Meet the Cruise Connoisseurs

| December 10, 2010

Some people have the knowledge and experience to become extremely particular about their cruises.

Let's be honest, most people are not wine connoisseurs; also known as oenophiles. Most people can't even pronounce oenophile (EE'-no-file). So, although fine restaurants make a show of opening and presenting a bottle of wine, it's often possible the diner doesn't know Chablis from chardonnay.

I admit to having a horrible memory for names of wine. I have tasted reasonably priced wine I would order again and again, if I could remember the vintner - but I never can. So I take whatever the sommelier recommends, smell the cork, spins the wine in my glass, sniff it, hold it up to the light, check the color, taste it and roll it over my tongue - and then I almost always say "perfect" even if it smells like vinegar - as long as it says "fine wine" on the label.

By the way, did you know one of the most common wine pairing mistakes is sparkling wine with sweets, like chocolate cake? It sounds like a grand time, but after a bite of sweet chocolate cake a sip of champagne will curl your tongue like a lemon drop. Did you know that? Neither did I, until now.

It takes a gourmet several years to absorb the knowledge and develop the pallet required to truly appreciate the best cuisine. And just as cuisine has gourmets; the world of cruising has cruise connoisseurs - people who cruise for the experience of cruising, who inspect each vessel the same way an oenophile tastes his wine.

The cruise connoisseur strives to know everything about the vessel he is sailing upon; where did the chef receive his training? Is it cuisine truly gourmet? How diverse is the menu? What cuts of meat are presented? Are the fish and vegetables fresh when possible, or at least freshly frozen? How extensive is the wine list, what are the wine pairings? What brands of scotch, brandy and cognac are available?

These are the reasons the cruise connoisseur sails. The interest goes beyond consumables, of course, to the accommodations; what brands of linens, soap, lotions and towels are presented? How efficient is the service? How is the bed, the showerhead, the lighting?

Eric Goldring is a cruise connoisseur. He is a yachtsman and maritime lawyer who cruises constantly. Eric also sells cruises, but is not a typical travel agent. Eric's clientele trusts him the way an oenophile trusts the sommelier at the Four Seasons.

Right now Eric's favorite cruise line is Seabourn, the luxury line that is quickly expanding with three brand new ships of 30,000-tons and 650 passengers apiece. Seabourn is a pricey cruise line, but Eric can show you the value in the cuisine, wine (and all beverages) included in the price and the excellent service. I asked Eric why Seabourn is his favorite cruise line and this is what he said:

"Seabourn provides an intuitive, consistent and luxury cruise experience in an understated manner. While gourmet cuisine focused on all of the senses is presented ("delivered" is just not Seabourn), the little things make Seabourn: soaking in the whirlpool on the bow a bar waitress arrives with champagne that you didn't ask for, but then realize you wanted; mentioning to the Chef de Cuisine that you love truffles and being surprised to later find them on the Chef's nine course tasting menu; your stewardess leaving you a note related to something you mentioned in passing earlier in the day. But what truly makes Seabourn my favorite cruise line is what the staff can do when given the opportunity to do what they really want to do, such as on my 2010 Food & Wine Cruise last month. That lets you know that you are truly being cared for by the best. And, importantly, this sort of comfortable elegance is available at prices (which include gratuities and almost all beverages) that are extremely competitive, even with the premium market."

Fortunately, my memory for ships is better than for wine labels. I know a thing or two about luxury cruise lines, and I agree with just about everything Eric just said. The key to a true luxury line is its ability to anticipate your desires and to make them available to you - possibly before you even realize that you wanted it.

I had the privilege of working for the cruise line that is generally known for defining the modern luxury cruise experience - Royal Viking Line. Created in 1978 by legendary Norwegian ship owner, Knut Kloster, Royal Viking offered some of the first suites with verandahs. The dining was single open seating, not early and late seating with pre-assigned tables. The itineraries took the ships around the world and were rarely repeated. Many luxury cruise lines of today were started by former Royal Viking Line people.

It is that very "definition" of luxury cruising as invented by Knut Kloster that is the foundation for modern luxury cruise lines; however, there are exceptions and everything is a matter of personal taste.

Royal Viking always had gourmet cuisine. I tasted my first caviar and truffles on there. Smoked salmon was available daily while Beef Wellington and lobster were on the menu regularly, bracketed by strawberry cream soup and chocolate soufflé.

Royal Viking was the first cruise line to have single open seating dinner -considered an extreme luxury when the industry standard two seatings nightly so each waiter could serve twice as many people.

Today's luxury cruise lines include Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal and Regent Seven Seas. There are also many "deluxe" cruise lines that come very close to being luxury; Oceania, Azamara, SeaDream Yacht Club, Paul Gauguin and Cunard (in the upper category suites), for example. What is the difference? In most cases it comes down to the quality of the cuisine, the comfort of the accommodations and the ability of the service providers to make your cruise special.

Now, not all luxury cruise lines are alike. Crystal has two seatings nightly at assigned tables, considered old-school even by many mainstream cruise lines who now offer open seating. But I would personally say Crystal has the best cuisine I have tasted at sea (but I have not been on every luxury cruise line lately). Crystal maintains its dining policy because that is what its guests want - so the definition of luxury is always a matter of personal taste.

Crystal Cuisine: click on pics for images

Silk Road Miso Black Cod   Buffet Bread Sampling

Silversea, Seabourn and Regent are all-inclusive cruise lines, where there is no extra charge for gratuities or beverages including alcohol, bottled water, soda, etc. Regent has recently started including shore excursions and pre-cruise hotels in the cruise fare.

Now, the goal of the cruise connoisseur is to identify and evaluate the subtle differences between the luxury cruise lines. First, one has to identify the differences, and then one has to weigh the impact on the cruise experience and decide how much difference each distinction makes.

For example, the pre-set dining times on Crystal may seem inconvenient, but having the same waiter nightly allows him to learn your preferences so he can anticipate your needs. The fact that Seabourn, Regent and Silversea all include beverages in the cruise fare makes the cruise experience more pleasurable, but it may not mean as much to the person who does not drink. Many guests feel as if they are supplementing their fellow cruiser's drinking, and they might prefer a line where alcohol is not included in the cruise fare.

Of course, the true cruise connoisseur knows that nothing is "free." The more that is included in the cruise fare the higher that cruise fare will go. So, in fact, the definition of luxury cruising has more to do with value than price.

Oceania Marina

One new ship, Oceania Marina, is presenting a very interesting value proposition. Oceania is considered a "deluxe" cruise line - a notch below luxury. But the new ship Marina has much larger than average staterooms with first-class amenities like Ralph Lauren sheets, soda and water included, and almost 200 suites onboard with concierge service and soft beverages included. If you cruise on Marina and pay for all the other things you would have used on an all-inclusive luxury cruise line, you may just find the same level of accommodations, cuisine, wine selection, shore tours, onboard enrichment and service as the luxury line - at the same or a lower price.

That is why you need to consult a true cruise connoisseur before you spend a small fortune on an expensive cruise. A true cruise connoisseur never takes anything for granted.

Read Eric Goldring's Blog at

More Crystal Cuisine: click on pics for images

Prego Filet Mignon   Pate Display
Lobster at Gala Buffet   Tower of King Crab Meat

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