To say this has been an interesting week would be a gross understatement. My wife Laura and I learned we would be joining a group from the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) on their Eastern Caribbean Cruise about two weeks prior to departure. Late Friday evening we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to board our ship the following morning. When we awoke it was 43°, pouring rain and windy. We both remarked the beginning of our Alaskan cruise had been far warmer. The Eurodam is a lovely ship, about two years old now (a baby by nautical standards) and carries approximately 2200 passengers. We set sail under stormy skies about 6:00 pm with the ports of Grand Turk, San Juan, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay Bahamas lying ahead of us. We quickly began meeting members of our group – Leigh Cort who specializes in historic inns of the south, Chef Jean Stephane Poinard of Bistro de Leon in St. Augustine, Florida among the nearly 30 IFWTWA attendees on board.
Sunday morning we began our “at sea” seminars, starting with a getting acquainted discussion. IFWTWA President Maralyn Hill and Vice President Michelle Winner presided over the session as our diverse group introduced themselves to one another. Many on board are long time members. This was, however, my first formal activity with the group as a member and it was fascinating to learn where the various members hail from and what aspect of the industry is their fortê. Jeniffer Thompson from San Diego based Monkey C Media gave us some valuable insights on making our websites more compelling. Pamela Lanier (Bed & Breakfast online) gave us some ideas on creating demand for our writing. After a question and answer session we broke for lunch, well aware that some “fun stuff” was on the agenda next.
We were blessed to have winemaker par excellece Don Reha sailing with us. Don is the Executive Winemaker at both Thornton and Orfila Wineries and he presided over the first of several wine tastings scheduled for the week. We tasted Thornton’s non-vintage Brut Reserve Methode Champenoise Sparkling Wine, Sans Oak Chardonnay, Cabernet-Merlot and finally the incredible Estate Syrah, accompanied by a selection of fruit and cheeses. Don’s passion for and knowledge of wine was clear and the group clearly was impressed with what they tasted. On-board sommelier Fernando gave a glowing review of the Syrah. I’ll be meeting with him later in the to get an idea of the challenges faced by being a sommelier at sea. Following the wine tasting we were treated to a sample of Oak Mountain’s Avocado Oils: Toasted Garlic, Chili, Onion, Lemon Pepper and the Cherry Balsamic Vinegar. The oils were delicious and the vinegar drew raves. Avocado Oil not only tastes wonderful, it’s great to cook with and has a higher burning point than Olive Oil. Skies were still threatening, but the Eurodam was cozy and offered plenty to do. The Explorations Cafe features libraries of both books and DVDs in addition to a game room, coffee shop and cocktail lounge. The massive windows at the front of the ship offer breathtaking panoramic views.
I’m going to do something a bit different, for this forum, anyway. This will be a “post in progress”, with stories being added as we sail. Next stop – Grand Turk Island.
Storm clouds led the way to our first stop – Grand Turk Island. When we disembarked it was windy and grey with occasional rain-showers. Undeterred, we met Captain Louie, our guide for the day, who drove us around the small island at speeds averaging 10 – 15 miles per hour.
Hurricane Ike hit the Turks & Caicos in September, 2008, and signs of its relentless attack on Grand Turk were evident everywhere we looked. Not one building escaped without damage, Louie told us. We saw the remnants of metal water towers and houses with their roofs still missing. Donkeys and horses roam freely because the fences that once contained them had been blown away. Salt ponds provided for much of the islands economy until a few decades ago. Friendship 7, the Mercury space capsule in which John Glenn splashed down in 1962 near Grand Turk is proudly displayed at a junction on the main road.
We stopped at the Bohio Dive Resort for some liquid refreshment and a history of the island from Bryan of the Turks & Caicos Hotel & Tourism Association with the help of Dr. Neal Hitch, director of the Turks & Caicos National Museum. Smells coming from the kitchen along with the sight of dish after dish of enticing food whetted our appetites while our brains were fed with the islands‘ colorful past. Afterward, Chef Eureka was waiting for us with a table brimming with plates one more enticing than the next.
There were conch fritters, conch ceviche, fried fish, delectable sauces and a hearty conch chowder. I had seconds! Eureka has promised me the recipe and I’ll post it as soon as she sends it. The hospitality we were offered at Bohio was second to none. The resort is right on the beach, a diver’s paradise and the rooms appeared quite cozy. Many of us wished we had several days to unwind there. Following our gastronomic delight it seemed only fitting that we conclude our brief tour with a stop at Conch World.
