110 posts categorized " Excursions "

April 1, 2014

A GREAT DEAL IN ST. PETERSBURG

Of all the amazing places I have traveled over the years, St. Petersburg truly captured my heart. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that Oceania Cruises is now offering a dozen St. Petersburg shore excursions FREE on five Marina sailings in 2014. And with two or three full days in St. Petersburg on each sailing, you can explore at will because the number of free shore excursions you can enjoy is UNLIMITED.

On the shore excursion St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral and Spilled Blood Cathedral (a great deal at $195 and an even better deal for free), you will visit three magnificent centers of spiritual life. St. Isaac’s Cathedral is a breathtaking monument to 19th century Russian architecture with its shimmering gold-plated dome that is a dominant feature of the city’s skyline.   

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Image0908C8AC-58E6-4DFE-9DDD-F014EE657AF5Strikingly different but no less captivating is the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, so named because it was constructed as a memorial on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. From early childhood I have been impressed by images of this style of Russian Orthodox temple so different from Western cathedrals. The colorful exterior and five copper-plated and enameled domes positively sparkle in the radiant summer sun. The interior is adorned with an incredible collection of mosaics, the largest in Russia and one of the largest in the world.

If you are an art lover, a visit to St. Petersburg may well inspire you to relocate permanently and spend the rest of your days wandering the Hermitage. If that seems impractical, the next best thing is the Hermitage, A Wealth of Art and History shore excursion (normally $195). Because of the convenience, comfort and a host of other reasons, an Oceania Cruises shore excursion is always the best way to experience a destination, but I especially recommend an excursion when visiting the Hermitage. The expert guides allow you to circumvent the lengthy lines and ensure that you see some of the most renowned works in the collection.

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One of the oldest and largest museums in the world, the Hermitage boasts a collection of more than three million works of art and artifacts, only part of which can be displayed in the complex of historic buildings that includes the Winter Palace, the former state residence of the Russian emperors. Some of my favorites include the 23 works by the Dutch master Rembrandt, Michelangelo’s sculpture Crouching Boy, and two of Leonardo da Vinci’s oil paintings, an extremely rare medium for this Italian Renaissance polymath. The environment in which these masterpieces are housed is as impressive as the works themselves.

Hermitage Rembrandt Portrait of an Old Jew

Hermitage Michelangelo Crouching Boy

Hermitage da Vinci Benois Madonna

These are just a few highlights of the 12 free shore excursions. There is obviously a great deal to see in St. Petersburg and no better way to see it than by taking advantage of this great deal from Oceania Cruises! And for a limited time, Oceania Cruises is also offering free pre-paid gratuities, unlimited Internet, and a shipboard credit up to $300 per stateroom on the sailings below, as well as the option to purchase a $99 premium economy air upgrade on select sailings. There has never been a better time to explore this magical city:

March 21, 2014

HONG KONG BEYOND THE SKYSCRAPERS

Hong Kong-2A world financial power of over seven million people, Hong Kong is a city that reaches for the sky with soaring high-rises that bustle by day and glitter by night. But don’t let the dazzling skyline distract you from the deeper and more contemplative side of this historic region. For underneath the hustle and bustle of this dynamic city, there is a spiritual heritage that is the center of its beating heart. Today Nautica is in Hong Kong for a two-day call, and many guests were able to get a glimpse of the spiritual culture of this region on the Lantau Island & Po Lin Monastery shore excursion.

Lantau Island is the largest island in Hong Kong and until recently was largely unpopulated except for a few fishing villages. Though recent years have seen increasing activity on the island, guests were treated to a look at what life was like just a few decades ago on a walking tour of Thai O Village on the western side of the island. The traditional stilt houses built over the water have given this scenic village the nickname “the Venice of Hong Kong.”

Tai O Village-Hong Kong

Thai O Village-Hong Kong

The main attraction of Lantau Island is Po Lin Monastery, situated on Ngong Ping plateau. From its humble beginnings as a “Big Thatched Hut” in 1906, Po Lin Monastery has become one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums, with several prominent architectural structures, rich with colorful Buddhist iconography. Home to many devout monks, the monastery has been called “the Buddhist World in the South.”

Ngong Ping Base of Buddha

Po Lin Monastery-Hong Kong

Sitting opposite the Po Lin Monastery is the world’s largest Buddha, a bronze statue built in 1993 that stands over 110 feet tall and weighs more than 275 tons. Drawing visitors from all over the world, Tian Tan Buddha (known as the “Big Buddha”) faces north to look over the people of China, with a right hand raised to deliver blessings to all.

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Ngong Ping-Tian Tan Bronze Buddha

Visitors enjoy breathtaking views of the mountains and water from the monastery complex as well as peaceful moments in the serene gardens. There is also a vegetarian restaurant that serves excellent food prepared by the monks.

Nautica will spend today and tomorrow in Hong Kong, so guests will have the opportunity to experience the thrilling energy of the city as well as the tranquil outposts that surround the metropolis. All of Oceania Cruises’ 2015 voyages offer two days in Hong Kong for this very reason:

Photos by Peter Pretty

March 10, 2014

WAIOTAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND

WAIOTAPU THERMAL WONDERLAND - TAURANGA (159)Rotorua sits in the middle of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a highly active volcanic area in northern New Zealand that attracts visitors from all over the world. Marina has been sailing the coast of New Zealand this week, and yesterday guests got an up-close look at the remarkable effects of this geothermal hot spot at Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, about 15 miles south of Rotorua.

Originally settled by Maori in the 13th century, Waiotapu is the Maori word for “sacred waters.” Protected since 1931, the Waiotapu Thermal Reserve has the largest area of surface thermal activity of any system in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, with colorful hot springs, craters, geysers and boiling mud pools. 

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At over 200 feet in diameter and approximately 200 feet deep, the Champagne Pool is Waiotapu’s largest hot spring. It was formed more than 700 years ago and is named for the abundant flow of carbon dioxide that gives it the appearance of bubbling champagne. The pool temperature averages 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and the oversaturation of metalloid compounds are what create the distinctive orange deposits that frame the pool. 

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Champagne Pool 1 Champagne Pool 5

The Champagne Pool is tilted due to seismic activity, causing mineral-laden water to flow over the surrounding sinter-encrusted flats. Minerals in the water, micro-organisms and wind patterns combine to create an ever-changing array of colors on what has become known as the Artist’s Palette. 

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One of the more active areas of the thermal reserve is the Mud Pool, where visitors can see – and hear – bubbling explosions of mud. Mud pools form in high-temperature geothermal areas where there is little water, and the boiling mud can sometimes reach heights of three to five feet. 

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Craters, formed when the ground collapses, can be found throughout the thermal reserve. They range from 15 to over 150 feet in diameter and reach up to 65 feet deep. The most recent crater, Thunder Crater, was formed in 1968.

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Many types of geothermal activities can be observed within the craters, including steam vents, known as fumaroles, as well as sulfur vents and bubbling pools. 

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This thermal reserve is just one of many fascinating places to explore in this region. Other excursion opportunities include a Culinary Discovery Tour, in which guests learn how the Maori used geothermal activity to prepare food, and a tour of the verdant New Zealand countryside where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed.

A call on Rotorua holds great appeal not only for aspiring arm-chair geologists intrigued by the geological hot spot of Waiotapu, but also for anyone who wants to witness some of nature’s most beautiful wonders. Oceania Cruises calls on Rotorua three times next year:

February 17, 2014

HO CHI MINH CITY AND THE VIETNAMESE COUNTRYSIDE

SaigonAlthough Ho Chi Minh City made the news last week for the grand opening of Vietnam’s first McDonald’s, guests on board Nautica got nothing but a quintessentially Vietnamese experience over the weekend while exploring this city of more than nine million and its surrounding countryside.

Known as Saigon prior to the end of the Vietnam War and still referred to as such by many, the city’s name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, in honor of the revolutionary leader who served as prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969. Oceania Cruises offers several shore excursions that explore this bustling metropolis, from its wartime relics and colonial architecture to its folkloric traditions and spiritual heritage, and excursions into the Vietnamese countryside are available as well.

Because Nautica frequently stays overnight in Ho Chi Minh City, guests have ample time to explore and take advantage of the opportunity to experience the contrast of city and country life. For me, there is nothing as energizing as immersing myself in the culture of a thriving urban center, but just as appealing is the serene countryside, where often I find a more authentic expression of cultural traditions that have been passed down through the centuries.

Guests on board Nautica enjoyed warm temperatures and bright sunshine while exploring the Vietnamese countryside on the Mekong River Cruise shore excursion. At the mouth of the seventh longest river in Asia, the Mekong Delta is one of the “rice baskets” of Vietnam, contributing about 50 percent of country’s rice production. Life in the Mekong Delta is centered on the river, and many of the locals spend their time paddling its canals and tributaries, whether farming, fishing, trading or escorting visitors on tours.

Mekong River Dusk

Vietnam Canal Cruise Paddler

The shore excursion began in My Tho. Considered the gateway to the Mekong Delta, the city was founded by Chinese refugees fleeing Taiwan in the 1680s. Here guests toured the Vinh Trang Pagoda, an ornate sanctuary near the city center set amidst beautiful gardens and decorated with carved and gilded wood. The laughing Buddha statue, an image believed to have originated in Chinese folklore, towers over the peaceful retreat where monks provide a home for orphaned, needy and disabled children.

Vinh Trang Buddha

Guests then boarded a motorboat and began to get a feel for daily life on the Mekong Delta as they passed fruit orchards, stilt houses, fish and shrimp farms and a vast variety of boats.

Far from the lines at the new McDonald’s in Ho Chi Minh City, guests stopped to explore the picturesque Thoi Son Island and enjoy a lunch of authentic Vietnamese food before continuing on to visit a family-run coconut candy factory. They then traded their motorboat for smaller, more traditional sampans and concluded the day with a scenic cruise through the narrow, tree-line canals of the lush delta.

Lunch at Thoi Son Island-Saigon

Thoi San Island-2

Oceania Cruises offers several opportunities to visit Vietnam in 2015. Enjoy a tranquil afternoon in the countryside, a thrilling day in Vietnam’s largest city, or both, because all the 2015 cruises feature overnight stays in Ho Chi Minh City!

 Photos by Peter Pretty

February 12, 2014

HIGHLIGHTS OF SIHANOUKVILLE

Nautica is spending the winter months exploring the great cities of Asia and today calls on Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This provincial capital on the western shores of the Gulf of Thailand enjoys relatively dry weather this time of year and typically hovers between 75 and 85 degrees. By all accounts, it sounds like the perfect place to be in February!

Guests can enjoy any number of adventures during their stay in Sihanoukville. The Amazing Ream National Park shore excursion explores the beautiful national park that protects over 50,000 acres of mangrove forests, beaches, tropical jungles, a thriving monkey population and more than 150 species of birds. For a more urban experience, Oceania Cruises also offers a day trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, where guests tour lavish palaces and gardens on the Mekong River, famous pagodas and infamous relics left from the tumultuous civil war.

There is also plenty to see and do within Sihanoukville itself, as revealed on the Highlights of Sihanoukville shore excursion that spends the day exploring this recently revived city. In the 1960s, Sihanoukville was a brand new, thriving port city with golden beaches that attracted Cambodia’s elite. But war in the region led the city to fall on hard times, and the beaches and resorts lay empty for decades.

With the end of the civil war and the opening of markets in Cambodia, Sihanoukville has been one of the main areas of economic growth in the nation. It is once again a bustling resort town and has been called, “Asia’s next trendsetting beach.”

As the name suggests, the Highlights of Sihanoukville shore excursion lets guests experience all the best this port city has to offer, from its sacred sites to its delicious cuisine to its lovely beaches. Guests begin with a visit to Wat Krom, one of the most important pagodas in Sihanoukville. Built on a hill with beautiful views of the ocean, the temple offers the opportunity to see Buddhist monks chanting or young monks learning Pali, the sacred language of the Buddhist scriptures.

On the way through town, the tour passes the popular Golden Lion roundabout, named for the giant golden statues that crouch in the center of the traffic circle. The lion has become a symbol of Sihanoukville and is depicted throughout the city.

Golden Lions Sihanoukville

Guests get a taste of the local culture on a walk through the lively local market, where one can buy the extraordinary seafood for which the area is famous as well as fresh fruits and vegetables and other local goods.

The tour really gets your blood pumping with a stop at the Snake House, known for its exotic snakes and freshwater crocodiles as well as an impressive collection of tropical fish and exotic birds.

Crocs and Snake Farm-Sihanoukville

After some close encounters with the snakes and crocs, guests can recuperate from the excitement by relaxing at the luxurious Sokha Beach Resort, an idyllic, garden-like setting on the south side of Sihanoukville. Take a refreshing dip in the pool, stroll along the pristine beaches or simply sip a cool drink while musing about all of the impressive sights of Sihanoukville.

Today is Oceania Cruises’ only call in Sihanoukville for 2014, but there are two opportunities to visit in 2015. Now is the perfect time to begin planning your Asian journey with Oceania Cruises!

Photos by Peter Pretty

February 7, 2014

A MEMORABLE DAY IN SINGAPORE

SingaporeNautica has completed the Safaris, Temples & Jewels cruise, sailing from Africa across the Indian Ocean to Asia, where she will finish the winter season exploring the ancient temples and modern metropolises of this vast continent. The voyage ended with an overnight stay in cosmopolitan Singapore, and guests on the next sailing, Pagodas & Palaces, kicked off their journey with an overnight stay here as well. It’s no wonder that Nautica lingers in Singapore on several of her Asian cruises because there is so much to see and do in this bustling and beautiful city.

Known as the “Garden City,” Singapore continues to fulfill its green vision that was instituted decades ago by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the first head of the independent Republic of Singapore. Despite staggering economic growth over the past 50 years, Singapore is less a concrete jungle than a literal jungle. Its soaring skyscrapers are embraced by verdant parks and tree-lined streets.

Most recently developed were the Gardens by the Bay. Covering 177 football fields and housing 80 percent of the world’s plant species, the gardens were designed to create a continuous ring of greenery enveloping the Marina Bay area. Nautica guests on the Singapore By Boat/Trishaw–Raffles Visit shore excursion viewed these spectacular gardens from the skypark of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The vantage point offered beautiful vistas of the Supertree Grove, a cluster of enormous structures designed to provide shade and shelter while also acting as hanging gardens and rainwater catches. The Supertrees even harvest solar energy! Singapore’s commitment to “green” goes well beyond lush vegetation; the city has a master plan for environmental sustainability.

Marina Bay Sands Casino View from Marina Sands Bay hotel, Singapore (6) (Medium)

Some guests took the opportunity to further explore the expansive gardens, including the ethereal Cloud Forest, an indoor mountain showcasing an astounding diversity of plant life as well as the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. The vibrant colors and sweet scents of the Flower Dome are also a highlight of these magnificent gardens.

Gardens by the Bay Tribal Masks

Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest 1 Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest 2

Gardens by the Bay Flowers 3

Gardens by the Bay Flowers 4

There is an actual city to be found in this “city within a garden,” and a cruise down the Singapore River allowed guests to enjoy views of modern skyscrapers and other important landmarks. The cruise began at Clarke Quay, which is named for the second governor of Singapore. Once the center of commerce, Clark Quay is now a bustling array of restaurants, wine bars, entertainment spots and retail stores.

Clarke Quay

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The cruise sailed by landmarks such as the Cavenagh Bridge, one of Singapore’s oldest bridges, and the Merlion statue in Merlion Park. With the head of a lion and the body of a fish, the Merlion is the mascot of Singapore, paying homage to the city’s heritage as a fishing village as well as its original name, Singapura, which means “lion city.”

Merlion

Clarke Quay

Maybank Tower

Shutterstock_91915742Guest also had the chance to experience an invigorating ride on a trishaw, Singapore’s ubiquitous bike taxis.  They rode along the streets of the Colonial District, passing St. Andrew's Cathedral before ending up at the Raffles Hotel, a must on many travelers’ lists of Singapore sights. The iconic hotel is renowned for its elegant High Tea and is also said to be the place where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented. It was the perfect spot to stop for a bit of liquid refreshment!

For those who love the invigorating energy of a bustling city but are drawn to the lush greenery and fresh air of the pastoral countryside, Singapore has it all. If an Asian voyage with Oceania Cruises is in your plans, consider these fabulous itineraries that call on the amazing city of Singapore.

 

 

January 14, 2014

SNORKELING ON THE ISLAND PARADISE OF GRAND TURK

In my recent Christmas Eve post, I mentioned that guests on board Riviera were celebrating in beautiful Grand Turk, and today it is Regatta’s turn to call on this lovely island paradise.

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Grand Turk Port 2

When I think of Grand Turk, I think of one word: blue. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I’ve seen a lot of water in my day, but I’ve never seen water in such vivid, myriad shades of blue as I saw when I visited Grand Turk. Perhaps the light was just right, or perhaps I was so happy to escape the gray of my hometown winter that I was bedazzled by the bright colors, but Grand Turk had me in its spell from the moment the ship approached. It was as if the essence of every blue mineral and gemstone had been captured and splashed across the sea. I even took a close-up shot of the pure blue surface in a futile attempt to capture its brilliance.

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The island itself is as enchanting as the surrounding waters, and it is very guest friendly. There are several shops just off the pier offering everything from beachwear and jewelry to souvenirs and sundries. Abundant lounge chairs are available for sunning yourself on the beach, and the entire area is beautifully landscaped with swaying palms and fuchsia flora. And if lounging on the tranquil beach and gazing at the serene water somehow isn’t enough to relax you, perhaps a beachside massage will do the trick!

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Despite the allure of a relaxing beach chair, I chose on this visit to partake in one of Oceania Cruises’ more active excursions, the Ultimate Snorkeling Adventure. Our group was welcomed aboard our vessel by three enthusiastic and informative guides, who provided everyone with the requisite snorkeling equipment and explained how to use it for the novices in the group. Then we set off for our first destination, Horseshoe Reef, where I finally got to take a dip in the beautiful blue water. The colors underneath the surface were just as vivid, with various species of shimmering tropical fish too numerous to count. The guides provided us with cards to help identify several of the fish, which made the experience all the more interesting.

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Sail Boat

We then continued on to a second snorkeling site, a reef off of Round Cay. Here we saw another array of colorful fish, and our guide also introduced us to the friendly neighborhood nurse shark. The mellow nurse shark is nocturnal, sluggish during the day and generally harmless, and this nurse shark seemed accustomed to relaxing in this particular spot that the snorkelers frequent and content to be the center of attention.

After a wonderful snorkeling adventure, I stopped into Margaritaville, just a short walk from the pier, to enjoy a tropical cocktail under the warmth of the Grand Turk sun. The restaurant has a large pool with a swim-up bar for those who wish to enjoy their cocktails and the water at the same time. I decided to forego dining here because I knew their burgers couldn’t possibly be as good as those in Waves Grill on the ship. So after finishing my drink, I returned to the ship for a Kobe burger with black truffle sauce and baby cress – a delicious ending to a wonderful day on Grand Turk!

Image068EBADC-2C93-46DE-95CF-AB5DC060C6A9 Grand Turk Port

January 6, 2014

GUESTS SAVOR ARGENTINE CUISINE ON A CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN BUENOS AIRES

Marina finished the year 2013 exploring the exotic coasts of Brazil, and during a recent call on Buenos Aires, guests enjoyed a fabulous Culinary Discovery Tour led by Bon Appétit Culinary Center Chef Noelle Barille.

Guests took a brief tour through the city on their way to the bustling, bohemian neighborhood of San Telmo, in which the cobblestone streets are lined with antique shops, galleries and tango halls. San Telmo is home to one of the busiest and most famous local markets, where guests were able to explore and sample some of the local treats. They tasted local liqueurs as well as dulce de leche pastry handmade by Margareite, an Italian immigrant. Many immigrants from Genoa settled in San Telmo in the past, and the Italian influence is still evident in the area.

