Georgina Cruz, a seasoned traveler and frequent Holland America Line guest who takes many of our Grand Voyages, recently enjoyed a 14-day Caribbean voyage on Nieuw Statendam where she indulged in the many culinary experiences on board and ashore. Bon appetit!
Nieuw Statendam had dropped anchor at Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, early on a dazzling morning, and sugar-white beaches with placid aquamarine waters awaited us for a relaxing day in the warm tropical sun. After a swim within the warm embrace of the water, we had worked up an appetite and were ready for additional tropical flavors: the gastronomical kind.
My husband Humberto and I headed for the Lobster Shack located near the aptly named “I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever Bar.” A recent addition to the island, inaugurated in 2016 to mark Half Moon Cay’s 20th anniversary and the launch of the Koningsdam, HAL’s first Pinnacle Class vessel, the Lobster Shack is a treasure trove of Caribbean flavors! The menu features, among other delights, conch chowder, lobster rolls and fresh grilled Caribbean lobster – succulent while filling your mouth with goodness with every bite you take. The lobster comes with delectable Caribbean coconut beans n’ rice and a delicious rum-jerk butter glaze. And for even more local flavor, it comes with your choice of Caribbean sofrito or pineapple salsas. Enjoyed alfresco, one can munch and take sips of something tall and cool while drinking in big gulps the views of the heavenly beach and our ship in the distance.
Experts affirm that one of the best ways to get to know a culture is through its cuisine – food is a key aspect of life and travelers are well served to learn about how it is produced, and what ingredients are used and cherished. By savoring this lobster, we could compare it to the Maine lobster, for example (Caribbean lobster is smaller and does not have claws, but it’s just as delicious) and taste the local ingredients so important to Caribbean and Bahamian culture: coconut, beans, pineapple and more. A wonderful experience!
There were many other adventures in local tastes and delights we enjoyed during our 14-day Caribbean Collectors’ Voyage to the eastern and western Caribbean to such popular islands as St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. In St. Thomas we were delighted to enjoy an up-close show with Rosie, the resident sea lion at Coral World Marine Park (now reopened after the 2017 Maria and Irma hurricanes). While in San Juan (also on the mend after the devastating Hurricane Maria) the ship had a special flavorful treat for us: a Caribbean Dinner in the Lido Market with such treats as a whole suckling pig, rice and peas, black bean tacos, avocado salad and a variety of tropical fruits, as well as typical desserts including rum cake.
Whenever we visit Puerto Rico we often have lunch ashore during the call in San Juan. We love sampling the black bean soup, corn fritters, and what some local chefs call the “soul” of Puerto Rican cuisine, the “mofongo,” a dish made with fried green plantains with olive oil, garlic, pork rinds and other ingredients plus seafood, chicken or beef. “Mofongo,” locals have told us, is such a precious dish that Puerto Ricans use it to stuff their Thanksgiving turkey, instead of the traditional bread-based stuffing. Sampling Puerto Rican cuisine is easy as there are many restaurants serving it in Old San Juan. One of them, La Princesa GastroBar, on Paseo La Princesa in Old San Juan, serves many traditional Caribbean dishes like “ceviche” (marinated raw fish and seafood), corn fritters and garbanzada de mero (a grouper stew with chick peas). This restaurant is walking distance from the cruise pier and from the colorful “Umbrella Street” in the Old City’s Fortaleza Street, where there is a new delightful art installation with scores of umbrellas hanging overhead. The umbrellas, beautiful and colorful, seem symbolic of protection against rain, storms and other disturbances – and make for striking photos.
While in Falmouth, Jamaica, we enjoyed more local flavors and delights during a ship’s tour to the Good Hope Plantation Great House for high tea. The Great House, formerly the main house of a sugar cane plantation dating from the 19th century, is filled with art and antiques and we were served a lovely tea alfresco including hot and spicy Jamaican Jerk Chicken, dainty cucumber sandwiches, fresh fruits including juicy pineapple, and sweets – the scones with guava jam and the banana bread were delicious! And the setting was perfect, with tables decorated with fresh bougainvillea and colorful place mats. We also had an opportunity to see the local ackee fruit, which our guide Shannon, told us was brought to the island by Captain Bligh.
