A guest in the Oceania program learns the finer points of pizza-making. // © 2015 Oceania Cruises
Feature image (above): Excursions include shopping for organic ingredients at the market. // © 2015 Oceania Cruises
One of cruising’s most enticing features is that there’s never a shortage of delicious meals. Ships are outfitted with boundless buffets, as well as specialized onboard dining venues to guarantee that no foodie ever goes hungry. But Oceania Cruises holds a unique distinction among epicurean travelers for taking its culinary offerings to new heights. Its 24-station Bon Appetit Culinary Center has been popular for hands-on learning while sailing, but more recently, Oceania’s Culinary Discovery Tours (available on Marina and Riviera) have been the toast of the seas.
Led by Kathryn Kelly, the line’s executive chef and longtime director of culinary enrichment, Oceania’s tours officially launched in 2012, but Kelly had been unofficially taking guests on excursions before that. It all started when students of the culinary center would ask her about her plans while they were in port. She was constantly gearing up on savory adventures, visiting chef friends or scouring food markets for local delicacies. Eventually, passengers asked if they could join her, and in Corfu, Greece, she obliged.
“Guests like to hang out with chefs and see the world through our lenses,” Kelly said.
On that first expedition, Kelly took a few guests to one of her favorite restaurants for lunch, followed by a quick romp around the market to pick up baklava and olive oil.
“It dawned on me that [these tours] would make a good addition to the culinary program,” she said.
The programs that grew out of that impromptu outing follow similar blueprints, where Kelly or one of the other chefs onboard accompanies a small group (no more than 24 guests, but sometimes as few as 10) through a destination’s local markets, followed by restaurant meals or a cooking class. There is also a local guide to add cultural and historical angles to a half-day excursion.
There are currently about 50 tours, from a truffle lunch in Slovenia to a cooking lesson in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Each take a year to develop, and most have been personally vetted by Kelly. They typically include visits to some of her favorite shops and sharing meals with a few of her chef friends, giving the excursions a unique insider quality.
Every year, new tours are added, while others are tweaked. This year, a tour in Provence, France, features a class with Reine Sammut, one of France’s few female Michelin chefs, followed by a lunch at her Auberge La Feniere. Sammut’s rustic menu is a true love letter to Provencal cooking. On my excursion, I couldn’t resist ordering the pieds et paquets, a traditional stew of tender tripe and trotters.
One of the most popular programs takes place in Tuscany, Italy, where guests begin their culinary adventure with a visit to Mercato Centrale in Livorno, a covered market with about 250 shops and stalls that is considered one of Europe’s most beautiful thanks to its art nouveau flourishes. Before heading to a vineyard for a cooking-class lunch, the tour stops at Torteria al Mercato Da Gagarin, a tiny shop just outside the market that Kelly adores for its hot-from-the-oven tortas and chickpea-flour cakes flavored with black pepper. At the picturesque Torre a Cenaia winery, the chef reveals the secrets to making the perfect foccacia.
Skipping Florence in favor of Livorno is an example of how these tours tend to self-select their participants. A food-centric, small-group excursion to Livorno means spending the day with gourmands who aren’t necessarily interested in standing in an hourlong queue to crowd around a statue.
“While I’m a fan of learning about a place through its architecture, art and traditions, I don’t think there’s a better way to experience a culture than through its food, wine and ‘around the table’ traditions,” Kelly said. “The way people cook and eat together is the heart of any culture.”