I don't know what I'm thinking, wearing white pants to a wine-tasting and mixing session. But then I don't really know what awaits me at Blend, a new low-key, high-brow attraction aboard the Koningsdam cruise ship.
When I arrive at the deck 2 room, an array of five rather large glasses is lined up for me and my companions. It seems the eight of us are going to learn how to blend our own bottle of red wine.
There's no time to nip back and change as sommelier Vladimir from Serbia begins his talk on just how this will be done.
Everyone is excited, especially me, who loves red wine but I have the odd reservation, as I prefer the experts to do the wine-making.
Ship life is full of fun, of course; I've participated in cooking classes, cocktail-concocting sessions and even gin-juggling events – we didn't juggle, I just love alliteration. What we did was choose certain botanicals and worked out what tasted best on our palates.
But wine-blending is a new one and Koningsdam is the only Holland America Line (HAL) ship to offer it.
In front of us are wines from the Chateau Ste Michelle range, the oldest winery in Washington State. They are two merlots, two cabernet sauvignons and a cabernet franc from their Canoe Ridge Estate and Cold Creek vineyards, none of which are familiar to us.
Vladimir talks us through each, offering tasting notes, and asks us to rank the wines from one to five.
I love the Cold Creek Merlot, followed by their Cabernet Franc but am not fussed by the Canoe Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, which others seem to love.
The next step is to take a glass pipette marked in millilitres and (cautiously) approach five barrels of wine, each also marked from one to five.
We can go as crazy as we like, adding as much or as little wine or none at all from each barrel to the pipettes. When seated and with a steady hand we transfer this into a clean glass and taste our new "blend". We can do this as many times as we like until we get the perfect blend, but I am content with two attempts, which in the end is comprised mainly of the Cold Creek Merlot and Cabernet Franc and a 10 per cent dollop of two others.
Everyone's final blend is different and off we trot with our full bottle, topped with a glass stopper, for later consumption. While my place at the table is awash with red splotches, my trousers come off unscathed.
Koningsdam is HAL's latest ship, launched in April 2016, and the first in the new Pinnacle Class. Having previously cruised on two fleet mates, this is a huge step up for the line and their best ship in recent years. Late next year Koningsdam (which means "king") will be joined by a sister, Nieuw Statendam, an identical sibling that promises a new restaurant, the details of which are under wraps.
In a world where ships just keep getting bigger, Holland America thankfully still builds mid-range ships – Koningsdam is 95,000 gross tons and carries 2650 passengers. With 11 eateries, nine bars and a half a dozen places to groove or wile the night away, my fellow cruisers seem to easily disappear into all these spaces.
I am keen to check out BB King's Blues Club – the performers are direct from Beale Street Memphis – as I heard about it when first introduced on other ships. However, it turns out that my evening's entertainment will be torn between three great nightspots along the Music Walk – an "avenue" of music hangouts.
As all three are located on deck 2 and an easy amble from the main dining room and bars – including a new whiskey tasting joint, Notes – I decide it's best to go with the flow, taking in chamber music at the Lincoln Centre Stage, dancing at BB King's and pulling up a barstool at the always-buzzing Billboard Onboard (aka the piano bar). This venue has been a popular nightspot for HAL for years, but Koningsdam's offering almost doubles the space and has two pianos where pianists work in unison rather than "duel" and the audience, this time, is made up of an array of ages including a fair sprinkling of young teens sipping on soft drinks and waiting for their favourite Ed Sheeran song to pop up.
It doesn't take long to work out Koningsdam has a music theme; among its 1920 artworks there are silver double basses positioned in foyers and an exquisite galleon crafted onto a large violin in a glass case, while the most expensive installation, the $600,000 Harps, is an array of criss-crossed steel bands (presumably strings) strewn across the atrium.
Koningsdam is certainly elegant – I am impressed with my classy and streamlined cabin on Gershwin deck – but I discover the ship is also equipped with the latest technology.
Most of the advances are of the nautical, behind-the-scenes kind, with Captain Emile DeVries divulging that 80 per cent of the maritime technology is new and took the crew a year to learn how to operate.
Passengers are treated to some of these innovations, the most amazing of which is the BBC Earth Experiences show, held in the World Stage theatre, complete with three two-storey-high 270-degree LED screens positioned behind the stage. On these screens is projected BBC's Frozen Planet Live, a dazzling one-hour documentary accompanied by a classical music score performed by the ship's orchestra. It is the best show I've seen on a ship and I'm mesmerised.