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After the market visit, the group continued up the street to the Havanna Café, to try its robust coffee and famous alfajores. Said to be the best in Argentina, these delicious confections are filled with dulce de leche and coated in chocolate.

After this sweet nibble to whet their appetites, guests traveled to the Palermo neighborhood for the hands-on part of the tour. The Argentine Experience is not only a restaurant but also an interactive culinary experience that teaches people about the local cuisine. Everyone was greeted with the refreshing national drink of Argentina, mate infused with fruit juice. Then they moved on to the cooking class, which taught the entire process of making traditional Argentine empanadas, from the puffy dough to a variety of stuffings. Guests could fill their empanadas with caramelized onions, mozzarella, ratatouille, malbec-glazed beef and other savory treats. They even held a contest for the most creative empanada.

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A wonderful lunch of empanadas was complemented by roasted carrots and onions, whipped potatoes and three different Argentinian wines: a sauvignon blanc, a malbec, and a malbec blend. While historically known as one of the six grapes that can be used in a red Bordeaux wine, malbec has surged to prominence in Argentina and is now one of the most notable Argentinian wines.

After lunch everyone learned how to make mate and to assemble alfajores, so the secrets to several Argentinian specialties were now revealed. Before returning to the ship, the group stopped at an artisan ice cream shop called Volta. Considering the warm temperatures of the Argentine summer, this was the perfect place for the tour’s finale. Guests enjoyed one final incarnation of the ubiquitous dulce de leche, this time in ice cream. It was delightful conclusion to a day spent experiencing the vibrant Argentine culture through the local cuisine.

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November 18, 2013

A DAY IN FLORENCE

Last week Nautica, Marina and Riviera all called on the port of Livorno, the gateway to Tuscany. From this port, you can explore the beautiful Tuscan countryside and so many charming towns, from Pisa to Cinque Terre to San Gimignano. Of course, one of the most popular places to visit is the grand city of Florence.

View of Florence

I recently took the Florence On Your Own shore excursion, which is perfect if you want the freedom to wander the streets of this amazing city at your own pace without worrying about getting back to the ship on time. A comfortable, air-conditioned bus picked me up at the ship for the two-hour trip to Florence, during which a guide shared info and maps that helped me navigate the city. Once we arrived, I had six lovely hours to enjoy Florence before the bus picked me up and returned me to the ship.

The bus dropped me off at the Piazza di Santa Croce, just off the Arno River and near the Basilica di Santa Croce, where I began my day. Construction began on the basilica, the principal Franciscan church in Florence, in 1294. With 16 chapels, it is the largest Franciscan church in the world and the burial place of some of history’s most famous Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini.

Basilica di Santa Croce Basilica di Santa Croce Door

At the steps of the Basilica di Santa Croce stands a statue dedicated to the great Italian poet, Dante. Donated in 1865 to celebrate the sixth century since Dante’s birth, the statue was moved to the steps of the basilica in 1968. Born in Florence, Dante was eventually condemned to exile for political reasons, and it wasn’t until 2008 that Dante’s sentence was rescinded. Thus, while the city of Florence built a tomb for Dante in the Basilica di Santa Croce in the 19th century, his remains are still in a tomb in Ravenna, the city where he died. At each corner of the base of the Dante statue sits a rather stern-looking heraldic lion with one paw on the city’s coat of arms, said to represent the power of the people of the Republic of Florence.

Basilica di Santa Croce Dante Statue Basilica di Santa Croce Lions Dante Statue

With only one basilica down, I was already starving. I stopped at a restaurant on the piazza and enjoyed one of the best Caprese salads I’ve ever had, accompanied by some delicious prosciutto, a rich lasagna and a glass of red wine. Suffice it to say, I was sated and ready to continue exploring.

Lunch Caprese Salad

My next stop was Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge. Originally built during Roman times, it is the oldest bridge in Florence. The current structure was built in 1345, and the workshops along the bridge were mainly used by butchers and tanners. Today the shops offer a wide array of jewelry and souvenirs to the many tourists that visit.

Ponte Vecchio

Plaza VecchioAfter Ponte Vecchio I moved on to the nearby Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. At the end of the 13th century, Florentines decided to build a palace that provided greater security to the magistrates. The massive Romanesque fortress is one of the most impressive in Tuscany and overlooks the Piazza della Signoria.

The Fountain of Neptune stands on the piazza, as well as a replica of Michelangelo’s David, marking the place where the original statue once stood. The original is now housed in the Accademia Gallery, about a 15-minute walk north of the Palazzo Vecchio, and I consider it to be one of Florence’s must-see sights. While you’ve probably seen any number of the images and replicas of the statue that seem to pervade Western culture, the original is truly astounding in its scale, detail and beauty.

Palazzo Vecchio Neptune

Plaza Vecchio David

Uffizi Gallery CourtyardNear the Palazzo Vecchio and also well worth a visit is the amazing Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world. The gallery houses some of Italy’s greatest works of art, including works by da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. One of my favorite works in this museum is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, although it’s almost ludicrous to name any favorite amidst the incredible collection of masterworks. There is usually a long line to get into the Uffizi, so I highly recommend advance reservations, which can be made online for a fee. Oceania Cruises also offers excursions to both the Uffizi and the Accademia Gallery, so you can avoid the lines at both.

There are so many wonderful things to see in Florence, and I haven’t even mentioned the Duomo yet, one of the most famous and impressive cathedrals in Europe! I’ll save that for a future blog, and if you want to see this wonderful city for yourself, here are just a few of the ample opportunities to visit with Oceania Cruises in 2014:

November 12, 2013

POMPEII: IN THE SHADOW OF VESUVIUS

Vesuvius and Temple of Jupiter

One of my favorite moments of any vacation is when I get a true sense of the tiny place I occupy within the world and its history. On a recent trip as Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, that moment came as I walked through the incredible ruins of Pompeii, an ancient Roman city that was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.

I will try to limit my use of superlatives, although many come to mind when describing what an amazing experience it is to walk through an ancient Roman city relatively untouched by time. Preserved in volcanic ash for more than 1,500 years, the city appears very much like it was on the day it was destroyed, allowing for a unique look at life at the beginning of a new millennium. Of course, as I gazed in awe at the ruins, with Mount Vesuvius looming in the background, I was acutely aware that we can only experience this piece of history today because of the tragic disaster that struck this once thriving city of 20,000.

While I had previously seen photos of Pompeii, I didn’t realize how expansive the city was until I visited. It currently covers about five square miles. You could spend hours exploring the wide streets and narrow alleyways lined with homes and shops, and much of the city is still being excavated. Beautifully preserved mosaics adorn the ceilings and floors of homes, and political propaganda can still be found on the city streets.

Home with Mosaics

Ceiling Detail 2

Ceiling Detail

Political Propaganda

One of the oldest parts of the city, the forum served as one of the main centers of public life in Pompeii. In addition to being a marketplace, the forum was a place where townspeople conducted business, took part in religious and political events and socialized, among many other things. 

Columns Along the Forum

Columns along the Forum 2

Forum

Arch:Forum

After Pompeii became part of the Roman territory, the city was endowed with several public buildings, including a large amphitheater. A period of modernization brought an aqueduct, streets designed to divert water and waste, and high sidewalks and stepping stones for pedestrian crossings. The Romans were incredibly advanced in their engineering of water management.

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Street

Dedicated to the god Apollo, the Temple of Apollo is one of the town’s most important religious sites. The temple underwent several renovations throughout the years due to modernization and earthquake damage. As the temple was largely destroyed in the volcanic eruption, what remains today is the original foundation. 

Temple of Apollo

The Temple of Vespasian is thought to honor the Roman emperor from 69 to 79 AD, and it is believed that construction was not complete on the temple prior to the eruption. A marble altar, decorated with reliefs on all four sides, stands at the center of the courtyard. 

Temple of Vespasian

Temple of Vespasian Close

Jupiter was one of the most important gods of ancient Rome, and the Temple of Jupiter was built at a time when Roman influence over Pompeii was increasing. Built in 150 BC, it would become one of the city’s main temples after the Roman conquest. An earthquake in 62 AD destroyed much of the temple, and it was awaiting restoration when Vesuvius erupted 17 years later.

Arch near Temple of Jupiter

Oceania Cruises offers excursions to Pompeii from both Naples and Sorrento, as Pompeii is situated more or less right between the two cities. I took the Pompeii & Herculaneum excursion from Sorrento. Herculaneum sits even closer to the crater of Vesuvius, and while the city may not be as famous as Pompeii, it is equally impressive. More on that in a future post, but in the meantime, I hope you have the chance to visit Pompeii and other fascinating Mediterranean cities on a voyage with Oceania Cruises in 2014:

November 4, 2013

MORE OF THE BIG APPLE

This week Regatta made her final stop in New York for 2013 before sailing south to warmer waters for the winter season, so I am taking this opportunity to share the remainder of my photos from my most recent trip to this fabulous city as Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises.

On this trip I was very much looking forward to visiting to the 9/11 Memorial. Tickets to visit the memorial are free, but you do need to get them in advance if you are not on a prearranged tour. I highly recommend the Oceania Cruises shore excursion Downtown Manhattan and the 9/11 Memorial, which includes a harbor cruise past the Statue of Liberty and a walking tour of Lower Manhattan followed by a visit to the memorial.

Honoring the lives of those who were lost in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993, the memorial occupies 8 of the 16 acres of the former World Trade Center complex. Names of all the lives lost are inscribed in bronze plaques that surround the two waterfalls and reflecting pools set in the footprints of the twin towers. Like a beacon of hope, the new One World Trade Center being built to replace the twin towers rises over the memorial plaza. 

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There is no way to describe the feeling of arriving on this solemn scene. The roaring water of the fountains blocks out the ambient noises, so I was left with what felt like a very solitary experience of the monument despite being surrounded by visitors. I knew it would be a powerful tribute, but there is no way to really know how moving the experience will be until you are there. It is a poignant testament to the impact of the tragedy and the incredible strength and resilience of the American people, particularly New Yorkers, in the wake of the devastation.  

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After visiting the memorial, I spent some time walking the streets of Manhattan and just taking in all the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful city. The skyscrapers soaring over historic churches nestled in their shadows. The car engines and taxi horns blending somehow harmoniously with the din of voices, within which I could discern any number of accents and languages as I strolled through the multitude of faces. Ultimately, the tempting aromas from the street vendors and local restaurants drew me to my final quintessential New York experience of the day – pizza!

When an Italian immigrant reinvented a Neapolitan staple food in 1897, New York–style pizza was born. In 1905 Lombardi’s was licensed by the city of New York, becoming America’s first pizzeria. There are now pizzerias on just about every street corner in New York (Ray’s and Original Ray’s being the most ubiquitous), but what makes Lombardi’s special, along with a handful of other pizzerias in the city, is the brick oven. In an authentic New York pizzeria, the ingredients are fresh and the pizza is baked to order in a brick oven.

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I “accidentally” ordered a large pizza and for a few minutes was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish, even with the help of my friend who had happily agreed to join me. But walking the streets of New York and the smell of Lombardi’s pizza have a way of making a girl hungry, and I am proud to say, there was not much left when we were finished.

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One of the greatest things about New York is that, no matter how many times you visit, there is always more to see and do. If you’ve never been, you simply must add this city to your bucket list. And there are some distinct advantages to seeing the city on an Oceania Cruises voyage. New York is a city in which it’s easy to drop several hundred dollars on food and lodging in just a day or two, but with your Oceania Cruises home away from home awaiting you in port, you can sample the local fare, see the sights and then return to the luxurious accommodations and fine cuisine on board and take full advantage of Oceania Cruises’ incredible value. Plus, on these 2014 voyages, you can also visit a number of other wonderful cities along the American and Canadian coasts – and even the Caribbean!

 

October 23, 2013

A DAY AT THE ACHILLEION PALACE ON CORFU

Marina and Riviera both call on Corfu this week, and guests have the opportunity to explore this lovely island on the Corfu Town and Achilleion shore excursion. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I recently enjoyed this wonderful excursion on a perfect summer day.

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Gate at Achillion Palace

When reading about the Achilleion Palace, you will always find mention of the great views from the palace grounds, and many have attempted to capture these impressive vistas in photographs. But it is not until you are actually standing there, looking out across the beautiful island with the Ionian Sea glistening in the distance, that you truly understand what all the fuss is about. Having said that, this palace is more than just a pretty face. It also has a quite fascinating history behind it.

View from Achillion Palace

Empress Sisi StatueUpon arriving at the palace, I was greeted by a marble statue of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, affectionately known as Sisi, who built the palace in 1890 as an expression of her passion for Greek culture. In fact, she spoke Greek better than most Greek queens of her time. The central theme of the palace is Achilles, Chapel a mythical figure whom the empress admired for his strength and beauty, two characteristics she herself possessed. Achilles and Sisi also shared a tragic fate. At the time when the empress built the palace, she was desperate to escape her grief over the loss of her only son to suicide the previous year. And the empress would herself be killed by an anarchist in 1898.

One of the most moving and impressive rooms in the palace is Sisi’s Catholic chapel with its domed ceiling depicting the trial of Christ and a painting of Madonna and child hanging above the altar. I found this particularly poignant given the devastating loss of the empress’s son.

As you would imagine, there are several depictions of Achilles inside the palace. One of the most imposing is an enormous painting, The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch, in the hall above the main staircase. It dramatically portrays Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind a chariot in front of the gates of Troy.

Achilles Painting Over Staircase

Achilles is also well represented on the palace grounds, which I found even more impressive than the palace itself. High on a pedestal stands the centerpiece of the gardens, a marble statue of Achilles at the moment of his demise as he tries to pull the fatal arrow from his heel. Elsewhere in the gardens, a huge bronze statue of Achilles was added by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who purchased the palace after Sisi’s untimely death. The antithesis of the beloved Sisi, he too would only enjoy the palace for a short time because he soon launched Germany into World War I and was later exiled with Germany’s defeat.

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Achilles Statue (renown) close

Many other monuments to ancient Greek mythology also adorn the grounds, including several statues that line the courtyard. Some of my favorites were the nine muses, especially the one pictured here, whom I like to think of as the musing muse. 

Statue of Muses Musing Muse

The Achilleion Palace is only one of many fascinating things to do on lovely Corfu, and I am resolved to return and further explore the other palaces, forts and quaint villages and learn more about the history of this beautiful island. There are several opportunities to visit Corfu with Oceania Cruises in 2014:

October 9, 2013

CHEF KELLY LEADS CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN SAN SEBASTIAN

Fall is in the air in the markets of Spain, and I led a wonderful Culinary Discovery Tour in San Sebastian last week, where guests enjoyed a hands-on workshop at the exclusive restaurant Ni Neu.

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We were traveling onboard Riviera from Southampton to Barcelona, and along the way we enjoyed fresh oysters in Brittany, Calvados in Le Havre and pintxos in San Sebastian. For those who may not be familiar with pinxtos, they are similar to tapas and are especially popular in the Basque region of Spain. Many say that San Sebastian has the best pinxtos in Basque country.

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In Bilbao we boarded a bus for San Sebastian, a city known for Michelin-starred restaurants and fabulous food. Our first stop was a market in the old town with a wide selection of fresh fish. The city’s finest chefs shop here for anchovies, sole, squid, swordfish, hake, snapper and various shellfish. The bacalau vendor offered an array of salted cod varieties – always spectacular in Spain. 

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After purchasing jamón, local cheese and wine, we walked across the bridge for our pintxos workshop and lunch at Ni Neu. The chef and his interpreter greeted us warmly, and everything was set up for our workshop.

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The circulator was at the perfect 145°F temperature for the eggs, which we would eat on a mash of potatoes and garlic – with Spanish olive oil and salt of course. I shared with the class the method known as “sous vide, a hot trend in the culinary world today. Oceania Cruises chefs have used this method to prepare one of the courses on the tasting menu in La Reserve. They’re expanding the technique to dishes in other venues as well and are excited to continue showcasing one of the latest culinary trends onboard the ships.

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We worked in tables of five and made four different pintxos, all very tasty. Many of our guests were inspired to host a pintxos party at home. We also sipped Spanish wines and learned about the emerging wine regions in central Spain. 

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After a 60 minute workshop, we enjoyed two signature dishes from Ni Neu. The first was roasted lamb IMG_3768on a bed of Parmentier cheese purée and a wild mushroom dust. “Parmentier” refers to dishes made with potatoes and honors the 18th-century Frenchman who devoted his life to promoting the attributes of the potato. For dessert we had the restaurant’s famous French toast soaked in egg yolk and fresh cream, caramelized and served with homemade ice cream.

Waddling back to the bus for the scenic ride home, we all had a full appreciation of why San Sebastian is heralded as the culinary capital of northern Spain.

September 25, 2013

MORE ADVENTURES WITH JACQUES PÉPIN ONBOARD RIVIERA

AnniversaryThe Jacques Pépin Signature Sailing onboard Riviera continues, and it has been a festive and eventful cruise. Jacques and his wife, Gloria, were surprised with a special celebration in Privée for their 47th wedding anniversary, complete with confetti and a beautiful cake created for the occasion by Oceania Cruises’ talented chefs.

When Riviera called on Ibiza, Pépin enjoyed a trip to the Sa Cova winery in the green hills of San Mateo. Grapes have been grown in this region since the time of the Phoenicians, including varietals such as monastrell, malvasia, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo. Covering more than 22 acres, Sa Cova produces wines with grapes grown on the estate, using modern production techniques and high ecological standards combined with traditional methods and aging processes.

Pépin and his guests had a wonderful time with the winery’s friendly staff, who explained the production process and also offered a tasting of several different wines paired with local bread, aioli, sausage, cheese and ham. Any food and wine lovers on an Oceania Cruises voyage to Ibiza will not want to miss this shore excursion, Wine Tasting at Sa Cova!

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While everyone on the cruise has greatly enjoyed exploring ashore, there have been several special events onboard as well. Chef Kelly of the Bon Appétit Culinary Center hosted “An Informal Chat with Chef Pépin” in which he shared several personal stories with guests, from his childhood as the son of restaurateurs to his position as the personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. Pépin also shared several fond and funny memories of his work with Julia Child, with whom he collaborated on the award-winning television series Jacques and Julia Cooking at Home.

There have also been book signings and other opportunities for guests to interact with the renowned chef who is the inspiration behind Oceania Cruises’ exquisite cuisine. While the culinary experience on any Oceania Cruises voyage is exceptional, having legendary Chef Pépin onboard has truly made this cruise extraordinary.

August 22, 2013

REGATTA LEAVES HER HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO

Regatta is wrapping up another fantastic summer in Alaska with a final stop in San Francisco before following sunny skies to the Southern Hemisphere. Highlights of the summer included Oceania Cruises’ 10-year anniversary sailing with Chairman and Founder Frank Del Rio and his wife, Marcia – godmother of Regatta and stops in destinations as far west as Kodiak and Seward. As Regatta calls on San Francisco, this seems like the perfect time to share some of the amazing shoreside activities available from this charming city by the bay.

Alcatraz Island is a 25-acre island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, a little over a mile from the city. Designated as a maximum security prison in 1933, Alcatraz housed many infamous criminals, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Franklin Straud, known as the “Birdman.” The tour of the island includes a roundtrip ferry ride with scenic views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the city, an opportunity to explore the island with a tour guide, access to the prison and a fascinating 45-minute cellhouse audio tour featuring interviews with former inmates and prison guards.

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Considered one of the most beautiful bridges in the world and certainly the most photographed, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world from 1937 until 1964 when New York City’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened. Completed in four years, the tremendous 746-foot-tall towers, enormous main cables and signature orange color attract 10 million visitors annually. And the views are stunning from either side of the bridge!

