On a luxurious cruise around Central America and the Caribbean, Abe Opincar learns how to blend wines, hobnobs with a cheese guru and meets a three-foot-long iguana.
"Such exotic contrasts," Inez said, layering clothes into her suitcase. "A wine-blending seminar in the tropics. Crossing the Panama Canal while tasting cheese with a maître fromager." She zipped her bag shut. "Le Cordon Bleu with crocodiles and volcanoes."
I'd asked Inez to join me for a two-week "Spotlight on Food and Wine" cruise on Radisson Seven Seas' Mariner, sailing from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale via Central America and the Caribbean. Between steamy ports, Max McCalman, the maître fromager (cheese master) from Manhattan's Artisanal Cheese Center, would introduce us to North America's and Europe's most impressive little-known cheeses. Sara Fowler, a winemaker from Napa's Franciscan Estates and Mt. Veeder, would team up with McCalman to teach us about wine-and-cheese pairings; then she'd initiate us into the world of wine blending. When sated, we could traipse around the rain forests, beaches and villages of the Mariner's ports of call: the Mexican resort towns Acapulco, Cabo San Lucas and Huatulco; Puntarenas, Costa Rica; the Panama Canal and its environs; and George Town, Grand Cayman.
On our first day at sea, Inez and I spent some time taking stock of our honey-colored 987-square-foot suite. With a king-size bed and walk-in closet, living-dining room with built-in cherry cabinets and two marble bathrooms each with a full-size tub, it was bigger than a lot of apartments I've lived in. Not surprising, since the Mariner's claim to fame when the ship launched in 2001 was providing all its guests with suites—some of the cruise industry's largest—complete with balconies roomy enough for tables and lounge chairs. That evening Inez and I stood on our balcony, sipping Champagne. She wore a white linen shift. We watched flying fish skip across the ocean's surface and dolphins race the ship.
"It's the ions," Inez said, explaining our euphoria. "Rushing water generates negative ions. They alter your body chemistry. They make you breathe better. They make you calm. This balcony bathes us in negative ions." I tried not to give her a skeptical look. "I think Rahul generates negative ions too," she continued.
As soon as we'd found our room after boarding, Rahul had appeared at our door. He'd unpacked our luggage. He'd poured Champagne and told us that, like many of the Mariner's seven butlers, he'd received two years of training at the Oberoi Hotel in Bombay, India.
"I think Radisson gets its staff from a charm school for psychics," Inez said when we returned to our room after a quick swim in the saltwater pool. We stared at the pairs of Inez's espadrilles that Maria, our jolly Swedish steward, had arranged artfully in our absence. The poolside bar's Scottish bartender somehow knew we liked decaf cappuccino. Maybe Rahul had tipped him off. Maybe the bartender had paranormal powers.
Even the Mariner's chef, the busy Tobias Schreiber, evinced uncanny ease. Over dinner that night, he told us that when he started work on his first cruise ship, he was so anxious that his knees shook. He now serenely manages an army of cooks at the Mariner's four restaurants: Signatures, which offers Le Cordon Bleu-sanctioned haute cuisine; Latitudes, which serves Asian fusion; Compass Rose, which specializes in light Continental; and La Veranda, the place to go for laid-back Mediterranean. Schreiber likes to come up with quirky surprises, like his excellent shami kebab, spicy minced-lamb patties that are a staple of Indian home cooking.
"People really do eat more on cruises," Schreiber told us as we toured the ship's vast galley. "We calculate that they eat 30 to 40 percent more than they do on land."
Sampling Wine and Cheese
We were hitting the high end of Schreiber's estimations when the wine-and-cheese portion of the cruise kicked in. Somewhere off the Nicaraguan coast on the eighth day of the cruise, Max McCalman held the first of his three hour-long cheese tastings. In addition to developing the extraordinary cheese lists at the Manhattan restaurants Picholine and Artisanal, McCalman is the author of the influential book The Cheese Plate, published in 2002. The man knows more about fermented milk than just about any other mammal on earth.
In the Mariner's largest restaurant, Compass Rose, we sat near picture windows overlooking the sea and listened to McCalman describe the chemical and bacterial workings involved in the creation of cow, sheep and goat cheeses. He explained how this odd process enhances human existence and forestalls its disappointments. Cheese, he told us, helps the body fend off lethal disease and depression. Among the panaceas he offered us, we sampled Flixer, a nutty number made only from the milk of 12 very talented Swiss ewes. He coaxed us to taste little-known Iberian cheeses, like Monte Enebro, so lusty they made my eyes bulge. A four-year-old Gouda—tangy and rich, with a taste like browned butter—made several people around me yelp with pleasure.
On another afternoon, as we approached Panama, McCalman teamed up with Sara Fowler, the associate winemaker at Napa's Franciscan Estates and Mt. Veeder, for a wine-and-cheese-pairing class. McCalman and Fowler started off by talking about "happy wine-and-cheese marriages." Their enthusiasm reminded me of the way I was introduced to food and wine a long time ago, when I was young and lived in Bordeaux.
Before us were samples of six American cheeses (including Vermont Shepherd and Rogue Creamery Oregon Blue Vein) and six Californian wines (such as Ravenswood Sonoma Zinfandel and Mt. Veeder Reserve Meritage). "I'm not going to tell you what to think," McCalman said. "I'm not going to tell you what you should like or dislike or what goes together. I do this for a living, and new combinations surprise me all the time."
