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A Chowhound's Caribbean Cruise

Sauternes and foie gras at sea, rum punch and goat stew on land: Writer Jonathan Miles eats his way across the Caribbean, on and off the new Celebrity Equinox.

My wife and I: we don't travel so well together. It's not that we fuss or fight, or anything unpleasant such as that. Rather, it's that our travel styles, formed by years of professional roaming—me as a reporter (most recently as cocktails columnist for the New York Times), and she as a wine importer—just don't mesh. I prefer weird and gnarly places; she's fond of châteaus. I'm into street food; she likes pairing menus. I love hunting down local varieties of moonshine; she'd rather nose out terroir in a glass of Burgundy.

caribbean

Images Supplied by C.D. Barbados Copyright 2008

Vacationing, then, would seem like a dangerous idea—a means of courting, rather than easing, marital friction. But when you have three small children, as we do, escape is sometimes necessary. So we pinned our hopes on what might seem—at first blush, anyway; to me, anyway—an unlikely compromise: a Caribbean cruise. The ship on which we booked passage, the new Celebrity Equinox, has 21 onboard sommeliers (Celebrity is one of the largest employers of sommeliers in the world), a nearly 2,000-bottle cellar, tasting seminars and 10 restaurants, including one with an extensive wine-pairing menu. All of that would fulfill my wife's precise needs. And our 10-night itinerary, with port calls in St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Kitts and St. Thomas, would provide ample opportunity for me to go hounding after barbecue, obscure hot sauces and local rums.

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Still, a bubble of dread rose inside me when, on the first day, I saw one of the ship's sommeliers looking hyper-official in his maroon vest, with a silver tastevin, or tasting cup, around his neck. I had to wonder whether that tastevin was like the ship's lifeboats—useful in a pinch but mostly ornamental.

Several hours later, however, that hyper-official-looking sommelier was at our table in the Equinox's flagship restaurant, Murano, rightly extolling the virtues of the 2005 Château Coutet 1er Cru Classé Barsac, an underrated blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc from France's Sauternes region. He paired the wine with a dish on the Five Senses tasting menu, an appetizer of foie gras and heirloom-tomato jam alongside duck rillettes in a roasted-ginger sauce.

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Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Based on my experience at Murano, gone are the days of cruise-ship wine lists from which high rollers order the obvious big-money bottles and everyone else has to settle for a generic red, a vapid white or a piña colada. A five-course ramble through the Equinox cellar proved that the sommelier's tastevin was no affectation. The wine he poured with our spice-crusted venison—the 2006 Il Borro Pian di Nova, an uncommon blend of Syrah and Sangiovese produced in Tuscany by the Ferragamo family of handbag and shoe fame—was a fun curveball, and evidence, I think, of a changing approach to wine service on cruise lines. Among the happy discoveries my wife made on the Murano list were an impressive number of organic and biodynamic bottles by small, distinctive producers such as Napa Valley's Robert Sinskey Vineyards and Austria's Weingut Martin Nigl. There were other surprises from the New World, like a Pinot Noir from Ata Rangi, arguably the premier producer in New Zealand's Martinborough region, which makes elegant, complex reds.

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Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

After dinner, we wandered to the Galleria Tastings Bar, where a bartender, working in a cloud of liquid-nitrogen steam, was giving a demonstration on molecular mixology. The cocktail menu comes from star mixologist Junior Merino, formerly the bartender at The Modern in New York City. There were foams galore (a captivating guava-chipotle one, for instance, on a margarita). But I found myself more captivated by the classic cocktails at the Ensemble Lounge. One that caught my attention was the Navy Martini: Plymouth gin, Tio Pepe sherry, pepper jelly and orange bitters. The Ensemble was designed to evoke a 1940s club room—the kind of place a young Frank Sinatra might have frequented, with leather chairs and dim little booths—and the Navy Martini befits the setting: old-school and nuanced, a sort of time machine back to an earlier era of ship travel, when ocean-going was a means to an end, rather than the end in itself.

