Mission accepted: A cruise ship puts Ray McVinnie in his place
They wanted a food person to travel on the Celebrity Reflection on a 10-day cruise — leaving from Rome, stopping off along the western side of Italy, across the south of France, and down the eastern side of Spain then back to Rome — and to report on the food on board.
Having never been on a cruise ship before, I gladly accepted for the mission. The misanthropic side of my nature did make a brief early appearance as I was slightly dubious about life on a cruise ship. I had the idea it could be a dull regimented life of semi-captivity with me being obliged to join in shipboard activities I would never participate in on land and talk to a lot of people I would generally avoid.
I can categorically state that I was not forced or even made to feel obliged to do anything, and avoiding people was no problem. I was, I confess, what many would think of as the “loser on the table for one”, but I have never had a problem with dining alone and was not forced to share a table at any time (although I always seemed to strike up conversations with my dining neighbours).
By the end of the cruise I was a convert and could see, had I some family and friends with me to enjoy what the ship had to offer, it would be a perfect holiday rather than just my anthropological exploration of life on a cruise.
For anyone familiar with a cruise ship, my observations are probably nothing new, but as a first-time passenger I was fascinated. The Celebrity Reflection takes about 3000 passengers with a crew of about 1500. The passenger demographic was everything from families with small children to seniors. There was a mix of Italians, Spanish, American and English, Australians and a few others.
You generally sail at night and early every morning there is a magical entry into a new port. The light and landscape viewed from my balcony as the ship glided in at dawn in fine weather was never anything but stunning.
The ship is a complete world of its own: the logistics needed to run such an operation are awe-inspiring. It is basically an incredibly well-run five-star resort, which follows you around the places you visit. It is definitely worth putting your clothes away in the drawers of your stateroom.
Above: The view from my balcony.
Decor is hotel utilitarian but ultra-comfortable — cable TV, Wi-Fi, an outside balcony, a great bathroom with unlimited towels. Best of all was my stateroom attendant, the excellent Chetan. This guy was on to it. Friendly and efficient, he looked after me perfectly. In fact the standard of service from all the crew was extraordinary and of the type I have been lucky to experience in some of the world’s great hotels. I couldn’t fault it.
At first I was a little bewildered by the size of the ship but soon learned my way around — as well as the nautical terms by which everything is referred to (I was on “deck” 8 and I had to Google the definitions of port and starboard early on, so as not to get lost).
There was always a smiling crew member to steer me in the right direction. The ship has all the usual things like swimming pools, a theatre, a shopping arcade (the end-of-cruise sale was a ripper, with all shops discounting heavily!), a large grassed area for lying around on and playing boules, acres of sun-loungers for the Europeans to top up their mahogany-toned tans, a casino with the usual games, pokies and a nightly lotto draw if that’s what you are into, a library, dedicated areas and activities for the much younger, a spa and a fitness centre, and 12 restaurants — I ate in nine of them.
Here is how it works. You can eat for free, but like all hotels or resorts, things like specialty restaurants, alcoholic drinks, internet and laundry are charged for. (You can pre-buy beverage and/or dining packages which eliminate the fuss of having to sign for drinks etc.).
There are two main restaurants, the Oceanview Cafe and the Opus Dining Room, which are free. Some of the others have a surcharge. The Oceanview Cafe is a large wall-to-wall buffet restaurant that opens with breakfast at 6.30, goes through late breakfast at 10, proceeds to lunch, then afternoon tea (the patisserie department seemed to work overtime turning out gateaux and pastries to be hoovered up by grateful passengers), dinner, a ”chef’s late night selection” and handmade pizzas until 1am.
Tea, coffee and juice is 24/7. There was sometimes a crowd but never a wait, with the chefs constantly replenishing the food. I needed to learn my way around the buffet stations to take full advantage of the huge variety on offer, but that was a task that took no time at all.
The quality of the food was very good and there was plenty of it. Every taste seemed to be catered for. The Opus restaurant was old school a la carte dining, with immaculate service and very good, if slightly plainer food than some of the other specialty restaurants.
The other restaurant I rather liked was the Spa cafe where I could get health food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ate in eight other specialty restaurants, all excellent.
Murano had gorgeous French haute cuisine with contemporary classical food, a superb French cheese trolley (above) and waiters who were expert at the lost art of table cooking, this place was exquisite.
The Tuscan Grille had leather chairs, a clubby atmosphere, excellent modern Italian food with housemade pasta, artisanal salumi and their own limoncello.
Blu — this is the Aqua class restaurant. It had a health/spa food bent with lots of light dishes and salads and a list of biodynamic wines.
Luminae — this exclusive suite-class restaurant had great Mediterranean dishes.
Sushi on 5 — the fish is flown in fresh from Japan on embarcation day and vacuum-packed. I was sceptical but the sushi was delicious five days into the cruise and the sake selection large and enticing. Add to this a range of pan-Asian favourites and you’ve got yourself a great Asian restaurant.
The Porch — the decor is The Hamptons on tour and the food, seafood with a raw bar, in an open air setting by the lawn areas. Loved it.
Lawn Club Grill — is interactive (you can barbecue your own meal), open air grilling with a great salad bar and pizzas.
Qsine — a quirky establishment serving tapas-like sharing portions of themed dishes (eg “Taj Mahal”, a collection of Indian favourites, “Crunchy Munchies” fried and baked potatoes and sweet potatoes, “M’s Favourites” a stand of shelves delivered to your table filled with Mediterranean classics.
I also went to an interesting wine tasting and, best of all, a shore excursion to the market in Malaga with six other eager foodies and executive chef Ashley Mohun (his team consists of 172 chefs, not to mention the other kitchen workers). This excursion culminated in a tasting of Spanish ham, tapas and wine at los Patios de Beatas restaurant.
The next day, after a tour of the galleys, (the main ones, not all 19 of them) we ate a magnificent dinner made using the produce Ashley had bought at the market.
Other highlights were the Martini bar (above), a refrigerated bar that maintains a layer of snowy frost on its surface and is the setting for great cocktails made by the theatrical Ari Jayer and his expert team (they served the best and driest Martinis — he literally just showed the vermouth bottle to the gin).
This bar is next to the atrium where every night there was great music. The rest is history. Apart from being a great resort to enjoy when not visiting the exotic stopovers, I can definitely say the Celebrity Reflection serves great food. After my restaurant marathon I had eaten so many good dishes I was inspired to come up with the following.
A big thank-you to:
Celebrity Cruises. Celebrity Reflection will sail the Caribbean for the 2017-2018 season, returning to the Mediterranean in April 2018. Sister ship Celebrity Solstice will be sailing New Zealand, Australia and South Pacific itineraries this summer.
I ate an entree at Blu restaurant a bit like the salad part of the following, to which I have added chicken and farro wheat. If the dressing separates before serving, just blitz it again in the blender. Get the recipe
The jam is my version of one they served at Luminae restaurant with chicken. It is good with grilled or barbecued pork, chicken, steak, roast eggplant or potatoes, or with cheese. Get the recipe
My version of a great peach clafoutis I ate at Blu restaurant. I have used canned peaches, which work perfectly and turn this into a great dessert that can be made in a hurry from what is in the pantry and fridge. It is more of a cake than the traditional custardy clafoutis. Get the recipe