If there's one topic that evokes passion, intrigue and debate among travelers, it's food. How many travel memories instantly inspire thoughts of what you ate and where? Say "Greece" and I remember meze and fresh fish in a toes-in-the-sand taverna on Kythira under a full moon. "Cambodia" and the best coffee ever in Siem Reap's Little Red Fox Cafe. "Provence" and how I blew my winnings in the Casino de Monte Carlo in the two Michelin-starred Moulin de Mougins, making the meal last for hours as every bite of the zucchini flowers filled with truffle mousse was so exquisite.
If you're a foodie -- and most of us are, at some level -- it only makes sense to pick a cruise line that takes eating seriously; a line that brings local flavors onboard and offering you culinary immersion every time you step ashore. I realized in the early days of Oceania, when I first encountered the magnificent cheese trolley in Jacques, the marvelous French bistro that is featured on the line's Riviera and Marina, that this was a tiny slice of real France on a cruise ship; a cruise line that understood food.
Since then, Oceania's epicurean expertise has evolved further. When Marina, the company's first ship to be designed from scratch, launched in 2010 with the Culinary Center, arguably the most high-tech cooking school at sea, Oceania Cruises entered a whole new league of cruising for gourmands. Enthusiastic home cooks quickly snapped up the chance to learn new cooking skills. You might learn anything from Greek to Asian and well beyond. This is no spectator show, either; it's hands-on, with Food Network-type cooking stations replacing the usual cruise cooking demo involving a chef on a theatrical stage making food you can barely see. At the Culinary Center, you'll make almost every dish from scratch, using state-of-the-art equipment -- and you don't even have to wash the dishes afterward.
Executive chef Kathryn Kelly joined the line in 2011 as culinary enrichment director and cooking classes quickly expanded beyond the ship. "After the first years, the guests would ask me, 'Where are you going today in port. Could we go along?'" she remembers. "That turned into something larger, which people loved." Now, in addition to sessions in the Culinary Center, Oceania's guests can enjoy the whole experience, from shopping and tasting in local markets with the chef to preparing their purchases back onboard. "I have designed every single one of these Culinary Discovery tours myself," says Kelly. "We have over 70 now, from Europe to South America, French Polynesia, Australia and New Zealand."
Feeling peckish? Join us on a whirlwind, round-the-world tour of some of the best food experiences on offer, many of them personally recommended by Oceania's food-crazy crew and employees.
Italy is a winner with both food-loving passengers and crew, and for good reason. "I love the Food & Wine Trails tour to Suvereto and Tua Rita, a Super Tuscan estate, from Livorno," says Alexandra Rus, destination manager on Oceania's Marina. "Senora Rita personally cooks lunch: homemade pasta, bruschetta with tomato, garlic and basil, salted air-dried ham and salami, local cheeses. It's a true Italian experience, complimented by their locally produced wines.
"The venue is located in medieval Suvereto village, considered one of the most beautiful in Italy because of its location between the hills and the sea on the Etruscan Coast. What I love is that Ms. Rita started the winery with her late husband, Virgilio. They started everything from scratch, built and created this wonderful environment with hard work, love and dedication. This place is personally special to me due to this wonderful love story that will forever be alive through this estate."
Super Tuscans aside, there's no end of fabulous gifts and treats to bring back from Italy. "In Florence, I recently tried finocchiona for the first time -- salami imbued with fennel," enthuses Bernard Carter, senior vice president and managing director, EMEA for Oceania. "It was delicate, it was soft, it was flavorsome. I could have eaten that all afternoon."
Greek cuisine is beloved for its simplicity and flavor. In Corfu, don't miss the Go Local tour to the village of Potamos, where you'll spend a day on a local farm, feeding chickens and goats and more to the point, sampling fresh-picked tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs from the garden, watermelon chilled naturally in the well and honey from the farm's beehives. There's a tasting at a local bakery, too. If you buy one thing on Corfu, make it tiropitakia, the local cheese pie, with tangy feta cheese encased in flaky pastry.