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San Francisco boasts several highly regarded museums, and many of the museum sites are as famous as the collections themselves. The Legion of Honor is a three-quarter-scaled adaptation of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, perched high on the headlands above the Golden Gate, offering fantastic views of the bridge and the city as well as a wonderful collection. Reopened in 2005, the new de Yong Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco is an impressive modern building in the heart of San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco is also renowned for its cuisine. The birthplace of California Cuisine, the city is also home to some of the best Asian, Italian, Mexican and fusion cuisine in the world. Wine lovers will not want to miss an opportunity to tour Napa Valley, which offers world-class wineries as well as exquisite restaurants by famed chefs such as Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello and Masaharu Morimoto.

If you’re looking for the opportunity to visit this amazing city, Regatta returns to San Francisco several times in 2014. Because many cruises embark or disembark here, you can take advantage of Oceania Cruises’ pre- or post-cruise hotel programs and spend a few extra days exploring the city before or after your cruise. It will be an experience you will never forget!

Regatta in San Francisco:

August 14, 2013

A SECOND LOOK AT EPHESUS

DSCF0970 - Version 2There are certain places in the world that are worth revisiting because they are so rich in history and beauty. Ephesus is one of those places, and as Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I had the great fortune of visiting this extraordinary archaeological site twice. Today guests onboard Riviera’s Sacred Sanctuaries voyage explored the ruins of this magnificent city.

Ephesus is 13 miles from the port city of Kusadasi and 10 miles from the Aegean coastline, so I was a little surprised to discover that this landlocked city was previously one of the most important ports in the world. As a result of the silting of the Meander River, what was once the bay had become marshland by the end of seventh century, and 60,000 people were killed by malaria from the mosquitoes. The town was rebuilt nearby, but because it was no longer a port city, it never regained its prior importance.

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During Roman times, the population of Ephesus was 250,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Most of the ruins that can be seen today were originally built between the first century BC and first century AD. Ephesus was uniquely positioned in both place and time to be at the center of perhaps the greatest evolution of religious philosophy in history. Sacred monuments in the city pay homage to the Greek goddess Artemis as well as the Apostle Saint John.

Ephesus is thought to be where Jesus sent Saint John and the Virgin Mary after his death. After being exiled to Patmos, where he wrote Revelations, John came back to Ephesus and died of natural causes at the age of 100. He was purportedly the only apostle who was not martyred. John was buried in Ephesus in the place where he died, and later the Basilica of St. John was built over his grave.

Meanwhile, the Temple of Artemis had been standing in Ephesus since centuries earlier. Even though only one column remains, you can still see the foundations of this magnificent construction from the Hellenistic period, which stand a few hundred meters from the primary archaeological site of Ephesus. While the ruins are sparse, it is nevertheless impressive to stand at the foundations of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and envision its past glory. The temple was four times larger than the Parthenon and had 127 columns, each standing nearly 60 feet high.

Ephesus was plundered by numerous invaders over the centuries, and marble from the Temple of Artemis was used to build the Basilica of St. John, which then later became a mosque. At any given point in history, Ephesus was under the control of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Ottomans and other empires.

Archaeologists have been excavating Ephesus since the 1890s. Among the many fascinating discoveries was the sophisticated water collection system that brought water from huge cisterns on the hill down into the city via clay pipes. This ancient city had running water!

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I was astonished to find that original marble remains on the main road through the city, which leads down to the most famous edifice in Ephesus, the Library of Celsus. It took seven years to reconstruct the façade, 75 percent of which is original. First built in the first century AD in honor of the Roman senator Celsus, the library was destroyed by an earthquake in the third century and only the façade survived. It remained a monument until it, too, was destroyed by an earthquake.

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The magnificent Great Theater is the largest Roman theater in Turkey and the best preserved in the world. 

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The acoustics in the theater are so advanced that it has hosted modern performers, such as Diana Ross, U2, Sting and Pavarotti, without the need for amplification. Overlooking what was once the harbor, it seats 25,000 and it is believed that Saint Paul preached here. Because most people were idol worshippers at the time, there were tradesmen, especially silversmiths, who made money selling idols. Paul’s preaching warned against idolatry and threatened the livelihood of these tradesmen, so he met with resistance and persecution during the three years he was in Ephesus.

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The center of Ephesus was relocated a few times during its long history, but remarkably, it stood at the location of this archaeological site for a millennium. Centuries of earthquakes and changing landscapes buried and protected these ruins so that today we can take an incredible journey back in time. Whether you visit once or many times, Ephesus always has more fascinating history to reveal, and I highly recommend any of the upcoming Oceania Cruises sailings that call on this amazing city.

The following voyages visit Ephesus in 2013:

 

 

August 2, 2013

THE AMAZING GEIRANGERFJORD

Guests onboard Nautica recently visited the incredible Geirangerfjord on Voyage of the Midnight Sun, and this weekend Marina’s guests will also have the opportunity to see this breathtaking destination on the Isles & Fjords voyage.

Just northeast of Bergen, Geirangerfjord is one of the world’s longest and deepest fjords and is considered an archetypal fjord landscape. Its exceptionally captivating beauty derives from its narrow canal flanked by steep-sided rock walls that rise over 4,500 feet above sea level and descend more than 1,500 feet below.

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The sheer walls of the fjord have numerous waterfalls, the most famous being the Seven Sisters. The falls are made up of seven separate streams, the tallest cascading from a height of 820 feet.

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At the head of this nine-mile fjord is the little village of Geiranger, where Marina will stop on this journey so that guests can further explore this astounding fjord.

Highlights of a shore excursion in Geirangerfjord include Eagle's Bend, a viewpoint reached by a meandering road of switchbacks and hairpin turns that climbs to a fantastic vista of the scenic mountains and the fjord below. At Flydal Gorge, the view towards the fjord is also superb. The ship in the distance looks like a toy boat, giving you a perspective on the soaring height of the mountain cliffs that embrace the fjord.

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Equally scenic is the lovely Djupvatn Lake. Usually covered by ice and snow until the end of June, the lake lies over 3,000 feet above sea level and is part of the Otta river system.

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Next year offers just a single opportunity to visit the magnificent Geirangerfjord, when Nautica sails there on Path of the Midnight Sun, which departs on August 2, 2014. Don’t miss the chance to see one of the most fantastic fjords in the world! 

 

Photos by Peter Pretty

July 22, 2013

NAUTICA GUESTS FOLLOW THE MIDNIGHT SUN

Guests onboard Nautica wrapped up a thrilling journey to the top of the world today on Voyage of the Midnight Sun, and to celebrate we are sharing photos provided by guests who have enjoyed this adventure in the past. Typically Oceania Cruises offers an itinerary that ventures this far north just once a year, and it is a special trip for guests who truly yearn to explore the far reaches of the world. Remote and indescribably beautiful, these northern ports offer a glimpse of untouched areas seldom seen by most travelers.

Kristiansand, the capital of Vest-Agder County in Southern Norway, is Norway’s fifth largest city, with approximately 90,000 residents. Founded in the 17th century by King Christian IV, the old section of the town is brimming with character, notably its strictly right-angled streets called kvadraturen in Norwegian. This photo of the shores of Kristiansand captures the quaint beauty of the city.

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Equally as enchanting is Bergen, which has been one of Norway’s major port cities since the 9th century. On the Troldhaugen & Fantoft Stave Church Tour, guests enjoyed a fascinating tour of Bergen and the suburbs including a stop at Troldhaugen, the home Edvard Grieg, one of Norway’s most famous composers. The excursion also visited the stunning Fantoft Stave Church, originally built in 1150. After a fire in 1992, the church was reconstructed exactly like the original, using timber from the Sognefjord forests north of Bergen.

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In North Cape many guests participated in a crab fishing expedition on a deep-sea raft in the waters near Sarnesfjord. King crabs can live up to 30 years, measure up to 6.5 feet between their claws and weigh as much as 22 pounds. The king crabs caught on this excursion weighed in the neighborhood of 10 pounds, and guests enjoyed a fantastic meal at the end of the day.

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One of the northernmost towns in the world, Hammerfest is situated on Kvaløya Island. The modern town was completely reconstructed after it was destroyed in World War II. The Hammerfest and Sami Camp Walking Tour explores the streets of this beautiful town and also visits Mikkelgammen Sami camp, where guests learn about the history and culture of the Sami people. On this excursion guests were treated to a reindeer spotting along the way.

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Surrounded by mountain peaks and glaciers that rise majestically from the Arctic Ocean, Magdalena Bay is embraced by absolute wilderness and is covered with ice most of the year. One of the most remote and exotic places in the world, the bay is renowned for its pristine beauty. Very few travelers ever make it this far north, which is why this cruise was especially exciting for Oceania Cruises guests.

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The journey ended in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark since the 13th century. Far from being spoiled by modern developments, the city has done a remarkable job blending 20th century additions with the old world charm.

Copenhagen Canals

This unique cruise that makes its way to some of the northernmost destinations in the world is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and usually this type of itinerary is offered only once a year. Next year Nautica will journey north on the Path of the Midnight Sun, departing August 2, 2014. Don’t miss the chance to see some of the most remote and beautiful places on earth!

 

Photos by Peter Pretty

July 17, 2013

OCEANIA CRUISES ANNOUNCES ITS FIRST-EVER AROUND THE WORLD CRUISE

The year 2013 marks Oceania Cruises’ 10th anniversary, and we have been celebrating with a number of signature sailings and special events. Today we look forward to our next decade at sea with a new milestone: Around the World in 180 Days. The first-ever around the world cruise in Oceania Cruises history, this unprecedented, port-intensive voyage onboard the elegant Insignia sets sail from Miami on January 10, 2015, and circumnavigates the globe.

Insignia’s 180-day journey begins by visiting boutique ports in the Caribbean and then steers south to South America and east to Africa before heading to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific and Hawaii. Via the Panama Canal, Insignia returns to Miami on July 8, 2015. This extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime voyage will visit five continents, 44 countries and 89 ports of call and will feature 11 overnight stays plus 4 two-night calls in Cape Town, South Africa; Yangon, Myanmar (Burma); Singapore, Singapore; and Shanghai, China.

 

“As the leading specialist in destination cruising, we wanted to create a unique port-intensive voyage that reflects the dreams of the true explorer, rather than speed across the seas racing to the next convenient port as is the norm in a typical 100- to 110-day world cruise,” says Oceania Cruises President Kunal S. Kamlani. “By eliminating the 100-day time constraint, we freed ourselves to conceive a remarkable dream voyage designed to visit the world’s most fascinating destinations.” 

In addition to crossing the equator four times and sailing through all 24 time zones, the Around the World in 180 Days cruise will traverse three oceans and 10 seas, call on 45 islands and offer the chance to visit 47 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Of the 89 ports visited on this extraordinary cruise, 13 are new to Oceania Cruises, including Corinto, Nicaragua; El Guamache (Isla Margarita), Venezuela; Langkawi, Malaysia; Santa Marta, Colombia; and Xiamen, China.

Bookings for the Around the World in 180 Days cruise open today and feature two-for-one cruise fares, free FIRST CLASS round-trip airfare and free pre-paid gratuities. Additionally, guests will receive free visa packages including visas for 16 countries, unlimited Internet and laundry service, luggage delivery, round-trip transfers and free onboard medical service, a first for the industry. Guests will also enjoy a one-night pre-cruise luxury hotel stay in Miami and free exclusive shoreside events in Walvis Bay, Namibia; Myanmar; Bangkok; Beijing and Honolulu. 

Early Booking Savings of up to 70 percent will be available through September 17, 2013. We hope you will join us on this journey of a lifetime!

July 7, 2013

ANNIVERSARY SAILING CELEBRATES 10 YEARS OF SPECTACULAR DESTINATIONS AND FINE CUISINE

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Greetings from the Italian Escapade sailing onboard Riviera and the ongoing celebration of Oceania Cruises’ 10th anniversary. It has been a wonderful cruise so far, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet many of our past and first time guests. I couldn’t be more proud of the officers and crew who continue to make everyone onboard a part of the Oceania Cruises family.

DSCN1004-2Oceania Cruises was founded on the vision of a group of people with a passion for spectacular destinations and fine cuisine, and we are enjoying both as part of this anniversary sailing. In celebration of 10 years of culinary delights, Senior Executive Chef Alexis Quaretti and Bon Appétit Culinary Center Executive Chef Kathryn Kelly hosted a culinary demonstration. I welcomed guests to the event and shared a bit about the culinary history of Oceania Cruises before turning it over to the experts to share some of the secrets behind our exquisite cuisine.

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As we were celebrating 10 years at sea, it seemed appropriate that the chefs would prepare dishes from the sea. They demonstrated three guest favorites: Salmon Gravlax with Cucumber Salad, Poached Halibut with Lemon Cream Cuisson on a Quinoa Cake, and the ever-popular Red Ginger specialty – Miso-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass. It was both educational and heartwarming to see Chef Quaretti and Chef Kelly, two special members of the Oceania Cruises family, working together to share their knowledge with our guests and illustrating one of the reasons that our guests have continued to return to us for the past 10 years: the finest cuisine at sea prepared by some of the most talented – and entertaining – chefs in the culinary world.

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Soon after the demonstration, Riviera dropped anchor in Sorrento with the impressive Mount Vesuvius looming in the background. Situated on a terrace overlooking the splendid Amalfi coastline, Sorrento is imbued with charm and echoes of the ancient past.

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There are a number of appealing ways to spend a day in Sorrento, from going to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii to visiting the Blue Grotto in Capri to simply walking around the rustic, sun-drenched town of Sorrento. The Blue Grotto was on the bucket list of many guests, so a group of us boarded a ferry and headed to Capri for the afternoon.

The grotto is a uniquely beautiful sea cave on the coast of the island of Capri. A small opening in the cave at the surface of the water and a larger opening beneath the surface provide the only light sources. We entered the grotto through the small opening, just large enough for a rowboat to pass through. Inside the cavern itself was dark, but the water was illuminated with a brilliant blue glow. The effect was absolutely dazzling. It’s difficult to fully capture the beauty of the experience in a photograph, so if you haven’t visited the Blue Grotto, I highly recommend you add it to your own bucket list.

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After a spectacular day in Sorrento, we returned to the ship and enjoyed an excellent dinner at Jacques. Then everyone gathered on the pool deck for a sail away party.

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Cruise Director Leslie Jon was emcee of the event, and General Manager Thierry Tholon led the entire crew in a parade around the decks. This was truly an emotional evening as the officers and crew of Riviera celebrated Oceania Cruises' 10th anniversary with our cherished guests.

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I look forward to more celebrations with our guests, officers and crew, and I’ll share further stories here on the blog as our Italian Escapade continues.

July 6, 2013

Oceania Cruises President Kunal Kamlani Launches 10th Anniversary Sailing with Chef Kelly on a Culinary Discovery Tour in Livorno

L1070125Summer has arrived in Tuscany and so has Oceania Cruises President Kunal Kamlani, who joined me to host a special sailing on Riviera in celebration of Oceania Cruises’ 10th anniversary. What better way to celebrate than with fellow food and wine enthusiasts on a Culinary Discovery Tour in Tuscany!

We started the morning in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard the ship for an orientation to the day’s schedule and then boarded our coach for a short ride to the Mercato Centrale in Livorno.

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This market has been a favorite of mine for years because it yields exquisite products, and I also love its atmosphere. Like many public daily markets that we visit, there is a central closed building as well as individual stalls spilling out on all sides from the main market. As July is upon us, there were willowy yellow zucchini blossoms, fresh cherries and fragrant tomatoes. Don’t you just love the smell of a great tomato?

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All guests were given a shopping assignment, so they set off to experience the local ambiance of the market. Some stopped for a cappuccino and others headed to our favorite cheese shop. One couple was celebrating their 50-year anniversary with us, and this was the perfect beginning to their cruise and celebration.

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L1070088We enjoyed an hour at the market exploring the meat and cheese counters, vegetable stalls and fishmongers. Then our sous chefs, Asif and Raj, gathered up our purchases and returned to the ship to prepare for this afternoon’s cooking class in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center. The rest of us returned to the coach for a miniature picnic of Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, focaccia, cherries and fresh mozzarella to fortify us for the day’s adventure in Tuscany.

I have led this Culinary Discovery Tour several times now, and every time we drive up the long cypress-lined driveway of Torre a Cenaia, I feel like I am on a film set for a quintessential Tuscan movie! The family is always so welcoming and happy to see our group from Oceania Cruises.

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We began with a visit to the winery and cellars, and on this day they were bottling, which was very exciting. We heard the constant clinking of the bottles as they left the warehouse to be taken into the cellar for storage. Outside of the winery, our horse-drawn carriage awaited us. The driver told me that the horses were quite frisky this morning because the grass is so lush and green – and they had been eating all night!

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Off we went for a tour of the villa. We saw the sangiovese and vermentino vineyards, lovely ponds and local pheasants, and everyone enjoyed taking in the beauty of this authentic Tuscan farm. At the end of the tour, we arrived at the 300-year-old farmhouse that had been converted into a kitchen with a wood-fired oven. Chef David was there to greet us and begin my favorite part of the tour – the cooking!

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Pizza dough was the first item on the agenda. While making our dough, we learned that some of our guests were of Italian heritage, so this was like coming home for them and a great way to spend the first day of their cruise with us! While our pizza dough rested, we moved on to focaccia. We shaped the dough into an oval shape, punched it down with our fingers and spread it with olive oil (lots of it!) and sea salt. Into the oven it went, and while it cooked, we began tasting some wines from the Pitti family vineyards. We started with a chardonnay–sauvignon blanc blend and then moved on to two vermentinos, one quite young and the other aged in acacia oak for a bit longer. Both wines were spectacular, and the second was particularly good with the family’s salami, which made the perfect complement to our wine tasting.

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Next up was the highlight of our trip – pizza! We took full advantage of the farm’s bounty and made too many pizzas to count – with vegetables, farm sausage, cheese, salami and even just plain tomato sauce. At the market I had purchased some burrata cheese, and we enjoyed it with our pizza, focaccia and, of course, more wine! This time we tasted a delicious sangiovese, a rosé and a sangiovese-cabernet blend.

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L1070130As we sat together family-style around the table, sampling the wines and pizza and focaccia, we all commented on how this was such a wonderful way to travel. To meet and interact with locals, share their home and cooking secrets, and relax over great food and wine – what a blessing!

Our meal would not have been complete without dessert, so for our final recipe we prepared cantucci. This sweet bread is often baked twice to make biscotti, although we would enjoy the original version baked once in the wood-fired oven. We grated fresh lemon to add to the eggs, sugar, butter, flour and anise seeds that made up this yummy “biscuit,” as they call it in Livorno.

While the cantucci was baking, we strolled back to the winery to sample a late-harvest vermentino and take in the fabulous surroundings of olive trees, fresh blooming lavender, sunflowers poking their early green stems from the rich earth and sensuous flowering annuals overflowing their pots. Soon the cantucci was ready, and we enjoyed its buttery deliciousness as the grand finale to our day at this beautiful Tuscan farm. It was then time to say “arrivederci” and return to Riviera.

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After a short siesta on the coach ride back to the ship, we met at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for a class celebrating the foods of Tuscany and the many things we purchased at the market that day. We had found some zucchini blossoms, so we made zucchini fritters with chickpea flour. We also found fabulous cherry tomatoes and made a batch of Chianti-style crostini rossi. The class focused primarily on fresh pasta, and I was so proud of all the great pasta that our students made.

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L1070136We topped off the day with a salted caramel ice cream and a pine nut cake that we had purchased at the market.

