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I like to save my marriage about once a year. Sometimes twice. I do this by first declaring it in trouble, then devising a romantic, food-oriented holiday that will Bring Us Back Together.
Last year, we flew to London, then on to Paris, Athens, Rhodes and Istanbul, with stopovers in Singapore. Exciting, yes, but the reality was a never-ending process of packing, unpacking, airports, hotels, check-ins and check-outs. We felt forever unprepared, caught on the back foot.
So this year, we are embarking on a cruise. Not just any cruise, but Oceania Cruises' mid-size "upper premium" cruise ship, MV Marina, as it zig-zags its way over an eight-day Spirit of Spain itinerary, from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, Cartagena, Gibraltar, Casablanca, Cadiz and Lisbon.
Not only does this mean no packing/unpacking, no customs and no stress, the ports of call are music to a foodie's ears, and we've heard the Marina has a strong focus on food and wine. Which is great, because so have we.
The aim is to wander off the ship at 8am every morning into another gorgeous southern Spanish town, walk around all day following our noses to markets and galleries, coffee shops and museums, then get back to the ship by 6pm to collapse on our private balcony with a glass of wine before dinner. I'm thinking that would be good for any relationship, much less one that isn't really in trouble.
I like it. It's small enough (66,084 tonnes, for boffins) to get into ports the large luxury liners can't get near, yet big enough to have 11 decks, eight different restaurants, four bars, a swimming pool, a magnificent Lalique staircase and lots of things to explore. Like a beautiful library with 2000 books that rewards random visitations; a cafe overlooking the pool with Illy espresso coffee (at no extra charge) and an entire, separate sun-deck complete with whirlpool that I don't even find until the second last day. There is even a state-of-the-art Culinary Centre in which fully trained chefs conduct cookery classes designed to tie in with the ports of call. It's also a rather beautiful ship; very sleek, gleamy-white and modern. When you slide into your mooring at some exotic new port, it's important, I feel, that you give as good as you get.
Sorry, make that ''stateroom". It's adorable. The full queen-size bed is deliciously comfortable, there is little engine noise, and having a private balcony (at veranda and concierge levels) means you can leave the door open to see and hear the ocean at any time. There's a minibar, couch, desk, flat-screen television , and – get this – a full-size bath tub and separate shower in the over-sized marble and granite bathroom.
Concierge level guests get their own lounge that's like a frequent flyer club with television, magazines, tea and coffee and concierge service, but in truth, you don't need it. Room service is included in the fare, 24 hours a day, so you can get that all-important morning cup of tea, breakfast in bed or late night mug of hot chocolate to your door, at no charge.
THE PORTS OF CALL
Like any long-married couple, we achieve a happy consensus through disagreement.
In Barcelona, I want to do a tour of Gaudi's La Pedrera, and he wants to tour the menu at hot chef Carles Abellan's buzzy basement Tapas 24. The Gaudi is inspirational – but then, so is Abellan's sophisticated/casual food, from the "bomba", a deep-fried ball of mashed potato covered meat stew, to the paprika-dusted octopus with warm potatoes.
In Malaga, the birthplace of Picasso, he insists on going straight to the historic Atarazanas fresh food market, while I hold out for the charming, almost calming, Picasso Museum in the Palacio de Buenavista. We both get to walk from one to the other, collapse at the historic El Pimpi bar for a cold beer in the sun, then hit up Malaga's beautiful old-school restaurant, El Refectorium, for revueltos esparrago (scrambled eggs with asparagus) and gambas (baby prawns).
"This is like having six different holidays in six different cities," says Terry at breakfast as we cruise into the deep-water Murcian port of Cartagena. After breakfast, I drag him down the gangplank to see the extraordinarily well-preserved Roman amphitheatre, then he revives us both by finding a family-run restaurant that does little more than deep-fried fish and local wine.
Three shore excursions are included in the fare, necessitating more marital debate. Our best is in Cadiz, a Moorish city built on a thin strip of land pointing into the Atlantic Ocean like a finger. Most passengers head off to nearby Seville, but I talk Terry into joining me on a bus trip to see the training grounds of the famous dancing horses of Andalusia in the historic town of Jerez. Talk about win/win. I indulge my inner young-girl-with-a-pony and he scores the accompanying sherry tasting and tour of the atmospheric Gonzales Byass winery.
That is soon balanced out by dud shore excursions in Gibraltar (it's a big rock), and Casablanca (it was closed), but you have to take the rough with the smooth on a cruise.
