Wining and dining has always played an important role in the enjoyment of any cruise, but these days our fascination with all things foodie is taking the experience to a whole new level. Whether you're a budding masterchef or just enjoy eating and drinking, shore tours that explore a destination's cuisine offer a delicious way to glean an insight into its history and culture.
Shopping at local markets with the ship's chef is much more fun – and educational – than schlepping around the supermarket at home. Market tours are often combined with preparing and cooking a gourmet meal with the ingredients you've bought, under the expert supervision of the ship's culinary team; it all adds up to a very palatable cultural and culinary lesson.
Other foodie forays might involve lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant, visiting producers of regional specialties for sampling sessions or tasting locally made wines and beers.
There is an incredible choice of culinary excursions in exciting ports around the world: here's a selection to whet your appetite.
CRUISE LINE: Celebrity Cruises
OUR PICK: Chef's Market Discoveries, Naples, Italy.
THE LOWDOWN: Enjoy a delicious day out with the Celebrity chef, who takes you on a spectacular trip along the Amalfi Coast. First stop is a local market in Sorrento, where you'll discover how Limoncello is made, and then you'll visit a family farm where mozzarella cheese and olive oil are produced. Naturally, lunch is involved, this one showcasing the region's pasta, fresh tomato, mozzarella, caciotta and caciocavallo cheeses. After a stroll around picturesque Positano's winding streets you'll finish the day back on the ship, tucking into an intimate chef-hosted dinner of Italian fare.
ESSENTIALS: Celebrity Reflection's 10-night Italy and Greek islands cruise, departing Rome September 29, 2017, includes this tour. Chef's Market Discoveries are available on nine Celebrity ships, including Celebrity Solstice (sailing from Australia, October 2017 to April 2018). $US199. See www.celebritycruises.com.au
CRUISE LINE: APT
OUR PICK: Luke Nguyen Signature Experiences, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
THE LOWDOWN: Popular Sydney-based television chef, author and restaurant owner Luke Nguyen leads a walking tour through the bustling streets of Old Saigon, where you can sample soup and noodles at roadside stalls, see where Nguyen's parents grew up and meet his extended family. Nguyen then shares the secrets of preparing some of his favourite Vietnamese dishes at his culinary school, GRAIN by Luke Nguyen. Top off an unforgettable day of meeting locals and learning about their cuisine with a pre-dinner cocktail, before heading to Xu Restaurant for a special Luke Nguyen-inspired degustation dinner with matching wines.
ESSENTIALS: Luke Nguyen escorts the 14-day Mekong river cruise for four days, in Ho Chi Minh City and onboard AmaLotus. Departures are July 28 and December 1, 2017, and August 2018. See www.aptouring.com
CRUISE LINE: Viking Ocean Cruises
OUR PICK: The Kitchen Table, Bergen, Norway
THE LOWDOWN: Viking's Kitchen Table experience in Bergen, at the heart of Norway's fjords, begins at the city's famous fish market. It is a short stroll from historic Bryggen Wharf, where the ship docks, and is thronged by locals as well as culturally curious visitors. Viking's executive chef shows you how to pick the best, freshest Norwegian seafood and back at the ship you will help prepare a three-course feast. Along with learning cooking techniques you'll observe the art of plating and presentation – then sit down with the culinary director to enjoy a fabulous dinner.
ESSENTIALS: Viking Sea, Sky, Star and Sun call at Bergen between April and September, 2018, and include this tour; Kitchen Table experiences are also offered in many other ports, for groups of 12. $US199. See www.vikingcruises.com.au
CRUISE LINE: Holland America Line
OUR PICK: A Taste of Juneau on Foot, Alaska
THE LOWDOWN: Walking around Alaska's capital city, taking in the waterfront scene and sampling regional specialities at different venues along the way, is a great introduction to the history and culture of America's 49th state. You'll enjoy Tracy's Crab Shack's award-winning crab bisque; visit Capital City Smoked Salmon to check out its range of Alaskan delicacies such as smoked salmon (of course), caviar and cured meats; and drop into V's Cellar Door to taste their famous halibut nachos. After lunching on locally caught fish at SALT, your tour finishes with a beer-tasting session at a historic bar.
