Fold. Blend. Mix.
These "recipe" verbs suggest a mixture combining cooking ingredients only, but a more interesting combination that fuses culinary components and sea-faring relaxation is the marriage the James Beard Foundation and Windstar Cruises to create the James Beard Foundation Portfolio, a group of cruises exclusive to Windstar. The cruise line, known for its luxury journeys on board its small fleet of stunning, sailboat yachts, added three ocean-going (no sails), triplet vessels in 2015, purchased from the top-tier cruise line Seabourn. Windstar, a division of the U.S.-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts, poured $8.5 million alone into the refurbishment of the StarLegend, the ship that the company is using for the James Beard voyages.
In 2016, the ship hosted three inaugural James Beard trips, billed as "a bespoke portfolio of sailings designed for food and wine aficionados," and the Legend waltzed on the water from Lisbon to Barcelona (8 days), and from Lisbon to Dublin and the reverse (10 days). I boarded the Legend for the latter, a trip that called at ports in France (St. Malo, La Rochelle, Bordeaux), Spain (Gijon, El Ferrol), and Portugal (Porto, Lisbon)...and given the wine and food on board, you could probably say we visited Paradise, as well, during our 1,600 nautical mile journey.
The ship accommodates 212 at capacity, and we were just about at that number. It is very likely that the Beard cruises for 2017 will sell out, as well, as they were wildly popular. Which is why you may want to book your cruise now, as "wave season" is still underway. "What?" you ask. If you have never cruised (and over 24 million people did so last year, according to the Cruise Line International Association, then you are unaware that most cruises are booked months and months in advance, and the coldest weather creates the hottest market for cruise reservations. In fact, according to CLIA, it is becoming the norm to book a cruise nine months-even a year-out. So, while you might feel blinded by snow right now, don't end up a blindsided landlubber. Put your money where your proverbial mouth will be in the summer...the sweetest prices are offered during wave season, which traditionally begins right after Christmas and continues for the next couple months or so. The seductive deals are often accompanied by additional incentives, like upgrades or even free air fare.
While the line-up of on-board "stars" for the Beard 2017 cruises has not yet been announced, you can assume the culinary cast will be outstanding. Our shepherd for my gustatory pilgrimage included top toque and cuisine-ambassador chef Matt Jennings, a multi-time nominee for the James Beard Best Chef and the chef-owner (along with his wife, Kate Jennings, a talented pastry chef, also on board) of Townsman restaurant in Boston. He was joined by Windstar's executive chef-in-residence, Rohit Dimri, and Michael Sabourin, Windstar's corporate executive chef. Sommelier Kelly Wooldridge, a national finalist in the Chaine des Rotisseurs Jeune Sommelier competition in 2014 and 2015 and a recipient of the Zagat Guide's "30 Under 30" list, was our shaman for all things wine-related.
Once on board, we settled into an agreeable routine of wine tastings nearly every night. And on the evenings without tastings, there were wine-pairing dinners. Wooldridge was a font of information, always available for questions and conversation. He had carefully selected the wines, many of which are not imported into the States (particularly true of Portuguese wines, less so for product from Bordeaux), to enhance the regional experience. (It's worth noting, most wines would retail for between $30 to $125 here in the States, assuming availability, and at the end of the cruise, surplus bottles were sold at remarkably steep discounts.)
In Normandy, not known for its wines, Wooldridge focused on brandies and in Gijon, Spain, hailed for its flavorsome hard ciders, he introduced that beverage. "Where it got interesting," he noted, "was in Spain and Portugal. The vast majority of French wine is exported to the States, but many wines from Spain and Portugal are not known here." According to Wooldridge, wines from the northwest area of Spain-Galicia and Asturias-are very underrepresented in the U.S. and he, therefore, chose selectively to offer guests unusual tastings. "There are dozens and dozens of wineries there, but few are well-known."