I was mulling over the salt-and-tannins combo of Blue Vein and Zinfandel when I looked up and saw Inez. She'd opted to skip the tasting in favor of a 90-minute, full-body therapeutic massage. But then there she was, standing in the room's brilliant light. The ship hit a little chop. Five hundred wineglasses chimed softly together. Inez smiled. She sat beside me and whispered, "Rahul said I'd enjoy this."
Our togetherness during the class on wine blending was less auspicious. Fowler supplied us with lab-quality pipettes, five Bordeaux-type varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) and a sample of Franciscan's 2000 Magnificat Meritage, a magnificent, chocolaty blend of those grapes. Fowler challenged us to create our own version.
"Wine blending is about intuition," Fowler said. "It's not science. Be creative."
Working as a team, and with all the creative tension that working as a team implies, Inez and I produced a unique Meritage. When Fowler tasted it, her expression said we might be better off patenting our formula for use as an industrial cleaner. She was more approving of the wine made by a soft-spoken internist from Seattle. After tasting his blend of 70 percent Merlot, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 2 percent Cabernet Franc, 2 percent Petit Verdot and 1 percent Malbec, Fowler squeezed his shoulder and said, "This is amazing. Have you ever considered changing professions?"
Exploring the Ports of Call
Most of our time on the Mariner was less competitive. Because there were only 500 passengers on this sailing—the cruise was about three-quarters full—and because the ship is designed to be roomy, there was no fighting for elbow room or privacy. I used the pool at least once a day, and only twice was there another passenger swimming with me. In the early evenings Inez and I soaked alone in the Jacuzzis. We almost always had the library to ourselves. It was during our shore excursions—Radisson offers a few different options in every port—that we got to know some of our fellow cruise passengers and take their measure.
In Huatulco I watched otherwise reserved ladies from Boca Raton rev their ATVs and race Ozzy Osbourne-style along dry riverbeds to a deserted white-sand beach, where we swam for an hour. Meanwhile, in another corner of the resort town, Inez bonded with Rose and Harry, a couple from Naples, Florida, on a house-and-garden tour. Harry, according to Rose, had spent the better part of 30 years racing boats from Bridgeport to Bermuda.
"How long have you two been together?" I asked Rose one night as we were all having dinner.
"A disgustingly long time for a woman to be married to one man," she said, giving Harry a smooch.
I became pals with a Frenchwoman, Françoise, during a bus trip through the cloud forest of Costa Rica's Poas Volcano National Park. Françoise told me that she lived in Paris but had been born and raised in Cairo. When we got to the top of the volcano, cold wind parted the clouds that usually shroud the crater. We could see deep inside, all the way down to the gusts of steam and the slate-green lake in the center.
On our way back to the ship, Françoise and I talked about the remarkable fly-trapping flower we'd seen at our stop earlier that day in Sarchí, a town about an hour outside Costa Rica's San José. We'd browsed artisan showrooms filled with the flamboyant oxcarts for which Sarchí is famous. A salesman told us we could personalize one by having our portraits painted on its sides. Françoise told me that while she and her husband did not have an oxcart, personalized or plain, they did have a boat and had spent many summers sailing with their daughters along the coasts of Italy and Corsica.
"Our daughters are blonde," she said. "So our arrivals in those ports were always quite lively."
In Panama, Inez went on a 20-minute helicopter ride over Gatun Lake and its locks, which lower and raise ships the 85 feet to and from the Caribbean Sea. I could hear the helicopter's whine while I sat on a small houseboat cruising the lake's islands, where I saw toucans, a baby crocodile and three kinds of monkeys, including a black-handed spider monkey perched on a branch, daintily holding a banana with his tail.
The night before we anchored at George Town, the capital of Grand Cayman, the Mariner's tour consultant told everyone that seven huge cruise ships would be arriving simultaneously, disgorging almost 20,000 passengers.
When we arrived in port the next morning, I got off the ship and ran. I found a taxi driven by a woman named Teresa and asked her to take me to the island's north side, to Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Twenty minutes away from the port, we passed empty beaches. Two English tourists and I wandered the 65-acre park. We examined bizarre and highly fragrant plumerias. We trotted after butterflies we'd never seen before.
Near the park's empty visitors center I came upon a grayish three-foot-long iguana snacking on a low-growing purple plant. I hollered for Teresa.
She ambled up. She appraised the iguana.
"Too bad you come such a long way and this is what you see." She patted my back.
"I wish I could show you the iguanas down by West Bay Road. They're real pretty, turquoise and green. This one here, well..." She clucked her tongue. "This one here, he got the bad skin."
On the drive back to George Town, Teresa gave me her recipe for rice and beans cooked with fresh coconut milk, garlic powder, onions, black pepper, bell pepper and Scotch bonnet chile. ("And you got to mince the Scotch bonnet fine.") I saw breadfruit trees. I saw roosters scratching red dirt in front of pastel-colored houses. I saw a calf dozing beneath a magnolia. I knew Inez was on our balcony, absorbing negative ions, looking up from her book only to study that precise line where sea meets sky. I couldn't wait to tell her about the iguana.
Radisson Seven Seas will host another "Spotlight on Food and Wine" cruise, with a similar itinerary, aboard the Mariner in 2005. The cruise will sail from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale from March 17 to March 31. For more information, call 800-285-1835 or consult rssc.com.
Abe Opincar, the author of Fried Butter: A Food Memoir, is a San Diego-based writer.