What a great way to kick off this 10th anniversary sailing! Kunal had the chance to visit at length with some guests who were on their first voyage with Oceania Cruises as well as some guests who had sailed with us before. I always enjoy having our executives along on Culinary Discovery Tours, not only because they are true lovers of food and wine but also because they are able to interact with the guests and see how much everyone enjoys this unique program and the truly special experience it offers. There are more Culinary Discovery Tours to come on this cruise, and I look forward to sharing them with you soon!

June 25, 2013

BOB BINDER JOINS CHEF KELLY TO LAUNCH NEW CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN TALLINN

Upon my first visit to Tallinn a few years ago, I was enchanted by the spires, pastel-colored buildings and fairytale-like qualities of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So over this past winter, I decided to design a Culinary Discovery Tour that would highlight the unique personality and intriguing history of this magical city. This week I was thrilled to be able to launch the new tour on our anniversary sailing celebrating Oceania Cruises’ 10th year at sea. Oceania Cruises Vice Chairman Bob Binder is hosting the sailing, and he was pleased to join me on this exciting new Culinary Discovery Tour.

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Because the sea is such an integral part of Estonian culture, we crafted our tour around a local fisherman and famous Tallinn personality,Vladislav Korzets. He is not only a fisherman but also a poet, cookbook author and naturalist.

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Vladislav welcomed us at the seaside village of Pringi, northeast of Tallinn. This fishing village has an immaculately restored facility with reconstructed fishing sheds, smokehouses, drying racks and net-mending platforms.

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On the grassy banks of the sea, we watched in awe as our host brought forth dish after dish of fish specialties – each with an explanation of the fish, its fishing history and the best ways to prepare or preserve it!

The first offering was a steaming bowl of fragrant fish stew, made with pike and leeks in a light milk broth. Vladislav explained that traditionally milk was only added to fish soup for a celebration, as milk was not plentiful in Estonia and was reserved for special occasions. Served with the fish stew was a croissant-like pastry with cheese and a smoked Tallinn sardine with herbs. Absolutely delicious! We were also treated to several wines to try with our fish. Both the soup and the wines were a big hit with Bob and all of our guests.

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Tallinn sardines are quite a delicacy, and each one of us received a baby blue can of these little treasures to take home with us. We were informed that there is a season for these fish and that the quota had just recently been reached – halting the fishing season for this year. So our timing was perfect, and our host was very generous to share this special treat with us.

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Next up was a brown bread with a pickled sardine and some vinegar and herbs. This was a real crowd favorite, as the tangy brown bread, sour vinegar, salty fish and fresh herbs made the perfect flavor combination.

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Vladislav then brought out a more exotic fish for us to try: smoked eel. This, too, is a delicacy because after the fall of the Soviet empire, Germans came to Estonia and their unquenchable demand for eel drove up the price. Some of us had never tried smoked eel, and a few were a bit nervous about tasting this exotic delicacy, but as culinary explorers, we all forged ahead. To our collective delight, we found it to be delicious! It tasted a bit like smoked monkfish – mild and buttery.

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The last two dishes were pike and salmon. The pike was marinated and then grilled, and the salmon was pegged to a stake and smoked over an open fire right there in front of us!

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After a few magical hours with Vladislav, it was time to bid a fond farewell. We all agreed that it had been quite a treat to see a true local legend in his element.

On our way back to the coach, we strolled past a vegetable and herb garden and came upon a fisherman smoking a huge catch of the day. He generously lifted the blanketed roof of the smoker to show us his technique, and we enjoyed yet another enlightening culinary experience thanks to the kindness of the locals.

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We then returned to the coach and were off to the Old Town for a tour of the Luscher & Matiesen wine cellar.

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We were greeted by one of the owners, an entrepreneur who restored this former distillery into a classic Tallinn-style wine bar and one of the city’s most popular destinations. 

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I have always found the winery and coffeehouse scene in Tallinn to be so unique and inviting: the pastel walls of basement enclaves with overstuffed sofas and candlelight, where locals talk politics and drink wine into the wee hours of the night. You can sense the energy in this city, having won back its independence and now celebrating freedoms so long denied. It was delightful sharing the dreams of this young entrepreneur, and while many of the wines offered were imported from faraway lands, we still enjoyed an authentic taste of Estonian culture.

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After sipping a few wines, we meandered down the cobblestone streets to a new café housed in the restored bank building, Scheeli Panga Kohvik. It was time for dessert, so we enjoyed a delicate cheesecake as well as a sample of Vana Tallinn, a wonderful local liqueur that to me tastes like a caramel brandy.

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As we strolled back through the unique buildings and quaint shops of the Old Town to meet the coach and return to the ship, we all agreed that Tallinn was a place we would like to visit again. Once back onboard, we met in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for a Flavors of the Sea class, so we could master some of the techniques used to prepare the delicious fish we had enjoyed that day. And to further preserve our memories, we made a yummy vanilla ice cream flavored with Vana Tallinn. None of us will soon forget the delicious flavors of this charming and historic city.

June 21, 2013

BEETS, SAUERKRAUT AND CHERRIES: Can you guess where Chef Kelly is?

L1050109-2One of the nicest things about our second season of Culinary Discovery ToursTM is returning to see the local chefs and culinary experts that we met last season in the Baltic and Mediterranean. 

Such was the case this week in Riga when Chef Karlis greeted us at the port with hugs and stories of the cold Latvian winter. Chef Karlis was born and educated in Seattle but moved to Latvia 10 years ago in search of the authentic “peasant” cuisine that he refers to as “Latvian fusion.” This balance of simplicity, Baltic ingredients and seasonality is the hallmark of the restaurants and food trucks for which Chef Karlis is now known in Riga.

The sky was blue, the temperature was perfect and we were off to the Central Market. This impressive collection of five 20th-century German zeppelin hangars was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and houses more than 3,000 vendors in 778,000 square feet. Each of the five hangars is dedicated to its own product: fish, dairy, meat, dried and pickled delicacies, or baked goods. The colorful and impressive displays held our attention, and until we looked up, it was easy to forget that we were in a building that was once a hangar for gigantic zeppelins! 

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We began in the fish pavilion, where Chef Karlis informed us that the fish in Latvia primarily come from freshwater streams. We then continued on to the pavilion dedicated to smoked fish and pickled vegetables to sample some sauerkraut, pickled carrots, garlic-infused pickles and curry-turmeric cabbage. We also tasted several local cheeses laced with nettles and herbs. 

 

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Since it’s spring in Latvia, the peas and cherries were abundant. There were also cups full of wild strawberries from the local forests.

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My favorite part of this market is the section devoted to flowers, and on this trip I found them to be just as beautiful as I remembered. The rows and rows of colorful begonias, petunias, hanging baskets and herbs were just breathtaking!

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After a lively stroll through the market, we were off to Chef Karlis’ teaching kitchen in the old city.  The kitchen sits on the second floor of a charming bed and breakfast that is typical of the café-bohemian style of this quaint neighborhood. 

Chef Karlis and his staff had set up his kitchen with work stations where we would help him prepare our Latvian fusion luncheon. The menu for the day was a chilled beet soup with quail egg and goat cheese, a braised pork belly with spring vegetables and a fruit salad with kefir and black bread crumble. 

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L1060927Our job as sous chefs was to peel and chop roasted beets, shuck fresh peas, shell quail eggs and scrub baby carrots. With aprons on and knives in hand, our tour group pitched in and had a lot of fun working together. Chef Karlis instructed us as to how to complete each task and also shared with us his culinary philosophy.

After about an hour in the kitchen, it was time to take a seat at the beautifully set table. This is one of my favorite times on any Culinary Discovery Tour – chatting with our guests, interacting with chefs and culinary experts in their home settings and relaxing in an authentically local environment. On this tour we were joined by Bob Binder, who is not only one of the founders of Oceania Cruises but also one of the creators of our Bon Appétit Culinary Center. Bob certainly enjoyed jumping in with the kitchen prep work and mingling with our guests in a relaxed atmosphere. And I have to say I was quite impressed with Bob’s knife skills!

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Lunch was delightful. The beet soup was an elegant combination of sweet from the beets, creamy from the goat cheese and texture from the quail egg – all topped with the spike of fresh and fragrant dill. 

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The pork was fork tender and lightened by the fresh, seasonal peas and baby carrots. Chef Karlis garnished this dish with pea shoots and a radish peel, which I thought elevated the rustic dish to the level of haute cuisine! The meal also included a tasting of three local beers that made for great conversation about which ones we liked best with which dishes. We finished our lunch with wild forest strawberries and other berries on top of a crumble made with dried black bread and a yogurt and berry coulis. 

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The day was such fun and was perfectly capped off with a return to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard Marina for a class on crepe making, using cheeses, mushrooms, meats, tomatoes and herbs purchased at the market earlier that day.

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We topped our dessert crepes with my new recipe for salted caramel ice cream, which I’ve included below in case you’d like to try it at home.

  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup water
  • 8 egg yolks, beaten
  • ½ teaspoon plus ½ teaspoon Maldon salt

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the cream and milk. Heat, stirring frequently, until nearly boiling, but do not allow the mixture to boil. Meanwhile, in a separate medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Cook, without stirring, until the sugar caramelizes to a light brown color, about 3 to 5 minutes. As soon as the sugar caramelizes, stir the hot cream mixture into the caramel. Decrease the heat to low.

In a medium bowl, stir together the beaten eggs and a small amount of the hot caramel mixture to temper the eggs. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining caramel mixture. Cook on low for about 10 minutes to form a custard.

Add ½ teaspoon of the salt to the mixture. Transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and prepare according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If using an ice cream maker with a frozen bowl, let the mixture cool slightly before transferring to the bowl, but be careful not to cool the mixture too much or the caramel will solidify. When the ice cream is prepared, sprinkle it with the remaining ½ teaspoon of Maldon salt.

I hope you enjoy the recipe, and I hope you have the chance to join us on a Culinary Discovery Tour in Riga on an Oceania Cruises voyage in the near future!

June 15, 2013

BOB BINDER & CHEF KELLY LAUNCH NEW BALTIC CULINARY DISCOVERY TOURS ON ANNIVERSARY SAILING

Vice Chairman Bob Binder is currently onboard Marina hosting a sailing in celebration of Oceania Cruises’ 10th anniversary. I’ve joined him on this wonderful voyage because, as part of the many festivities and special events, we are launching an exciting new season of Culinary Discovery Tours in the Baltic. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Oceania Cruises’ 10 years of destination-rich itineraries and exquisite cuisine than with a series of new tours offering an in-depth, hands-on culinary experience of a diverse array of local cultures.

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Today Bob and I kicked off the Baltic season by welcoming guests on our new Culinary Discovery Tour in Oslo, which includes a visit to the famed Mathallen Food Hall and a lunch with beer pairings at a local restaurant that is both historic and trendy. 

L1060818We began the morning in Marina’s Bon Appétit Culinary Center with an overview of New Nordic Cuisine, which has been setting the pace in the local, fresh and simple culinary trend among chefs worldwide. Initiated by the chefs of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, a group of 14 chefs from the Nordic region held a summit in 2004 to discuss their passion for local, fresh, simple and sustainable cuisine, which soon put this culinary region on the map. We also discussed the salmon farming industry and how Norway continues to lead the world in the innovative arena of aquaculture.

After the overview, we were off on this sunny, Nordic spring day to our first stop at the courtyard of the Mathallen Food Hall. We were greeted by our host for the day, the owner of the smallest pub in Oslo, which seats only 16 guests and was officially opening that night. Before entering the pristine food hall to explore the 33 fascinating stalls, we were treated to a tasting of three artisan beers – so we would be fortified for our shopping adventure. Not knowing much about beer, I was enlightened about this region’s passion for beer and the wide diversity of brewing styles and products. 

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Then we ventured into the food hall for a tasting of cheeses and smoked salmon. The Mathallen Food Hall is a feast for the senses, with each vendor presenting their specialty product in eye-catching and innovative ways. 

 

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The airy, ultra-modern building is quite inviting and caters to those who want to wander and taste, as well as the business person who pops in for a quick bite of lunch. After a brief orientation, we were off to try some local cheeses – an assortment of soft blues and aged sheep cheese with a hint of juniper berry. We were then treated to a lovely taste of smoked salmon and cream cheese as well as another local beer. 

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Each pair of guests were given a shopping assignment and 200 kroner, so we had about 30 minutes of free time to purchase local and seasonal produce, some cured meat, specialty preserves and other delicacies. We wandered the market, taking in all of the eye-popping displays and delicious offerings. There were even beautiful carvings made from a turnip!


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L1060863One of the things I love most about our Culinary Discovery Tours is the opportunity to interact with the local vendors.  And the experience is all the more meaningful because we are able to return to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard the ship, where we can taste our purchases and make local dishes. The hands-on experience gives us an even greater appreciation and understanding of our experiences ashore.

At the cheese tasting, one of our guests purchased her favorite cheese and planned to share it with the class later that day.

L1060877When our shopping was complete, it was time to take a brief walk to our luncheon spot, Akersberget, which sits at the base of a mountain that was previously a mining site. The red-painted wood building had a rustic yet upscale Nordic ambiance. This charming and very trendy restaurant is booked for months in advance, but we were fortunate that our host had agreed to open for a special luncheon exclusively for Oceania Cruises guests! 

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We took a seat in the restaurant and were soon poured a glass of beer to welcome us. (I’m starting to figure out that beer really is the national drink of Norway!) The chefs were beginning to plate our lunch, so we grabbed a quick sneak peek at their handiwork.

 

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Soon we were served a fabulous white fish in a light sauce with new potatoes, spring carrots, baby spinach and radish foam. Bob said the potatoes were his favorite, and we soon learned the secret: they were simmered in butter, herbs, sugar and – of course – beer!

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L1060889We all enjoyed sitting around the table together, not only savoring a wonderful meal but also meeting new friends and hearing about where they had traveled. We finished our lunch with a chocolate fondant cake with fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, a dark beer that paired perfectly with the chocolate!

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After saying a heartfelt thank you to our host and chefs, we boarded the coach for a quick tour of downtown Oslo and its distinctive architecture.  The city was alive with locals and tourists, all enjoying the beautiful, crisp, sunny day. Maybe it’s just me, but it always seems that there is more oxygen in the Baltic, and today I had happy lungs breathing in this clean Nordic air!

As with all of our Culinary Discovery Tours, we met back at the Bon Appétit Culinary Center onboard for a brief class to bring together what we saw and learned today. Bob was pleased to discover that the culinary center has a magical machine that churns out granitas in just 20 minutes. So we started by making my special recipe using champagne, lemon and St. Germain, the liqueur made from the fragrant Alpine elderflower. As we sipped our cocktails, each guest shared what they had purchased at the market today.

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The class was devoted to salmon, so we made smoked and poached salmon rillettes with toasts, as well as gravlax. It was a delightful way to end our special day in this enchanting city of trendy restaurants, stunning architecture and, of course, its passion for beer!

Just in case my elderflower cocktail appeals to you as much as a beer does, here is the recipe:

  • 1 bottle (750 ml) cold sparkling wine
  • 1½ cups simple syrup, infused with lemon rind and cooled
  • ½ cup St. Germain elderflower liqueur

Pour all ingredients into and ice cream maker and prepare according to manufacturer's instructions. Enjoy!

June 14, 2013

CHEF KELLY LAUNCHES A NEW CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN RHODES

I have so many fond memories of visits to the Greek island of Rhodes with Oceania Cruises. One of my first is from 2008, when we celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday on an Oceania Cruises’ voyage. Underneath the shadow of the ruins in the old city of Rhodes, I had a memorable lunch at Hatzikelis, feasting on some of the best grilled fish I’d ever had. Until then I had never tasted tzatziki – that heavenly mixture of cucumber, garlic, dill, lemon juice and creamy Greek yogurt. I was certain I would never be able to replicate this lunch at home, so I promised myself that I would return someday.

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I have returned to Rhodes many times. Since joining Oceania Cruises as executive chef of the Bon Appétit Culinary Center in 2011, I have shared many meals at that family restaurant with friends and family as well as guests and chefs on Marina and Riviera.

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While hosting a luncheon here last fall for Susie Heller and David Shalleck, two of our Bon Appétit Culinary Center chefs, we were all inspired to ask the family to host a Culinary Discovery Tour. They are always so welcoming, taking us into the kitchen and sharing today’s catch as well as their family’s Greek cooking secrets.

Over the winter I worked with the family and staff at Hatzikelis to design an authentic Greek cooking and dining experience for our guests. When Riviera docked for the first time in Rhodes this summer, those plans became a reality, and Hatzikelis hosted their first Culinary Discovery Tour.

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After a very brief walk from the ship, we arrived at the restaurant to tables overflowing with fresh produce, fish, cheeses and bread. Warm smiles and ouzo greeted us on the patio of our hosts’ family restaurant. We were told that the restaurant was originally a bakery, but when Pappa retired and the family business passed to his son, the passion for fish was so profound that the bakery was turned into a fish taverna. Not only was the present owner there to greet us and cook with us, but Pappa also dropped in to round out the hospitality.

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The first dish we made was spinach pie, and we began with the phyllo dough. We made the dough and rolled it out, then filled it with a spinach and feta cheese filling. We popped it into the oven, and our first dish was complete!

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Our next dish was the traditional salad using barley rusks, tomatoes, capers, lettuce, a lovely vinaigrette and sprinkles of fresh oregano.

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No Greek lunch is complete without grilled eggplant. We were able to master the art of charring an eggplant, scooping it out and filling it with a mixture of tomatoes, onions, dill, mint, oregano and Greek yogurt. Smoky eggplant – yum!

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My niece, Sarah, was traveling with me on this cruise, so she stepped in to make the tzatziki. She was so impressed with the family hospitality and Greek food that she promised to return soon and asked if, in the meantime, they might find her a suitable Greek husband! We all enjoyed a good laugh at that comment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she does return soon (perhaps with a husband of her own choosing).

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The owner of the restaurant was busy making squid risotto and mussels saganaki, two more dishes we would enjoy over lunch. He also described how to select fresh squid and octopus, just in case we happened to find ourselves in the market for a fresh octopus! Soon after hatching their eggs, squid and octopus die, and often these less than desirable specimens are fished and sold. But we learned how to select a fresh one, which should be firm to the touch and resistant to pressure.

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While various dishes were being finalized and the staff was readying our lunch, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes visit to the kitchen. Now that we had learned how to select fresh squid, we acquired the same expertise regarding fresh fish. We also learned how to clean and filet a sea bass and how to grill it over open flames. The only seasonings used on fish at Hatzikelis are lemon juice and olive oil.

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Finally it was time to sit for lunch and enjoy some delicious local wines and the dishes we had made with the Hatzikelis family. The food just kept coming and coming, with the finale being the day’s catch of fresh fish, which was perfectly grilled.

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After saying farewell with lots of hugs goodbye and promises to return, guests were free to stroll the beautiful cobblestone streets of Rhodes. Later we returned to Riviera for a cooking class in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center to review what we had learned earlier that day.

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If you are planning a cruise that includes Rhodes on either Marina or Riviera this year, you will definitely want to put this special Culinary Discovery Tour on your “must-do list.” It’s a fabulous day with a friendly family who makes you feel welcome – and well fed – in the warmth and hospitality of the Greek island of Rhodes.

June 6, 2013

ICONS OF THE ETERNAL CITY

Today both Nautica and Riviera are in Civitavecchia – the gateway to Rome. Traveling just an hour or so inland takes you to the Eternal City and all of its legends and wonders. Western society is rife with images that give us a notion of the grandeur of Rome, but until you visit, it’s difficult to truly conceive the immensity of the city.

Amidst the classical architecture and ancient relics sprout the trappings of modern man, from high-end fashion boutiques to souvenir shops selling aprons that make you resemble a gladiator. This mélange draws criticism from some visitors, but I actually feel a relative sense of harmony in the city considering its vastness. I enjoy grabbing a gelato and then rounding the corner onto a 17th century piazza that transports me back in time – or a forum more than two thousand years old that takes me back much further.

