the cooking school to don our chef’s hats and aprons; we only knew that we were looking forward to that class on French Classics. Led by chef instructor Noelle Barille, we along with eleven other teams of two, were instructed in some of the fine points of classic French cooking and we were able to actually make several ourselves including classic haricots verts with shallots to accompany the Jacques Pepin roasted chicken, and classic quiche Lorraine. Later on that cruise we took a class on wok cooking and a brunch class.

 

What set this experience apart from others we’ve had on cruise ships was the sheer amount of organization and precise execution that was on show. The chef was assisted by two sous chefs and a kitchen worker who was responsible for cleaning up everything after us. Each time we were called to the front to observe the chef’s demonstration, when we returned to our stations (complete with individual work counters, sinks, cooking implements and induction cook-tops) the mise en place dishes were all lined up for us – pre-measured ingredients to facilitate the cooking process without wasting time to measure everything. Although to be truthful, it’s a prep technique that we took to heart and employ almost all the time at home now!

The chef herself was personable, extremely knowledgeable and entertaining – all important qualities for this kind of class. The experience was so useful – and the recipes so good that they are now in our permanent repertoire at home – that a few months ago aboard the Riviera we took three more such classes.

We were a bit nervous since that first time had been so good. The new chef instructor Karlis Celms was on his very first contract doing this and he had a hard act to follow. But follow it in good form he did! We enjoyed the three classes we took that time just as much (Asian cooking including a sushi experience, and two Italian-related ones including pasta-making).

The $60-70.00 per person or so we paid for these courses was worth every single penny. We’re not planning another Oceania cruise in the immediate future (we’re booked back on Silversea for South America and the Panama Canal next year), but if we ever do, we’ll be back in the kitchen.

Bon voyage to new learning experiences!

Cruise Ports on Your Own: A Day in St. John’s, Antigua

IMG_3176The first time we ever set foot on the island of Antigua was on a six-hour layover at the airport enroute from St. Kitt’s to Toronto. That was a few years ago when the airport was little more than a Quonset hut with a small duty-free shop and the inevitable bar where the hordes congregated awaiting their flights. Oh, and we suppose it’s worth mentioning that the airport at the time was sans air-conditioning!

We had been in St. Kitt’s for Art’s medical school reunion and were in a bit of a group traveling back to Canada. One of the groups had been on an earlier inter-island flight so by the time we arrived in Antigua someone had already booked a van and driver and planned an island tour. So we spent our time soaking in the beauty of the island vowing to return for a longer holiday – which we did a year later.

We fell in love with Antigua and Barbuda, its beauty and its people, so whenever we take a Caribbean cruise that lands in St. John’s, Antigua’ s capital, we always look forward to our day.

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St. James’s Club in Antigua where we spent a wonderful holiday a few years ago.

 

Just a stone’s throw from where the ships usually dock are the small streets of the town offering an array of the usual duty-free shopping as well as some shops unique to the island. If you need a new bathing suit, you’d do well to wait until you get to Antigua so that you can avail yourself of the dizzying array on offer at Sunseekers. Then, on your hunt for a unique piece of jewelry and/or art, eschew all those shops you see as you disembark and head to Goldsmitty on Redcliffe Quay. Uniquely original, Goldsmitty’s pieces are the creation of artist and jewelry designer Hans Smit. Patty has acquired a pendant and earrings on trips to St. John’s.

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Too many cruise ship in port that day!

 

This most recent visit to St. John’s though was a bit disappointing. The town was overrun with cruise ship passengers that day. The main docking area in the town was jammed with ships so that our own didn’t even dock there. The alternative port is in an industrial container port area a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive from the town through an area that you would not choose to walk – and we’ll walk practically anywhere.

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The opal and gold pendant Patty acquired at Goldsmitty.

 

We took the shuttle into town, walked around for an hour and then headed back to the ship to enjoy the Antigua sunshine from the vantage point of the deck. The town seemed a bit shabbier than on previous visits and we have to wonder if the recent recession has had a negative impact.

St. John’s is still worth a port visit and Antigua and its people are still beautiful!

 

Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

Cruise Ports on Your Own: How We Do Nassau, Bahamas

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The straw market in Nassau isn’t what it used to be.

As the rain pelts down on us here in Toronto on a blustery early spring day we have wonderful memories of our most recent cruise through the Caribbean. First stop: Nassau in the Bahamas.

Not strictly speaking actually in the Caribbean (it’s actually in the Atlantic), Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and isn’t actually an island. The island is New Providence, but no one ever seems to say they’re going to New Providence, rather they say they’re going to be in Nassau since the city does dominate. Nassau has long been a favorite winter vacation spot for Canadians although in recent years that has skewed more toward Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (yes, there are hundreds of actual resorts in Cuba contrary to the impression you might get from the American media recently) because of the price differential: The Bahamas is much more expensive, but it does make for a nice day ashore when cruising in.

Although it’s sometimes sensible to take a ship’s shore excursion – first-time visits to European ports come to mind – we try to avoid them when at all possible. The reasons will fill a future story, but for now just accept that discerning travelers prefer to be on their own or with a private guide! Avoiding the dreaded shore excursion means that we often like to self-direct our day ashore. Here’s how we did Nassau.

A familiar stop for us, Nassau is like an old friend and we knew exactly where we were headed when we left the ship that day. We do love the chance to walk a distance so we planned our route from the cruise terminal left along Bay Street toward one of the two bridges to paradise Island (one takes traffic in one direction the other takes it in the opposite, but you can walk in either direction on both). It’s about a 1.6 km (about a mile) walk to the bridge – takes about 20 minutes going through the part of downtown that has seen better days. We hadn’t been there for about four years and the recession seems to have taken hold.

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Atlantis, Paradise Island

We then headed up and over the bridge. That end of Paradise Island is dominated by the monstrously large Atlantis Resort complex. We spent a week there a number of years ago and if you haven’t ever been there before, it might just be worth taking an excursion that gives you access to their acres and acres of property, lagoons, beaches, impressive aquariums and the lot. We just walked over and back along the farther bridge that passes over the Potter’s Cay Fish Shacks and back to East Bay Street.

 

We retraced our steps and then went on past the cruise terminal along the part of Bay Street where the requisite duty-free shops and souvenirs are located. There is little about all of this that is Bahamian, but a visit to the storied Nassau Straw Market is designed to make you feel closer to the authentic Bahamas. Sadly, that is no longer true.

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Most of the ‘straw’ isn’t local!

Historically, the straw market showcased the traditional skills of plaiting, braiding and weaving of straw into myriad baskets, hats and other kitschy products. You used to even be able to watch the process. These days you’ll find more ‘straw’ hats from China, T-shirts and hordes of other trinkets from as equally far-flung places than traditional hand-crafted products. But if you look closely, you will find a Bahamian straw product or two. We didn’t spend much time there.

 

We walked along Bay Street as far as the British Colonial Hilton, a hotel where Art stayed too many years ago to even count now! Across the street there used to be a terrific spot for conch fritters, a must-try when visiting the Bahamas. Sadly, it, too had closed, and the space was forlorn and empty.

With that we made our way back to the ship to toast another warm and breezy Bahamian day.

 

If you have a few minutes, we invite you to come on that walk with us…