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4 posts from November 2012

November 29, 2012

RELAXING IN BEAUTIFUL GUSTAVIA, ST. BARTS

After bidding adieu to Europe, Riviera crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Miami today, where she will begin her winter season exploring the idyllic beaches and swaying palms of the Caribbean. 

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As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I find that when I travel to the Caribbean, I have to take it down a few notches. Shore excursions tend to be about relaxing on a beach or a sailboat, snorkeling or gazing at the beautiful scenery and less about touring ancient ruins and visiting world-class museums as DSCF1583I enjoy doing in Europe. Not that I am complaining! This is one of the great things about seeing the world with Oceania Cruises: every region of the world has new, different and equally wonderful experiences to offer.

A day in Gustavia, St. Barts, is the perfect example of the nice relaxed pace I enjoy when sailing the Caribbean. Though Gustavia is very popular for duty-free shopping and high-end designer fashion boutiques, mostly it is geared toward enjoying the weather, the beautiful scenery and the iridescent blue waters.

St. Barts was discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named after his brother Bartolomeo. However, it was not until 1763 that the French successfully settled on the island. Ultimately, St. Barts fell into the hands of the Swedes, and as a free port, it became important for trade and supply during the colonial wars in the 18th century. Unlike many of the surrounding islands, St. Barts is inhospitable to sugar farming, so it has served primarily as a center for trade.

Today it is an idyllic island resort, serving tourists from all over the world in search of warm weather and beautiful beaches.

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Just a short walk from the harbor where the ship docked, I found Shell Beach, a remarkably uncrowded, tranquil cove with a wonderful little Brazilian café where I sat and enjoyed the views and the gorgeous day.

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Like most Caribbean islands, the deep blue waters and the lush green foliage are stunning, but what I find especially captivating about Gustavia are the coral-colored roofs and multi-hued flowers. It is truly a colorful town and has one of the most picturesque harbors in the Caribbean.

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On my leisurely stroll through town, I came across a couple of lovely little churches. The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption is a Catholic Church surrounded by a lovely courtyard. St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church sits right off the harbor.

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There are shore excursions that take visitors on tours of the island or on fabulous snorkeling adventures. I’ve also read about wonderful hiking in the area. But on this day, I chose to relax and enjoy this little town at a slow Caribbean pace. Regardless of what you choose to do when you visit Gustavia, I can promise that you’ll have no regrets!

November 21, 2012

JACQUES: A TASTE OF PERFECTION

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Jacques Pépin, Oceania Cruises' executive culinary director

It is no secret that food is a very important part of the Oceania Cruises experience. This is largely because the first thing that Jacques Pépin set out to do as Oceania Cruises’ executive culinary director was create the finest cuisine at sea. At his side was the dedicated and extraordinary culinary staff of Oceania Cruises and their fleet corporate chef, Franck Garanger.

Both Pépin and Garanger hail from France and specialize in French cuisine, so it was only natural that there would be an onboard restaurant devoted entirely to French food and that it would be some of the finest French cuisine available anywhere.

Available onboard Marina and Riviera, Jacques is Jacques Pépin’s first namesake restaurant. Designed in the tradition of the great French bistros and brasseries, Jacques serves timeless food that gives you a taste of the authentic classics prepared the right way and created with only the finest ingredients.

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In the forward to Oceania Cruises’ culinary lifestyle book, Taste the World: The Food and Flavors of Oceania Cruises, Pépin says:

51CjEFgThhL._SS400_“There is something irresistible about eating well at sea. I suppose it’s partly the sea air and the relaxed pace that makes everything taste better. But for me, a great deal of the pleasure comes from knowing what a true feat of organization and skill it takes to pull off a satisfying meal under such challenging conditions.

As I travel all over the world with Oceania Cruises, doing demos and working with the chefs to develop new dishes and ideas, I am more impressed with every voyage. I’m struck, first of all, by the quality of the ingredients and the fundamental respect for techniques and tradition. The brioche smells like butter when you break it open. The onion soup is made with real Gruyère, real bread, and real stock, seasoned the right way, and served in the right bowl with that little indentation that catches the cheese so it forms a perfect crust in the oven. These small touches add up to a very great difference. There is heartfelt pride in that brioche and that soup, and for my part, I am proud to be associated with the men and women who devote their lives to getting those details right every day.”

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Jacques a few times. An evening at Jacques begins with the enviable challenge of selecting which of the delectable dishes you will try. This choice is often complicated by the creativity of Chef Garanger, who loves to design new recipes for the menu. The good news is that no matter which courses you select, you are certain to be delighted. You can see from the menu we chose during our most recent visit that my husband and I aren’t terribly efficient at narrowing our choices.

