Move over Food Network, I’m now officially a cruising foodie! Tom and I recently enjoyed an eight-day culinary adventure with the boutique Windstar cruise line, sailing on the inaugural voyage of the James Beard Foundation Culinary Cruise series. Windstar has been recognized as one of the world’s top small-ship cruise lines and topped Conde Nast’s Gold List for 2016. After a week aboard the line’s flagship vessel Wind Surf with award-winning Chef Michel Nischan and star sommelier Steve Olson, the cruise line is also tops in our book.
Our journey took us to Tangier, Morocco, the Balearic Island of Ibiza, and several historic cities along the Spanish coast, before reaching our final destination of Barcelona. The itinerary–connecting the food-and-wine dots first established by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors and the Catholic Kings–was ideal for a culinary cruise.
Intimate yacht style experiences
Wind Surf is the largest of Windstar’s three sailing yachts, serving a maximum of 310 guests. In many ways, it felt smaller. Windstar promises guests plenty of ‘magic moments’ and thanks to incredible itineraries and a wide range of shore excursions, this was certainly true for our culinary cruise. It was a treat to return each evening to the intimate atmosphere and top-notch service of our floating hotel.
Luxury amenities, personal attention
Our stateroom was comfortable, and more spacious than many European hotel rooms, with plenty of storage space in the room and bathroom, with its L’Occitaine toiletries. Our personal steward was attentive, and with a fine sense of humor. It was a pleasant surprise to find that my favorite spa brand, Elemis, manages the ship’s spa concession, which made my on-board pampering afternoon just that much more pleasurable. The yacht’s fitness center is spacious, well equipped and has a wonderful view. It was also busier, much busier than I had expected…all the better to burn all those calories!
Guest chef Michel Nischan
Chef Michel Nischan led cooking demos and took cruise guests shopping in Moroccan and Spanish farmer’s markets. He created special menus with Spanish seafood and cheeses, and Moroccan spices. Throughout the week, he shared with us his commitment to fresh foods and sustainable agriculture.
Founder, President and CEO of Wholesome Wave, Chef Nischan is a leader in the sustainable food movement in the United States, where he advocates for access to healthy, fresh and affordable locally grown food. His deep appreciation for those who work the land made him an ideal guide for our visits to farmers’ markets.
Michel Nischan was the first of three chefs chosen by the James Beard Foundation to lead culinary cruises for Windstar in Europe this season. Maria Hines will lead the second cruise, traveling from Lisbon to Dublin on the Star Legend. The husband-and-wife team of Matt and Kate Jennings will be on board for the August edition, on the return voyage of the Star Legend, from Dublin to Lisbon.
Guest sommelier Steve Olson
Sommelier Steve Olson teaches all over the world about the relationships between beverages and food, and is a specialist in Spanish wines, sherries and cocktails. He introduced us to all three on the cruise, but the emphasis was on the wines of Spain–interesting, affordable wines (most of them anyway) that enhance the Spanish table, and especially the foods of the Mediterranean region.
Steve Olson is an enthusiastic promoter of ‘wines of place’ and the family producers who bring them to market. Our on-board sommelier was available throughout the trip, readily sharing his extensive knowledge. He reminded everyone to “drink what you like!” while suggesting innovative pairings for the foods from the Wind Surf kitchen along the way.
Steve Olson was the first sommelier for the James Beard Culinary Collection. June and August cruises on the Star Legend will feature sommeliers William Davis and Kelly Wooldridge, respectively.
An impressive culinary program
Two chef’s demonstrations, five wine-tastings, and a gala wine-pairing dinner were the primary events of the culinary program. In fact, there was much more to our program than that. Chef Nischan shared with us his philosophy of relying on simple, healthy foods and preparations to deliver big-time flavor on the plate. Sommelier Olson used the wine-tastings to take us on a tour of the Spanish wine landscape and introduce wines–some of them quite rare, and nearly all from small producers–that paired exquisitely with Chef Nischan’s dishes. The result was a pairing menu that could easily be served at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The ship’s kitchen and bar crew were active participants in our culinary cruise, too. Galley tours, market visits and invitations to participate in the crew’s daily tasting session before dinner service, were just three of the ways we were invited to observe firsthand how the specialty kitchen of a luxury sailing vessel keeps quality and personalized service up.
Shore excursions to suit every taste
Shore excursions gave us plenty of opportunities to interact with locals and learn about the history and traditions of the ship’s ports of call. We were spoiled for choice at every stop, and Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility available to us. We explored some port cities on our own, sampled local markets with the ship’s chef in others, and joined coach trips to visit a winery on Ibiza and an hour inland from Tarragona, a medieval monastery . On one day, we opted to stay on board for some personal downtime. In short, with the possibilities of excursions every day of the cruise save one day at sea, guests could be as active, or as relaxed, as we wished!
A Windstar Private Event is a hallmark of the cruise line’s itineraries. For us, the ‘magic moment’ was a chance to experience living history in Tarragona, in the Roman Amphitheater just beside the sea. There, tapas and Castellars provided a stellar welcome to Catalunya.
Just as impressive as the luxurious touches of our cruise, is the Windstar promotion of sustainable tourism, and the respect for the cultures of the destinations visited. Measures to reduce fuel consumption include use of ship’s sails, fuel with a low sulfur content, and water conservation initiatives, recycling and reduced packaging, and the use of biodegradable, environmentally friendly cleaning supplies.
“Hospitality with a softer footprint”
Passengers receive cruise documents online and are encouraged to help conserve energy. Food safety at sea is paramount, and on a tour of the ship’s kitchen with Sous-chef Nilesh, we learned about the hygiene practices on board the Wind Surf.
Throughout the cruise, Michel Nischan and Steve Olson were available and ready to answer questions and engage with passengers. Working in harmony with the ship’s crew–and directly with the kitchen and bar staff–the duo brought us good flavors, simple preparations and a high-spirited approach to preparing and enjoying food and wine.
Our cruise with Windstar showed that mixing great food and wine with romantic, atmospheric sailing destinations can be the perfect incubator for a food traveler’s own ‘age of exploration’. The satisfying combination of small-ship sailing and a focus on food, along with attention to luxurious details, has radically altered our view of what a cruising holiday can be.
This foodie cruising thing could become a habit.
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Many thanks to Windstar Cruises for inviting us along for the first food-and-wine themed cruise in the James Beard Foundation Culinary Collection!