We Tried It! Windstar Cruises’ Culinary Sailings

by Sherri Eisenberg

We Tried It! Windstar Cruises’ Culinary Sailings

by Sherri Eisenberg
We Tried It!

As soon as we heard that Windstar Cruises was partnering with the James Beard Foundation we were hooked. The New York-based non-profit is a favorite of ours: it celebrates chefs, and even serves as a theater of sorts for restaurants; most nights of the week, a chef from another part of the country is showcasing their work and cooking their hearts out in the brownstone’s open kitchen. So a sailing that partners a small-ship cruise line with an important food foundation? Finally, perhaps, we would find a cruise designed for true food lovers. We couldn’t wait to hop onboard and see for ourselves, so we boarded an August cruise from Dublin to Lisbon to get the scoop.

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Star Legend going under London's Tower Bridge / Windstar Cruises
Chef Hugh Acheson
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What It's Like

Our cruise, the line’s signature “Epicurean Sailing,” set sail with James Beard Award-winner Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of several restaurants in Atlanta and Savannah, and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He brought along a sous chef and his wine director and head sommelier, Steven Grubbs. We were excited, not just because we’re “Top Chef” fans, but also because the James Beard Awards are a bit like the Oscars of the food world — Acheson won the Best Chef: Southeast award in 2012, which is a big deal.

Throughout the cruise, which included stops in France, Spain, and Portugal on the 212-passenger Star Legend, we got a chance to see three cooking demonstrations by Acheson and participate in three wine tastings with Grubbs.

Acheson is at his best, and a real natural, when he’s cooking in front of a crowd — smart, funny, and knowledgeable. (Case in point: A passenger asked if the olive oil he was using was virgin, and Acheson quipped “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to this one, but it looks virginal.”) He also gave excellent tips. As he poached eggs to top his Lyonnaise salad, he added that they poach better if you slide them into the water from a ramekin rather than from the shell. With just a couple hundred passengers and plenty of other distractions onboard (spa treatments, an open gym, a sunny pool deck) not every passenger came to every demo, so each felt like an intimate, special experience.

Grubbs, too, made his wine tastings educational as well as relatable, with down-to-earth descriptions and plenty of pairing advice. The obvious friendship between Grubbs and Acheson charmed the crowd, as did the wines themselves — which included a variety of pricier local wines, and even Normandy cider on the day we docked in St. Malo.

The market tour in La Rochelle was led by the line’s executive chef Graeme Cockburn, who was trailed by several people from the kitchen staff, one carrying cash and the other a cart in which to whisk the purchases back to the ship. As we wandered through the beautiful open-air market, Cockburn dazzled passengers with his knowledge of the ingredients, picking up strawberries, tomatoes, oysters, truffled brie, charcuterie, and even chocolate-dipped handmade marshmallows. The whole group had generous tastings of each ingredient, and the rest was brought back to the ship. Onboard, the tomatoes made their way into a soup, the brie onto the evening’s cheese tray, the cured meats and pâté onto the next day’s lunch buffet, and the marshmallows onto a dessert buffet on deck, surrounded by house-made macaroons.

In the Spanish port of El Ferrol, both Cockburn and Acheson led market tours. We felt lucky to end up on Acheson’s, but it was hard to deny the allure of Cockburn’s love of storytelling and educating passengers about food. A third group’s leader bought wine, chorizo, and manchego, and we all drifted in and out of their little party for tastings, too, before picking out our own food souvenirs for later.

Our cruise, the line’s signature “Epicurean Sailing,” set sail with James Beard Award-winner Hugh Acheson, chef and owner of several restaurants in Atlanta and Savannah, and a judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” He brought along a sous chef and his wine director and head sommelier, Steven Grubbs. We were excited, not just because we’re “Top Chef” fans, but also because the James Beard Awards are a bit like the Oscars of the food world — Acheson won the Best Chef: Southeast award in 2012, which is a big deal.

Throughout the cruise, which included stops in France, Spain, and Portugal on the 212-passenger Star Legend, we got a chance to see three cooking demonstrations by Acheson and participate in three wine tastings with Grubbs.

