High-end food and wine is a natural match for luxury line Seabourn Cruises, which already counts unlimited caviar and Champagne among its offerings. So it's not surprising that its annual Food and Wine Cruise, held on different ships and itineraries, has been a smashing success.
The first two Food and Wine cruises, held in 2014 and 2015, took place in the Mediterranean. We attended the third one, a 14-night sailing aboard Seabourn Sojourn in Southeast Asia. The cruise line scheduled more than 90 events, including cooking demos from guest chefs, special themed meals throughout the ship, lectures on food and wine and even culinary trivia.
Here are some of the highlights of our Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor
Seabourn starts things off on the right foot, with every room receiving a bottle of house Champagne (Nicholas Feuilatte, on our sailing). Wine-lovers know that prosecco and cava aren't the same as Champagne; to earn the name, the sparkling wine must come from a particular region in northeast France. (The term "French Champagne" is redundant.)
Fact: All Seabourn cabins are at least 295 square feet, making them among the largest at sea. Thick curtains divide the space into two rooms.
Culinary immersion began as soon as we boarded. Our first meal in the Colonnade, Seabourn's more casual dining venue, took the theme Hong Kong Market dinner in honor of our embarkation in Hong Kong. Selections included dim sum dumplings, stir fries, crab claws and more.
Henry Fong, head of dim sum for the famed Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, was among the guest chefs booked for the cruise. Through a translator, he demonstrated how to make the perfect dumpling, quickly stuffing each wrapper -- although the speed at which he put his together made us realize that dim sum is best left to professionals!
Tip for eating out: The Chinese eat dumplings with chili or plum sauce, not soy sauce, and dim sum is best ordered in the morning, when it's fresh.
Of course, a cruise is about more than eating. One of the highlights of our itinerary was a stop in Halong Bay, Vietnam. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has more than 1,900 islands dotting the Gulf of Tonkin.
Tip: Wake up early when your ship approaches Halong Bay. Gliding through the rock formations at sunrise, as the fishing boats go out, is one of our top cruising experiences.
A "junk" cruise is the best way to see Halong Bay. You can book through the ship, or go on your own with a group. Besides visiting a cave and touring an old fishing village, our excursion included a seafood lunch, made from fresh shrimp and fish bought along the way.
The ship's late-morning approach into Ho Chi Minh City up the Saigon River gave passengers an opportunity to see sights along the water at a leisurely pace. For the occasion, Seabourn served bloody marys, garnished with bacon and shrimp, as a tasty eye-opener.
Shopping with the chef is not just a feature of the Food and Wine Cruise; Seabourn offers the excursion complimentary on all of its sailings. We did the excursion twice, once in Ho Chi Minh City and once in Laem Chabang, the port for Bangkok. Here we're with Executive Chef Guillermo Muro as he checks out fresh produce in HCMC's Cho Ben Thanh Market.
Part of the shopping with the chef experience is tasting the local food. Here, a passenger samples jackfruit, which is native to Southeast Asia and India. The fruit has an unusual texture and is relatively tasteless, unlike…
…the smelly durian fruit, which is notorious throughout Southeast Asia! The aroma is so pungent and akin to sewage that most hotels forbid customers from bringing it inside. At passenger request, Chef Muro selects a fruit to try. We were given gloves before tasting; while some said it's better than it smells, the mushy fruit is still not pleasant and leaves an unfortunate aftertaste.
Seabourn prides itself on its wines, and every sailing has tastings from the international cellar. But for the Food and Wine Cruise, the program is elevated. Guest Sommelier Sebastian Pacheco has been responsible for all three cruises so far, scheduling lectures, nightly liquor tastings and workshops. One tasting, of several Grand Cru Bordeauxs, cost $600 per person.
One wine workshop required participants to guess which wines were presented in unlabeled vials, simply by assessing their aromas. It's harder than it sounds! We split up into teams of men vs. women; though Pacheco said that women usually have a better sense of smell, we lost out this time around.
We signed up for a three-class wine tasting series, run by Sebastian for an extra fee. The first class looked at the Bordeaux region, while the second compared California and Italy. At the final class, we did a blind tasting -- and realized we could finally tell Burgundy from Bordeaux!
Our itinerary included numerous sea days, which we spent at classes, lectures and our favorite, trivia. For the Food and Wine Cruise, our cruise director, David E. Green, included a segment on culinary trivia, including this stumper: How many squirts does it take to get a gallon of milk from a cow? Answer: 345.
Decked in creams and golds, The Restaurant -- Seabourn Sojourn's main dining room -- is an elegant space, where servers escort female passengers to their tables. We liked the open seating at dinner, when you could arrive anytime between 7 and 9 p.m. We also couldn't get enough of the house-made bread sticks, shown here. Crisp and delicate, with just the right amount of salt and cheese, they made every meal even better.
As you'd expect in a luxury environment, Seabourn servers are held to a high standard at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals for the entire table come out at the same time. Soups are poured hot into bowls from carafes. And, seen here, caramel sauce is drizzled over frozen yogurt with a flourish.
In every port, Seabourn brought on a local troupe to perform cultural dances and music. While we enjoyed the ribbon dancers from Hong Kong and the Vietnamese musicians, the Thai troupe outshone them all in terms of sheer personality and elaborate costuming. Here, passengers pose for photos.
Tired? Room service is available 24/7 on Seabourn ships, and it's much more than a simple tray left on a sideboard. Servers set up a full dining experience, either at the dining table in your cabin or outside on your balcony. You can order from the room service menu or, during dinner hours, anything from The Restaurant. The servers will even bring it to you course by course, if you want. Here, we're having escargot with our shrimp Caesar salads.
In addition to the theme dinners at the Colonnade, the Patio Grill got into the Food and Wine spirit with special "bars" at lunch. We enjoyed the spring roll bar, the pho bar and -- pictured here -- the pad Thai bar.
On our cruise, Seabourn's partnership with celebrity chef Thomas Keller was being rolled out on Sojourn. The synthesis between Keller and the ships is far-reaching, extending from the type of ingredients used to cooking techniques to how his restaurant onboard will eventually look. Here, a chef prepares an RR Ranch rib chop in the Colonnade, to Keller specifications. (Read more about the Thomas Keller-Seabourn partnership.)
Our final guest chef, Gypsy Gifford, brought enthusiasm and psychology to her cooking demo and lecture. Besides giving recipes for her signatures dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice and beef rendang (which was later served in the dining room that night), Gifford asked passengers to think of the meals they cook at home as pieces of music, with low and high notes expressed through herbs and flavors. Our signature pot roast will never be the same.
The most difficult part of going on a Seabourn Food and Wine Cruise might be leaving it. Now that we're home, we miss our daily dose of Champagne and caviar.