Having lived in the US Virgin Islands for four years and after several visits to the Caribbean, I’ve enjoyed eating conch several times. I didn’t know much about the conch, though, before our stop at Conch World. Conch is high in protein and low in fat. Its population has declined over the past twenty years or so by as much as 90%. They farm conch in the Turks and Caicos, and we witnessed their growth in various stages from less than a year old to more than five.
I thoroughly enjoyed our far too short stay on Grand Turk and look forward to a longer return visit. Next stop, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
After a wonderful day on the Island of Grand Turk, we re-boarded the ms Eurodam and got right back to work. There were wines, avocado oils and balsamic vinegar to taste! Linda Kissam was our host as we tasted 10 wines from Keyways, Tesoro and newcomer Lorimar. The group was impressed with the selection provided and Linda did an excellent job presenting the wines. We then tasted some incredible avocado oils from Oak Mountain: Toasted Onion, Chili, Roasted Garlic, Lemon Pepper and Key Lime, followed by the Dark Sweet Cherry Balsamic Vinegar. Avocado oils have a higher flash point, meaning they can sustain higher cooking temperatures before burning. All of them tasted delicious and the balsamic vinegar was a big hit. After the tasting, we retreated to our cabin to freshen up and then made our way to the Crow’s Nest for the drawing for IFWTWA’s scholarship auction. Not only I am delighted the group raised so much money for the scholarship, I was the lucky grand prize winner and received a publishing package from Infinity Publishing. We’re already working on ideas for our forthcoming book. It was time for dinner and conversation, a quick visit to the casino and then off to bed.
The next morning we were treated to a cooking demo by Chef Jean Stephane Poinard of the renowned Bistro de Leon in St. Augustine, FL. Chef is a charming man and a maestro of the kitchen. He stresses the importance of cooking with fresh ingredients and freshly ground spices. He did a grand job of adding a fresh twist to Caprese salad, hollowing out the tomatoes and filling them with a mozzarella basil mousse. I’ll put the recipe in our cooking with wine column. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the 80s and we had docked in San Juan.
About a dozen of us joined Poppo for a walking tour from the dock through Old San Juan to the fort at El Morro before winding up at Latin Roots. San Juan is a colorful and lively city and its residents were gearing up for their annual three day San Sebastián Patron Saint Festival. It was warm and we walked for about three hours, but we took in some splendid sights and Poppo was a patient and knowledgeable guide and proud of his island’s history and heritage. We wound our way up cobblestone streets and then climbed a grassy hill where we were rewarded with a cooling sea breeze. Some of us grabbed cold water while others went for snowcones featuring local flavors like tamarind and soursop. We ventured inside Don Collins Rum & Cigar store on Calle del Cristo. Don was on hand and persuaded me to buy a bottle of Ron del Barillito. I’m extremely glad I did. We assembled at Latin Roots, where Manny welcomed us and brought out platter after platter of savory food, including sausages, plantain and rice and beans. The mojitos were delicious and refreshing. Fellow traveler Pamela Lanier visited with the chef and got some recipes I’ll be sharing soon. Salsa dancing was on the schedule later, but I decided to head back to my home away from home.
- Cod Fritters at Latin Roots
After another delicious dinner on board, we turned in for the night. Next stop, St. Thomas.
All this time you’ve probably been wondering – where’s the wine? At Beacon Point in St. Thomas, we found Guava Berry Wine. I’ll tell you about that stop later in the story. We docked at Charlotte Amalie at about 8:00 Wednesday morning, splitting up into three groups. One group chose the Skyride, a seven minute ascent in a gondola with a spectacular island view. Another group opted for Coral World Ocean Park for a chance to get up close and personal with marine life. My group decided to visit The Butterfly Farm. Located near the Havensight Mall, The Butterfly Farm offers visitors a chance to see butterflies at every stage of their growth cycle. The group there is dedicated to learning more about these delicate creatures and how they impact our planet’s environment.