And by the time we get to Lisbon, we take the screechy little tram to the famous Cervejaria Ramiro to feast on just-cooked crab and drink lots of vinho verde; having agreed what to do without a single argument. Remarkable.
Well, this is fun. There are eight restaurants on board, and it's an eight-day cruise. There's not even the usual surcharge to dine in the "gourmet" restaurants (Jacques, Red Ginger, Polo Grill and Toscana), although it pays to make your reservations early if you want to dine a deux. As we discover, however, sharing tables can be just as much fun (hellooo, Jan and Terry from Woy Woy!).
So, one night, we dress for dinner in the vast and perfectly named Grand Dining Room for cheese souffle, steak frite, and osso buco. The next, we're sharing a table at the handsomely warm and woody Polo Grill, Oceania Marina's version of a classic steakhouse; eating prime beef rib, dry-aged for 28 days, and a killer kobe burger with parmesan foam.
The restaurant we look forward to most is Jacques, with its luxe French bistro menu of foie gras terrine, rotisserie chicken and French cheeses overseen by the renowned Jacques Pepin, but while pleasant, it fails to rock our boat.
In contrast, the high-end Toscana hums with soft-cushioned Italian hospitality, thanks to Bruno the highly polished maitre d', who brings an expansive extra virgin olive oil menu and platters of tagliolini freschi all'aragosta, chockers with Florida lobster tail.
The new baby on board is Red Ginger, a glamorous black-and-crimson modern Asian that offers – along with your choice of chopsticks from a wooden chest – lobster pad Thai and a great Thai red chicken curry.
Being plebs at heart, however, our favourite place to dine ends up being the Terrace Cafe for its shaded teak tables on a terrace open to the sea, cleverly orchestrated and constantly replenished buffet, cheery food servers, and go-to evening sushi, simple grills, and gelato bar. Sometimes the hardest thing to get on a cruise ship is exactly what you want, and not what they think you want.
There are 20 sommeliers on board the Oceania Marina, and we make it our mission to give them all a work-out. An unexpected glitch occurs – there's an extra 10 per cent VAT whacked on wine by the Spanish Government within 12 nautical miles of the Spanish coast. Uh oh. The way we drink, that could break the bank. But Oceania Marina offer a wine-by-the-bottle package (seven bottles at $US47.50 each) so we manage to get by without dipping too far into the kids' inheritance.
Unlike many ships, Marina lets you take your own wine on board for those balcony sunset sessions, or you can BYO to a restaurant for a fee of $25. You can also have your unfinished bottle follow you from one restaurant to another – not an issue in our case. Then there's the clubby, wine-lined La Reserve restaurant, where America's Wine Spectator magazine curates wine seminars, tastings and seven-course gourmet dinners paired with premium wines. Great for others, but not for a couple of food writers who pretty much do that for a living.
The very first day on board, I see a silver-haired sixty-something couple sneaking into their cabin a few doors down from ours, bottle of champagne under one arm. Giggling.
It is the perfect reminder of why we are here.
Every time a door opens, a dolled-up couple comes out, off to try a new restaurant or to head to the pool, closely followed by a cocktail waiter with a tray. There are couples having coffee together, couples in the spa together, couples in the jacuzzi pools, couples playing table tennis. It's like The Love Boat, 40 years on. When you consider the amount of time the average couple spend worrying about the kids, the business and the strange noise the clothes dryer is making ( an average of 5000 hours a year, by nobody's official reckoning) it's actually very sweet to see a shipload of grown-ups wagging school. Married and harried? All you need is a big dose of Vitamin Sea.
THE FELLOW PASSENGERS
It certainly doesn't feel as if there are 1258 passengers and 800 staff on board, but then, there are plenty of places for them all to hide. Most are American, European, British, Asian and Australian, "of a certain age'', well-travelled and mindful of cholesterol.
Glenn and Sylvie from Ottawa are celebrating their 30th anniversary. Terry and Jan from Woy Woy (hello, again!) pick up a cruise every year at the end of a European road trip with their family. There are also lots of girlfriends travelling together and mother/daughter couples. Gail and Kathy, who went to school together in Germany and now live at opposite ends of the United States, join up for a different itinerary on the Marina or its sister ship the Riviera, every year. "We like the food, and the service," says Kathy. "And they don't nickel-and-dime you for every single thing. You want a cold drink, they just give it to you; it's all included."