Oceania's crew love Greece. "My favorite is restaurant Lombranos in Santorini," says Rus. "They serve one of the most delicious expressions of local and Mediterranean cuisine. I love their stuffed peppers with feta cheese, shrimp saganaki (shrimp with fried cheese), kolokithokeftedes (garlic zucchini fritters served with tzatziki), the iconic fresh octopus and sardines. And for dessert, feta me meli -- feta cheese wrapped in pastry, oven baked with honey and sesame. To die for!"
Damien Lacroix, general manager of Marina, goes for street food in Greece. "Gyros is my comfort food," he says. "Fresh tomato, salad red onion in a pita bread with a meat cooked on a skewer and tzatziki on top."
Turkey's cuisine is regarded, along with Chinese and French, as one of the three greatest in the world. "Turkey is where east met west, where the spice road ended from Asia and collided with everything that came from Spain and Norway and Africa," enthuses Kathryn Kelly. "They developed this knowledge of exotic spices. Look at Turkish cuisine and it's really sophisticated. They can make eggplant 300 different ways."
In Istanbul, Kelly recommends simply walking. "The Turks are famous for their grills," she explains. "You can walk into a neighborhood where in the middle of a restaurant they're grilling meats and you sit around the fire, with 10 or 20 different sauces and one little kebab or kefka."
Oceania offers a tour that takes in the spice market, a great place for shopping. "A lot of people think of it as very touristy and it is very touristy, but you go out into the side streets and you can see a kitchen stall that has more inventory than a Manhattan kitchen specialty shop," says Kelly. "They make the best skewers; they're heavy duty and they stand up well. The other thing I love bringing back is the ground pepper sauces. A little guy outside the spice market sells nothing but hot pepper and sweet pepper sauces, like sun-dried tomato or sometimes in oil. This guy's a chemist; major chefs all over the world come there to shop."
St. Petersburg is better known for its glorious Winter Palace and the Peter and Paul Fortress but a new Culinary Discovery tour to the food hall of the Art Nouveau Eliseyev Emporium and Caviar Russia, the largest caviar store in Russia, has exceeded all expectations. "It's been our most popular tour this year," says Kelly. "You'll visit a specialty store, third generation, producing marzipan candies.
"There's a caviar tasting and lunch at a top hotel, pairing authentic Russian food with Crimean wines. People love learning more about Russian culture, food and farming."
Want to engage a local in Israel? Ask them where the best hummus restaurant is. "There are so many influences in Israel," says Damien Lacroix. "So many choices, but do not miss the fresh hummus. That will always be a delight." Seriously. There are entire restaurants selling nothing but hummus and everybody has their favorite. On Oceania's full-day tour from Ashdod to Caesarea, Tel Aviv and Jaffa, look out for locals lunching on warm hummus topped with fava beans or pine nuts.
Our top tip? Abu Hassan, unpretentious, packed with blue-collar workers at lunchtime, and with one thing on the menu. You've guessed it: hummus.
August Keuler, general manager of Oceania's Riviera, and a native of Cape Town, is passionate about his hometown. "Go to Clifton Beach," he says. "It's near Camps Bay, where Cape Town high society sunbathes. Cafe Caprice here is all about the fresh fish and sushi. The best market is the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, at weekends. If you want to see where the locals go, this is it, for fresh produce, artisan crafts, live music and, above all, good food. Book way ahead for Pot Luck Club, in the Old Biscuit Mill. The chef, Luke Dale-Roberts, is really innovative and there's an open kitchen.
"You'll find the world's best tapas at Chef's Table. There's no menu and it only seats 16. Chef Santi Louzan is from Galicia in Spain. It'll be the best meal of your life.
"Otherwise, it's all about a braai, or barbecue, which everybody has to do. You can't beat a good steak, ribs and a Stellenbosch cabernet sauvignon."
Oceania Cruises' excursions from Cape Town place great emphasis on food and wine. A Go Local tour takes you to the Waterford Estate winery in Stellenbosch for a hike through native scrubland and a tasting with the wines paired, unusually, with chocolate. Or, go all-out on a Gourmet Experience day which whisks you to three wineries to taste wine, cheese and olive oil, as well as a magnificent lunch against a backdrop of rolling vineyards and blue skies.
