Cruises

Best cruising experiences may require pre-trip planning

View of the harbor at Portofino, Italy, from La Terrazza restaurant at Belmond Hotel Splendido.
View of the harbor at Portofino, Italy, from La Terrazza restaurant at Belmond Hotel Splendido. TheTravelMavens.com

Travelers booking a cruise typically spend lots of time deciding on a ship, cabin and itinerary, but often wait until boarding day to consider what they will do in various ports along the voyage. Yet planning ahead for port stops may yield one of the highlights of your cruise.

Here are some of my favorite cruise moments during 2015. Most were off the ship, involved eating, and were the result of significant planning using the Internet. Nearly every destination, attraction and restaurant, all over the world, has a website or is linked to one (right click on foreign sites to translate languages). Consider reviews from other travelers, but be careful because some reviewers are paid for their positive comments.

Best eating experiences: Israel, Italy, Romania

▪ Dr. Shakshuka, Beit Eshel St 3, Tel Aviv-Yafo (http://shakshuka.rest.co.il)

At the recommendation of a tour guide in Israel, and backed up by reviews on the Internet, my wife, writer Fran Golden, and I stopped for lunch at Dr. Shakshuka in Jaffa (Yafo), the ancient port out of which Tel Aviv has grown. On a port excursion from Haifa, off Silversea Cruises’ Silver Spirit, we were delighted by this cool, welcoming, inexpensive restaurant known for its kosher Libyan dish of tomatoes, mushrooms, onion and eggs. Shakshuka (with or without meat) is being “discovered” in the United States, and now is on our home cooking list. (You will need cumin, paprika and cayenne.)

▪ La Terrazza, Belmond Hotel Splendido, Portofino, Italy; (www.belmond.com/hotel-splendido-portofino)

High on a hill, overlooking Portofino, one of the most beautiful harbors on the Mediterranean Sea, sits an outdoor restaurant that will knock your socks off — for the Italian food, the flowers, and that amazing view. Like everything else in this port that is mostly a playground for wealthy yachters, the Splendido is extravagantly expensive. Your lunch (loved the bruschetta, focaccia, white wine, pasta with pesto, and olive oil sorbet with puff pastry) easily could cost you $100 each.

We had tendered from the Star Breeze of Windstar Cruises to the Portofino port, as only the smaller, private yachts can squeeze into the harbor. If your ship anchors off Portofino, at least make the trek or taxi for a beverage at the Belmond Splendido, one of the world’s more famous hotels — and justifiably so.

▪ Beca’s Kitchen, Strada Mihai Eminescu 80, Sector 2, Bucharest, Romania (www.becaskitchen.ro)

The small dining room on a side street in downtown Bucharest was an easy walk from the Howard Johnson Grand Plaza hotel where Emerald Waterways passengers stay overnight on either end of their one-week Lower Danube River cruise, which starts or ends in Budapest, Hungary. Typically on river cruise itineraries, passengers have an evening dinner on their own at the beginning or end of the trip. We wanted a quiet, local Romanian restaurant, not too expensive. On the Internet at home, my wife found this perfect bistro.

Andreea Beca, owner and chef, is from Transylvania. Graciously, she made suggestions for dinner, and we followed them — shrimp in white wine sauce with fresh vegetables, garlic spinach soup, and fresh rhubarb pie with vanilla cream — all of them a treat. Our meal, with a glass of wine, was less than $20 each (bring local currency as U.S. credit cards often won’t work in Romania). For reservations: home@becaskitchen.ro.

Sweetest, noisiest meal (with the children): aboard Carnival Cruise Line

The Green Eggs and Ham breakfast with Dr. Seuss characters — you know, Cat in the Hat and Thing — is a special occasion aboard Carnival Cruise Line ships. Make a reservation if your cruise group includes children or grandchildren, or you just like to observe little darlings on a sugar high.

Children seemed to have little concern about digging into mounds of Fruit-Loops-encrusted French toast and scoops of green eggs, squealing with delight as costumed characters wandered by to say hello and chat at each table.

Adults are not doomed to the sugary, starchy menu from the fictional children’s book, as there are more nutritional choices, without food coloring, and plenty of coffee. Book ahead, or as soon as you board, as breakfast reservations fill up. (Special fee for Seuss breakfast is $5 for each member of your group).

Best learning experience: with a headhunter on the island of Borneo in Malaysia

“Nature provides so many answers, if only we would pay attention,” said James, a hunter-gatherer, nature guide, mentor for coddled children, filmmaker, philosopher, teacher, and member of Borneo’s Headhunter Tribe (which hasn’t sliced off a human head in more than 50 years).

James, 53, was my guide off Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony on a shore excursion nature walk that I highly recommend, if your ship calls on the Malaysian Borneo Island port of Kota Kinabalu, Saba. James made my day with his tales of hunting with a blow gun and his knowledge of the forest.

“We have 53 kinds of oak trees,” he said, “one with acorns as big as a baseball.” He pointed out tea leaves used for soaking and cleansing smelly feet, other leaves and barks with medicinal uses that were handed down orally through the centuries from family to family, among tribes that thrived in the deep woods of Borneo, far away from modern styles of living. “Nature is a great teacher,” he said.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.

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