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Chef’s Table A Princess Delight

Hors d'oeuvre

ON THE STAR PRINCESS — Of all the “specialty restaurant experiences” you can have on a cruise ship, the creme-de-la-creme is the Chef’s Table. That’s where you pay a fee to be part of a small group of passengers whose dining begins where the menu begins, in the galley.

It almost defies description, but we’ll give it a shot.

Princess was the first cruise line to introduce passengers to Chef’s Table. On the Star Princess, like all the line’s ships, there are regular opportunities during a week-long cruise. The cost is $95 per person and while it might be hard to think of that as a bargain, it is.

For the food…the wine…the experience.

It starts at the sink. That’s where you wash your hands with instructions from (in our case) Ignazio d’Agostinomaitre d’ Ignazio d’Agostino, who surely has the perfect name for a man in his position. With the tap water at 120 degrees (he could tell by the feel), he doesn’t sing it but he does instruct you to wash for “two verses of Happy Birthday” if you want to go deeper into the galley.

With him and executive chef Remo Bolis providing running commentary about how the galley functions, we slip on our chef jackets, which unfortunately do not come with Remo’s skillset. While answering all of our questions, he pours champagne to go with the three hors ‘oeuvres (above is the Ginger and Spicy Red Chili Cocktail, which tastes even better than it looks).

Galley consumption complete, the group is escorted to a special table. Ah yes, the Chef’s Table. You feel like the only customers they’re serving. The appetizer — isn’t that what we had in the galley? — is a Bering Sea Red King Crab and Porcini Mushroom Risotto, enhanced by the complementary white wine. Outstanding. It ’s followed by palate cleansing orange sorbet spiked (our word) with a splash of vodka.

At that point, most people in our group (10 is maximum size) are feeling satisfied but Chef Remo, another nice Italian (are there any other kind?), is just beginning. He specifically Remo Bolisdesigned the menu for the occasion…a menu that isn’t offered anywhere else on the ship, a menu that focuses on “regional cuisine or ingredients from a recent port.” Since we are in Alaska, that means utilizing ingredients such as crab and tuna. We presume the vodka was imported from the western tip of the Alaska’s Aluetians because from there, you can see Russia.

The entree is a tripleheader…Giant Prawns, Beer-Roast Veal Shank and Crusty Lamb Rack. That’s a mouthful in more ways than one, and it’s accompanied by Buttered Asparagus, Main courseMarket Fresh Vegetable and Creamy Mousseline Potatoes…and a Napa Valley cabernet. Chef Remo didn’t say whether he took his calorie counter when he went shopping. That answer is clear by the time dessert arrives — following a cheese specialty called Stilton-Mascarpone Mousse — because there aren’t any diets we know that include the wild-Dessertlooking and entirely edible (right) "Choco-Halzelnut Parfait with Torroncino Heart Englkish Sauce Coulis and Drambuie Marinated Berries" followed by coffee and Bitter Chocolate Truffles and Pistachio Macaroons.

With dessert wine, of course.

In the end — and there eventually is an end to this all-evening experience — the presentation and preparation is as impressive as the food, and the one thing you can’t do is be afraid to leave any of it on your plate. There’s nobody we know with an appetite big enough to consume it all and, as much as diners are often concerned about getting their money’s worth, smaller servings would be appropriate for so many dishes.

Before it’s time to waddle back to your stateroom, each couple receives a copy of Courses, A Culinary Journey, and a printed copy of the night’s menu. You get your picture taken with Chef Remo…alas, with no osmosis of his cooking skills.

In the news…

• Queen Mary 2 heading to dry dock for extensive refurbishing
• Royal Caribbean reverts to My Time Dining on almost all ships
• Costa setting itself apart with Italy's Finest concept

Today at portsandbows.com: Regent's first around-the-world cruise in six years

Celebrity Constellation
11 nights
October 12, 2015
Istanbul (return): Olympia, Corfu, Split, Dubrovnik, Athens, Ephesus 
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $81
www.celebritycruises.com

The Death Of A Sea Salesman

The Orator of the Seas is silent. John Maxtone-Graham, who entertained cruisers with ship stories on whatever line would hire him, died of old age last week. He was 85.

We met him once, on the Celebrity Eclipse. It was both our good fortuneand our misfortune … to have met him at all, and to have met him only once. He was a delightful speaker who captivated us enough during his lecture in the ship’s theater that we wanted to interview him.