We were blessed with an excellent driver and a delightful tour guide. Joey navigated the twists and turns of the island while Keezi (pronounced Kizzy) did the USVI Department of Tourism proud. It’s clear that Keezi loves her island home and she pointed out several places along the way: “We used to live in that house.” “That’s my grandmother’s place.” We stopped at beautiful Coki Point Beach and met Boise the bartender (some folks call him the potato man) who prepared some pain-killers for us, featuring generous pours of rums, Coco Lopez, fruit juice and nutmeg shaken. Very refreshing! Our last stop before lunch was at Beacon Point, where we took in a spectacular panoramic view of the island. As we started heading back to the bus, Keezi stopped us and said the owner wanted to buy us a banana daiquiri. Herbie handed us glasses of virgin banana daiquiris made with fresh bananas. He then passed us a bottle of 151° Cruzan Rum. He explained he serves them that way so kids and non-drinkers can enjoy them, too. If you want the booze, add as much as you want. Beacon Point is also where we saw the Guava Berry Wine. That tasting will have to wait until the next visit.
It was time for lunch and we were hungry. Keezi had the perfect answer for us. We drove into town and stopped at Cuzzins. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you enter. Bartender Alex greeted us and made sure we had some Cruzan Rum drinks before we were seated. He also had us sample their new Black Cherry flavored rum. Man that’s good. The food, however, took our breath away. Grilled lobster, curried mutton and sides like peas and rice, fungi and potato stuffing. After lunch I had the honor of presenting owner Aubrey with a certificate of appreciation from IFWTWA.
With full bellies and smiles on our faces, we made our way back to our home away from home – the ms Eurodam. Next up, a day at sea and more of our “Conference at Sea”.
The IFWTWA “Conference At Sea” was an opportunity for a group of writers to not only enjoy a cruise on the Caribbean, but also to see the inner workings of a cruise ship. As a wine writer, I was curious to see the challenges faced by a Cellar Master whose job includes making sure that more than a thousand different wine drinkers each week are happy with what they are offered. Fernando Bacsa has a passion for what he does and he clearly loves his work. He has been with Holland America for thirteen years now and says “it’s not just a company, this is my family.” He does have a family at home in the Philippines, though; a wife and three children. His two sons want to follow in his footsteps and are already in training to work for Holland America.
Fernando got a degree in hotel operations in the Philippines and then began work as a catering supervisor in Libya, working for Moammar Kadafi in the Presidential Palace for five years. He was also employed by Nelson Mandela, so you can safely call him well-rounded. In 1993 he returned to the Philippines to raise pigs and maintained 200 of them for three years. Fernando worked his way up to his current position step by step. He started in 1996 as a bar waiter for Holland America, then became a bartender and a bar supervisor before finally being promoted to Cellar Master. He is fascinated by wine and is eager to learn all he can. His palate is outstanding and I watched him going from table to table during the week, recommending just the right wine to fellow cruisers. Don Reha, winemaker for Thornton and Orfila Wineries was thoroughly impressed with his knowledge as well as his palate.
His duties include creating and maintaining the wine lists for all of the ship’s restaurants. He places his orders every two weeks and maintains an inventory of about 5,000 bottles, selling about 3,000 bottles any given week. He finds the job very exciting and it changes from week to week. He not only supervises the on-board wine tastings, but works with groups of sommeliers from time to time when they book cruises. The most expensive bottle you can purchase on board? That would be a 1994 Château Pétrus Pomerol for $2,950, not including the 15% service charge. We didn’t have any.
Every seven days Fernando trains his staff for the wine tastings. My observations were that the wine stewards learned well. They are attentive, friendly without being obtrusive and keep a keen eye on your your glass level. He spends five to six months at sea and then gets two months off to go home to his family in the Philippines. Holland America maintains a training facility in the Philippines for their culinary and beverage staff and each staff member is required to spend one week in training before going back out to sea. The near future looks to be busy for Fernando. As he was in charge of preparing the wine selection for the ms Eurodam, he will soon be doing the same thing for the Nieuw Amsterdam, set for its inaugural launch on July 4th of this year.
He enjoys the European runs, considering them a privilege and that’s when he’ll bring his wife along for some time. The wine list for European cruises is different from the wine list you’ll find on a Caribbean, Mediterranean or Australian cruise because palates are different depending on the destination. The average wine connaisseur spends between $30 – $50 per bottle. If you’re fortunate enough to cruise when Fernando is your Cellar Master, introduce yourself and shake his hand. He will take excellent care of you and devote special attention to your wine needs.