ESSENTIALS: HAL has six ships visiting Juneau in 2017 and 2018, on a range of itineraries. The tour takes about 2½ hours; $US129.95. See www.hollandamerica.com
CRUISE LINE: RSSC, Seven Seas Explorer
OUR PICK: Gourmet Explorer Tour, Barcelona, Spain
THE LOWDOWN: The ship's Culinary Arts Kitchen chef-instructor Kelly takes you on an insider's tour of Barcelona's thriving food and wine scene, starting at the Boqueria and Santa Caterina markets to glean an insight into how the ingredients are used by Catalonia's top chefs. At Santa Caterina an olive oil master hosts a tasting in a private room and then you are taken to lunch at the two-star Michelin restaurant ABaC. A multi-course meal created by Chef Jordi is paired with specially selected wines. After lunch you have the chance to look around the kitchen, which was designed by one of Spain's top architects.
ESSENTIALS: Seven Seas Explorer visits Barcelona on a range of seven to 14-night itineraries between April and October 2017 and 2018. The tour takes about 6½ hours; $649. See www.rssc.com
CRUISE LINE: Azamara Club Cruises
OUR PICK: Old Town Walking Tour & Olive Oil Estate, Dubrovnik, Croatia
THE LOWDOWN: Following a leisurely guided walking tour of Dubrovnik's outstanding historic buildings – including the Franciscan church and monastery, Onofriou's fountain, Sponza Palace, Bell town and the Rector's Palace – you'll have free time before boarding a bus for the scenic drive to the village of Orasac. At the historic Dubelj family house on the olive oil estate you'll see how olive oil was produced in years gone by, when horses powered the mill. Your host will offer you a light snack including Dalmatian smoked ham, cheese, olives and wine, before you head back to the ship.
ESSENTIALS: Azamara Quest offers six cruises visiting Dubrovnik between July and October 2017 and six in 2018. $105. See www.azamaraclubcruises.com
FIVE ONBOARD TREATS
WATCH AND DINE
On HAL's newest ship, MS Koningsdam, the Culinary Arts Center turns into a restaurant for dinner. Watch the chefs prepare dishes that include fresh herbs and cress grown on site in a special glass incubator, chat with the executive chef, who presents the evening, and enjoy a carafe of organic wine with your meal. The emphasis is on vegetarian and organic produce and it's a relaxing, sociable evening. See www.hollandamerica.com
Oceania Cruises' two larger ships, Marina and Riviera, feature La Reserve by Wine Spectator, a venue that hosts expert-led seminars, tastings and gourmet food and wine pairing dinners. Three different menus are offered for the seven-course dinner: the Discovery and Odyssey menus are $146 a head and the Connoisseur option is $1254. A memorable culinary journey. See www.oceaniacruises.com
Celebrity Qsine is designed for sharing and comprises lots of small dishes, prepared and presented in surprising and imaginative ways. The menu samples cuisines from around the world and you order on an ipad, with the waiter contributing suggestions. Sample dishes include Sushi Lollipops, Popcorn Fish 'n' Chips, Lava Crab and Painter's Mignon. Available on select ships – a dream for Instagrammers. See www.celebritycruises.com.au
Chocolate and wine pairings in Vines wine bar, chocolate-based cocktails and chocolate spa treatments are among the sweet treats you can indulge in when you're on one of Princess Cruises' Chocolate Journeys. Famous US chocolatier Norman Love designed the program; his amazing desserts are on select main dining room menus and at specialty restaurants Sabatini's, Crown Grill, Sterling Steakhouse and the Chef's Table. See www.princess.com
Learn more about French cuisine in Scenic's new Culinaire centre, onboard its ships cruising in the Bordeaux region and on the Rhone river. Following a local market tour with the chef, instructors at Scenic Culinaire teach you how to prepare and cook regional French dishes from the destinations you visit. The centre is equipped with a wine and cheese cellar, cooking stations, and real-time camera and screen. See www.scenic.com.au