I like to eat. I like to drink. And guess what? I like boats, too. But it wasn’t until I received a formal invitation to attend one of three cruises dubbed the “James Beard Foundation Collection” — a partnership between Windstar Cruises and the James Beard Foundation, the first of its kind — that I entertained the thought of rolling all three interests into one experience. On top of it all, I could bring a guest. Fellow cruise virgin and songstress Katie E. kindly obliged. (She’s the former frontwoman of Los Angeles experimental-pop trio Young People and recently dropped a stunning, haunting album titled Out All Night.)
Spanning eight days, the cruise — I opted for the inaugural one, “Culinary & Wine Delights of Southern Spain & Morocco” — would depart Lisbon and end in Barcelona, with daily stops in locales favored by culinary-minded travelers (like Morocco, Granada and Ibiza). Three-time James Beard Award–winning chef Michel Nischan would serve as an on-board culinary ambassador, hosting cooking demos and market tours and creating special dishes from what he’d discover at the local markets. Sommelier and Spanish-wine expert Steve Olson would be our drinking guide, hosting cocktail demos and wine tastings.
Would this gustatory voyage also offer us food-obsessed gals a rare glimpse of some big-name chef kicking it poolside in a Speedo? We were about to find out.
Before we knew it, we were on our Wind Surf boat, ready to sail the high seas. The flagship of the company fleet, it holds 310 guests. Once we freshened up in our snug (but surprisingly comfortable) cabin, we made our way to the main lounge for the first of five wine tastings led by Olson. Traditional “tastings,” I quickly learned, these were not. Instead, the wines were poured with a wonderfully free and friendly hand. Practical yet interesting facts about each selection were shared with equal enthusiasm by Olson during the session and the dinners that followed.
Speaking of which, there were three restaurants where we could have dinner, all included in the price of the cruise. AmphorA, the ship’s main restaurant, offers a continental menu with daily specials of meats, pastas, and vegetarian options. Candles, an alfresco spot, lets guests enjoy steak and starches under the stars (weather permitting, of course). Because it only seats 30 or so diners, reservations are a must. Stella Bistro, another reservation-only spot, focuses on classic French bistro fare, like roasted duck, escargot and onion soup.
Katie E. and I gleefully made our rounds at all three restaurants, hitting a few of them more than once. At Candles, we tucked into slabs of perfectly seared Black Angus steak with gooey, cheesy potatoes, while clinking our wineglasses and watching the sun slowly dip. (On the flip side, Stella Bistro fell a bit flat. The French food was fine, but far from spirited.)
AmphorA, the one restaurant that didn’t require reservations, became our favorite by the end of our eight-day journey. That’s where we were pleasantly surprised by a special of fragrant chicken curry and pillowy naan (it turns out that one of the head chefs is from India) and got to taste the dishes inspired by what chef Nischan and the culinary team picked up while touring local markets. “Chef Michael Sabourin [Windstar’s corporate chef] and chef Olven [the ship’s sous chef] were really fun to shop with. They brought a cart and cash, so all the passengers did was let the local product inspire them,” says Nischan. “Then we’d talk about what we were going to cook right away. It was pretty awesome to walk around these markets, point at great ingredients, then have someone else pay for it and carry it back.”
It was also the perfect chance to taste what chef Nischan’s food philosophy is all about. As the founder of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group dedicated to making local, healthy food available to all, Nischan naturally favored simpler, fuss-free preparations to let the ingredients he picked up from the market earlier that day shine. One dish he created, for example, featured a pan-seared fillet of local white fish, elegantly dressed with lemon, tomatoes, capers, and olive oil.
While feasting on thoughtfully crafted dishes by Nischan was such a treat, having so much social interaction with him is what made the cruise not just delicious, but also really, really fun. (And isn’t that what cruising is ultimately about?) Because the ship was intimate — the only spot you’d be ensured complete privacy was in your little cabin — everyone from the crew to the guests got to see lots of him and Lori, his equally charming wife. Whether they were throwing back late-night drinks at the Compass Rose Bar, fielding random inquiries during the market tours, or simply having dinner, the couple couldn’t have been more gracious or lovelier to interact with. No matter the hour or the place, they always had matching easy, genuine smiles splashed across their faces and were always down for a good time (which didn’t involve any cannonballs in the pool, thankfully, just drinks).
Speaking of good times: Almost every night after dinner, Katie E. and I would beeline to the lounge at the main deck, as close to 9:15 p.m. as possible. Because that’s when one of the world’s greatest yet unknown cover bands, Top Society (an impossibly adorable, yet talented family band from Thailand), would take the stage. I knew the cruise would be an unforgettable experience from the very first night, when Top Society invited Katie E. to sing a soul-stirring rendition of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.”
Unlike evenings, the days were a bit more varied. Except for the first full day, when our ship was at sea, we could take prescheduled excursions or walk around the port of call on our own. While the excursions were, for the most part, pretty eye-opening — I especially enjoyed the walking tour of the sleepy yet gorgeous village of Asilah in Morocco, with its whitewashed buildings, colorful murals, and chill, beachy vibes — I was happiest spending daylight on the docked ship, relishing the quiet, the calm, and the scenery. And lingering over a leisurely meal at Veranda, the only restaurant open for breakfast and lunch, when everyone else was out and about off the ship was something I looked forward to every day.
Whether it was the seriously fine food and drink, uninterrupted nights of sleep, impossibly gracious and warm service — or most likely, all of the above — I was more productive, work-wise, in as long as I could remember while being deeply blissed out to boot. Though I was a cruise virgin a mere eight days before, I now considered myself a full-on fan.