Buy wine to bring home, too. "Go for a bottle of Kanonkop Paul Sauer, from one of the best estates in Stellenbosch," Keuler tells us.
In Asia, pretty well every destination lends itself to culinary discovery but Oceania's Go Local experience in Goa is one of our favorites, simply because Goan cuisine is unique. Because the area was a Portuguese colony for four centuries, there are all sorts of European influences, with pork, seafood, coconut and vinegar, the basis of the famous vindaloo, in evidence. On this immersive day, you'll visit the local bakery, buy spices, sample the local cashew fruit aperitif and feast on an authentic Goan meal with Gletta, a baker from Panjim.
Health enthusiasts, meanwhile, should enjoy Oceania's Raw Thai Foods cooking class in Bangkok. Here, there's a twist on traditional Thai cuisine at May Kaidee, a local restaurant pioneering raw techniques. Delicious, healthy items on the menu include carrot sauce, banana flower salad, seaweed rolls and tom yum soup.
The Caribbean is rich in culinary variety, with no two islands the same in terms of gastronomy. Delve deep into St. Lucia's cuisine on a Culinary Discovery tour to the Spices Cooking Studio on the island's Cap Estate. The day begins in Castries Market, an eye-opener with its vast array of fruit and vegetables, from yams, soursop, breadfruit and pumpkins to the sweetest imaginable pineapples.
Next, it's off to the northern tip of the island to the upscale Cap Estate, location of Spices Cooking Studio, for a cooking class in St. Lucia's finest specialties, run by the enthusiastic Jenni Killam. The menu might include Caribbean corn soup, fish broth and green fig and salt fish salad, which you can enjoy while taking in views of the glittering Caribbean. What to bring home? Spices, of course. Jenni sells prepacked bags of cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa, cloves, allspice and star anise.
Mexican cuisine is often considered fast food but you can learn to prepare some seriously exciting dishes on a Cooking Class and Beach Escape day trip from Cozumel to the Playa Mia Grand Beach Park -- and hit the beach afterward.
A typical menu might include deviled shrimp with chipotle sauce, fresh fish with sauteed vegetables and, for dessert, caramelized plantains with chocolate and tequila sauce. In Belize, meanwhile, from Harvest Caye, Oceania offers a sweet treat -- a tour of an organic chocolate farm, where you can watch the cacao beans being hand-ground and, of course, taste the produce.
Argentina is home of the tango, gauchos -- and steak. "Argentinian beef is world renowned," says Bernard Carter. "When you see behind the scenes, go out to the farms, you can actually see the provenance of the steak. See how the quality is derived. When you learn how the meat gets from the field to the plate, it takes Argentine beef to another level." Carnivores won't be disappointed, then, on Oceania's Gaucho Fiesta tour from Buenos Aires. You'll sample empanadas (filled pastries) at a private estancia outside the city and then tuck into a feast of slow-cooked meats from the asado, the Argentine-style barbecue where everything is spit roasted over an open fire.
There's also a Culinary Discovery tour offered from the Argentine capital, taking you through San Telmo market to drool over the fresh produce before joining a cooking class to prepare empanadas, creative beef specialties and spicy chimichurri, a cilantro-based sauce for grilled meats. On the way back to the pier is the ultimate sweet treat: a stop at Un'Altra Volta ice cream store to taste dulce de leche, the sweet caramel for which the region is famed.
Speaking of empanadas, there's only one place to go, according to Carter. "Pizzeria Guerrin has been in business since 1932," he says. "It's always packed. They have every kind of empanada you could imagine, over three floors. The pastry is amazing." And if you were to bring one thing home? "A bottle of Argentine malbec," says Carter. "To go with your steak."
Australians are so passionate about good food and quality drinks that it's hard to imagine a tour that doesn't involve sampling the local produce. Most of Oceania's excursions Down Under involve eating and drinking. From Perth, it's got to be wine, with the lush vineyards of the Swan Valley so close to the city. On a day trip to this famous region, you'll sample local beers as well as wines, followed by a traditional "barbie" (barbecue). Dessert is a matter of grazing at the Margaret River Chocolate Factory, before a stop at the Cape Lavender Teahouse, where the lavender-infused jams, honeys, oils, chutney and even sweet chili sauce make authentic gifts to take home.
