Luxury cruising in the Mediterranean: a tasty experience
It is not easy to maintain a reputation for haute cuisine when faced with a customer who has no taste. Just ask Gerhard Auer, Austrian sous chef for a Royal Viking cruise ship. ``Once a passenger asked for sauerkraut topped with raspberry sauce,'' winces Gerhard. ``An abomination. I refused.''Skip to next paragraph
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Actually he didn't quite refuse. That could have cost him his job on the luxury liner. Instead he served a succulent sauerkraut and a superb raspberry melba in two separate dishes -- then turned his head. ``What they did with it after we served it was their business,'' he sighs.
What Gerhard prefers over such idiosyncratic requests is a tableful of passengers who challenge him with a special order such as, ``Make us the most delectable Salzburger Nockerln on earth.'' He and the ship's 31 other chefs, dressed in black-checked trousers, double-breasted white, and napkins knotted around the neck, are up to the challenge.
That is evident if you dine at their tables and reinforced if you tour the ship galley -- more like an art gallery than a kitchen. In the pastry section I was so overcome by the petits fours that I impulsively proposed to the pastry chef. You would have done the same if you'd tasted one of those tiny iced cakes melting on your tongue.
Forgive me. Here I am talking about food when this is really a Mediterranean cruise story. To put food first when describing a journey that features stopovers like the Great Pyramids of Cairo, the Acropolis in Athens and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, might seem like a bad case of misplaced priorities.
But within two weeks 625 passengers and I witnessed a fantastic parade of food presentations that included 900 pounds of shrimps that were big as fists, 1,300 pounds of lobsters flown in from Maine and Australia, and 26,000 pounds of kiwi, strawberries, and other fresh fruits. When that happens, well, one mentions the food.
But there is, indeed, much more to cruising than pleasure for the palate. There are ports. How many and how diverse obviously depends on the destination and length of the cruise you choose.
I joined up with a 17-day Holy Land cruise, one of some two dozen trips offered on Royal Viking's three ships. This particular journey included eight ports of call, beginning in Piraeus near Athens, ending in Venice. It was a fascinating but dense itinerary with rather few daylight hours at sea and a good bit of ``If this is Tuesday it must be Belgium.'' One passenger commented during a shore excursion, ``This feels like a working vacation -- I've been going nonstop for a week!''
In truth, each passenger chooses port activities with the intensity that he or she desires. One has a variety of options including staying aboard ship, lolling on beaches, taking a half-day bus tour with minimal walking, or venturing off on vigorous overnight explorations.
At most ports in the sunny Mediterranean I witnessed an eager throng of behatted tourists lining up to disembark. Most hadn't troubled their minds a tad to prepare for these outings, for the ship's shore-excursions office takes care of tours.
Boasts shore-excursion officer Leanne Boyer, ``The aim of the line is to enable customers to check their brains when they come on board.'' There are advantages to this. Passport clearance, luggage hauling, transportation, guides, and meals are all arranged for you. Poof -- the battles of travel are swept away. Those who don't mind the battles and who would rather not put their lives entirely in someone else's hands do have options.
The excursions office will arrange rental cars for passengers who prefer self-designed outings. Or you can hop off the ship and just wing it, with only one essential responsibility: that you get back on board before the next launch.
Ship life itself is a delight. To my surprise, I didn't get bored on board. The 676-foot Royal Viking Sea is equipped to keep up to 725 passengers happy, and has a staff-client ratio of 1:2. It is a floating town where you can go to the movies, get your hair done, have a sauna, or take a stroll over to one of several ``local'' pubs or caf'es.