Cuisses de Grenouilles en Persillade, Flan de Persil

Sautéed Frog Legs with Garlic-Herb Butter, Parsley Flan

The parsley flan was a perfect, delicate complement to the flavor of the frog legs. And what more can be said about anything cooked in garlic butter? It was incredible.

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Gratiné à l’Oignon

Baked Onion Soup with Gruyère Cheese Crust

A classic prepared perfectly. I didn’t know what that meant until I tasted this. The onions are slowly simmered and topped with a layer of toasty Gruyère. Who knew I had to take to the high seas to find this treasure?!

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Pannequet de Saumon en Tartare

Salmon Tartare Wrapped in Salmon Gravlax with Cucumber Rosace

With the richness of much of the food, I found this to be a perfect contrast. A light, flavorful hors d’oeuvre, it was a salmon tartare wrapped in gravlax and simply but elegantly presented on a bed of cucumber.

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Moules Marinières

Fresh Mussels with Shallots, White Wine and Parsley

Happily, the dramatic presentation of this dish was matched by the incredible flavor. As Pépin mentioned in the forward to Taste the World, preparing and serving food in the proper dish is important. These mussels certainly were, and they were some of the best mussels I’ve ever tasted. I was supposed to share with my husband – let’s just say, he would recommend ordering your own.

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Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Traditional Baked Escargots in Shell with Burgundy Garlic Butter

Some people shy away from escargots. I am not one of those people. If you are not one of those people, try these. You will discover the way they should be prepared and eaten!

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Poulet Fermier Rôti aux Herbes

Herb-crusted Black Foot Free Range Chicken au Jus

While he usually prefers fish, my husband surprised me by ordering the rotisserie chicken. He wanted to taste a true French classic, masterfully prepared, which is exactly what he got. Juicy and delicious in a perfectly roasted crust, this is how chicken should taste. He chose traditional French accompaniments of haricots verts and gratin dauphinois (because we couldn’t have a course without butter!). Julia Child, a longtime friend and colleague of Pépin, famously said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.” So what could be better than using both, as is the case with gratin dauphinois potatoes?!

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Homard Thermidor à ma Façon

Maine Lobster Baked in Shell with Mushroom Cream Sauce, Served with Crispy Parmesan

We capped off our rich, decadent meal with the ultimate in richness (cream, butter AND cheese!). Each time I dine in Jacques, I fully intend to try a new entrée. What actually happens is that I can’t pass up the lobster thermidor. And fortunately for my husband, I usually can’t finish it either!

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In case your mouth is watering and you can’t possibly wait for your next Oceania Cruises voyage to try some of this cuisine, I am including the recipe for French onion soup from Taste the World. In this book you will also find recipes for the gravlax, rotisserie chicken, several gratin dishes and many more, along with the story of one 24-hour day in the galleys, a behind the scenes look at how this fabulous cuisine is created.

French Onion Soup

(makes 5 cups, serves 4)

7 cups beef stock

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

9 cups thinly sliced onion

1½ tablespoons finely chopped garlic

3 thyme sprigs

3 marjoram sprigs

12 to 16 slices baguette, each ¼ inch thick

Extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup dry white wine (such as Chardonnay)

½ cup dry red wine (such as Merlot)

3 tablespoons brandy

3½ cups chicken stock

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups shredded Gruyère cheese

Pour the beef stock into a large saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a gentle boil and cook until the stock reduces by half, about 30 minutes. Set aside.

In a stockpot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until the onion is translucent and a light golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cook until the onion is a rich brown, 45 minutes to 1 hour, lowering the heat as necessary to prevent scorching. Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, place the thyme and marjoram sprigs on a small piece of cheesecloth and tie into a sachet with kitchen twine. Set aside. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Lightly brush the baguette slices on both sides with olive oil. Place in the oven and heat, turning once, until dry, about 5 minutes on each side. Do not allow the bread to color. Set aside.

Add the white wine, red wine, and brandy to the browned onion and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the alcohol evaporates and the onion is glazed, about 5 minutes. Add the sachet, the reduced beef stock, and the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Keep at a low simmer, uncovered, for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the broiler. Place 4 flameproof serving bowls on a small sheet pan. Ladle the soup into the bowls. Top with the bread slices, and then top the bread slices with enough cheese to cover the bread completely and extend to the rims of the bowls, about ½ cup for each bowl. Place under the broiler until the cheese is bubbling and toasted.