For example, he recommended Terras Gauda, with its fusion of apricot, aromatic herbs, and orange peel, which he said was one of the "prettiest and most lovely Albarinos coming out of Galicia." Another wine he highly recommended, inexpensive, but delicious, with limited American distribution, was the Casa Ermelinda Freitas Touriga Nacional, describing it as fantastic analog to Cabernet Sauvignon, from a grape rarely seen outside of port production." Among the highlights, he felt, was a trip to Chateau Kirwan (a Windstar private event) in Bordeaux, where the vintners opened up their cellars and we tasted wines he felt were quite special; moreover, the evening presented an intimate opportunity to chat one-on-one with the family.
Of note, also, were the market trips that Jennings and his confreres undertook daily; two were scheduled excursions, but the chefs disembarked in every port, always on the prowl for interesting fare, and guests could join them. The market in La Rochelle was overwhelmingly tempting, even to Jennings, a former cheese monger; he found so many mouth-watering fromages that we ended up having an unscheduled cheese-tasting that night. (Jennings noted that France produces over 2,000 cheeses!)
Our arrival dockside in Gijon (the oldest city in Asturias), was heralded by bagpipe-playing, kilt-wearing musicians, a vestige of Celtic influence dating from the Iron Age. In Bordeaux, however, I was disappointed that there was no excursion to the relatively new La Cite du Vin, so if this year's docket does not include that excursion, plan on doing it yourself. In Bordeaux we had an overnight, and if your cruise has one, you should try to book ahead for dinner at La Grande Maison, a 19th-century mansion-hotel with a restaurant that is a joint venture of wine mega-merchant Bernard Magrez and the august chef Joel Robuchon. For the single day in Porto, leave the ship early to pack in as much as you can - I think one day there is just not enough. De rigueur: a visit to a port winery (we visited Graham), where you should buy white port, as it's not readily available all over the U.S. and it's quite tasty.
Food on board will not disappoint, and our last wine-pairing dinner was a mouth-watering, five-course repast, starting with apple ginger lobster tail and ending with the lingering, heady scent of the toffee-apple mascarpone cheesecake, with bramble compote, pure maple-syrup ice cream and toffee sauce, all of which was followed by a trolley of exotic cheeses, secured from markets along the journey.
It is no easy feat when provisioning a vessel. Chef Dimri has to order fare not only for the passengers, but for the crew of 145, so his weighty shopping list includes some fairly astounding numbers and variety: for example, 1,800 pounds of oranges, 1,400 pounds of potatoes, 460 pounds of strip loin, 140 pounds of lobster, 800 pounds of flour. Are you lactose-intolerant? No problem, Dimri's stores include every kind of milk you can imagine for your coffee-cream, half-and-half, whole, 2%, and skim, in addition to soy, almond, rice milks and more.
One additional activity to enjoy on board, with nary a calorie: The bridge has an open-door policy, so feel free to drop by and have a chat with the captain. We were blessed with two other treats: deck seven, aft, turns into a hardy-fare steak house at night, and as we dined al fresco, we were presented with a riveting sunset starboard and a rising full moon portside; and as if by divine intervention, alongside our ship, were cavorting whales and dolphins. Lastly, we had a brush with a James Bond-like experience: our local pilot who directed the ship out into Biscayne Bay from Bordeaux had another vessel to attend to, with little time to spare, so he was picked up by a hovering helicopter that sent a line down to the bow of our ship...he suited up into a harness and was winched into the overhead helicopter...and I mean very overhead. It was a rare sight to see.
Suffice it to say, everyone left the ship a few pounds heavier, but every calorie was worth the experience.
For 2017, the partnership between Windstar and the James Beard Foundation is expanding and will include not only theme cruises, but additional events, as well. There will be several itineraries offered in spring/summer, including Cuisines & Cultures of Spain, Portugal, and France (the journey I took), departing August 15. While the list price for that cruise is $10,999 per person, the wave season Star Perks tariff starts at $4,199 per person, and includes a choice of amenities (rates are based on double occupancy, excluding air fare).
Editors' pick: Originally published March 20.