A new wave of culinary experiences by boat rival anything on dry land. Here are 15 reasons to set sail now.
1. Explore Wine Country by Water
What's better than rambling through France’s Alsace and Germany’s Rheingau wine regions—some of the prettiest wine country in the world—by car or bike? Sailing through it by boat, as my husband and I recently discovered: No designated drivers (or even gross motor skills beyond lifting a glass, really) are needed.
It would be hard to find a more luxurious boat than the AmaMora. The 78-room river ship is home to a seven-night, food-and-wine-themed cruise on the Rhine River as it winds north from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. The cruise is a partnership between Adventures by Disney and AmaWaterways, and there are two similar sailings planned for 2019.
River travel at this level is absurdly civilized: We unpacked once, slept in the same bed every night, and woke up each morning to a new destination. Aboard ship, six affable Disney “adventure guides” operated as chaperones, storytellers, and fixers.
As the trip progressed, one day we found ourselves standing in the tiny Alsatian village of Riquewihr, sampling the local Pinot Blanc and Crémant (our 2018 sailing included a visit to the Dopff winery). The next, we canoed down a canal before descending into one of the oldest wine caves in Europe, under the 14th-century hospital in Strasbourg, where we sniffed a (now undrinkable, but still fascinating) 546-year-old wine.
Then, trading France for Germany, where steep vineyards slope dramatically down much of this length of the Rhine, we sipped a spritzy trocken (dry) Kabinett in a vineyard in Rüdesheim, a mere 10 minutes’ walk from where we disembarked the boat.
When we weren’t stuffing our faces with Alsatian flammkuchen, cheese, or German spaetzle, we ate on board the ship. Each dinner reflected the region we were traveling through, as did the wines: Think plenty of Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Spätburgunder. And at the end of a river-running week of wine, an icy genever and tonic in Amsterdam, our final stop, was all the more refreshing. (Cruise from $5,089, all-inclusive; adventuresbydisney.com) —Melanie Hansche
Brush Up on Your Wine Knowledge
2. Meet a Winemaker
Cruise line Norwegian takes its wine program seriously; sailings include a series of Meet the Winemaker voyages on three of their ocean ships. Meet Gérard Bertrand, renowned vintner of Languedoc-Roussillon, over tastings, seminars, and dinners onboard the Norwegian Bliss this February as it cruises through the Eastern Caribbean. (Cruise from $799; dinners from $60; tastings, $20; ncl.com)
3. Earn a Sommelier Qualification
Super-luxury line Silversea doesn’t just offer tastings, lectures, and classes on board their specialized wine cruises—you also can earn a recognized sommelier qualification on the Silver Whisper’s May sailing from London to Barcelona. The itinerary includes an optional stop at Château Smith Haut Lafitte. (14-day cruise from $7,020, all-inclusive; silversea.com)
4. Drink From a 10,000-Bottle Wine Cellar
When you cruise on one of Crystal’s eight river and ocean vessels, your ship has an impressive 10,000-bottle cellar. To taste the rare highlights of the collection, book the Vintage Room, a 12-seat table on each ship. A sommelier walks you through the pairings: a rich slab of foie gras, say, might come with a crisp glass of 2009 Dom Pérignon. (Six-course dinners from $250 per person; crystalcruises.com) —Jacqueline Gifford
5. Hone Your Culinary Skills
When you sail on any of Azamara’s Mediterranean voyages, you have the opportunity to cook in the kitchen of a local. In this case, it’s charismatic Montenegrin cookbook author Vlasta Mandic in her hometown of Kotor, a fortified UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Adriatic Sea. Mandic takes guests through the intricacies of the local Bokelian cuisine, named for the Bay of Boka Kotorska, which borders Kotor, and teaches them to make the local potato gnocchi known as njokada. (Shore excursion, $89, available on 22 cruises starting from $2,599; azamaraclubcruises.com)
6. Prepare a French Farm-To-Ship Supper
The impossibly chic Uniworld river ship S.S. Joie de Vivre sails multiple itineraries between Paris and Normandy, France. In its intimate La Cave Du Vin kitchen, 12 guests join a chef to cook a seven-course meal with ingredients sourced from local farms that day, paired with stellar Burgundies, Chablis, and more. (Dinner and class, $108; uniworld.com)