Recipes alone do not a chef make, so if you’re interested in honing your culinary skills and learning some of the secrets to Oceania Cruises’ fabulous recipes, I highly recommend taking a class at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard Marina or Riviera. If the Oceania Favorites – Jacques class is featured on your cruise, you can learn to make several of the dishes served at Jacques, preparing them yourself in your own workstation with the guidance of masters like Chef Kelly. Classes also teach other signature recipes from Oceania Cruises and culinary techniques to prepare dishes from all over the world.

As we Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we might suddenly find ourselves inspired to add a little French flair to our holiday dinner and enjoy this feast as those onboard Marina and Riviera will be doing – Jacques style! Happy holidays indeed!

November 13, 2012

HAVING IT ALL ON THE ISLAND OF RHODES

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I often encounter some particularly pleasant “dilemmas” when traveling at sea. A perfect example is when I recently awakened to find myself at the island of Rhodes on a beautiful warm sunny day. My dilemma was this: should I spend my day on the gorgeous beach frolicking in the indescribably blue waters of the Mediterranean, or should I explore the beautifully preserved ancient city of Rhodes, once home to Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World?

I know this is quite an enviable challenge to face. Rest assured that I found a solution – I did both!

Walking distance from the pier where the ship docks, I found Elli Beach, a welcoming beach with everything a traveler would need to enjoy an afternoon in the sun and the warm Mediterranean waters. There are hundreds of colorful umbrellas for the fair skinned or sun shy, rented sun decks, beachfront taverns and plenty of delightful little restaurants.

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If you haven’t fallen blissfully asleep in the warm sun or aren’t hypnotized by the gorgeous blue waters lapping gently at the shore, you can entertain yourself with the many other more adventurous activities like water sports, diving or beach volley ball.

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If you never make it off the beach, I seriously doubt you will live with any regret. That being said, I did not regret exploring the Grand Masters Palace in the old town of Rhodes.

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But first, let me address the Colossus of Rhodes, because if you are anything like me, you may be wondering, if it is so colossal, where is it?! A towering monument to the Golden Age of this island, the colossus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only one of these wonders, the Great Pyramid of Giza, remains relatively intact today. It took 12 years to build the Colossus of Rhodes, which is thought to have been completed somewhere around 290 BC. In 226 BC the statue crumbled in an earthquake, and for centuries pieces of the statue laid in the harbor. In the 7th century, Arabs captured the island and took all of the pieces of the colossus to Syria and sold it as scrap metal.

As the colossus now exists only in legend, I took a peaceful walk through the beautiful gardens just outside the Grand Masters Palace and enjoyed some lovely views of this historic site that still stands today.

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The Knights of Rhodes built the Grand Masters Palace in the 14the century. Heavily fortifying the city, the Knights were able to successfully fight off invaders for over two centuries until the Ottoman Empire captured Rhodes in 1522. Under the Ottomans the palace was used as a fortress.

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In 1856 the castle was destroyed by an enormous ammunition explosion and laid in ruins until the Italian Occupation of Rhodes in 1912. Rebuilt in a medieval style, the palace became a holiday residence for King Victor Emmanuel III and later for Benito Mussolini.

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In 1948, after World War II, Rhodes was transferred to the Kingdom of Greece, and the Greeks converted the palace to a museum. It is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Medieval City of Rhodes.

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What a lovely place for Nautica to visit on her final European port of call before sailing for Asia and Africa for the winter season. I can promise Nautica guests had no shortage of fascinating historic sites to explore and pleasant activities to enjoy during their stay. If the approach of winter has you eagerly planning a vacation for the summer of 2013, you should certainly consider an Oceania Cruises voyage that includes this lovely Greek island on the itinerary.

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November 5, 2012

THE SOUTH PACIFIC: A PRETTY PICTURE

As your Blogger-at-Large, there is only one thing I enjoy more than traveling the world with Oceania Cruises, and that’s sitting down and getting to know fellow guests. Everyone has their own unique perspective on what makes a voyage with Oceania Cruises so appealing and also what makes each destination so unique. I recently had the privilege of spending some time chatting with Peter and Pauline Pretty, Bronze Oceania Club members who have found their home away from home aboard the ships of Oceania Cruises.

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There are two kinds of travelers I come across on our cruises: “sightseers” and “doers.” Make no mistake that the Prettys are “doers.” They told me the best way to get to know the regions of the world is to step ashore with abandon – talk to the natives, sample the cuisine and embrace the customs. Recently, the Prettys were able to do just that on a South Pacific cruise, and Peter and Pauline were kind enough to share some of their photos.