Acheson is at his best, and a real natural, when he’s cooking in front of a crowd — smart, funny, and knowledgeable. (Case in point: A passenger asked if the olive oil he was using was virgin, and Acheson quipped “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to this one, but it looks virginal.”) He also gave excellent tips. As he poached eggs to top his Lyonnaise salad, he added that they poach better if you slide them into the water from a ramekin rather than from the shell. With just a couple hundred passengers and plenty of other distractions onboard (spa treatments, an open gym, a sunny pool deck) not every passenger came to every demo, so each felt like an intimate, special experience.

Grubbs, too, made his wine tastings educational as well as relatable, with down-to-earth descriptions and plenty of pairing advice. The obvious friendship between Grubbs and Acheson charmed the crowd, as did the wines themselves — which included a variety of pricier local wines, and even Normandy cider on the day we docked in St. Malo.

The market tour in La Rochelle was led by the line’s executive chef Graeme Cockburn, who was trailed by several people from the kitchen staff, one carrying cash and the other a cart in which to whisk the purchases back to the ship. As we wandered through the beautiful open-air market, Cockburn dazzled passengers with his knowledge of the ingredients, picking up strawberries, tomatoes, oysters, truffled brie, charcuterie, and even chocolate-dipped handmade marshmallows. The whole group had generous tastings of each ingredient, and the rest was brought back to the ship. Onboard, the tomatoes made their way into a soup, the brie onto the evening’s cheese tray, the cured meats and pâté onto the next day’s lunch buffet, and the marshmallows onto a dessert buffet on deck, surrounded by house-made macaroons.

In the Spanish port of El Ferrol, both Cockburn and Acheson led market tours. We felt lucky to end up on Acheson’s, but it was hard to deny the allure of Cockburn’s love of storytelling and educating passengers about food. A third group’s leader bought wine, chorizo, and manchego, and we all drifted in and out of their little party for tastings, too, before picking out our own food souvenirs for later.

A James Beard wine tasting
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The Details

Cruises like this one cost approximately 20 percent more than regular Windstar sailings, but it included three celebrity chef cooking demonstrations, three wine pairings, chef-led market tours, and a dinner in which the crew prepared all of the dishes that Acheson demonstrated onboard. The dishes — including a Lyonnaise-style salad and a cod with chorizo — tasted as good as they looked.

Cruises like this one cost approximately 20 percent more than regular Windstar sailings, but it included three celebrity chef cooking demonstrations, three wine pairings, chef-led market tours, and a dinner in which the crew prepared all of the dishes that Acheson demonstrated onboard. The dishes — including a Lyonnaise-style salad and a cod with chorizo — tasted as good as they looked.

Shrimp entree
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The Verdict

There are two types of theme cruises: ones offered by the line with added special events, and ones chartered and fully catered to a specific type of passenger. These cruises are the former. And these “Epicurean Sailings” are just right for cruisers who are a fit for the Windstar style of cruising (check out our reviews here if you haven’t sailed before) and also consider themselves food lovers. The James Beard events are really offered in addition to the regular sailing, rather than the foundation fully taking over the ship. That said, the itineraries they choose to offer these on tend to be food-driven anyway, and our cruise through France, Spain, and Portugal included many food-filled ports. (We loved eating oysters on the shore in Cancale and trying Port wine in Porto.) Next year, the line expects to offer six similar sailings, one every other month.

There are two types of theme cruises: ones offered by the line with added special events, and ones chartered and fully catered to a specific type of passenger. These cruises are the former. And these “Epicurean Sailings” are just right for cruisers who are a fit for the Windstar style of cruising (check out our reviews here if you haven’t sailed before) and also consider themselves food lovers. The James Beard events are really offered in addition to the regular sailing, rather than the foundation fully taking over the ship. That said, the itineraries they choose to offer these on tend to be food-driven anyway, and our cruise through France, Spain, and Portugal included many food-filled ports. (We loved eating oysters on the shore in Cancale and trying Port wine in Porto.) Next year, the line expects to offer six similar sailings, one every other month.

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