Off the stage, he was just as delightful.

We are among hundreds, perhaps thousands, who met this delightful man. Many of us have one of his books, signed with a personal message, because that’s what he did. He Maxtone-Grahamwrote 30 books, maybe more. It seemed that his first was his favorite, The Only Way To Cross (1972), perhaps because of all things cruising that he was passionate about, nothing compared to being on a ship crossing the ocean. He refused to call them cruises because they weren’t, they were “crossings,” and the fewer stops the better.

“Ships were meant to be at sea,” he said. “Draw a line from A to B. That's what cruise ships were for, to carry immigrants from A to B.”

He was born in New Jersey, lived in New York and spoke with a British accent, having been raised on both sides of the Atlantic by his Scottish father and American mother. A former stage manager on Broadway, he graduated from Brown, served with the Marines in Korea, worked on Broadway as a stage manager and became an author, lecturer and maritime historian.

He became a writer by accident when asked to author a book about ships that cross the ocean, a trip he first made at the age of six months. His two sons became writers, one for The Simpsons, the other for Beavis and Butthead.

Maxtone-Graham’s books – more eloquent than the works of his offspring — will be his legacy, but to us he was more captivating and spell-binding as an orator.

“I play it like a piano,” he said. “I know what works and what doesn't work”

Some people went on ships if they knew Maxtone-Graham be speaking. We didn’t. We just lucked out. He was 81 at the time, and it was appropriate that the Eclipse was “crossing” from Miami to Southampton. It was his kind of cruise, although there probably wasn’t a cruise that wasn’t.

He was often asked to name his favourite ship.

“The one I’m on,” he would say.

We thought it was ironic that his passing came during the height of Cunard’s 175th anniversary celebrations. Morever, he died as the Queen Mary 2 was “crossing” the Atlantic in a recreation of the famous cruise line’s first Transatlantic voyage, on July 4, 1840. It would have been even more ironic if he’d been able to be on the ship this month…if he’d passed away on board…if they’d buried him at sea.

From our one meeting, we think John Maxtone-Graham would’ve found that a fitting crossing to the after-life, for the Orator of the Seas.

In the news…

• Keel laying ceremony for new Princess ship going to China in 2017
• Spain's cruise visitors January to May up 6 per cent over last year
• NTSB looking for flight-seeing accounts from Alaska passengers

Today at portsandbows.com: Oceania's new early-booking promotion

Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas
14 nights
October 9, 2015
Barcelona, Crete, Ashdod, Suez Canal (cruising), Petra, Dubai
Inside: $533
Cost per day: $38
www.royalcaribbean.com

Alaska: A Land Of The Midnight Sun

Midnight SunALASKA — Yesterday was the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In Alaska, it was longer…or at least it looked that way.

When the cliche “the sun never sets on…” is bandied about, nowhere is it more valid…nowhere does it have more authenticity than in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Whatever time is on the clock or watch or smartphone, bedtime comes with sunshine. To deal with it, Alaskans put foil on the windows so they can fall asleep.

Visitors like us pull the blinds as tightly as possible and hope that slit of light will not be the root of insomnia.

The picture above was taken 13 minutes before midnight from the Denali Princess Lodge, as close as this load of Star Princess cruise passengers came to the Arctic Circle, a couple of nights before Summer Solstice. The sun really does never set further north, where it’s the brightest all night long on the 21st of this month. That’s one of the things that makes an Alaska cruise so unique in June.

In the 49th state — and other places this far north — long daylight is one of the things that makes life unique. Helicopters take tourists on rides over the mountains until 8:30, stopping then only because the pilots aren’t allowed to log any more hours. Young children are able to sleep in daylight, perhaps, because that’s the only summer they’ve ever known. Maybe Alaskans welcome illuminated nights as the trade-off that comes with the dark days Tom Seaverof winter when they rarely see the sun for long.

In the Alaska Baseball League, since 1960 there has been a Midnight Sun Game played on June 21 in Fairbanks, home of the Alaska Goldpanners. Last night’s game started at 10:30. One of the game’s alumni is Tom Seaver, who went on to pitch his way into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“You can explain it forever,” Seaver recently told Alaska historians. “Until you experience it, you just don't believe it.”

Seaver was right.