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I recently returned to Rome as Blogger-at-Large, and because I had already seen many of the historic monuments, I had a simpler plan this time: espresso, pasta, vino, gelato. But despite my intent to focus on culinary culture, and despite the rain that assured me this was a wise decision, I found myself drawn back to the city’s landmarks for another look. It just didn’t seem right to go to Rome without strolling by the Colosseum and tossing a coin in Trevi Fountain. This trip confirmed that, no matter how many times I visit Rome, I will always be awed by its icons, learn more of its history and discover new wonders.

On this trip I joined the Oceania Cruises excursion Rome on Your Own, which was great for those who have visited before. It provided transportation from the ship to the city and back, with the added benefit of an informative guide along the way who shared historical facts, helpful tips and a well-marked city map.

We were dropped off at the Piazza del Popolo, a large, impressive square that was a great starting point because from here Via del Corso led right into the heart of the city. Several of Rome’s most famous monuments are within blocks of this main street.

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The fact that I wanted to visit some landmarks did not deter me from my original plan, and I began the day with a delicious cappuccino. Buoyed with espresso, I set off for Trevi Fountain, passing by the famed Spanish Steps during the first of several rain showers that day. Like the horses pulling the carriages, I donned my rain gear and forged ahead. The famed Trevi Fountain had to be my first stop so that I didn’t miss the chance to toss in a coin to ensure that I would return to Rome again.

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Trevi Fountaoin and LPF Spanish Steps

After tossing the requisite coin and taking a few minutes to gaze at the majestic fountain, I headed for the Pantheon. Once a temple to the Roman gods and now a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs, it is the best preserved ancient building in Rome. While hardly visible from the front of the Pantheon, its dome is one of the most impressive features. To this day it is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Its oculus is completely open, acting as the only source of natural light and also allowing in rain. It was remarkable to see the sunlight and showers falling from the heavens into the center of the church.

Pantheon panorama

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Pantheon Alter

Pantheon Inside

As I left the Pantheon, I was pleased to see it was time for lunch. On to the pasta and vino part of my plan! The Piazza della Rotunda in front of the Pantheon is surrounded by cafés, which one might assume are tourist traps because of their location. But while the prices may be a bit higher than a restaurant off the beaten path, the food I had there was delicious. And I was happy to pay a little extra for the view!

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I’ve eaten twice at the café on the southwest corner of the square, and I confess I had the lasagna both times. If you like your lasagna with béchamel sauce, then the lasagna in Toscana onboard the ship can compete with just about anything shoreside. But while I love a good béchamel, I sometimes prefer to forgo the milk and butter in favor of a hearty tomato sauce in its purest form, and in that case, the best I’ve ever had was at the café on Piazza della Rotunda. If you’re in the mood for a white sauce, try the gnocchi with arugula and prosciutto, which is divine!

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Having checked the pasta and vino off my list, I wandered for a bit and stumbled upon the lovely Piazza Navona with the Sant’Agnese in Agone church and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi by Bernini, arguably Rome’s greatest achievement in the fountain genre.

Piazza Navona Sant'agnese in Agone church

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I continued south again and arrived at a work that is modern architecture by Roman standards, the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. This monument has met with some controversy since its inauguration in 1911 because an area of Capitoline Hill was destroyed to create it.

Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II

The Cordonata, a grand staircase designed by Michelangelo, led to the Piazza del Campidoglio atop Capitoline Hill, the smallest but most famous of the seven hills of Rome and the origin of the English word, “capitol.” Once the site of Rome’s holiest temples, the hill fell into ruin in the Middle Ages. Michelangelo was asked to redesign this ancient square in the 16th century, including the Palazzo Senatorio, which is now the city hall and is flanked by the impressive Capitoline museums.

Piazza del Campidoglio

At the base of the hill, I could see the Roman Forum, once the economic, political and religious center of Rome and home to some of the most ancient and renowned excavations in the city. Just beyond the Forum stood the Colosseum, the largest amphitheater in the world and the most recognized landmark in Rome. Coming from a country just a couple centuries old, I could hardly conceive of a structure that had been standing for a couple millennia, surviving both natural disasters and human plundering.

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This iconic monument seemed an appropriate place to conclude my day and head back to meet the coach. I grabbed a gelato on the way and completed my culinary tour along with my historic one. I only hope that the legend of Trevi Fountain is indeed true, and that my coin will ensure that I return to this great city again!

May 30, 2013

THE LAUNCH OF A NEW SEASON OF CULINARY DISCOVERY TOURS CONTINUES

In this week’s earlier blog I shared some of the delightful Culinary Discovery Tours™ we just launched for the European season. From the colorful markets of Funchal to the delectable lunch at the famed Chateau Eza, the tours continue to meet with rave reviews from our guests.

Our Culinary Discovery Tour in charming Portofino, Italy, offered a delightful contrast to the elegance of Chateau Eza in France. After a scenic ferry ride, we were greeted in Rapallo by our friend Guido with a sampling of meats, cheeses, olive oils and wines from Liguria.

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Then we took a quick stroll through the market for basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil (guess what we are making?) before heading to Recco to spend the morning with the pasta master at Da O Vittorio. I never tire of watching this master and the grace and speed with which he rolls out his pasta, fills his ravioli and spins his focaccia dough.

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Lunch was fabulous and the pasta-making class was such fun for the guests. I get emails frequently with tales of our students mastering the art of making fresh pasta at home! One of the best ways to serve fresh pasta is with a basil pesto, and as we were in the Liguria region of Italy, where pesto originated, we of course had to make some with our purchases from the market.

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The next region of Italy on our itinerary was Tuscany. No trip to Tuscany would be complete without a visit to Torre a Cenaia for a pizza and focaccia-making class using their wood-fired oven amidst their vineyards and centuries-old Cyprus trees.

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After a stroll through the market in Livorno and a tasting of local ham, we headed off to the winery for a tour and enjoyed a lovely wine tasting while making our pizzas and placing them in the searingly hot outdoor ovens. Then after a carriage ride through the vineyard we returned for sweet wine and biscotti. I could hardly think of a better way to spend an afternoon in Tuscany!

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One of the Culinary Discovery Tours™ I was most excited to launch was the new one we are offering in Venice. It began with a private water taxi ride from the ship along the Grand Canal to the Rialto market. The trip was a real treat in itself!

The market was buzzing and alive with locals, tourists, vendors and, of course, our special Oceania Cruises foodies. After an hour wandering through the market looking at the beautiful scallops and fresh fish and magnificently displayed produce, we were off to the private home of our chef host.

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The magnificent villa was like something out of a Merchant Ivory movie set – so decadently Venetian and yet so welcoming at the same time.

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Our host was a former television chef on the Italian Food Network and conducted an engaging cooking demonstration of local Venetian dishes, such as fried zucchini blossoms and a seafood risotto.

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We sat for a candlelit lunch in her dining room and enjoyed another opportunity to relax with our guests and make new friends while savoring fabulous food and wine!

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Our last stop was the trendy new chocolatier, Vizio Virtù. What better way to finish this day than with spectacular chocolate delicacies?

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You are probably asking yourself the same question my mother asks me, “They pay you to do this job?!” I am excited for more adventures as the season continues with new culinary tours in Rhodes, Corfu, Istanbul and Sicily. You can also join me in the Baltic to launch our new season of Culinary Discovery Tours™ in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tallinn, Riga, Oslo and Helsinki. If you can’t join me this summer, stay tuned for more culinary discoveries here on the blog!

Following are some of the Culinary Discovery Tours™ mentioned in the blog and the sailings on which they are offered – in case you wish to join us!

Portofino - Ligurian Cuisine & Pasta Making Class

Tuscany - Oven-Fired Focaccia, Biscotti & Pizza at Winery

Venice - Market Tour, Cooking & Chocolate Demos

Rhodes - Cooking Demo in Greek Family Restaurant & Lunch

 Corfu - Culinary Traditions & Greek Cooking

Istanbul - Fish and Spice Markets with Turkish Luncheon at Grand Bazaar 

Taormina, Sicily - Sensuous Sicily

Amsterdam - A Behind-the-Scenes Chef Tour & Lunch

Copenhagen - Food Market, Nordic Food Demo & Lunch

Tallinn - Fish Workshop, Winery Visit & Tallinn's Old Town

Riga - Central Market, Latvian Cooking Demo & Lunch

Oslo - Spectacular Mathallen Food Hall & Norwegian Pub Lunch

Helsinki - Visit to Food Market & Finnish Cooking Class

 

May 29, 2013

CHEF KELLY LAUNCHES NEW CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR SEASON IN MEDITERRANEAN

L1060426As I sit sipping an Earl Grey tea beneath the centuries-old canopy trees overlooking the waterfront in Rhodes, I can definitely feel that spring is in the air. It is a sunny Saturday in the Mediterranean, and families as well as tourists are out for a seaside walk along the promenade of fishing boats, sailing vessels and, of course, the elegant and majestic Riviera. I just ordered a cheese pie, which I am reluctantly sharing with a few starlings. We chefs are always handing out food!

As I enjoy my lunch, I’ve been thinking about the recent launch of a wonderful new season of Culinary Discovery Tours™ in Europe. As you may remember, Oceania Cruises first unveiled Culinary Discovery Tours™ last year with the christening of Riviera, and we are thrilled with the success of these full-day excursions to the world’s most exciting open markets, restaurants and culinary destinations. I’m delighted to have the chance to share our experiences on this season’s tours.

As Riviera crossed the Atlantic at the end of April to begin the European season, she stopped first in Funchal and then Tangier, where we offer exciting culinary tours in both cities. Madeira, one of my favorite ports, is an enchanting island home to some of the most exotic fruits anywhere, and the local market in Funchal is always an adventure.

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When we arrived, we took a short bus ride to a local fishing harbor where the fishermen were drying their bacala (a dry salted cod), for which the Portuguese are famous. After an hour in the market buying all kinds of passion fruit hybrids and local spices like piri piri, we took a stroll through the old city past brightly colored doors painted by local artists. We had a lovely tasting of local Madeira wines at Blandy’s and then sat for a delicious lunch at a local tavern where we sampled island fish and meat specialties and more local wines.

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Then we were on to Tangier for a day in this city of exotic scents, eager merchants and charming locals. We strolled through the market, bought preserved lemons and herbs for our Moroccan cooking class and dropped some serious cash on a few tagines for the culinary center.

The highlight of our tour was lunch at Detroit, a restaurant that was officially not opening until the following week for the annual visit by the Rolling Stones but treated us to a special preview. We sat above the medina with a beautiful view of the sea while feasting on a meal of couscous and chicken tagine. Dessert was a flaky and delicately seasoned pastilla and a generously sweetened Moroccan tea – our lovely host impressed us all with his pouring skills.

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Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, Riviera continued on to Europe and the site of one of my favorite tours from last year, Marseille. I favored this tour mostly because of the delicious meal prepared for us by Gui Gedda, the undisputed godfather of Provence cuisine – not to mention the magnificent Bandol wines we tasted!

This year I kicked off the tour with a shopping stop in the charming fishing village of Sanary-sur-Mer. The merchants were so proud of their spring produce, as well they should be: bright green zucchini, blood oranges and early fresh peas, the ultimate taste of spring.

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Here we met a pastry vendor who, upon hearing my English (and very bad French), asked if I had heard of Jacques Torres. Of course, I told her. She informed me she had studied with the famous chocolatier in New York City. We tasted her chocolate (we had to) and it was soft and flavorful. It just goes to show that the world of food really is very small!

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After our morning admiring the colorful fishing boats and picture-perfect produce, we were off to the Domaine de Souviou for our lunch with Chef Gui and a wine tasting that we so loved last year. 

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Riviera then sailed for Monte Carlo, the point of origin for one of our most popular Culinary Discovery Tours™: a visit to the market in Nice followed by lunch at the famed Chateau Eza. The picturesque market in Nice was brimming with beautiful flowers and produce, and we were all especially impressed with the early white asparagus. Those sweet white vegetables and zucchini blossoms were only a few of the items we had to purchase at the market. And there is always time for socca and a hug from Theresa, the “socca lady.”

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Then we were off to Eza and an unforgettable meal. I always think of Jacques Pépin on this tour because he remembers meals not only by the food but by the company as well. I am touched by the friendships that form around the table here at Chateau Eza. Our guests can relax, visit with one another, share stories of their families at home and enjoy what dining is meant to be, the perfect confluence of food and friendship. The food was exquisite, as always, and served with the ultimate flair!

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Well, I have finished my cheese pie – and the starlings are full – so I will wrap up this blog and return to Riviera. Be sure to check the blog again this week, when I’ll share more stories of our latest Culinary Discovery Tours™ in Italy.

Following are some of the Culinary Discovery Tours™ mentioned in the blog and the sailings on which they are offered – in case you wish to join us!

Tangier - Market Visit, Tangine Shopping & Moroccan Lunch:

Marseille - Exquisite Flavors of Europe:

 Monte Carlo - Local Market Visit & Lunch at Chateau Eza:

 

 

April 26, 2013

50 DAYS AT SEA FOR 50 YEARS OF MARRIAGE

A few days ago I received an email from Peter and Pauline Pretty, loyal Oceania Cruises guests from Oakville, Ontario, sharing several photos from their 50-day Grand Voyage to celebrate 50 years of marriage. You may remember the Prettys from a previous blog post I wrote on their South Pacific cruise or from the article in the January 2013 Your World Your Way brochure. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to share their wonderful photos as well as congratulate them on this amazing milestone.

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The Prettys feel at home on the ships of Oceania Cruises, one of the many reasons they return year after year, and celebrating such an important anniversary did not go unnoticed on this momentous sailing. Nautica General Manager Jason Gelineau arranged a special celebration at the Polo Grill, Pauline’s favorite restaurant, and the social director, Emmanuelle, serenaded the couple.

Of course, the best part of the Grand Voyage for these adventurers was the nearly two months spent exploring Africa and Asia onboard Nautica. As Nautica prepares to sail for Europe for the summer, the Prettys’ stories provide a lovely recap of some of the highlights of a wonderful winter season.

The Prettys got a feel for the history and culture of Mozambique during a tour of its capital on the Discover Maputo shore excursion. Stops included the Central Train Station designed by Gustav Eiffel, famous for conceiving the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and also the Museum of Natural History, Independence Square and City Hall. Highlights for the Prettys were the opportunity to observe semi-wild lemurs and a visit to a local market where they shared a moment with these adorable kids.

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In Colombo, Sri Lanka, the Prettys took the Ingiriya Tea Plantation shore excursion, where they got an insider’s look at how Sri Lanka’s most important cash crop is cultivated. They watched harvesters pick the fresh tea leaves – 65 to 75 pounds a day are collected – and saw how the leaves are processed. Afterward they enjoyed a freshly brewed cup of tea and were able to purchase some to bring home.

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The Prettys frequently enjoyed tea onboard the ship as well because afternoon tea is one of Pauline’s favorite activities. Longer voyages provide the chefs the time to really flex their creative muscles and create an extraordinary event even more splendid than the traditional teatime – the Grand Gala Tea Party. The pastries and cakes were not only beautiful to look at but scrumptious too. Jason and Emmanuelle were among the crew members who were in attendance to celebrate the special occasion.

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Back ashore on the Scenic Phuket & Elephant Camp excursion, the Prettys had the chance to ride an elephant after enjoying an impressive show put on by the elephants and their handlers. In this photo the elephant is hoping that the Prettys will tip with bananas.

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As a contrast to their adventures in the countryside, the Prettys also visited some of Asia’s grandest cities. Known as the “Garden City,” Kuala Lumpur is a modern urban environment with an abundance of greenery and beautifully landscaped parks. The Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, are an indelible feature of the city’s skyline.

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The Prettys also enjoyed a day exploring Singapore and the truly unique modern landscape.

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We’re so pleased the Prettys shared their photos and these wonderful highlights of Nautica’s season in Africa and Asia. If their adventures have inspired you, now is the perfect time to reserve a voyage for next season. Nautica will be back in Africa starting in December with Lands of Grandeur, and then in Asia starting in February with Pagodas & Palaces.

A special thanks to Peter and Pauline for sharing this special occasion with us, and congratulations on 50 years of marriage!

 

April 23, 2013

LOCAL CHEFS TEACH THE SECRETS OF THAI CUISINE

Anyone who has ever sailed with Oceania Cruises knows that cuisine is a very important part of the experience. From its very beginnings 10 years ago with the appointment of Master Chef Jacques Pépin as Executive Culinary Director, to the exceptional onboard specialty restaurants at no additional charge, to the Bon Appétit Culinary Center offering hands-on cooking classes, Oceania Cruises is unrivaled in its dedication to the culinary arts.

Of course, considering the fascinating worldwide destinations that Oceania Cruises visits, the opportunities for culinary enrichment are as abundant ashore as they are onboard. Numerous shore excursions are available that allow foodies to learn about diverse world cuisines. These excursions were especially appealing to guest lecturer Don Campbell, who recently shared his expertise with guests onboard Nautica.

After a 24-year career with the US Coast Guard, Don traveled the world as a program manager in the aerospace and defense industries. His extensive travels fueled a lifelong passion for discovering world cultures, and he especially enjoys interacting with local people and learning about their art and cuisine. During his voyage onboard Nautica, Don had the chance to not only share his valuable insights with guests but also extend his own knowledge even further on the Thai Cooking Class shore excursion offered in Ko Samui. Don took some great photos during the class and was kind enough to share them with us.

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For Thai food lovers, this excursion was an excellent opportunity to learn some of the secrets to preparing this delicious cuisine. The day began with a trip to a Thai market to pick out the fresh ingredients that would be used in the class. Walking through the lively market, guests got a feel for life on the island of Ko Samui as the locals shopped for their own daily staples.

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Having purchased the ingredients for the class, the group drove to the Nora Beach Resort & Spa, where the cooking class was taught. After being welcomed with a traditional Thai beverage, guests rolled up their sleeves and got to it. Guests had individual cooking stations and, using the ingredients purchased at the market, prepared a delicious Thai meal.

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After a satisfying Thai feast, guests enjoyed some time to relax and explore the lovely resort.

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If your mouth is watering after all this discussion of Thai food, you’ll be happy to know that Nautica will be back in Ko Samui on the Pagodas & Palaces sailing on February 6, 2014. You, too, could learn to prepare authentic Thai cuisine on a wonderful voyage with Oceania Cruises!

April 16, 2013

NUKU HIVA – VISIT TO TAIPIVAI VALLEY

Ancient legend has it that the god of creation promised his wife he would build a house in one day, so he gathered together land and created what is now known as the Marquesas Islands. All of the islands are named after parts of the house; Nuku Hiva is the roof.

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Guests onboard Marina recently enjoyed an overnight stay in Nuku Hiva, the roof of the gods, and got to see first hand why the ancient inhabitants of these islands would have come to believe that these islands were the home of deities. 

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On the shore excursion Nuku Hiva – Visit to Taipivai Valley, Nuka Hiva’s spectacular beauty unfolded on an off-road adventure in the Taipivai Valley. One of the richest archaeological sites in the Marquesas Islands, Taipivai Valley was made famous by Herman Melville. After deserting his ship, Melville spent several weeks living with the Taipi people, and his experience became the inspiration for his novel Typee.

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One of the first stops was the island's main town, Taiohae. Located on the southern coast in the shadow of Mt. Muake, the town is situated in an ancient volcanic crater. Here guests visited the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Marquesas, built with rocks from the six islands of the Marquesas. The woodcarvings inside are a blend of Marquesan art with iconic Christian symbolism, including a beautiful wooden pulpit.

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Exploring Taipivai Valley, guests were treated to a beautiful drive on a steep trail, lined with lush vegetation, that took them through the island’s interior. Along the way, several stops were made to take in spectacular views of the coastline, bays and valleys.

