Being a tourist: Mixing rum cocktails at Casa Bacardi

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The view of the fort at the entrance to San Juan harbour from the Casa Bacardi estate. 

Sometimes you just have to plunge in and be a tourist for a few hours. It’s just fine to protest that you’re a “traveler” and not a “tourist”, but we’re all just tourists in other countries when you get right down to it. The thing that has given tourist activities a bad name, though, is their “fakeness.” So, is learning to mix rum cocktails in a state-of-the-art mixology classroom fake? We think not.

The day begins as all days do on a vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico: the day is beautiful, it’s hot and sunny (with intermittent showers predicted), and we have the whole day stretching out before us to do with anything we please. What we please to do today is to visit Casa Bacardi, the home of the famous rum distillery, something we’ve never done on any of our previous visits to PR. Let’s just back up a moment, though. How did we get here this morning, tickets in hand?

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A few months before this trip, Patty was perusing some of her favourite travel YouTube Channels and stumbled upon one titled: Five things you must to in San Juan…or something like that. Four of them were “been-there-done-that” kinds of things, but the fifth was “take a mixology class at Casa Bacardi.” We do like a rum drink (among other libations), and we have certainly drunk our share of Bacardi rum. Add onto that the fact that we have visited rum distilleries in the past on Caribbean islands, and this is not a tourist experience we need to repeat. But a mixology class? That sounded interesting, and above all, fun.

So, a bit of online surfing to the Casa Bacardi web site established that they offer three options for your visit: the historical distillery tour, the rum tasting tour and the mixology class. Naturally, our only interest was in the mixology class, so we surfed to the calendar, chose our tour time and paid for our tickets about three weeks before we left home. The mixology class was $60 (USD) per person and worth it in our view.

So, that’s how we had our tickets in hand when our taxi from the Condado area of San Juan, where we always stay, drops us off at the entrance to the guest pavilion at Casa Bacardi.

As you probably already know, Bacardi rum is among the most storied in the world. We feel as if this experience is a must, given that our next stop will be Santiago de Cuba where Don Facundo Bacardi Masso first began his business as a wine merchant and importer. Of course, with all that sugar cane about, he began experimenting with distillation of spirits eventually buying a local Cuban distillery in 1862. After a series of wars and fires that pushed the business out of Cuba, the Bacardi distillery reemerged on the island of Puerto Rico in 1936 and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Bacardi rum is, at least according to Bacardi, the number one rum in the world. So, here we are.

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We are given “beepers” and told that we should make our way to the bar where a mixologist will prepare for us a rum drink of our choice while we wait for the beginning of our tour. Since we know we will be mixing a series of drinks during our class, we approach two older women waiting at a table and offer them our “free drink” tokens. They are only too happy to take them off our hands. It was really unnecessary for us to have come as early as we did – the web site suggests at least a half-hour in advance, but we needn’t have. Anyway, there are lots of people milling around, but we do notice that not all of them are wearing a blue “mixology tour” bracelet. Oh yes, they give you a bracelet with the beeper.

Finally, it is 1:30, our appointed time, and the beepers begin to vibrate. We head toward the waiting tram and are delighted to find that there are only seven people in our group. We can only surmise that the rest of those waiting were on cheaper tours!

Our tour guide is a petite woman who is as rapturous about rum as you might expect of a Bacardi employee. And she is knowledgeable. We listen attentively while she tells us about the distillation process, but we are really here for the class. After this presentation and a view over the acreage and San Juan across the bay from the roof deck of the building, we are off to class.

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The drinks we will learn to make…

We follow our guide as she makes her way toward a closed door. We’re not really sure what we had been expecting, but this wasn’t it. The sight before us was mesmerizing: a large (really large), superbly equipped, state-of-the-art, sparkling mixology classroom/lab, reminiscent of cooking classrooms on board the Oceania cruise ships, but much larger. Our little class of seven is almost lost!

