Cruising Around Europe à la Carte
F&W editor Melanie Hansche attempts a vacation with balance on the west Atlantic coast.
Every day in Lisbon is leg day. One of Western Europe’s oldest cities was built on seven hills that are so steep, some streets have special elevators just to help you ascend them. For the ones that don’t, the level of exertion is necessary if you happen to have eaten six custard tarts before noon in a comparative pastéis de nata tasting. (Pro tip: Pastéis de Belém’s eggy numbers are the best; Manteigaria Silva’s vanilla-y ones come in a close second.)
I’m in the city at the start of a Windstar itinerary called Tapestries, Towers, and Tarte Normande, an eight-day sailing from Lisbon to Amsterdam. The cruise line’s itineraries along Europe’s West Coast are the most popular, and they evolve every year: In 2020 it’s Autumn on the Atlantic Coast in September, and in July the following year it’s Cruising the Atlantic Coast. (Both are James Beard Foundation sailings with a guest chef and sommelier on board.) It’s an efficient and charming way to traverse the Atlantic coast without driving or flying, and, if you’re a non-cruiser, Windstar is for you: Its all-suite ships are luxurious, relaxed, and have more of an à la carte philosophy. This bodes well for the independent traveler.
The cruise on board the Star Breeze wasn’t all smooth sailing. With a storm rolling across Europe, Mother Nature threatened, and our captain heeded her warning, changing course to avoid it. Two ports were dropped from the itinerary, and we spent two rocky days at sea. No matter, the ship’s general manager and crew dealt with the guests’ disappointment with infectious grace, humor, and excellent hospitality.
A lighthouse on the rugged coast of Jersey Island, a self-governing dependency of Britain.
Sally Spaulding/Chad Chisholm Sally Spaulding/Chad Chisholm
That’s how we spent two nights in Porto instead of one. Portugal’s second-largest city is fabulously smooshed into a hillside along the Douro River, dotted with narrow, brightly tiled homes of former merchants and fishermen. Gaia, across the river from Porto, is the epicenter of port wine production, and you would do well to lose yourself in its winding lanes and port houses for a day.
Our remaining ports of call included Cherbourg in France, Bruges in Belgium, and Saint Helier on Jersey island. Cherbourg is a popular port for cruise ships because of its proximity to the D-Day beaches, but it is also close to Normandy’s apple orchards and the heart of cider and Calvados production. If you’re lucky enough to be there in spring, the apple orchards are in full bloom, and you can pick up some excellent souvenirs in liquid form—and an apple tart or two.
Because of our compacted itinerary, we breezed through the beer- and chocolate-themed fantasy that is Bruges and only had half a day on Jersey (a tax haven like the Caymans—but with cows). It’s a self-governing dependency of Britain, and we had enough time to get a taste of its deep sense of independence, as well as its excellent butter, sausage rolls, and pasties.
Charming canals encircle the Belgian town of Bruges.
Neil Emmerson / robertharding/Getty Images Neil Emmerson / robertharding/Getty Images
Being stuck at sea for two days was not so bad, really. Not when there are spa treatments to be had, martinis to be drunk (note: do not do this in a 15-foot swell), and snacks to be eaten. Every time I tried to visit the gym to counter my indulgences, it was packed, testimony to the fact that guests want to keep up their fitness routines while on vacation. Windstar recognized that some time ago and is currently upgrading the Star Breeze and two of its sister ships—they will essentially be cleaved in half and extended to include a much bigger fitness facility, spa, and extra dining options. They’ll be back on the water starting in February 2020.
This is good news for those who value the wellness offerings on a ship as much as good food and booze. The renovated ships will be home to two new restaurants: Star Grill, by barbecue master, TV host, and cookbook author Steven Raichlen; and tapas bar Cuadro 44, a small-plates concept by Michelin-starred NYC chef Anthony Sasso. Sounds like two more good reasons to hit the gym at sea. (From $1,699, windstarcruises.com)
Where to Eat & Drink
Both canned and grilled sardines are to be found on most menus in Lisbon and Porto.
Sally Spaulding/Windstar Cruises Sally Spaulding/Windstar Cruises
If you have one meal in Lisbon, make it lunch at Prado. This former cookie factory with greenhouse vibes is helmed by Nuno Mendes’ protégé António Galapito, who serves simple, elevated riffs on his native cuisine. Think raw mackerel with pops of tangelo rind or squid in its ink draped in melty sheets of lardo, alongside a wine list dominated by biodynamic or organic wines. (pradorestaurante.com)
Craft gin is just as hot in Lisbon as it is in other world capitals, but where else could you drink 80-odd different ones in a former 19th-century royal palace? Gin Lovers has kept some of the gorgeous dilapidated patina of the old palace as the backdrop for this bar and restaurant. They also produce their own gin in partnership with a local distiller: the pretty, floral Lisboa Gin. (ginlovers.pt)
When visiting port houses in Porto, start on the waterfront at Ramos Pinto, where the beautifully preserved digs of its former owner Adriano now serve as a lively museum. It’s worth taking the official tour before you taste. Taylor’s is the most traditionally British and historic of the houses, a bit stuffy but worth a visit for the grounds and cellar alone. The modern and austere Cockburn’s tasting room is very cool indeed (and as a bonus they carry all the wines under the Symington Family Estates banner to buy, including Graham’s, Warre’s, and Dow’s). It’s a great place to sip a white port and tonic.
If you happen to dock in Cherbourg on market day, go to the market in the town square to try the local version of rice pudding, teurgoule. Sold in little pots, it’s slow-cooked, resulting in a concentrated, caramelized texture and flavor.
You could stop at any number of breweries in Bruges, but for a place that speaks to the innovative young heart of the city, try De Republiek, which is an art space, cinema, bar, and restaurant. The lunch of the day could be a delicious, elevated take on pork cheeks with mustard sauce, celeriac mash, and roasted carrot topped with toasted caraway and buckwheat. (republiekbrugge.be)