When you are planning a port day for an upcoming cruise, and are looking to step away from the typical tour paths, consider lunch. One way to get a feel of a port is to taste it. I look for casual spots that attract locals, have reasonable prices, and menus with regional specialties.
For cruisers, most meals ashore are lunches, as ships tend to leave port before dinner, though some smaller cruise lines, such as Azamara and Windstar, stay into the evening.
Lunch might not be your focus on an initial port visit, but you may find that such a meal ashore is your best opportunity to meet local residents, to soak in an unfamiliar atmosphere, and perhaps to manage a food order in a foreign language. Yes, you could go back to your ship for a free lunch; there’s always a burger aboard. But where is the travel adventure in that?
Here are recommendations for a special experience at some of my favorite cruise port stops.
Rarely do you find one of the country’s best new restaurants near a cruise ship dock. You will in Portland, Maine, where the food scene is booming in the old brick downtown neighborhood that is a block from the waterfront in a city that is growing swiftly as a cruise port stop.
Central Provisions is No.6 for 2014 among the Hot 10 in Bon Appétit’s “Best New Restaurants in America.” Chef Christopher Gould is making his mark with crudo, thin slices of raw fish enhanced with herbs and other flavors, and some additional amazing tastes from an open kitchen, all served on small plates ($5-$26). I can recommend the bread (with egg samboyan and nasturtium butter), wok-fried ratatouille, and spaghetti with sea urchin and miso.
Central Provisions (www.central-provisions.com, 414 Fore St., 207-805-1085) is open daily for dinner. So far, brunch is served only on weekends, but there is a plan to expand it into the week, which would be good news for cruise passengers.
Sète, an old and still thriving French Mediterranean fishing port, sits between the sea and a saltwater lagoon that yields great harvests of mussels and oysters.
This is a port where smaller cruise ships dock. My partner Fran Golden and I arrived on Windstar’s Star Pride. A few blocks from the docks, and over a canal bridge, is the heart of the old town, where restaurants line the water and fishing boats tie up between ventures into the Med.
A local resident recommended Le Porto Pollo. Here, we consumed 12 oysters, two bowls of fish soup, chèvre salad for two, and one-half bottle of dry rose from a regional vineyard. It was a fresh feast. With euros trading at about $1.35 at the time (they’re slightly less now), I figured we spent about $64 for a fine meal for two, with a view of the passing parade of walkers at the edge of a canal.
A table away, a local couple was celebrating with something in classic French style: a tier of 18 oysters, 12 shrimp and 18 sea snails (bulots) at about $40.
As an exciting port stop, the city of Messina, Sicily, is not much. From here, many cruise passengers choose a day tour to the delightful hill town of Taormina and/or to Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. On our latest visit, Fran and I were looking for a long walk and a quiet lunch beside the sea.
We turned right (west) at the dock and walked for an hour, stopping near the beach at Contemplazione. We were early for lunch, and the manager, at a simple open-air restaurant, spoke little English. But he understood what we wanted — big salads with arugula, cheese, prosciutto, and ripe tomatoes, with a plate of fresh bread from his bakery across the street.
Our lunch at Focacce, with two Messina beers and a small bottle of water, cost about $21.50. No extra charge for the delightful sea breeze and the view of the strait of Messina, between Sicily and the mainland of Italy. With the hour walk each way, and a quick stop on our return for gelato and Italian ice, a total of about $5, the trek was a big midday success.
Near the marina at the edge of downtown Reykjavik, Iceland, is a collection of small restaurants and shacks that seem to be full of locals at lunch, a good sign when looking for fresh fish.
At Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron), you enter across a porch with picnic tables, stand in line inside the shack to order a lunch such as fish skewers or lobster soup, then search for an empty chair at one of the group tables shoehorned into cramped quarters. Try the lobster soup, with peppers, celery and chunks of langoustine, which Icelanders call lobster. With crusty fresh baguette and butter for soup dipping, this is a rich, salty and delicious lunch for about $11.
Local atmosphere? The owner, a retired fisherman, sits in a chair at the edge of what passes for a dining room, not moving a muscle, apparently poised to fight a fire. I saw nary a twitch when one customer got close to his face for a picture, though she did heed the sign tacked to a post: “Please do not touch me. And do not sit on me please.” (saegreifinn.is)
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
In the shadows of Te Papa Tongarewa, which is New Zealand’s outstanding culture museum on the waterfront in Wellington, is Mac’s Brewbar, an indoor/outdoor cafe that serves plates of green-lipped mussels.
Part of the green-lipped hype is that these mussels contain fatty acids, one of which is said to assist in the repair of damaged joint tissues. My nonexpert opinion is that green-lipped mussels, like blueberries, may be very good for you, but I’ll eat plenty of them either way, simply for the taste.
At Mac’s Brewbar (www.macsbrewbar.co.nz), the mussels are steamed with garlic, onions, white wine and cream, served with fries and chunky Pandoro bread. A mussels lunch for two with two draft beers cost about $32.
Consider the price a discount because the Te Papa Tongarewa museum is free, one of the world’s better values for your time at a cruise ship port, especially one with as much rain as frequently falls in Wellington.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.