There are no kids on board, and no ancients, either. We love you, revered elderly, but we do not want to be the only people on a cruise without a portable oxygen tank.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE – OR LESS
For some, cruising is all about the life on board. For us, it's more about the destinations, so there is no time for lolling about in the luxurious Canyon Ranch Spa Club, and no need to do any core/spin fitness classes. We don't bother the expensive duty-free shops, forget there is an onboard casino, and find the deeply satisfying sleep you get on a ship far more compelling than the nightly cabaret productions and entertainment. I know, married, right? One thing we did do is a two-hour fish cookery course in the Culinary Centre, which turned out to be loads of fun, mainly because neither of us had to do the dishes.
WELL, DID IT WORK?
Of course it did. But funnily enough, it wasn't the romance of cruising, the quality of the food and wine or the magical ports of call across southern Spain that meant we had such a good time. It was just – time.
Time on board spent reading books, gazing out over the sapphire waves, and clinking glasses over caviar and buckwheat blinis. And time on shore, strolling past ancient treasures on the way to a morning coffee, getting lost in shady alleyways, seeking the cloistered coolness of cathedrals. And then turning back to the port and seeing our lovely ship waiting to welcome us back for the next exciting adventure. Marriage, saved.
Itineraries for Oceania Marina include Mediterranean Masterpiece, from Rome to Barcelona, May 11-21, 2017 (from $2850 a person); Scandinavian Treasures, from Stockholm to Copenhagen, June 19-29, 2017 (from $3420 a person); and Wineries @ Wonders, from Barcelona to Southhampton,May 21-June 2, 2017 (from $5310 a person)
Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack travelled courtesy of Oceania Cruises.
Barcelona to Lisbon: Where to dine on dry land, by Terry Durack
Even with eight restaurants on board ship, there is great joy to be had in exploring the local ports by day for a taste of the local food and wine. The pickings are rich along the coastal cities of Spain and Portugal, where the number of people packed happily into the bar is more important than the Michelin star count.
Bodega 1900, Barcelona
Albert and Ferran Adria of El Bulli fame have created a deeply charming homage to the traditional vermouth bars of their parents' day, as part of their growing restaurant empire in this once-unfashionable Barcelona suburb. Book ahead, for the house-made vermouth, Iberico ham, sauteed razor clams and pop-in-the-mouth spherical green olives. bodega1900.com.
Tapas 24, Barcelona
Just off the graceful Passeig de Gracia, this tiny basement tapas bar is hot, hot, hot. The brainchild of clever Barcelona chef, Carles Abellan, it puts out an all-day parade of genius snacks such as truffle sandwiches with mozzarella and Iberico ham, McFoie burgers and chocolate mousse on toast with olive oil and salt. carlesabellan.com.
La Taberna de la Boveda, Palma de Majorca
You've done your market tour and gawped at the sardines, tiny fish and fresh cheeses. Now you can eat them perched at a wine barrel or up at the bar at this old-school neighbourhood favourite in the Old City near the vast La Seu cathedral, as the local cop comes in for a glass of wine and the waiter hand-carves Iberico ham at the bar. tabernadelaboveda.com.
El Refectorium, Malaga
Malaga stole my heart with its tree-lined roads, rather jolly cathedral, brilliant markets, modernismo art galleries – and this fine old-school restaurant next to the city bull ring. The bar is packed five-deep with locals, and the dining room offers a very civilised way to eat your way through flash-cooked local seafood, slow-cooked rice dishes and lamb cutlets hot off the grill. elrefectorium.net.
El Faro de Cadiz, Cadiz
Combining a traditional tapas bar with a proper restaurant, El Faro serves up great seafood – and this is a great seafood town. Try the shellfish meatballs with fino sherry and cockles, scorpion fish pate and shrimp fritters with a glass or two of the local Manzanilla. elfarodecadiz.com.
Bairro do Avillez, Lisbon
With seven restaurants to his name, Jose Avillez is the pin-up boy of Lisbon dining, and for good reason. His Bairro is a food store, gourmet gift shop and taverna all rolled into one smart, buzzy space. Not to be missed: suckling pig sandwich, horse mackerel tartare and spicy fried pork skin popcorn. joseavillez.pt/en/bairro-do-avillez.
Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon
Ramiro has been serving up Lisbon's best shellfish and coldest beers since 1956. Hence the queues out the door (go early), and the long trestle tables packed with locals and tourists alike. Clams in garlic and white wine, grilled king tiger prawns and percebes (goose-necked barnacles) are must-orders. cervejariaramiro.pt.