Now it’s time to learn to mix rum cocktails.

Each of us is positioned at a station where there are three mini bottles of rum (see how smart we were not to imbibe too early?), mixing glasses, stainless steel mixing spoons, cocktail shakers, muddlers, glasses, ice, sugar, lime wedges…everything a budding mixologist needs! Our guide and teacher had, earlier in the tour, introduced us to the three drinks we would be making: the Cuba Libre, the daquiri, and of course, the Mojito. We were more than ready.

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We first mixed the Cuba Libre, a lowball rum and coke, where she gave us the secret to the best rum and coke: squeeze a lime wedge over the ice to season it before adding the rum then the coke. A familiar drink to us, for sure.

Then we shook up a daquiri – one of the best we’d tasted owing to all that fresh lime juice we have squeezed in. Finally, the mojito. To our surprise, the real trick to this delicious drink is rectifying the mistake most bartenders make, according to our petite teacher. That mistake is muddling the mint leaves along with the lime. No, no and no, she says. Muddle the lime in the glass, slap the mint leaves between your two hands to release the aromas, wipe the leaves along the rim of the glass and then drop them on top of the limes before adding the rum and soda. She was so right.

The whole experience is one and a half hours long and great fun. Our pre-Easter dinner drinks this year will be inspired by our newfound knowledge. Our family is delighted – since we’re hosting!

Next up…we’re off to Santiago de Cuba. Cheers!

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Visiting Hiroshima: A sobering day for travelers

mapWhen we first booked our recent cruise through Asia, we were looking forward to visiting Jeju Island, a short stop between leaving China and arriving in Japan. We were unfamiliar with it, but a bit of research uncovered the fact that it is something of a resort island – and a part of Korea. Well, we booked that cruise a year in advance because it was the perfect itinerary, and like world events are bound to do, Korea was much in the news. Never mind that the focus was North Korea and Jeju Island is part of South Korea, but one thing led to another and the cruise line altered the itinerary. We really don’t know why. We would now bypass the island and head instead to Hiroshima, which had not been on the original itinerary. We weren’t disappointed.

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The Hiroshima cruise terminal

We arrived in this, our first Japanese port, under grey skies. It seemed fitting somehow. As usual, there was a bus ride from the port into the city and when we disembarked the bus, we were in the middle of what is a somewhat unprepossessing town: a lot of drab, post WW II buildings. Naturally.

It seemed a bit ironic to us that the nuclear threat from North Korea may have played a part in the rerouting of our ship only to find ourselves in the middle of the city that was devastated on August 6, 1945 by the world’s first atomic bomb ever deployed – dropped from an American B-29 bomber killing some 80,000 people. A sobering thought indeed.

In the midst of all this post-war drabness sits a magnificent park with a river flowing through the middle of it. It then becomes clear to you that on the edge of that river, surrounded by gardens, walkways, a reflecting pond and a museum is what we now refer to as the “atomic dome.” It is what is left of the only structure left standing near the epicentre that fateful day when the bomb exploded above the city raining down destruction everywhere. It is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.

Standing there beside the dome, which is really the remnants of a government building, the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall to be precise, we felt the poignancy of it. We cannot in any authentic way know what it was really like. But inside the museum, they have tried to make you feel it.

The museum includes a display that begins with the city as it was the day before the attack. The bomb then drops and the recreation demonstrates how the radiation spread out, destroying everything in its path. Frightening.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museum which is text-heavy (and yes, it is in English as well as Japanese); rather we left the group we were with (as usual) and walked around the park. The skies opened and the rain began.

When we boarded the bus, we headed to Miyajima Island and its famed Shinto Shrine.

That, however, would have been so much better if it hadn’t been for the torrential rain. And the tour guide who insisted on standing in the torrential rain blathering about this and that while everyone got soaked. We left that tour, too. Good thing we had a private guide waiting for us in Tokyo!

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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!