ABOVE Kotor, Montenegro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A cruise around the med becomes a smorgasbord of foodie culture
Find me a person who still finds flying glamorous and I’ll show you a person who hasn’t flown since the sixties. Travelling by plane, even on a holiday, is now a chore, yet people are still slow to book a cruise. Most would love to do a tour of several countries in one holiday but the horror of multiple airports puts them off. My cruise took me to eight European locations, with just one return flight from Dublin to Barcelona.
The Celebrity Equinox is a new class of ship which offers much more beyond ‘dancercise’ and pool games. I like what they call the enrichment classes, but we call lectures, covering all sorts of subjects from learning languages, a Jameson whiskey tasting, art history and even a hot glass demonstration. The public spaces on the Celebrity Equinox are breath-taking with glass lifts rising to nearly the full height of the ship, art-works of very considerable merit and even more human scaled spaces of peaceful comfort. The multiple dining options can be on the voluminous side but as you move upscale some real culinary talent shines through. That final leap to locale, which ensures fine cuisine, is closer here than on most ships but perhaps still a final step away. That said the AquaClass Blu dining room delivered some of our finest meals, and the curious little AquaSpa Café by the indoor pool offered alternative breakfasts and light but creative lunches.
While there are plenty of shore excursions on offer creating your own is where cruise traveling for foodies really comes into its own. Research is a must: the Bib Gourmande section of the Michelin Guide website is a good place to start. Failing all that you can take my recommendations below.
Historic Dubrovnik is a sight to behold, especially approaching from the sea. The ochre coloured walled city has stood here since the thirteenth century. The old city is filled with charm including an ancient Franciscan Pharmacy for hypochondriac historians. A stroll along the city walls offers innumerable vistas for the snap-happy. As one wall of the city opens to a little harbour, fish is a popular dish here though finesse may not be high on the list.
Where to eat
Gil’s Little Bistro, Petilovrijenci 4, Old Town, Dubrovnik 20000, Croatia, www.gils.hr. Pricier than other eateries but a smarter approach to food.
The story of present day Venice is a melancholy one. Native Venetians can no longer afford to live here, instead they commute into a city that has essentially become a Disney version of itself. That said this is my third visit and I vow to return every time but not to the delicacies of café Florian on St Mark’s Square (established in 1720 and still boasting some original interiors) but to its quirkier nooks and crannies. Marvel at the evening quiet of a city without cars and book your ticket for the Peggy Gugenheim Museum, a stunning gathering of modern art.
Where to eat
Terrazza del Casin dei Nobili, Sotoportego del Casin dei Nobile, Sestiere Dorsoduro, 2765, 30123 Venice, Italy. Tel: +39 041 241 1841. Good quality, medium priced restaurants in Venice are scarce but this is one of them, order the traditional local dishes, verify if the fish is fresh or frozen but for the most part this is superb food at affordable prices.
This walled waterside city has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and few will arrive here and not be impressed. The ramparts date back to the fourteenth century and the tiny streets mean golf buggies are the greatest concession to modernity. A climb of more than 1,300 steps up the vertiginous cliff to the fort of St John will reward you with spectacular views of the Bay of Kotor.
Where to eat
Hotel Vardar, Stari Grad 476, Kotor 85330, Montenegro. www.hotelvardar.com After a three hour hike in the blazing sun I had the best chilled cucumber soup ever at this hotel and restaurant. A glass of the local white Krstac grape from the Plantaze winery was a cooling aromatic taste of magic.
‘See Naples and die’ is not necessarily a reference to a high crime rate but the first sight of the port city suggests it could well be. There are far more elegant cities in Italy so we wisely hired cars and travelled beyond to Pompeii and along the glittering coastline to Positano. Two hours in Pompeii seems a short time for its vast history and the Italians are shockingly poor curators of this poignant site: plan well to fully appreciate it.
Where to eat
About an hour or so drive from Pompeii will take you to Positano, though Capri and Sorrento can be done in a day trip from Naples too.
Il Capitano, viale Pasitea 119 I – 84017 Positano, www.hotelmontemare.it Don’t be fooled by the garish parrot branding, this is the real deal for well priced Neapolitan dishes. A genuine trattoria with fresh seafood, flawless service and views of Capri from a terrace stuck like a barnacle to the cliff face.
If you have never been you must of course soak in this city’s history and architecture but the scruffy streets and neglected monuments give the impression that it is tired of being the capital city. I picked the tiny museum of Palazzo Altemps to pass my day, this fifteenth century palace now houses an extraordinary collection of sculpture, acting as a bite size taste of Rome’s more famous statuary.
Where to eat
Trattoria Monti, via di San Vito 13/a I – 00185 Roma, 00 39 (0) 644 66573. This smart/casual eatery celebrates Roman food as well as dishes from the birthplace of the owner: Lazio and le Marche on the Adriatic coast.
If Rome is tired then Florence looks freshly reborn. Not surprising considering its renaissance history. Be prepared to be enthralled by this impeccably clean and casually stylish city. From Michelangelo’s statue of David to chic boutiques, flawless ristretto coffee for a euro and policemen like matinee idols. I stumbled on an outlet of my favourite aftershave, I say outlet, in reality the convent of Santa Maria Novella was founded in 1613 (www.smnovella.it).
Where to eat
Florence is full of smart eateries but a journey home should include Lucca too.
Dei Frescobaldi, via dè Magazzini 2/4 r I – 50122 Firenze, 055284724, www.deifrescobaldi.it
A chic restaurant and wine bar run by a wine producer serving regional and other cuisines, the wine bar is more casual.
Antica Locanda di Sesto, via Ludovica 1660, a Sesto di Moriano I – 55029 Ponte a Moriano, 00 39 (0) 583578181, www.anticalocandadisesto.it. This family run inn has been open since 1368. That’s 645 years in business and you can tell they have perfected it with extraordinarily good local cuisine, much from their own land including their own wine. (I visited before they got their Bib Gourmand, just sayin’).
A stopover in Villefranche will inevitably tempt some to Nice but I prefer the road less travelled. The candy coloured buildings of the old town meander up the hillside giving you glimpses through narrow streets to a sun sparkling sea. Ignore the grumpy service and check out the surprise in the Chapelle St Pierre – the entire interior is redecorated by Jean Cocteau in a single floor to ceiling, front to back narrative. A real hidden jem.
Where to eat
La Mère Germaine, 9 quai Courbet F – 06230 Villefranche-sur-Mer www.meregermaine.com. You could theme your eating to your cultural visits and amble along from Chapelle St Pierre to this popular seafood restaurant – it was a favourite of Jean Cocteau.
Cruise ships still have a journey to go before they convince everyone of their merits but I’m officially hooked. For me, even if you strip away all the luxury, the many dining choices, the chic little grass lawn on the upper deck of the Celebrity Equinox, the comfy wood panelled library, the spa with ocean views, it still has one great advantage over all other forms of transport: zero stress. Once on board I have the opportunity to visit a good six destinations or more which I might never ordinarily consider. On one trip I tasted places as culturally different as Montenegro and Southern France without ever unpacking a suitcase. Now that’s travelling in style.
Ross Golden-Bannon travelled as a guest of Celebrity Cruises. Their 2014 cruises are available at www.celebritycruise.ie. Cruise costs start from as little as €925 for late bookings to €2,600 and beyond for suites and other packages.
Follow Ross Golden-Bannon on Twitter @goldenshots