7. Cook In a State-Of-The-Art Kitchen...
The oceangoing vessels Marina and Riviera in Oceania’s portfolio feature The Culinary Center, cooking classes held in incredibly modern, well-resourced kitchens. Select from 16 different hands-on lessons with chef-instructors, from mastering knife skills to deep dives on global and regional cuisines. (Class, $69; oceania cruises.com)
8. ...With an Award- Winning Chef
The James Beard Foundation collaborates with Windstar on six themed sailings a year led by a JBF Award–winning chef. This March, while sailing from Beijing to Tokyo on the Star Legend, you could shop local markets, then cook alongside Judy Ni of Philadelphia’s Baology. (11-day cruise from $3,499, all-inclusive; windstar cruises.com)
9. Source Caviar
Chef-led sourcing expeditions are a highlight of Celebrity Cruises’ Chef’s Market Discoveries. These hyper-local expeditions, like searching out the best caviar at a market in St. Petersburg, Russia, give you a vivid taste of place. Disembark from their sleek oceangoing vessels to visit one of over 30 different global market destinations.(Discoveries from $199; celebritycruises.com)
10. Harvest Spices
Luxury line Regent offers unique culinary excursions through its Gourmet Explorer tours. For example, on Seven Seas Explorer’s Beauty of Belize sailing, a chef-instructor accompanies you on a visit to a spice farm where vanilla, nutmeg, and black pepper are grown. You’ll harvest ingredients and take them to the Culinary Arts Kitchen to cook. (10-day cruise from $5,599, all-inclusive; rssc.com)
11. Search for Seafood
Passengers on Viking’s ocean ships can hone their cooking skills at The Kitchen Table, a demo room and restaurant. First, they embark on a market tour with the chef (in Bergen, Norway, for example, you’ll be on the hunt for crab legs, salmon, and prawns). Then, it’s back to the ship to watch the chef prep the ingredients.(Tour and dinner, $199; vikingcruises.com) —Jacqueline Gifford
12. You Can Even Have the Chef (Almost) All to Yourself
The Riverside Village of Ban Pak Oi buzzes with life well before sunrise. Good thing I’d spent the night moored to the pier aboard Mekong Kingdoms’ Gypsy, a private two-cabin luxury ship that sails on overnight trips from the Thai side of The Golden Triangle to the UNESCO World Heritage time capsule of Luang Prabang, Laos (and vice versa). Along the way, we dropped in on one-street towns just like this one for a slice of local life, depending on the tide.
As in most towns, saffron-robed monks had already passed through, collecting alms of steaming rice. In the tidy market, grandmas tossed rice vermicelli with bare hands into a fish sauce rich with chili and herbs. And it wouldn’t be a Laotian market without strips of buffalo skin on display, hair and all, to be taken home and depilated, then fried, boiled, or smoked into jerky.
Sure, stir-fried water buffalo skin isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Luckily, Gypsy’s onboard chef, Waran Morakot, is adept at customizing local cuisines to individual passengers’ palates. Since the rice barge–shaped ship floats back and forth between Laos and Thailand, the young chef draws inspiration from both places and plays off their subtle differences. Larb, the ground meat salad that originated in Laos but was popularized throughout the world by Thai restaurants, is made with fatty catfish belly and fresh galangal roots.
He diplomatically circumvents the duel of khao soi, which is vastly different in Thailand (with crunchy egg noodles topping sienna-colored curry) and Laos (soupier, with fermented soybeans and pork) by putting his own signature on it with linguine—because why not? (“I loved working with Italian chefs at the JW Marriott in Phuket [Thailand],” he says, “so I’m trying some new things.”) Another standout: rustic Laotian sausage smashed to chorizo-like consistency and mixed with lemongrass.
Because waterways serve as the sole mode of transport in much of the country, cruising is the only way for visitors to reach remote corners of Laos. The captain might drop anchor at a Hmong village, where a friendly neighbor with a big yard will sell you a green papaya fresh off the tree. Give it to Chef Waran and he’ll show you how to make som tum, the sweet-and-spicy salad perfect for snacking while sailing to your next destination. (Three-night cruise from $4,800, all-inclusive; mekongkingdoms.com) —Chaney Kwak
Hang With Pros Like...
14. Jacques Pépin
Onboard Oceania’s Riviera and Marina, dine on dishes like poached scallop gnocchi with lobster at Jacques, named for Jacques Pépin, the line’s executive culinary director, who oversees the menu down to the selections on the cheese cart. He hosts his own annual sailing; this September it’s a Vineyards & Castles tour from Amsterdam to Lisbon. (12-day cruise from $3,199; oceania cruises.com)
13. F&W Best New Chef Ethan Stowell
Chef-owner of 16 popular restaurants across Seattle and a former F&W Best New Chef, Stowell sits on Holland America’s Culinary Council along with Food Network fave Elizabeth Falkner and chocolatier Jacques Torres. Stowell oversees menus and hosts an annual cruise that includes cooking demo dinners. (hollandamerica.com)
15. Nobu Matsuhisa
You don’t need to be on land to eat Nobu Matsuhisa’s famed black cod—the chef has a restaurant aboard both the Crystal Symphony and the Crystal Serenity (Umi Uma & Sushi Bar). He also leads an annual sailing, hosting dinners and cooking demos. (One dinner reservation is included with each cruise booking, additional reservations at $30 per person; crystalcruises.com)