In American Samoa, they traveled out into the landscape to experience the culture and witness one of the most esteemed ceremonies in Samoan culture, performed by an illustrious High Talking Chief at a traditional village. The journey involves a breathtaking drive west, during which guests delight in the island's natural beauty and historic landmarks. Highlights include the monolithic Fatu-ma-Futi, or Flowerpot Rock, that rises straight out of the ocean as if standing sentinel at the entrance to Pago Pago Bay. Farther west, the Leone Mission Monument and several churches mark the contribution of Reverend John Williams, who landed in the area in 1832 and began spreading Christianity.

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Despite readily embracing such non-native doctrines, Samoans still cherish traditional ways, especially with regard to ceremonies and social occasions. The High Talking Chief, or "tulafale," is the village spokesman, a grand orator highly skilled at holding the audience's attention through his extraordinary use of language and ancient proverbs. Dressed in traditional garb, the High Talking Chief launches into an animated and authentic performance of an ancient Samoan ceremony used to welcome visiting VIPs. After the ceremony, which takes place in an open-sided thatched "fale" building, guests are treated to a traditional dance performance.

DSC07207In Suva, Fiji, the Prettys explored the evolution of Fiji's fascinating cultural history and art during a half-day tour that included a spectacular performance by the Fijian Firewalkers. Greeted by the reverberating sound of a hollow drum beaten by a Fijian warrior, the blowing of a conch shell and the welcoming song of the villagers, guests were escorted to the DSC07190 amphitheater to witness a performance by Fijian Firewalkers and the enthralling group from the Arts Village of Fiji. As elders chant, young men remove the burning logs from a smoking pit to reveal the white-hot stones signaling the beginning of this ancient ceremony. The group from the Arts Village of Fiji entertains with traditional dancing and by re-enacting their legends and history amidst this idyllic setting.

Cultural immersion isn’t the only way to feel a connection the South Pacific. Sometimes the flora and fauna speak just as loudly. In Lautoka, Fiji, the Prettys discovered the beautiful gardens and historic artifacts of the South Seas during a delightful tour. At picturesque Burness House, hosts Don and Aileen Burness greet guests and provide an escorted walking tour through their landscaped gardens filled with fruit and flowering trees, arthurium lilies and lovely orchids. An extraordinary collection of Fijian artifacts is also on display.

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Moorea is always a guest favorite thanks to its tranquil turquoise lagoon and jagged emerald-colored volcanic peaks that rise up into the bright South Pacific skies. Moorea exemplifies the image that most people have of the South Pacific. Remarkably, a trip to the island doesn’t disappoint as it is every bit as dramatic and captivating as it appears in photographs.

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While the South Pacific is spectacular, it was always comforting to return to their floating home courtesy of Oceania Cruises. The cuisine is always a big hit and this cruise was no exception. Pauline spent some time with Executive Chef Renald Macouin, who shared a few secrets on how to prepare meals à la minute for a ship full of guests.

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While meals are a cherished event each day, the classic afternoon tea was one of Pauline’s favorite indulgences. The assortment of finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream and, of course, aromatic and exotic tea selections, were something to look forward to each afternoon upon returning from a day ashore.

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The specialty restaurants, none of which carry an additional surcharge, were something the Prettys looked forward to each time they held a reservation. Dinner with Regatta’s General Manager Raffaele Cinque was a treat, as was the cart of flavored olive oils brought tableside from which guests could choose their favorite.

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While many guests choose to cruise and then return home, the Prettys are big believers in extending their vacation with a pre- or post-cruise hotel stay. Papeete, Tahiti is the hub of the South Pacific but easily retains its reputation as a paradise. There are few hotel experiences that compare to staying in a bungalow suspended over the waters of the lagoon, the moon shimmering over the silver ripples, the stars competing for attention overhead and the tall peaks towering above. Imagine waking in the morning and stepping down to dangle your feet in the waters of a crystal clear lagoon, brightly colored tropical fish darting beneath the pilings as palms rustle just behind you. The Prettys know that feeling well and are convinced that the hotel stay in Papeete was time well spent. It was more than just a chance to recharge their batteries; it was invigorating as well.

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Remember, the South Pacific is only offered a few times a year by Oceania Cruises. A remarkable voyage from Valparaiso to Papeete is still available on December 27, 2012, as are two roundtrip cruises from Papeete on January 16 and January 27, 2013. Those who wish to wander farther afield, as the Prettys did, will be drawn to the February 7, 2013, cruise from Papeete to Auckland, especially considering this sailing offers two new Culinary Discovery Tours. Accompany chefs from the Bon Appétit Culinary Center to experience traditional Maori cuisine in Rotorua or regional dishes and wines in Kerikeri, just inland from the Bay of Islands.

Our thanks to the Prettys for sharing their remarkable South Pacific adventure with us. If you have stories of your South Pacific voyage with Oceania Cruises, feel free to share them here in the comments section of the blog.