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Amidst the stunning scenery, a light lunch was served with fresh local delights.

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A drive through Taipivai’s small agricultural villages ended at the picturesque shore village of Hatiheu with a curving black sand beach.

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If you have a yen to visit the house that the gods built, 2014 offers several options: South Pacific Isles, January 15, January 25 and March 26, 2014; Tahitian Pearls, April 5, 2014.

April 12, 2013

OFF-ROAD ADVENTURES IN BEAUTIFUL BORA BORA

The challenge of writing about the islands of the South Pacific is coming up with enough different ways to say “paradise.” Bora Bora is a lush, green paradise surrounded by unfathomably blue waters, and it’s little wonder why so many people dream of visiting this spectacular destination. Marina’s guests are currently enjoying their second day on the island following an overnight stay.

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Marina staff member Jessica Domm shared some photographs from a recent shore excursion, Bora Bora Off-Road Adventure, during which she accompanied guests on a thrilling journey to explore places only accessible via vehicles equipped for off-road travel.

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Guests enjoyed a drive through the small town of Vaitape on the shore of Pofai Bay with stops along the way to learn about the local flora of Bora Bora.

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The tour then ascended Pahonu Hill, offering spectacular views of Bora Bora’s natural harbor and Matira Beach. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I’ve made fairly liberal use of the word “breathtaking,” but in this case the vibrant colors of the Bora Bora lagoon literally take your breath away. Because of the pristine clarity of the water and the varying depths of the lagoon, nearly every shade of blue you can imagine is represented here in its utter perfection. Some blues compete with the cerulean sky; others seem to be the fluid incarnation of a lapis lazuli or a turquoise gemstone. It’s difficult to stop snapping photos in a desperate attempt to capture the splendor, but if you visit Bora Bora, be sure to allow yourself some time to simply gaze at the spectacular scenery and savor the opportunity to be embraced by such wondrous natural beauty.

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Some of the evidence of human history on Bora Bora stands in stark contrast to the island’s natural wonders. During World War II, Bora Bora was a US military supply base with 7,000 military personnel, and seven massive cannons were set up around the island to protect it from potential military attack. Guests on the excursion visited several of the cannons that are still standing in their original locations.

Guests also enjoyed a visit to a local pearl farm. Here they learned about the art of pearl farming and why the world’s best black pearls come from the atolls and lagoons of French Polynesia.

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One of the last stops was Antena viewpoint, which offered more stunning views of the sparkling waters, the outer reef that protects the island, and the smaller coral islands known as motus that dot the lagoon.

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If you haven’t taken a trip to paradise yet, 2013 and 2014 offer several opportunities to sail the South Pacific with Oceania Cruises: Pacific Paradise, December 28, 2013; South Pacific Isles, January 15, January 25 and March 26, 2014; Pacific Isles & Coral Seas, February 4, 2013; Marvels Of The South Pacific, March 11, 2014; Tahitian Pearls, April 5, 2014; Islands & Incas, April 19, 2014. While you probably won’t want to miss the opportunity to swim in the crystalline waters of Bora Bora, you also might consider a trip into the hills to take in some uniquely scenic views of the seascape, while also experiencing some of the culture and history of this gorgeous island.

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April 1, 2013

ANTIGUA: A BEACH FOR EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR

Named by Christopher Columbus after Santa Maria la Antigua, the island of Antigua was first colonized by Christopher Codrington in 1632. Long before the English arrived, the island is believed to have been settled around 3100 BC.

Antigua is one of two main islands in the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which is said to have 365 beaches, one for every day of the year. After the sugar trade began to diminish, these beautiful beaches became the country’s new commodity, and visitors flock from all over the world to thaw out on one of the many pristine beaches on these gorgeous islands. During my last visit to Antigua as Blogger-at-Large, I was only able to visit a couple of these beaches, but I wish I had an entire year to explore them all!

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When visiting Antigua, the ships of Oceania Cruises call on St. John’s, the nation’s capital. One of the first recognizable sights on the city’s skyline is the beautiful white towers of St. John’s Cathedral. After being destroyed in earthquakes in 1683 and 1745, the current incarnation was built in 1845.

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One of the most popular shore excursions from St. John’s is the Champagne & Lobster Catamaran Cruise. This excursion is a wonderful way to visit some of the most idyllic beaches of Antigua – and enjoy a fantastic lunch as well!

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The crew of the catamaran greet guests just a short walk from where the ship is docked. The boat then cruises along the beautiful coastline of Antigua, making a couple of stops at secluded beaches along the way. There are ample opportunities to swim, snorkel, explore or just relax and take in paradise.

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Of course, the highlight of the cruise is lobster fresh off the grill, prepared by the captain and his crew and complemented by a glass of champagne.

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There are several other fabulous shore excursions offered on Antigua as well, including an opportunity to swim with stingrays, a tour of galleries dedicated to local artists and kayaking through the mangroves.

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Nothing cures the winter blues like the blue waters of the Caribbean, and there are several sailings that visit St. John’s in 2013 and 2014. We look forward to seeing you onboard!

March 27, 2013

EXPERIENCING THE MAYAN MYSTIQUE

As snow continues to fall in many places around the world, Oceania Cruises’ Riviera is cruising in the warm waters of the Caribbean on the popular Mayan Mystique voyage. Guests are enjoying not only the beautiful weather but also the opportunity to explore some of the fascinating remnants of the ancient Mayan civilization, renowned for its fully conceived written language as well as remarkable advancements in architecture, math and astronomy.

Yesterday in Costa Maya, guests were treated to a wonderful day exploring Kohunlich, the magnificent, multileveled Mayan ruin best known for its Temple of the Masks. Kohunlich was settled in 200 BC, but most of the structures date from 250 to 600 AD.

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Named after the Cohune Ridge where Cohune palm trees grow, the ruins include a sunken palace, acropolis, ball court and several courtyards. Kohunlich’s broad range of architecture, natural beauty and seclusion set it apart from the more widely toured sites in the area.

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The main attractions are the large humanized stucco masks that flank the central stairway of the Temple of Masks. Built around 500 AD, it is one of the oldest structures at Kohunlich. In the 700s, the temple was covered with another structure, which protected the masks and left them remarkably well preserved.

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Guests climbed the pyramid-like temple and got an up-close look at the 10-foot sculpted masks of the Sun God Kinich Ahau, while also enjoying stunning views of the forest surrounding the ruins.

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After a remarkable day exploring Kohunlich, guests enjoyed a tasty lunch of regional favorites at the Lagoon Club.

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A few days prior during Riviera’s call on Santo Tomas, several guests had the chance to explore the famed Mayan ruins of Tikal. One of the greatest Mayan cities known and studied to date, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal is nestled in the rainforests of Northern Guatemala. The journey to get to the ruins began on a chartered one-hour flight to the northern region of El Peten, followed by a scenic one-hour drive along forest-lined roadways.

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After a one-mile hike through the rainforests surrounding Tikal, the Great Plaza comes into view. The magnificent architecture is still intact after thousands of years. Inhabited since the 6th century BC, the city reached its zenith from 200 to 900 AD. During this time Tikal was one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient Maya.

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It took the University of Pennsylvania 13 years to uncover 10 square miles of the city, and much of it is still buried in the jungle. The city’s 3,000 structures are largely built with limestone, including temples that are more than 230 feet high, huge royal palaces, smaller pyramids, palaces and homes, as well as administrative buildings and inscribed monuments.

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Following a fascinating day at Tikal, guests enjoyed lunch and beautiful views of Lake Peten Itza and the Island of Flores at the Maya International Hotel in Santa Elena.

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Because of its immense popularity, the Mayan Mystique cruise will be offered several times in 2014 as well, with departures on January 3, February 2 and March 18. Don’t miss the chance to explore the magnificently preserved ruins of one of the greatest ancient civilizations.

March 18, 2013

THOROUGHLY MODERN SHANGHAI

Guests on the Pearls of the Far East voyage onboard Nautica had the opportunity to experience one of the most modern forms of transportation during an overnight stay in Shanghai. The Maglev Train & Pudong shore excursion includes a thrilling ride on the Maglev Train and visits the spectacular skyscrapers of the Lujiazui area in the new Pudong District.

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Using groundbreaking German technology, the Maglev Train, short for Magnetic Levitation Train, is Shanghai’s newest, state-of-the-art high-speed train and what many believe to be the 21st century’s revolutionary mode of transportation. With no wheels, the train floats on an electromagnetic cushion and is propelled along a guide way using electromagnetic fields.

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The Maglev runs 20.5 miles from Long Yang Lu Station to the Pudong International Airport and can reach speeds of up to 310 miles per hour. It regularly travels 268 miles per hour during daily service, making it one of the fastest commercial train services in the world. On an eight-minute ride to the Pudong Airport, passengers experienced the sensation of flying as the train instantly accelerated to maximum speed.

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Maglev Train & Pudong in Shanghai13At Pudong, guests disembarked for a fascinating tour of China’s financial center, which was developed from farmland only in the last two decades. Built in 1999 and towering over 1,300 feet above Shanghai, the Jin Mao building is the seventh tallest building in the world. From the 88th floor, guests had the opportunity to see the city from one of its highest vantage points, observing the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower and many others. 

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After enjoying breathtaking views of this thoroughly modern city, there was time to do more sightseeing in the area.

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If you haven’t had the chance to explore some of Asia’s most exciting ports, including Shanghai, there are several opportunities to do so on Oceania Cruises sailings, including Pearls of the Orient on February 22, 2014, and Ode to the Emperors on March 10, 2014. We’ll look forward to seeing you on the high seas or perhaps high above Shanghai!

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March 14, 2013

PUNTA DEL ESTE, CHEF’S PATIO DINNER AND A CAVIAR BRUNCH ONBOARD THE REUNION CRUISE

Greetings from Brazil and the 9th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise. It’s hard to believe there are only 6 days left, and we still get to visit Porto Belo, São Paulo, Parati, Ilha Grande, Buzios and Rio de Janeiro.

The past few days have been extraordinary and full of wonderful experiences. On Saturday we visited the delightful city of Punta del Este, or the “Peninsula of the East,” where several of our Reunion Cruise guests took the exclusive shore excursion The Iconic Art & Flavor of Punta del Este. This lovely city on a scenic peninsula is known for its beautiful beaches. We started the day at Brava Beach where there is an open-air collection of sculptures, including the famous Mano de Desierto, or “Hand of the Desert,” by Mario Irarrázabal.

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Oceania Club Manager Nick DeSantis at Mano de Desierto

Our next stop was the Ralli Museum, which has several galleries all over the world. The first was established here in Punta del Este in 1988; the second in Santiago, Chile, in 1992; the third (Ralli 1) in Caesarea, Israel, in 1993; the fourth in Marbella, Spain, in 2000; and the fifth (Ralli 2) in Caesarea, Israel, in 2007. The Ralli Museums house one of the most important collections of contemporary Latin American art in the world.

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Then we moved on to the Pablo Atchugarry Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by renowned artist Pablo Atchugarry in 2007 to promote visual arts, literature, music and other creative pursuits. Atchugarry, a prolific artist, began sculpting when he was only eight years old and had his first show at age 11.

Before the end of the tour, we stopped for lunch at Finca Narbona, where we ate wonderful locally made cheeses and fresh cold cuts and enjoyed some delicious wines. Punta del Este is one of my favorite stops so far!

The following evening, we had a special Reunion Cruise Chef's Patio Dinner for a few of our guests who have sailed with us the most. It was hosted by Senior Vice President of Sales Michael Hirsch, Oceania Club Ambassador Cary Arias, Chief Purser Gurdep Besla, Human Resources Manager Maria Cormane and myself. The six-course meal was selected by Executive Chef Lisa Anne Jones and prepared by Sous Chef Thorsten Czap. We started with a crispy polenta with olive tapenade and cherry tomato confit, followed by a main course of either Chilean sea bass with palmito salad or roast veal rack with rosemary and glazed vegetables.

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The dessert, chosen especially to celebrate Oceania Cruises’ 10th anniversary, was a Manjari chocolate bar with milky yuzu-flavored gianduja chocolate and hazelnut croquant. Everything was incredible. It was an evening to remember!

The next day we had another very special event – a caviar brunch in the Grand Dining Room. Everyone onboard had an opportunity to enjoy this delicious feast. There was a full brunch menu, including caviar, as well as complimentary mimosas and Bloody Marys. If you are on a Reunion Cruise in the future, I highly recommend attending this event. Everyone had a wonderful time!

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Later that morning there was a one-hour Town Hall Meeting for guests that was hosted by Michael Hirsch, General Manager Carlo Gunetti and yours truly. The turn-out was great, with more than 100 guests in attendance. Cruise Director Leslie Jon moderated the Town Hall and asked our panel a variety of questions based on past guest feedback.

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One request was that I talk about some of the exciting new features in our enhanced Oceania Club loyalty program. The new program started at the beginning of this year with the introduction of a new “Blue” level of membership, plus additional benefits for all existing levels. This information can found in the Oceania Club section of Oceania Cruises’ website, as well as in many of our brochures.

We still have a lot of planned activities for the remainder of the cruise, including an evening pool deck party and an Oceania Club cocktail party. We will also be honoring our 14 Silver level Oceania Club members and 56 Bronze members, 26 of whom will be receiving their Bronze pins! There are still more exciting days to come on the 9th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise!

March 10, 2013

NICK DESANTIS SHARES STORIES FROM THE OCEANIA CLUB REUNION CRUISE IN SOUTH AMERICA

Greetings from the 9th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise, sailing from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro on the lovely Regatta! As manager of the Oceania Club, I am always so pleased to see past guests onboard with whom I have sailed before, and many have become dear friends. I also love meeting other Oceania Club members for the first time and having the opportunity to thank them for their loyalty.

In short, everyone is having a wonderful time and it has only just begun! Though a lot of work went into the planning of the cruise, one thing my team cannot control is the weather, but this has not been a problem because the weather in Buenos Aires was better than we ever could have planned. Of course, there are a lot of things we can control, so the day I arrived, Oceania Cruises Senior Vice President of Sales Michael Hirsch and I met with the senior staff to go over the itinerary, make sure we were all on the same page and see if there were any final details that needed to be ironed out. We all want this voyage to be unforgettable!

I was happy to find that there are a few members of the Regatta team with whom I've had the pleasure of sailing on previous Reunion Cruises: Captain Jurica Brajcic, Oceania Club Ambassador Cary Arias, Cruise Director Leslie Jon and Restaurant Manager Vladimir Cavic. Everyone understands what an important and fantastic event this Reunion Cruise is, especially in the year of our 10th anniversary, a milestone we attribute to the unprecedented loyalty of Oceania Cruises’ guests.

On our second day in Buenos Aires, we hosted one of the first Reunion Cruise tours, Discover Historic Buenos Aries. It was a half-day tour and included a stop at the Plaza de Mayo, the site of the salmon-colored presidential palace known as Casa Rosada with its famed balcony where Eva Peron once addressed adoring crowds.

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We had the chance to sip coffee at the oldest café in Argentina where notables from Jorge Luis Borges to Albert Einstein once gathered. Before heading back to the pier, we explored El Zanjón de Granados, believed to be the site of Buenos Aires’ first settlement.

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To kick off our first night at sea, we gathered for an exclusive dinner at Toscana with most of our 70 Oceania Club guests who have reached the Bronze level or above. I had the pleasure of hosting three couples, all of whom have traveled extensively throughout the world (even beyond the 30-plus countries I’ve visited, which I once thought was an impressive total!). These three couples will be staying onboard for several subsequent cruises. In fact, there are about 95 guests staying onboard Regatta until the ship arrives in Miami in April.

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Starting from the left: Mrs. Dunn (Bronze), Mr and Mrs. Hopkins (Silver), Nick DeSantis, Mr. and Mrs. Lindley (Bronze) and Mr. Dunn (Bronze)


It was a truly wonderful evening, followed by a beautiful sunrise that greeted us in Montevideo the next day. I can’t wait to share more of our exciting exploration of the east coast of South America.

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February 25, 2013

OCEANIA CRUISES LAUNCHES FIRST-EVER TV ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN

Today Oceania Cruises reaches another milestone in the company’s history. We are launching our first ever television advertising campaign. Airing on national networks in cities on the East and West coasts, the new 30-second spot begins running today and showcases the brand’s pillars of destinations, cuisine, onboard experience and value. 

The first scene opens on an Oceania Cruises ship at sea and highlights the experiences guests can “wake up” to every day, like visiting the Taj Mahal in India or the Meteora monasteries in Greece, whale watching in Alaska or a gondola ride in Venice. The ad transitions to the onboard experience and Oceania Cruises’ extraordinary cuisine, focusing on the freedom guests have to decide when, where and with whom they will dine.

 

The ad campaign is timed to coincide with the launch the 2014 Summer Collection, the largest offering in Oceania Cruises’ history. Unveiled on February 13th, the collection encompasses 90 voyages, an almost entirely new line-up of European itineraries and the highly anticipated return of Insignia. The five ships in the fleet – Marina, RivieraRegatta, Insignia and Nautica – will sail to more than 330 destinations throughout the world.

The Oceania Cruises family is always growing, and with this television campaign, we hope more people than ever will hear about the fascinating destinations, luxurious ships, exquisite cuisine and extraordinary value of the Oceania Cruises experience.

February 12, 2013

USHUAIA: A TRIP TO THE END OF THE WORLD

According to ancient human fossils found in Tierra del Fuego dating back 8,500 to 11,500 years ago, humans lived in this remote region long before it became known as the “Land of Fire.” The name “Tierra del Fuego” was coined by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 when his ships arrived at this southernmost tip of South America. It is thought that, in the mists of dawn, the dispersed fires and columns of smoke from the native populations seemed to float on the water, thus giving this archipelago its name.

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Regatta recently called on Ushuaia, the capital city of the Tierra del Fuego province. Ushuaia is the southernmost urban center in the world and the closest city to the South Pole. In December and January, the region enjoys 17 hours of daylight. Despite its isolation and harsh conditions during the colder months of the year, or perhaps because of these things, there is a lot to see and do in and around Ushuaia. During Regatta’s recent visit, guests took an unforgettable trip on the Southern Fuegian Railway, also known as the End of the World Train, through Tierra del Fuego National Park to Lapataia Bay.

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Completely cut off from the rest of South America, Tierra del Fuego was developed in the 19th century as a penal colony where Argentina sent its worst criminal offenders because escape was virtually impossible. The prisoners were expected to take care of themselves, and a railway was built to transport wood from the forests for heating and building.

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Now a tourist attraction through this remote national forest, the unique train transports guests across rivers and peat bogs, the beautiful formations of peat moss for which this region is known. There was a brief stop at the Macarena Waterfall Station, where guests saw the lovely falls and also heard about Tierra del Fuego’s indigenous people, the Yamana.

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Arriving at Lapataia Bay, the group was met by a catamaran and treated to a cruise through Beagle Channel. These waters are among the best in the world for trout fishing, but on this day the cormorants, sea lions and seals were the stars of the show.

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The cruise visited Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse, which is also known as the Lighthouse at the End of the World. Put into service in 1920, it guards the entrance to Ushuaia and is now controlled remotely.

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Quite comfortable with tourists, the seals and sea lions on Seal Island and Isla de los Lobos went about their business of napping and playing, unaffected by the arrival of spectators.

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Island of the Birds is home to cormorants and other sea birds and a few seals and sea lions as well.

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There are numerous other thrilling adventures to be had at the end of the world for those looking to explore the majestic wilderness of South America. Marina will stop in Ushuaia on South American Holiday, which departs on December 8, 2013, as will Regatta on the February 3, 2014 sailing, Mystical Andes & Majestic Fjords.