I liked my drink so much, in fact, that I ordered another before my wife led me down one deck to Cellar Masters, the ship's wine bar, which is as dark and Old Worldy as a glass of vintage port. She was in her element there, talking hard-core shop with the sommelier and pinballing between three Enomatic machines, which dispense wine by one-, three- and five-ounce pours. She spotted some exceptional choices, including a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Cakebread Cellars that can be tasted for just $1.95 an ounce. But the big prize was a bottle of 1996 Sassicaia, widely considered the most super of the Super-Tuscans (wines made from nontraditional blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet or Merlot). A trendsetter for Tuscan Bordeaux-style wines, this wine is rarely sold by the glass, much less by the ounce. At the somewhat ridiculous price of $45 per ounce, however, most passengers just window-shopped it—with the exception of one man who spent a long time eyeing the bottle as if sizing up his chances on a mechanical bull. "What the hell," he finally said, hitting the pour button. "I'm on vacation."

Two days later in St. Lucia, however, we were in my element. In downtown Castries, we roamed the Central Market, where homemade rum is sold in recycled Campari bottles and old-lady street vendors sell curry mixes, saffron, cinnamon sticks, Scotch-bonnet-chile sauces and banana ketchup. My wife had hoped to visit the The Cliff at Cap, a restaurant at the new Cap Maison resort on the island's northern tip, to check out its sharp, savvy wine program (an extra attraction: bottles are delivered in a basket, sent via zip wire, to a seaside wooden deck), but we didn't have enough time. Instead, a cabbie took us south to nearby Marigot Bay, where I introduced my wife to the sublime pleasures of a Ti Punch—rhum agricole, cane syrup, a squeeze of lime—at a waterside restaurant called Doolittles, which, charmingly shabby and overgrown with purple bougainvillea and palm trees, feels like a setting for a Graham Greene novel.

But it was on the drive back that I made my best find. It was about 100 yards off the road—below the road, really, in a lush little pocket across from the grim sprawl of the Hess Oil Terminal. "Are you sure?" our cabbie asked. Peering out the window, I was sure: There were two wooden shacks, a tasty plume of smoke chugging skyward from one, some plastic chairs and a blue tent on which was written "Pork Valley." A round-faced woman named Frances Amedee was tending a barrel smoker, in which various pig parts coated with a yellowish mixture of garlic, oil and homemade curry powder cooked. Order some, and she gives the meat a drizzle of garlic-pepper oil, then dabs the Styrofoam plate with banana and tomato ketchup. This is righteous, life-shaking barbecue, the stuff of piggy dreams. I informed my wife that I was moving there—not just to St. Lucia, but to Pork Valley—and, surprisingly, she was on board. I even quizzed her: Pork Valley or Loire Valley? Her answer, though torturously long in coming, made me want to renew my marriage vows.

Back at sea, we resumed our grape studies. The Equinox hosted a series of seminars and tastings billed as the Wine Harvest Celebration—a Riedel-sponsored Comparative Wine Crystal Workshop, a food-and-wine pairing class and a 101-level class covering the basic ideas of oaked versus unoaked and New World versus Old World. There was also a seminar featuring an instructional demonstration on sabrage—the technique used to bust open a bottle of Champagne with a sword. (This was entertaining, though somewhat impractical, since passengers are prohibited from packing swords.) High-level wine geekery it was not—but then, like snorkeling, bingo and "dolphin swim adventures," wine appreciation is now part of the cruise-ship pleasure package.

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Courtesy of Kara Hoffman

Moving through the Caribbean Sea, we veered between my wife's agenda and mine: checking out the wine selections at Cellar Masters (hers), then hunting down the perfect rum punch—classically spare, with lots of nutmeg and Angostura bitters—at a beachfront bar in Barbados named Lobster Alive (mine); attending an onboard World Wine Tour tasting during which three vintages of Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello were offered at silent auction (hers), then eating "goat water" (goat stew), roti and stewed salt fish outside a ramshackle St. Kitts take-out joint called Sharry's (mine); lounging by the pool (hers) to, well, lounging by the pool (I am only human). Somewhat to my surprise, this compromise worked—beautifully, in fact. On our last night aboard, at Cellar Masters, my wife sipped a 2007 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir. "Mmmm," she said approvingly. "This would be a good bottle to take to Pork Valley." Skeptically, I tasted it. By God, she was right.

Jonathan Miles, the former New York Times Shaken & Stirred columnist, wrote the novel Dear American Airlines.

Published October 2010
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