Viking sails to the heart of Portugal's food culture
PORTO, Portugal -- Chef Anthony Mauboussin is greeted like a rock star at Mercado do Bolhao in Porto's city centre.
Vendors call out to the chef in Portuguese as he moves through the market from fruit seller to sausage vendor to fishmonger, stopping to gently squeeze tomatoes, smell lemons, and sample tasty morsels of charcuterie.
After surveying the day's offerings, Mauboussin determines who he'll do business with that morning. He zeroes in on each chosen stall and kibitzes one on one with the vendor, who almost always throws in some extra goodies before the transaction is complete.
Curious shoppers watch as an entourage of about 12 people closely follows Mauboussin around the crowded market, listening intently to his every word, snapping photographs of olives, cheese and fish -- and sometimes clogging the narrow passageways inside the historic wrought iron building.
It's easy to imagine what the locals might be thinking: What is all this commotion? Who is that handsome young chef -- perhaps a star of food TV? Why the intense interest in this place, where generations of farmers have sold their goods since the mid-1800s. And, sigh, who ARE all those people getting in the way of our shopping?
With apologies to Porto shoppers, the over-enthusiastic visitors -- myself included -- are not culinary groupies or celebrity-chasing paparazzi.
Instead, we are travel writers sailing aboard the Viking Sea, which is visiting Porto that day. Mauboussin is Viking Cruises' culinary director, and he's leading our small group on a shore excursion that includes a market visit to select ingredients for a cooking class, followed by a wine-pairing dinner on board that night.
The Kitchen Table Experience happens once or twice per cruise and is part of Viking's philosophy of "cultural immersion" -- creating experiences that bring a sense of place aboard their ships.
When asked about his culinary approach for Viking Cruises, Mauboussin replies: "My philosophy is simple -- I hand-select only the highest quality ingredients from the best markets -- ones that support local farmers. Where possible, I use organic and sustainable products ... I cook everything with passion."
Before returning to the Viking Sea, Mauboussin turns us loose in the market to do our own shopping and noshing. We have enough time to check out the souvenir stalls, where the goods are reasonably priced, and inhale some pasteis de nata (Portugal's irresistible custard tarts) at one of several cafes on the main floor.
Back on board, we unfortunately have to skip the cooking part of the Kitchen Table Experience as a ship's tour has been arranged for our group. But we reconvene later in "The Kitchen," where the large square table is laden with local cheeses, olives and sausages purchased at the market.
Mauboussin and his team have prepared a Portuguese feast: Mariscada de Sesimbra (a seafood appetizer), Feijoada (a meat and bean stew) and not one but three yummy desserts -- the mandatory pasteis de nata, a port-wine chocolate cake, and some Bola de Berlim (handmade doughnuts).
Mauboussin says while each Kitchen Table Experience is delicious, each experience is also unique with differences dictated by the destination.
And as Porto is the epicentre of port-wine production, we end our evening with a glass of tawny port -- the perfect ending to a perfect day in Portugal with Viking Cruises.
KITCHEN TABLE EXPERIENCE
-- Held once or twice per cruise and with a pricetag of about $200 US per person, this outing is designed for foodies. The experience includes a market visit with a Viking chef, group cooking class and multi-course dinner with wine-pairings. Interested passengers should book early as the group size is limited and the excursion sells out fast.
From the rivers to the oceans
Fans of the uber-popular Downton Abbey, and anyone now tuning into Victoria -- the latest Masterpiece import airing on PBS -- will be very familiar with Viking River Cruises.
Thanks to its eye-candy advertising spots (who doesn't want to sail along the Danube into Budapest?) Viking has become the river cruise line best known to North Americans. Soon it may be the best known ocean cruise line, too.
According to the just-released Cruise Lines International Association report, cruising remains a bright spot in the travel industry with extremely healthy growth in passengers -- from 17.9 million in 2009 to a projected 25.3 million this year, and no signs of market saturation. Each year sees more ships, more ports, and a more diverse range of shore excursions added to cruise itineraries.
Historically, large cruise lines ruled the seas and smaller boutique lines controlled the rivers. But with so many potential new passengers up for grabs, traditional lines are blurring. Some large ship lines have launched river ships, and some river cruise lines now venture out to sea.
Still, I was somewhat surprised when venerable Viking launched its first ocean-going vessel -- Viking Star -- in 2015. So when asked to sail aboard their second ship -- Viking Sea -- I could not say no. (Since then, Viking has launched a third ocean ship -- Viking Star set sail this past week -- a fourth will sail in November and two new ships are planned for 2018 and 2019.)
Viking's river cruises are characterized by intimacy, bespoke service, passenger camaraderie, creative itineraries and the ability to bring passengers into the heart of small villages. I was intrigued to discover what kind of a spin they would put on an ocean voyage.
Happily, Viking has floated out its best traditions for its ocean journeys. Here are a few observations gleaned on my sailing from Lisbon to Le Havre, France:
-- Viking's ocean ships are almost identical with a capacity for about 930 guests each -- small by today's mega-ship standards but equipped with everything you would expect on a larger ship.
-- There is an emphasis on cuisine with multiple dining choices, including the World Cafe (buffet), The Restaurant (open seating main dining room), Manfredi's (specialty Italian), The Chef's Table (specialty fine dining), The Kitchen Table (test kitchen and dining area), the Pool Grill (casual meals), Mamsen's (light bites cafe named after Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen's mother) and more.
-- Instead of the over-the-top glitzy decor often found on superliners, Viking ships have sleek Scandinavian interiors with easy-on-the-eyes colour schemes -- lots of cool blues, greys, taupes, natural woods and touches that reflect Viking's Norwegian lineage.
-- Among the attractions on the Aquavit Terrace are a main pool area with retractable roof, a lovely leafy Wintergarden, where afternoon tea is served each day, and a glass-walled infinity pool with endless ocean views.
-- Public spaces are designed to maximize natural light, so when you curl up with a book and cosy throw near the "Living Room" fireplace, it really feels like a living room -- albeit a very large one with the full service Viking Bar nearby.
-- There are five different types of accommodation but passengers won't pay a cent extra for a veranda -- all of the staterooms have them.
-- The Spa has a full menu of soothing treatments plus the Scandinavian Snow Grotto, where guests can "chill out" for free.
-- The degree of "all inclusiveness" is impressive. Viking doesn't believe in "nickel and diming" guests so many things that other cruise lines charge extra for are included in Viking's basic fare: Beer, house wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner. One guided shore excursion in every port. Free WiFi. An on board "Culture Curriculum" that explores a destination through classes, music and other performances, art, cooking, history and cinema.
NEED TO KNOW
-- For more on Viking Ocean, contact vikingcruises.com or 1-855-707-4837.
-- Viking Sea is currently sailing in the Caribbean, round-trip from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The ship returns to European waters in the spring.
-- The typical Viking cruiser is an experienced traveller over 50 years of age with an interest in history, culture, food, and spirits.