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January 15, 2013

EXPLORING BOUNTIFUL BUENOS AIRES WITH CHEF KELLY

My history with Argentina has more to do with horses than it does with food. As the owner of an equestrian breeding operation in Middleburg, Virginia, I hired my fair share of über-talented Argentinian jockeys and trainers, not to mention polo players, and I recall how special Sundays were to my Argentinian cohorts. The Sunday night festival of food, drink, dance and intense conversation (which, by the way, started at 10 pm) went well into Monday morning on more than a few occasions.

My recent trip to Buenos Aires was all about the food, as I was scouting great locations for a Culinary Discovery Tour that will be offered later this year.

Utf-8''L1060266Buenos Aires is intoxicating, and the panoply of restaurants and cuisines is dizzying. But my quest was to find the pulse of emerging culinary trends, which often involves the preservation of regional or traditional cuisines. Barbecued meats, known as asado, will always be a staple here, but I also noticed culinary trends that went beyond the Argentinian fascination with meat and embraced other aspects of this rich culinary culture. With the help of my delightful guide Eugenia, I was transported into the belly of the Argentinian culinary scene and discovered a passionate commitment to the regional cuisines of this diverse country, deference to the cooking methods of native populations and a celebration of pre-Columbian cooking traditions.

We set out first to explore local markets, an increasingly rare venue in cosmopolitan cities worldwide. Eugenia selected Mercado San Telmo built in 1897 by Juan Buschiazzo as an open, airy, glass-filled arcade, the perfect haven for artists, butchers, bakers, antique dealers, spice mongers, cheese makers and anyone with a unique product to sell.

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We strolled through the colorful stalls of fruits and vegetables, and it was clear that we were here in the middle of summer – the tomatoes were irresistible.

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Argentinians do love their meat, so finding chorizo (pork sausage), morcilla (blood sausage) and assorted embutidos (sausages) was not difficult. Eugenia pointed out the choripan, a beef and pork sausage that is the official street food of Argentina. It’s typically grilled and placed in a soft bun with chimichurri sauce.

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As we made our way through the market, we noticed a line at the stand for quesos artesanales, the local artisan cheeses. You can often sense the immigrant heritage of a place in its cheese, and Buenos Aires is no exception. While cheese is integral to Latin cuisine in general, here you can see the influx of the Spanish and Italian cheeses – esparto-woven manchego and the peppery Sicilian pepato made from sheep’s milk.

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I was determined to find some spices, so I was thrilled when we stumbled across a treasure trove at a stand run by a man and his son. I have learned over the years that being genuine wins over being pretentious, so I confessed that I was a chef interested in trying some of his best spice mixes.

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The truth is, I am a chimichurri addict, and I was most interested in uncovering any secret ingredients in this heavenly salsa of the gods. Chimichurri, besides being one of those words I just love to say, is typically served by the spoonful with grilled meats in Argentina. It is a blend of herbs, garlic, olive oil and vinegar, with some heat from black pepper or pepper flakes. Chimichurri is a lot like Indian garam masala in that it will vary from household to household, each cook having his or her own secret blend. When I was in Barcelona, I learned that many a Spanish chef has embellished chimichurri by adding pimenton (Spanish paprika) for a smoky, herbaceous flavor. I've shared my favorite chimichurri recipe with you below.

Needless to say, I walked away with not only the owner’s private blend of chimichurri spices – and instructions on how to bring the dried herbs to life – but also a sampling of both smoky and sweet pimenton and the house blend of maté. The dried leaves of the yerba maté plant make a heady tea with a bitter, tobacco-like taste, often sweetened with large amounts of sugar and a dried citrus peel.

As the granddaughter of a poultry farmer, I always make a stop at the egg vendor to jog my memory on what breeds of chicken lay what size and color eggs. On this day there were not only organic eggs but also double-yolk eggs, which I grew up believing was impossible to tell until you broke the egg! I have done the research since, and while there are a few hybrids that are bred to lay double-yolk eggs, it appears that, by and large, this is still one of nature’s wrapped packages, and the single-versus-double surprise is left until the shell is cracked open. I will continue to search, and perhaps in the meantime, Harold McGee can get to the bottom of this mystery!

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After an informative and invigorating stroll through the Mercado San Telmo, we were off to explore potential sites for a luncheon for our Culinary Discovery Tour guests. Our first stop, La Ventana, was selected because it personifies the gaucho barbecue and allows guests to learn about the unique cuts of Argentinian beef as well as taste the country’s celebrated cherry-rich Malbec wines. La Ventana is also a popular nightspot for tango dancing, which is one of those experiences I would encourage anyone to put on their bucket list.

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Our next stop was El Maté Café: The Argentine Experience. We were greeted by the chef and his partner, who not only run a trendy nightspot but also offer classes on Argentinian cuisine and wine. It’s a hands-on cooking school where seasonality and authenticity reign supreme. I was impressed! Eugenia had brought a group here recently, and she raved about the experience.

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After a morning of exploring, we were ready to sit down and enjoy an Argentinian lunch. We chose Aldo’s Vinoteca, known more for its wines than its food, although the food was outstanding. After a tour of the restaurant, the private dining room and the wall-to-wall wines, we settled in and chose a wine from the seemingly endless wine list. As I am known to do, I beckoned the lovely sommelier and asked her to select wines for us, and she did not disappoint. 

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We started with a Torrontes from the northern region of Salta. This searing, brilliantly acidic wine had the heady floral aromatic of a botrytis dessert wine. It was paired with our humita, a delicious pudding of corn and creamy brie wrapped in a cornhusk.

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Next was a filet steak grilled to perfection and served with an arugula salad. The pairing was a 2010 Mundo Revés Malbec, a smooth and full-bodied companion to our entrée. I was intrigued by the wine list presented on an iPad, but I guess I have been sailing for too long, as I hear this is no longer a novelty at shoreside restaurants.

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After lunch we said goodbye to our gracious hosts and returned to our car. (Our driver confessed to me that he had lunched at McDonald’s. I am not sure if that was meant to impress or not.) My knowledgeable guide wanted us to stop at one more place: Havanna. This café is known for its prized dulce de leche cookies. Dulce de leche is a sweet milk and sugar spread that is an iconic treasure of Argentina. It is used like Hershey’s syrup on everything from morning toast to cookies (in between shortbread cookies like an Oreo) to ice cream.

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After I filled my market bags with Havanna cookies (for class tomorrow, I swear!), we made one final quick stop at the famous Volta ice creamery for a dulce de leche ice cream cone. To be honest, I am usually not much for sweets, but this was a little piece of heaven.

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As always, I am indebted to the generosity of my guides selected by Oceania Cruises’ local tour operators. It was a day well spent, and as I returned to Marina, I was convinced that this was yet another essential destination for a Culinary Discovery Tour. I hope you can join us next December when Marina returns to Argentina and sample some of the treasures I uncovered on this scouting mission!

Chimichurri Recipe:

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, washed

1 bunch cilantro, washed

6 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 cup champagne vinegar or white distilled vinegar

3/4 cup grapeseed oil or mild extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch of smoked paprika (pimenton), optional

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend, adjusting the amount of garlic to taste. If the sauce is the consistency of a thick paste, thin with more oil. Sauce can be stored in the refrigerator in a tightly sealed container for up to 2 weeks. 

January 8, 2013

CHEF KELLY SCOUTS LOCATIONS FOR A CULINARY DISCOVERY TOUR IN RIO DE JANEIRO

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Brazil, like so many places, is an amalgam of cultures. The influx of the Portuguese settlers and the slaves from West Africa along with the native Brazilian Indians have created a dizzying collection of regional cuisines.

I find the cuisines of tropical areas fascinating, largely because they make use of the abundance of freshly grown ingredients without having to rely on culinary “crutches” like butter and cream.

The Fjords and Wonders cruise sailed last month from Rio de Janeiro amidst beautiful sunny skies and temperatures a bit higher than the average for this time of year. I was taking over for Chef Annie Copps, who had been on Marina since September. Before she boarded her flight back to the US for a well-deserved holiday, we took our almoco – the Brazilian mid-day meal – at Porcão, a popular churrascaria on Ipanema beach. Utf-8''L1060102

It was buffet-style with many Portuguese and Brazilian favorites, like coxinha (chicken croquettes), a variety of beans (broad beans, black-eyed peas, black beans) and scrumptious fruit salads made with tropical rainforest fruits. As is typical of these barbecue restaurants, the passadors – knife-wielding, meat-toting waiters – circulated with grilled steaks and sausages on skewers, slicing off portions of grilled meat tableside. Luckily for me, I was able to return to the ship and take a nap!

My first morning in Rio, I arranged for a guide to take me to a few culinary highlights of the city. Carlos was an avid home cook and was keen to share his love of Brazilian cuisine. My mission for the day was to design a Culinary Discovery Tour to be offered in this vibrant city starting in December 2013. I was also joined by Illiana, a member of our Destination Services team, all of whom are always helpful in crafting the perfect day for our foodie guests.

I like to visit fish and produce markets early, so this was our first stop. I had already visited Mercado São Pedro in Niterói, which is sure to be a hit with our guests, so on this morning we went to Mercado Cadeg in the Benfica neighborhood, to research a second option. It is a commercial-grade market where the flowers as well as the produce are highly regarded by locals and chefs. With its high ceilings and colorful aisles, the Mercado Cadeg is a nice place to shop and also people watch from one of the many quaint stand-up cafés and family-style luncheonettes.

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The Portuguese influence on Brazilian cuisine is evident in the multitude of bacalhau vendors, with their layers upon layers of salted and dried cod. During our Culinary Discovery Tours in Portugal and Spain, we frequently encounter salt cod and admire the quality of the preservation and the many varieties that can be purchased. Carlos suggested we try the fried cod cake made with mashed potato and deep-fried. It was delicious, especially with an über strong cup of Brazilian coffee. Carlos told us that these two local favorites were a typical mid-morning snack. Caffeine and cod – what an unusual combination! He also shared his grandmother’s recipe for cod cakes (oddly enough, the same recipe as my grandmother’s!): equal parts potato and cod combined with onion, celery, chives and garlic and then rolled into small balls and dipped in egg and bread crumbs. Be sure to soak the cod well, rinsing three to four times to remove the salt.

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Because it was early in the day, we peeked into several of the restaurants that line the aisles of the Mercado Cadeg to see what was on the menu for lunch. The place that caught my eye was Gruta São Sebastião, where several cod dishes were the specials of the day. Bacalhau à lagareira, a Portuguese recipe, is best when quality olive oil is used to sauté the fish and when served alongside smashed potatoes or a root vegetable soaked in the same high quality olive oil. Apparently the lines outside this local hot spot are quite lengthy around lunchtime, and I was excited to have arrived early enough to have a chance to take a quick stroll through the kitchen (with the permission of the chef) to see the impressive mise en place of fresh vegetables, fish and sausages.

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The Brazilians love their peppers! The market was full of colorful fresh peppers, which are an integral ingredient in the relishes found on Brazilian tables, much like ketchup and mustard on American tables. If you don’t find a relish you like, an assortment of hot sauces is always in abundant supply!

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After an enjoyable morning at the market, we were off to eat at Restaurante Aprazível, an authentic Brazilian restaurant enjoyed by foodie tourists and locals alike. As we drove to the restaurant, we toured the winding streets and unique architecture of the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. The artist-colony feel of this neighborhood reminded me a little of Nob Hill in San Francisco with its charming homes, shops and restaurants. We passed the famous Bar do Mineiro, home of the best feijoada in Rio de Janeiro, according to Carlos. Feijoada is considered by many to be the national dish of Brazil. It’s often made with meat scraps, such as pigs’ ears and feet, and served with black beans.

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Dining at Restaurante Aprazível was a bit like sitting in a tree house in a tropical forest. As the three of us sat for lunch, I was reminded of how often a dining table unites us, as a meal compels us to share the traditions of our culture with others. Our party was from Croatia, Brazil and the United States, and yet each dish evoked a personal comparison to some meal, memory or cooking technique.

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Our gracious host suggested we start our lunch with a local cocktail. The cheery bartender stood behind a large wooden bowl with a staggering array of tropical fruits at his disposal along with the ever-present cachaça, a distilled liquor made from cane sugar. When asked to pick a fruit, I chose a combination of passion fruit (maracujá) and star fruit (carambola). Illiana selected the stunning red strawberries. Carlos, who was driving, enjoyed an iced maté, a strong local black tea. Given that the temperature was unseasonably hot, the drinks went down easily and we were able to forget (or not care about) the heat and humidity. My drink had a sprig of rosemary as garnish, which tempered the sweet passion fruit. It was heavenly!

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As I frequently do, I asked our waiter to suggest some local favorites for lunch. Our first course was pastels, fried pastries filled with meat and vegetables, similar to empanadas. Two relishes were served as accompaniments, one of onion and peppers and another of pickled peppers. The pickled relish was made with pimentas malaguetas, and these fiery hot peppers preserved in oil, vinegar and cachucha are a standard condiment on most Brazilian tables. (So much for the timid dash of hot sauce – these people are serious about their heat!) Apparently Brazilian pastels are regional, and the different stuffings and cooking methods, such as fried versus baked, define the region.

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The next course was roasted yuca, mild sausages, lime wedges and warmed dende oil, a palm oil that was brought to Brazil by the West African slaves. It has a unique nutty taste. The yuca was starchy, but with the fat of the sausages and the sour limes, it was a perfect mouthful! The limes in Brazil are a little sweeter and milder than varieties elsewhere, and we were warned that the lime oils would stain our hands a mustard color when exposed to the sun if we did not wash them. Guess I won’t be drinking many caipirinhas on the beach!

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Next up was patinha de caranguejo, a bowl of steamed crab claws with canjiquinha (dried corn), tamarind mustard sauce and the ever-present farofa, a favorite Brazilian side dish of warmed and toasted manioc flour.

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The highlight of our appetizers was roasted fresh palmitos (hearts of palm), which were doused in olive oil and an herbaceous pesto and carved and served tableside. I had never had fresh hearts of palm, so this was a real treat. My research shows that it takes 12 years to grow the heart to three to four inches in diameter, at which point it is harvested from the mature palm. No wonder it is such a treat!

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Having sampled meats at the churrascaria the day before, I wanted to try some local fish. We were served a perfectly tender, grilled tropical fish – a locally caught snapper – with an orange sauce and roasted banana. In contrast, we tried a moquequinha, a fish stew in a savory and flavorful sauce of coconut milk, roasted peppers, ground nuts and herbs.

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After a delicious lunch in the treetops with the occasional monkey swinging from tree to tree, we headed back to Marina with our hearts and tummies full from the generosity of our lovely hosts at Restaurante Aprazível. On the way we saw a bus converted into a mobile produce store – perhaps the next generation of food trucks!

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Considering our wonderful experiences in Rio, we will be sure to return this winter with a Culinary Discovery Tour to retrace this phenomenal market tour and lunch!

If you won’t have the opportunity to join us for a Culinary Discovery Tour in the near future, but you’re eager to learn about the cuisines of Latin America, I highly recommend Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America by Maricel E. Presilla. I’ve been nose deep in this book for the past month, partially because I was traveling to South America onboard Marina, but also because it is heralded as a must-read cookbook of 2012. When Rick Bayless, José Andrés, Jacques Pépin and Harold McGee use words like “sexy scholarship,” “complex and intricate,” “tireless explorer” and “amazing foods that tell a rich history” to describe the book and its author, I am all in!

January 7, 2013

TAKING IT ALL IN ON THE ISLAND OF TORTOLA

Image3279A7A5-625E-412A-9985-BEB60F531DA2We are having a bit of a cold snap here in Missouri, so when I saw that Riviera was in the British Virgin Islands on January 6, I pulled out the photos I took on my visit to Tortola for a little reminiscing. This particular photo was my favorite because I barely recognized my feet, as they have been bundled up in wooly socks and heavy boots for the last several weeks!

ImageEB788168-9CEB-4D34-8530-6BA1E0A3EC5EAs Blogger-at-Large, I have contributed several posts about the amazing places I have visited in the Caribbean on my travels with Oceania Cruises. Today I want to tell you about one of the most beautiful and peaceful beach days I have ever enjoyed.

But first, a little about the plethora of options guests have to explore from the port in Tortola. For those looking for adventures beyond Tortola, there are several island-hopping shore excursions that let you experience more of the British Virgin Islands. I have taken the Virgin Gorda & the Baths shore excursion and I highly recommend it. There are also several snorkeling or diving adventures available in the crystal blue waters that surround the island of Tortola, as well as excursions to its many gorgeous beaches.

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For guests looking for something a bit more cerebral, there is a Historical Sites of Tortola excursion that will give you a sense of the history of this island and its people with visits to museums and important historic sites. Or if you’re traveling onboard Marina or Riviera, there is a Culinary Discovery Tour that visits an organic farm, where you select fresh produce that is used to cook a traditional meal in a yabba pot as you enjoy a beautiful day on the beach.

As wonderful as all of these options sounded to me, I decided to set off on my own adventure when I arrived in Tortola. I had heard that Cane Garden Bay had one of the loveliest beaches on the island, so that was my chosen destination. When we docked, there were taxis and vans available just outside the pier. I found a van to Cane Garden Bay for $8 per person each way, and once the van had enough passengers, it took a group of us to the beach.

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It’s a bit of a wild ride over the mountains of Tortola to the other side of the island where Cane Garden Bay is located. It was incredibly scenic and by no means unpleasant, but you may prefer to take an Oceania Cruises excursion if you want to make sure you’re in a newer vehicle and that your travels are being monitored by the ship’s staff. It can also be difficult to find a taxi back to the ship, so if you venture out on your own, be sure to establish a time for your driver to pick you up and return you to the ship. If you want to ensure a carefree day at the beach, an Oceania Cruises shore excursion may be your best option.

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Because Tortola’s beaches are exceptionally gorgeous, the island is a popular place to visit. When we arrived, there were two ships docked, and I was told it might be crowded. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that Cane Garden Bay wasn’t crowded at all. In fact, the area where our van dropped us off was practically deserted. This is the most popular beach on the island, so for those looking for complete solitude, I have no doubt a secluded cove or deserted paradise is waiting to be discovered.

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For me, Cane Garden Bay was exactly what I was hoping for. The beach had several restaurants and bars just steps from the water and plenty of chairs to rent for $5. The bay was beautiful and the beach was exquisite – gentle waves, perfectly refreshing water and pure, soft sand from the beach all the way into the sea.

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My day at Cane Garden Bay was the most peaceful beach day I’ve ever experienced. I was so thoroughly enchanted by the gorgeous beach, the beautiful scenery in every direction and the island life that I did absolutely nothing except enjoy it – I didn’t even take a nap or read a book! I relaxed on the chair and took it all in, occasionally taking a break to wade into the water for a refreshing swim and then return to my chair to dry off in the warm Caribbean sun.

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After a truly perfect day relaxing on the beach, I met the van at the appointed time and returned to the ship. To all of you travelers out there escaping the winter cold in the warm blue waters of the Caribbean, I wish you as warm and as wonderful days as I had. To all of you who haven’t yet treated yourself to this experience, I hope you find the opportunity to visit this island paradise on a voyage with Oceania Cruises very soon.

December 31, 2012

A HAPPY NEW YEAR IN SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO

Riviera will be in San Juan for New Year’s Eve, and what a beautiful place to be on this day. As Blogger-at-Large, I recently had a wonderful time exploring San Juan and highly recommend taking advantage of one of the many cruises that stop in San Juan during the winter months.

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My first stop was the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Housed in a stately building built in the 1920s, it was once the San Juan Municipal Hospital. It is one of the biggest museums in the Caribbean and holds a permanent collection of the most significant Puerto Rican art from the 16th century to the present. In addition, the museum offers numerous temporary exhibitions designed to support the visual arts heritage of Puerto Rico. If you visit, check out the museum’s website to find out what special exhibitions will be featured while you are there.