BBC's Earth Experiences, whose documentaries also include Alaska, is also on several other HAL ships, but not on this epic scale.
Along with the whiz-bang features are several new dining concepts, including HAL's take on the popular farm-to-table movement where super-fresh food (usually grown on the premises) is served. While Koningsdam can't exactly farm its own produce at sea, it does grow its own micro herbs on board and uses them in the dishes served at dinner in the Culinary Arts Centre. This venue is on all HAL ships, but only operates as a cooking school.
On Koningsdam the chefs don the aprons and create what they call "simple artisanal dishes", while passengers sit back, watch them on video screens and tuck into terrific food. The five-course menu changes weekly and during my cruise we sample the "Basil" menu, which at $US20 ($25) or $US39 with red and white wine, is a steal.
Also new is Sel de Mer (sea salt), a French restaurant where seafood is the theme. Perusing the a la carte menu I dither over ordering the melt-in-your mouth table-side filleted Dover sole ($US24) or the bouillabaisse ($US19), however, as it is a cruise I decide to go the whole hog (or le cochin) and have both.
I also can't decide whether this beautiful eatery or the Tamarind, which serves Pan-Asian dishes, is my favourite of the five speciality restaurants on the ship. All attract an extra fee, but it's very affordable and worth booking a couple of them, if not all five.
Tamarind's five-course menu ($US25) comes with the added extra of a sensational view over the ship's wake from a dizzy location on deck 10.
Koningsdam is a stunning ship and when you add an itinerary along the southern Norway coast that begins and ends in funky Amsterdam, it's the perfect antidote to an Australian winter. We visit Oslo where I choose a biking tour, Kristiansand, where I board a motor board to explore a coastline speckled with islands and cute timber holiday homes, while Stavanger is the biggest surprise of all. I expect an industrial town as this was where was discovered in 1969, but find that its historic centre of cobblestone streets edged by white-washed houses and smart shops, is a gem. Flam is beautiful, squeezed between mountains at the end of the stunning 200-kilometre Sognefjord, Norway's longest fiord. However, I wish I'd taken the train ride through the mountains rather than attempt sea kayaking, a trip where I constantly follow in the wake of every other paddler! Post-kayak craft beers in Flam's mock-Viking pub are pretty good though.
Caroline Gladstone travelled as a guest of Holland America Line.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO ASHORE IN NORWAY
1. Visit Oslo's Viking Ships Museum, Kon Tiki Museum and Fram Museum, the latter showcasing polar exploration. The ship has a shore excursion or you can do it yourself by taking a ferry to all three from Pier 3, near the City Hall, a short walk from the cruise terminal.
2. Oslo's not-to-be-missed sight is Frogner Park and its 212 bronze and granite naked statues by sculptor Gustav Vigeland, created between 1924 and 1943. Join one of the ship's tours or hire and bike and cycle there – it's about 20 minutes away from the port.
3. Board the Flam Railway at the station right near the cruise terminal. The 20.2 kilometre journey cuts through mountains and past waterfalls and chugs through 20 tunnels. Billed as the most beautiful train journey in the world, it naturally books out quickly.
4. While in Stavanger take a tour or a local bus to the evocative Swords in the Rock memorial where three 10-metre-high bronze swords commemorate the victory of King Harald, the fair-headed, over his princely rivals in AD852. The oil museum is fascinating too.
5. A visit to pretty Lillesand, 30 minutes from Kristiansand is a must for its idyllic harbour location and dramatic coastline.
Airlines including Cathay Pacific, Etihad and Qantas/British Airways fly to Amsterdam from Sydney and Melbourne. Fares start at about $1540 return in May 2018.
Cathay Pacific, see cathaypacific.com
Etihad, see etihad.com
Qantas, see qantas.com
British Airways, see britishairways.com
Koningsdam cruises the Caribbean from October to March and repositions to Europe in April to cruise the Mediterranean and the Baltic regions. The ship offers cruises in Norway from May to August 2018; some also visit Iceland and the Baltic States.
A seven-night return trip visiting four Norway ports from Amsterdam, departing May 13, 2018, costs from $1599 a person twin share.
A 14-night return cruise from Amsterdam visiting Norway, Scotland and Iceland departs August 5, 2018; costs from $3699 a person twin share.
EAT & DRINK
A five-specialty restaurant package costs $US119 (about $150); a session at Blend is $US79 (about $100).