From Cairns, on the opposite coast, the Go Local tour takes you to the Food Bowl, aka the town of Mareeba, to the less-than-tempting sounding Termite Fruit Veg & Takeaway market. Luckily, termites aren't on the menu, but dragon fruit, purple pumpkins and lychees are.
No trip in Australia is complete without coffee, in this case, courtesy of Coffee Works, where there's also a chocolate tasting and, after lunch, a coffee liqueur.
Meanwhile, at Burnie in Tasmania, there's a chance to indulge in what many would regard as the holy trilogy: cheese, chocolate and wine. The lush pasture around the town is perfect for raising cattle, with sharp cheddar, creamy Camembert and parmesan all made locally. All that cream and butter goes into Belgian-style chocolates, too, with a tasting featuring dark ganache truffles, white chocolate buttons and orange-flavored fudge. Throw in a flinty pinot grigio and a fruity rose to wash it all down and you may never leave.
The scent of vanilla infuses the warm air in French Polynesia's Taha'a, where 70 percent of the region's vanilla is produced. On a day trip to a vanilla plantation, you'll learn about the painstaking process of production and have a chance to buy your own pods to bring home -- or better still, some vanilla-infused rum.
In Hawaii, Oceania offers several excursions exploring the local cuisine. Sample Hawaiian specialties from the port of Hilo, dining in three different kama'aina residences. Local dishes include taro malasada, a fried dough pastry made from taro root and coated in sugar, or mango gazpacho, sesame ginger shrimp and papaya stuffed with chicken macadamia nut salad.
On Maui, experience a different side to Hawaiian food on a daylong grazing tour. Maybe start with banana pancakes, moving on to loco moco at the Tasty Crust, an island institution. We're not talking health food, but it's filling; rice, hamburger patty, brown gravy and a fried egg on top. Another weird, but strangely satisfying Hawaiian specialty is Spam musubi: two slices of Spam around rice, bound with a strip of seaweed. Lighter fare includes sashimi and saimin noodles, all washed down with craft beers from the Maui Brewing Company.
Home of the salmon bake and the ultimate king crab chowder, Alaska doesn't stint on opportunities for gourmands. From Juneau, join an all-you-can-eat salmon bake, grilled over an alderwood fire and combined with herby chicken, baked beans and wild rice pilaf, saving room for blueberry cake for dessert.
Or if you're staying in town, Tracy's King Crab Shack, which started as a food truck and is now a thriving restaurant, is the place to go for the exquisitely creamy crab bisque, or if you're hungry, a bucket of Bering Sea red king crab. In Ketchikan, A Taste of Ketchikan further explores Alaskan cuisine, with a chance to sample smoked salmon cornbread, blackened salmon tacos and Dungeness crab, washed down with Alaskan beer and locally roasted coffee. What to take home? A side of smoked salmon, of course.
Not surprisingly, Canada lends itself to the adventurous when it comes to food-related tours. Oceania's Trendy Halifax foodie tour, accompanied by a chef from the Culinary Center, explores the cutting-edge food and drink scene in Nova Scotia. There's a chance to try artisanal charcuterie -- spicy pate, lamb sausage, chorizo and smoked salmon, all paired with wine and spirits. There's a visit to the Chain Yard Urban Cidery to sample ciders made from Nova Scotia apples. Some of the ciders are infused with lavender and others with pears and cinnamon, all the perfect complement to seafood chowder and local oysters.
The final stop is at the 2 Crows Brewing Company, to sample craft beers with Halifax donairs -- pita sandwiches stuffed with beef, tomatoes and onions, topped with a garlic sauce and a local delicacy. The day ends with a session in the Culinary Center on pairing food and drink, with some unusual combinations.
As Kathryn Kelly says: I've traveled the world and I'm always amazed when a person loves food, wine and traveling and connects all those dots. It's just magical. It's like an architect seeing actual buildings that he or she has only seen pictures of."
*Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia). *