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The museum has added several wings over the years, including a beautiful garden with sculptures by local artists that is naturally framed by trees and plants native to Puerto Rico, as well as water falls, koi ponds and native birds.

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After a lovely visit to the museum, I headed to Castillo San Cristóbal, built by the Spanish from 1634 to 1790 to protect against attacks on San Juan. Designed specifically to guard against enemy approaches by land, the fort is on the eastern side of Old San Juan.

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The largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World, it covers 27 acres and the views up and down the coast are truly breathtaking. In one direction was the white domed capital building of San Juan, in another, dramatic views of Castillo San Felipe de Morro, built 100 years prior to San Cristóbal to protect from sea attacks. Also along the banks stands the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, the final resting place of many of Puerto Rico’s prominent residents.

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The fort has an intricate system of tunnels that allowed Spanish troops to move around the fort unseen. The tunnels were also devised as a defense system and could be secretly loaded with explosives and set off if invading troops attempted to overrun the fort. Because this clever tactic was never used, the tunnels stand in good condition today and are safe for guided exploration.

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I spent the last part of my day wandering the streets of Old San Juan and taking in the sights and sounds of this beautiful city. Plaza Colón is a lovely memorial to Christopher Columbus, who landed in Puerto Rico in 1493. (In Spanish, “Christopher Columbus” is “Cristobal Colón.”)

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DSCF1982San Juan is an incredibly colorful city, and I was particularly charmed by its blue-tiled streets. The blue cobblestones, called “adoquines,” were used in San Juan in the 16th and 17th centuries. Cast in Spain DSCF1976 from the slag of iron furnaces, the bricks were used as ballast in the empty galleons of Spanish ships. When they arrived in Puerto Rico, they would dump the bricks and load the ships with plundered gold and silver for the trip back home. Time and moisture has given the bricks their bluish hue.

My adventures led me to my final stop at Old San Juan’s main square, Plaza de Armas. In the middle of the square, surrounding a fountain, there are four statues, all over 100 years old, that represent the four seasons. I guess they need some representation of the seasons here since it’s 85 degrees year-round in San Juan! The square was beautiful and bustling with daily life.

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I bid a fond farewell to this delightful city as we sailed away, and the sail away itself was as lovely a part of the San Juan experience as being on shore. Judging by the number of fellow guests who joined me to watch the island fade into the distance, I would say that this is an occasion not to be missed.

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To everyone celebrating onboard Oceania Cruises ships, and to all of you following the blog and dreaming of your next Oceania Cruises vacation, I wish you a Happy New Year! I hope to run into you on the high seas in 2013!

December 18, 2012

‘TIS THE SEASON TO EXPLORE THE MALDIVES

As winter sets in, Oceania Cruises ships are making their way to warmer climates, and Riviera isn’t the only ship visiting breathtaking beaches. Today Nautica is in Malé, Maldives, en route to Cape Town on one of the more diverse itineraries offered, Lands of Grandeur. The voyage takes a full month to explore from Dubai to Cape Town and everywhere in between.

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The first and most obvious thing to mention about the Maldives is the beaches. A renowned vacation paradise, the Maldives is a chain of coral islands located on top of a vast mountain range in the Indian Ocean. The weather is almost always perfect, the water is as pristine as any in the world and the beaches are stunning. There are a couple of “beach escape” shore excursions that will take you to nearby island paradises. These are perfect for anyone interested in snorkeling and swimming in perfectly crystal clear blue waters or lounging in a beach chair amidst the beautiful scenery.

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The Maldives is mostly underwater so if you want to get a good look at the spectacular atolls, you’ll want to spend some time under the surface. You can do so without even getting wet if you explore in the comfort of the state-of-the-art submarine offered on the shore excursion Explore the Underwater World of the Maldives. You will descend 120 feet below sea level where you will enjoy thrilling, panoramic, up-close views of the colorful coral and exotic marine life.

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If you are interested in a deeper look at the culture and the history of this island chain, there is a City of Malé Walking Tour that explores the capital and some of its cultural and historic landmarks, including the Grand Friday Mosque built by the Sultan Ibrahim Iskandhar in 1656.

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Whatever your yen, there are plenty of options at this fabulous port. 

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.

October 29, 2012

A TRANQUIL AFTERNOON IN CHARMING PROVENCE

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Haystacks in Provence by Van Gogh
If you have ever had the great fortune to find yourself in the countryside of Provence, you may have felt, as I did even upon my first visit, that there is something very familiar about it. This is undoubtedly because history’s greatest artists have painted these landscapes for centuries, and I have admired their work in countless books and museums. Traveling the winding roads
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Mont Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne
through the hills of Provence, it is immediately apparent why masters such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, Renoir and Matisse found such inspiration here.

As Blogger-at-Large, I recently had the opportunity to visit Provence, a popular stop for the ships of Oceania Cruises thanks to the charms of the port of Marseille and numerous other towns throughout the region. On this trip, I decided to join the shore excursion called Charming Castellet. I will try to minimize my use of the word “charming” here, but let’s just say the excursion was aptly named.

It was about an hour and a half by motorcoach from the port of Marseille to Castellet, and the drive through Provence was gorgeous. Along the way we passed vineyards, olive groves and quaint towns and farms.

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When we arrived at the base of the town, the views were stunning. As we began our walk up the road into the village, I knew I had picked the right excursion to try out my new camera. In the French countryside, I’m not sure it’s even possible to take a bad picture.

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According to records, Castellet has been in existence since at least 1030. Originally a walled town, some ancient ramparts remain, leading through old gateways to narrow cobblestone streets.

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Beautifully restored, brightly colored old houses line the streets and are accented with gorgeous flowers, vines and bright green foliage. It was everything that I had imagined a French country village would look like.

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Castellet is a popular tourist town, and delightful little shops can be found around every turn. Art galleries showcase local artists, and artisan workshops sell local pottery, ceramics, candles and leather crafts. Gift shops offer all the icons of Provence – lavender, herbes de Provence, olive oil, pastries – so I purchased all of my gifts for family and friends here! There are also plenty of adorable cafés and restaurants in which to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.


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As we meandered the streets, every corner unveiled another spectacular view of Provence. 

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IMG_6035As we approached the top of the hill on which Castellet is perched, we came upon the one church in Castellet and took a look inside. 

IMG_6036Near the church stood the Castellet castle built 2,500 years ago. The views from its position atop the hill made this castle ideally suited to keep a close watch on transportation routes thousands of years ago. Today the castle houses government offices, and in an era in which invasion is no longer a constant threat, the location now provides the perfect opportunity to simply relax and enjoy the scenery. 

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I have seen sprawling ancient cities, grand historic churches and renowned museums on my European travels, and these are certainly experiences not to be missed. But there is another European experience that is equally enjoyable – leisurely exploring the charms of the little towns that dot the countryside, chatting with the locals, sampling their wares and savoring the extraordinary views under the warm summer sun.  

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Life tends to move at a hectic pace, and even when on vacation, we sometimes forget to slow down. So if your travels with Oceania Cruises offer the chance to meander the streets of one of the many quaint villages to be found along the shores and throughout the hillsides of Europe, I would encourage you to take that opportunity. I imagine you will be smitten as I was with the charms of Castellet. 

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View of La Sayne by Renoire


 

October 19, 2012

JAMES BEARD AWARD-WININING CHEF BARBARA LYNCH JOINS CHEF KELLY ON RIVIERA

Barbara_lynch_hdsht1As summer in the Mediterranean turns to fall, we celebrate the produce in local markets by creating comforting autumn dishes. Who better to share the season with than one of Boston’s (and the country’s!) leading chefs and restaurateurs, Barbara Lynch? Chef Lynch is the only female chef in the United States to hold the distinguished title of Grand Chef Relais and Chateaux. In 1998 she opened No. 9 Park in Boston’s Beacon Hill and from there has gone on to create a culinary dynasty, including six restaurants plus ventures in catering, sustainable produce, demonstration kitchens and artisanal butchery. I invited Chef Lynch on Riviera with the hope of enticing her back to host a culinary tour in the fall of 2013.

Truth be known, I have been a fan Chef Lynch since I dined at No. 9 Park in December of 2005. The snow was falling on the Square, the Scotch was single malt and the food and wine pairing was as close to perfection as it gets. In 2008 I was fortunate enough to visit No. 9 Park and see how the back-of-the-house operation works – including an opportunity to make a late night BLT for a tall blonde star making a movie in Boston with Tom Cruise. Since then I have gotten to know Chef Lynch through our mutual friend and Bon Appétit Culinary Center chef instructor, Annie Copps. Chef Lynch and Chef Copps worked on the line together for Todd English in the 1990s.

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Chef Lynch’s cookbook, Stir, combines “practical simplicity with charming sophistication” for the home cook. Known for her silky pastas, my favorite is her gnocchi, which she demonstrated in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center for our guests and in the galley for our chefs!

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During the Accent on Italy cruise, we took five of our popular Culinary Discovery Tours – the favorite was a trip to the market in Nice followed by lunch at the wonderful Chateau Eza. Leaving from Monte Carlo, we traveled the stunning road along the Cote d’Azur to Nice. The market was brimming with flowers, fresh produce, herbs and cheeses. 

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IMG_0111After a few hours shopping in the market and eating socca (a chickpea flour pancake and a typical mid-morning snack of Nice), we climbed the winding stairs to Eze. This charming village is home to Chateau Eza, one of the most famous restaurants in France, if not the world. I designed this Culinary Discovery Tour because I wanted to share this very special venue with our foodie guests. We have booked a table for 24 about 16 times this season, and many of our guests have told me it was the highlight of their vacation!

Our first course was a quail egg on a poached carrot round with a fresh seasonal root vegetable sauce.

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The second course was a chickpea flour panisse in a reduced fresh tomato sauce with charred fresh lavender. 

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Course three was braised pork belly with bacon foam followed by course four, a tagine of guinea hen and North African vegetables.

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For dessert we had white peaches poached in Sauternes wine and topped with crème fraîche.

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The meal was served with wines from Provence, which we have been enjoying all summer. This has been one of our most popular Culinary Discovery Tours and is definitely on the agenda for 2013. Chef Lynch was especially delighted because she had attempted to dine here in 2010 and was not able to get a table. Imagine my delight at being able to impress the most impressive chef I know!

Chef Lynch was able to spend time with Chef Copps and her students in the Bon Appétit Culinary Center before arriving in Amalfi.

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The class menu included ricotta-stuffed zucchini blossoms and fresh pasta. Chef Lynch contributed her own fresh pasta recipe for capunti, a southern Italian specialty she learned when she studied in Italy. 

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Another highlight of the cruise was the Culinary Discovery Tour in Livorno. Guests enjoyed boarding a small boat and winding through the canals of Livorno, which is a lot like Venice. This is the port from which Catherine de Medici left to marry Henry, a Frenchman, bringing with her an entourage of cooks, butchers, bakers and pastry chefs as well as the famous fork, which she introduced to the reticent French.

After the canal tour, we visited the open market in Livorno where we sampled the cinque e cinque, a focaccia and chickpea sandwich referred to as “five and five,” and strolled through the aisles of fresh meats, cheeses, produce and pastas. I always look forward to a stop at a local cheese shop where the owner ages his own Parmigiano-Reggiano. He gives us luscious samples of local Tuscan charcuterie like salumi and lardo, drizzled with olive oil from his backyard trees, and a selection of heady sangiovese wines to complement our morning snack.

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Chef Lynch’s official host was our own Annie Copps, who shares her contagious passion for food, wine and travel with our guests, whether it is in class, on a Culinary Discovery Tour or as she wanders about the ship. On this tour she was in her element among the fabulous wine and food that she shared with her students.

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I believe when I cease to learn, I cease to live, and one of the best things about my fabulous job is that I continue to learn from our guest chefs and sommeliers. This cruise was no exception! We are all hopeful that Chef Lynch will join us again in 2013 and design a signature tour for foodies and her many fans around the world!

October 15, 2012

A DAY IN SEVILLE: THE AMAZING ALCÁZAR AND THE PATRON SAINT OF SAILORS

HotelNautica guests called on the beautiful city of Seville last week. As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I wanted to share some experiences from my recent shore excursion, Heritage of Seville.  

We docked in Cádiz on a bright, sunny morning, and the trip through the scenic Spanish countryside to Seville was a treat on its own. We drove through vineyards, olive and orange groves and farms where Spain’s bulls and horses are bred.

As we arrived in the city, we were greeted by altogether different but equally impressive scenery. Lavish mansions, ornate churches and elaborate government buildings lined the streets. Lush green palms and flowering bushes seemed to sprout from the sidewalks. I was instantly charmed.

Our first stop was the stunning Palace of San Telmo, currently the seat of the presidency of the Andalusian Autonomous Government. Constructed in 1682 as a school for orphaned children of sailors, it is a gorgeous example of Sevillian Baroque architecture.

One of the more captivating aspects of the building is the Churrigueresque entrance, which was completed in 1754. This Spanish Baroque architectural style features extremely elaborate sculptural ornamentation. The 12 sculptures on each side of the balcony represent the nautical arts and sciences, and the figure at the top is Saint Telmo, patron saint of sailors – an appropriate saint to pay homage to while on a cruise!

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As we continued through the city, we had the chance to see the lovely Hotel Alfonso XIII. It was completed in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929, a world’s fair held in Seville.

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Finally we reached the destination I had been most eagerly anticipating: the Alcázar. The oldest royal palace still in use in Europe, the Alcázar of Seville is an ornate Moorish citadel that has been the residence of Spanish royalty since the Middle Ages. The outer walls and portions of the interior are part of the original Moorish fortress.

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The stunning Hall of the Ambassadors, one of the main rooms used for public events and affairs of state, is one of the areas remaining from the original palace, so the walls date from the 11th century. This is the room where Ferdinand and Isabella welcomed Columbus upon his return from his first voyage to the New World.

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I was mesmerized by the intricately detailed mosaics and the interesting mix of Moorish and European styles throughout the palace.

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The Courtyard of the Dolls is the focal point of the private section of the palace, and the patio leads to bedrooms and private halls. The hall is surrounded by a gallery with marble columns and Arab-influenced lobed arches.

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The gardens surrounding the Alcázar are just as enthralling as the palace buildings. Our guide clearly recognized that this was the perfect place to enjoy a beautiful day, and she gave us some free time to stroll through the gardens at our leisure.

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From the Courtyard of Flags at the Alcázar, there is a perfect view of the Giralda, a minaret that was converted into a bell tower for Seville Cathedral, the next stop on our itinerary. Completed in 1198, the tower is over 300 feet high and was one of the most important symbols of the medieval city.

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The largest Gothic cathedral and third largest church in the world, Seville Cathedral was completed in the early 16th century. Along with the Alcázar, the cathedral is a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is the burial site of Christopher Columbus. The astonishingly large building was constructed on the former site of a grand mosque, parts of which were preserved, including the Giralda and the Moorish entrance. Both the size and the stonework are truly breathtaking.

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At the end of the excursion, we were given time to explore on our own, and after all the walking around, I was ready for some jamón Ibérico! I found a delightful little café and enjoyed the afternoon sun and a taste of Spain. As I sat completely sated after an incredible day of sightseeing and a delicious meal, I couldn’t help but think that Seville is my newest favorite place in the world.

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September 27, 2012

A VISIT TO MYSTICAL MONT SAINT-MICHEL

Archangel-michaelAccording to legend, Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert in 708 A.D. and asked him to build a monastery atop the rocky islet of what is now called Mont Saint-Michel. When Aubert repeatedly ignored his instructions, a frustrated Michael finally burned a hole in Aubert’s skull with his finger. And thus the phrase, “You don’t have to ask me twice,” was born.

As Blogger-at-Large for Oceania Cruises, I took a fantastic shore excursion, Mystical Mont Saint-Michel, to this beautiful monastery built in the 8th century on an island just off the shore of France. Many guests onboard Marina enjoyed this excursion last week, and many more onboard Nautica will have the opportunity when she calls on Saint-Malo next week.

Saint-Malo is a lovely walled town with a fascinating history. I hope to be able to return and spend more time in Saint-Malo itself, especially because I heard rumors of restaurants famous for fresh seafood, crepes and other French specialties!

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But as a first time visitor to this area, I knew I would be making the short trip to Mont Saint-Michel, “a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid,” as it was aptly described by Victor Hugo. I had dreamed of visiting this mystical place since I first learned of it in French class in high school. Like so many others, I was moved by the spectacular silhouette of this monastery perched in solitude on a rocky mount.

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Because the entire area is surrounded by vast, low-lying marshland, the iconic view of Mont Saint-Michel rising dramatically from the mist is visible from miles away. My first glimpse of the monastery was as impressive as I had imagined it would be. As we approached, the haze enveloping the abbey lifted, and the edifice grew even more imposing and inspiring as it sparkled in the bright summer sun. 

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Mont Saint-Michel is almost as famous for its tides as its monastery. The tides here are the highest in Europe. They vary greatly – roughly 46 feet between high and low tide – and can change very quickly. 

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As this has always been an important pilgrimage site, a causeway was built to allow pilgrims easier access to the island. This dramatically altered the flow of water in the area and led to the silting of the bay. As a result, Mont Saint-Michel is no longer surrounded by water.

P1010134A dam project, scheduled to be completed in 2015, will clear out the accumulated silt and allow tidal waters to once again flow freely around this tiny island. Visitors will no longer park at the foot of the island, so the hoards of cars and buses will not sully the view of the revered mount. Instead a separate parking lot will be built, and visitors will be shuttled to the island over a bridge.

The salt meadows surrounding the area create the ideal environment for grazing sheep – 30,000 to be exact! Salt meadow lamb is a prized delicacy served in the local restaurants, as the lambs’ high salt intake creates an especially tender and flavorful meat. 

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After navigating the sheep, we arrived at the base of Mont Saint-Michel, following in the footsteps of the millions that have flocked to this place of pilgrimage over the centuries. The site is so revered that many of the faithful settled at the foot of the mountain. Half-timbered houses were constructed, and eventually a village grew up below the abbey. Today the village is home to adorable little cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. 

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A narrow cobblestone street winds through the village and up the incline to the abbey. Our guide for the day was Gil, an expert host with an encyclopedic knowledge of the region, and as we climbed, he did a wonderful job of bringing the abbey to life with stories of its fascinating history.

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Its location along the English Channel meant that Mont Saint-Michel held not only religious significance but also strategic significance to the various powers that ruled the region over the centuries. After the Norman conquest in the 11th century, the larger Romanesque church of the abbey was constructed. Following a devastating fire in the 13th century, the abbey underwent repairs, and a Gothic-style refectory and cloisters were added.

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The diverse architectural styles along with the natural rock are what make the abbey so extraordinary, both visually and historically. Here Gil points out one of the original walls of the monastery.

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During the French Revolution, monasticism was abolished. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison to hold clerical opponents and other high-profile political prisoners. At this time a giant wheel was constructed, and prisoners were forced to turn the wheel to operate an enormous pulley that lifted loads of stone and supplies up the mountain.

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Gargoyles adorn most of the walls and were added to divert water from the building, which seems like a far more visually interesting solution than the current gutters that frame the eaves of my house.

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Even with the throngs of tourists that visit Mont Saint-Michel each day, the abbey inspires a sense of peace. Every aspect of the architecture – the vaults, the arches, the famous spire – was deliberately designed to turn your gaze upward toward the heavens. And when you reach the abbey’s highest point and direct your gaze downward to the sprawling countryside below, the views are equally breathtaking.

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After visiting this remarkable place, I found myself incredibly grateful that St. Aubert finally got the hint! As reluctant as I was to leave, the tide was coming in, as if to say that my home on the sea was beckoning. I returned to the ship with memories of Mont Saint-Michel that I will cherish forever.