Still another delightful and flavorful experience we enjoyed during our Nieuw Statendam Caribbean cruise was during a ship’s tour while in Cozumel. Called “The Mayan Cacao Company & The Mayan Bee Sanctuary” (both attractions near San Miguel de Cozumel, the island’s main city), the excursion took us to savor two of my favorite tastes: chocolate (a gift of the Mayans to the world) and honey. At the Mayan Cacao Company, after being greeted by a shaman who performed a Mayan welcome ceremony, we were treated to a demonstration of how the ancient Mayans prepared chocolate – a product that played a central role in the social and religious life of the people of that civilization. We learned what ingredients the Mayans used and the methods and traditional appliances they employed. And then we were given an opportunity to taste the chocolate (yummy!) including some samples that incorporated ingredients such as honey and chili (even yummier!).
At the Mayan Bee Sanctuary (a new attraction opened in January of this year) we learned about the local stingless Melipona bees, sacred to the Maya who called them “royal ladies,” and the delicious, lighter to our taste honey that they create. We saw the bees in their natural habitat at a small “cenote” (a water source that the Mayans considered to be “sacred wells”). We learned about the importance of this highly nutritional product to the Mayans and were treated to a taste of various honeys (Yum! Yum!). Our final stop on this tour was at the Cava Antigua Hacienda with its blue agave fields and tequila tasting rooms that feature the company’s Regalo de Dios tequilas – some with tastes of passion fruit, soursop and more.
In addition to enjoying culinary treats such as these ashore, also recommended by experts to “taste” a destination when we cruise, is to visit local markets – typically chock-full of local color with all manner of produce, fish and seafood and meats; and to sample street food and treats – like the refreshing “piraguas” (shaved-ice, pyramid-shaped treats with various tropical flavor syrups poured in, and sold out of carts in Old San Juan, and coconut and sugar cane carts in Falmouth, for example). Also recommended whenever possible is to meet the market and street vendors as well as the chefs and wait staff at restaurants ashore about the country’s food and produce, and the ingredients and traditions that go into popular dishes.
Further enriching activities include taking a cooking class to learn how culinary specialties are prepared, either as part of a shore excursion or on board the ship. The latter is a sort of a “forever souvenir” that enables a traveler to continue enjoying a favorite dish from a destination back home as frequently as they wish! On HAL ships, this is particularly easy as the line offers shore excursions that highlight cooking classes with local chefs and features demonstrations on board that often highlight the cuisines of the regions the ships are sailing in. HAL takes its motto, “Savor the Journey” to heart (round of applause!).
So, of course, the menus of the main dining room of the Nieuw Statendam featured many regional dishes including delectable Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Caribbean Jerk Pork. Each taste – each delicious bite — was, in a nutshell, memorable and delectable enhancing our appreciation of the region we were visiting.
And for even more and varied taste bud delights, the Nieuw Statendam offers a variety of alternative restaurants including the Pinnacle Grill with Pacific Northwest gourmet fare and its beloved maître d’ Tina (who is also a cherished staff member on the Amsterdam’s World Cruise each year). Other alternative restaurants include Tamarind featuring Pan-Asian cuisine including a splendid Rijsttafel dinner with Indonesian specialties offered twice during our voyage, and Canaletto serving Italian specialties. Yet another superb alternative option is what has now become our favorite restaurant at sea: Rudi’s Sel de Mer with culinary delights from Master Chef Rudi Sodamin. This intimate restaurant serves French-accented seafood and such non-seafood dishes as Steak Frites, Rack of Lamb, Duck a l’Orange and Souffle au Fromage, and has elegant décor accented with a floral mural, fresh flower arrangements and the famous, whimsical, food faces plates designed by Rudi. It made us feel, as we savored the delectable fare to the piped-in sounds of French music, as if we were in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris.
Among the delights that greeted our palate during the meal were complimentary glasses of bubbly, a salmon “amuse bouche” and a baguette (warm from the oven) and a plate of crudites including olives and goat cheese butter. From the a la carte menu we ordered the Trio of Seafood Salads with bay shrimp, King crab meat and tuna tartare. Humberto selected the Grilled Seafood Platter with scallops, jumbo shrimp, salmon and the surprise of even a langoustine hanging from a hook over the platter! Beautiful presentation on this and every dish! Humberto loved it as I did the Souffle au Fromage, that came with a mixed salad. We ordered a side dish of Haricot Verts to share as well as the sinful Chocolate Face To Face Dessert – a delightful Rudi’s creation fashioned as a face that included delicious vanilla gelato, caramel popcorn, fresh berries and chocolate. Along with dessert and coffee came Rudi’s “chocolate tree,” a beautiful, tree-like arrangement with complimentary chocolate-covered strawberries and other treats. It was a most memorable meal, filled, like the cruise, with glorious tastes both ashore and on board the ship!
Tell us, which specialty restaurant or culinary tour is your favorite?