In the news…

• Harmony of the Seas on the water for tests in readiness for 2016 launch

Today at portsandbows.com: AmaWaterways, Viking a creative pair

Costa Diadema
7 nights
December 12, 2015
Savona (return): Marseille, Barcelona, Palma De Mallorca, Rome, La Spezia
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71
www.costacruise.com

Norwegian, Food And Andy Stuart

Some of us like hot toast. Hot enough to melt better. It happens at home. It rarely, if ever, happens on a cruise ship. The only time we’ve ever experienced it, or at least the closest it has come to being reality, is on the Norwegian Epic and the reason was simple. We were having breakfast at O’Sheehan’s, a mid-ship eatery with mostly down-home food, and the toaster was right there. We couldn’t touch it, but we could see it and the toast was hot enough.

Norwegian is having food issues right now. Good and bad.

Andy Stuart, a bright guy who is the company’s new president, has been dealing with Andy Stuartseveral. It started with a charge for room service delivery. That was followed by a ban on taking food back to your cabin. Then came removing the $15 cover charge on Asian eateries. And finally, establishing a new sushi menu with a la carte pricing.

You might say Stuart’s plate has been full.

When passengers complained, as they did about the room service charge, he modified it by not charging for continental breakfast and coffee. When they complained about being ordered not to take food to their rooms, he dropped the regulation. He found that passengers loved not paying $15 for Asian dining when the numbers jumped to 250 customers per night in the restaurants. He found that a la carte sushi was not only palatable, but popular.

Stuart is upgrading the room-service menu, to justify the cost and encourage more passengers to use it. He’s in the process of upgrading food in the buffet with better options, on the theory that every passenger visits the buffet at least once, so it’s critical to have them leave with a good taste, so to speak.

It’s reasonable to assume that O’Sheehan’s will have a name change, since the quickly departed Kevin O’Sheehan was Stuart’s predecessor.

But about the toast, Andy…

In the news…

• MERS outbreak triggers Royal Caribbean cancelations in South Korea ports
• Viking plans maiden North American call for New York in October 2016
• Cruises to nowhere no longer allowed from U.S. ports (Cruise Critic)

Today at portsandbows.com: MSC's Seaside Class ship going to Miami

Costa Deliziosa
7 nights
October 18, 2015
Venice (return): Bari, Corfu, Santorini, Athens, Dubrovnik
Inside: $499
Cost per day: $71
www.costacruise.com

Allure of the Seas…More Alluring?

When we heard that Allure of the Seas was going in to be refurbished, our initial reaction was: What could be better?

It is a rite of passage that cruise ships are refurbished every five years or so, even when they’re the biggest and arguably best of all mainstream ships. Until Harmony of the Seas arrives next spring, Allure will retain its big-ship status by about 100 passengers and by about 1,700 tons. It’s a title that has been Allure’s (on a technicality over Oasis of the Seas) since it arrived late in 2010.

The new and refreshed Allure is in Marseille today, early in its first Mediterranean season of weekly round-trips from both Barcelona and Rome, which means passengers can embark in either place. What are Europeans enjoying that North Americans haven’t yet seen, and won’t until Allure returns in November?

Izumi, a wonderful Japanese restaurant that cooked your dinner on a “hot rock” at the table, is now called Izumi Hibachi & Sushi and is fully Japanese cuisine. No mention has Izumi-hot rockbeen made if the hot rock (left) made the cut, but it was cool…proving something hot can be cool.

Sabor Taquieria & Tequila Bar is new. Hopefully, Europeans crave Mexican food as much as North Americans do.

In additiuon to new and upscale shops like kate spade new york and Michael Kors, there are 10 new suites (two Royal, six Grande, two Royal Family) and the Coastal Kitchen with its California-inspired cuisine is exclusively theirs. Does that mean mostly Californians book suites? The suite people also have a new lounge and new sun deck, so a part of the ship has clearly become more exclusive.

Funny…we thought it was already exclusive, just by being Allure of the Seas.

In the news…

• Major cruise lines assessing need to hire lifeguards on ships
• Australia cracks 'magic million' cruise passengers for first time
• Norwegian changes policy on passengers' taking food to rooms

Today at portsandbows.com: Cunard's three Queens 'dance' on the Mersey

Royal Caribbean Splendour of the Seas
7 nights
November 14, 2015
Venice (return): Kotor, Corfu, Athens, Crete, Argostoli
Inside: $588
Cost per day: $84
www.royalcaribbean.com

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