Saturday, 18 January 2014

MS Oosterdam and our South Pacific Food Paradise

Living large is for everyone.

It’s been a whirlwind action packed couple of months for me and my family.  In between reunions, special occasions, surgery and recovery, overseas travel and busy careers, Kelly and I have been able to squeeze in meals at a number of restaurants, from pub grub and club grub, to five star fine dinning, and it’s mostly been marvelous, and for the most part expensive.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that Food Trekking is at its best if the emphasis is placed on both words equally.  To be able to fly off to other cities or sail away to foreign shores to experience the local food and the different cultural perspectives to food, is truly, in my humble opinion, living life to the fullest.  Make no mistake, Food Trekking is an expensive sport, and most working class stiffs like me can’t afford to do high end Food Trekking that often.  But I think I've found a sure fire way to live large for at least a couple of weeks a year. 

Foodie dreams can come true.  Research is the key.

So let me pose a quick question to you.  How much would it cost to stay in a five star hotel for 14 nights and eat in five star restaurants three times a day during your stay?  Also throw in live entertainment every night and the use of all the facilities a top resort has to offer.  I know, I couldn’t afford it either.  That is until we discovered Ocean Cruising.

                She's a beauty, and so's the ship
                                               I love Port Villa, Vanuatu.  I should write a song.

You may have read about our first cruise aboard the 3 star P&O Pacific Dawn in March last year.  It was a fantastic adventure and the most affordable holiday we have ever taken.  You could easily compare it to a floating club or pub.  The Pacific Dawn is neat casual with the emphasis on quantity versus quality.  Although, having said that, the food was really good.

We were so excited about cruising that we immediately started to research our next cruise.  This time it had to be 5 star.  We went to the travel agent and got all available books and brochures on every cruise line that operates out of Australian shores and even international ports.  I've spent long hours reading them from cover to cover.

I clicked the favourite button on over a dozen cruise line web sites and cruise reviewer sites.  I found lots of websites that specialise in cruise deals and a few cruise bloggers as well.  One of my very favourite blogs is called “A Cruisey Life”, you should give it a Google.  Finally we narrowed our choice down to the Holland America Line.  Five star luxury all the way for a 14 night south Pacific Island cruise.  The cruise has seven ports of call in three countries, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji.

               MS Oosterdam
Latuka, Fiji, markets 
                                                                               Fiji fish markets.  It's hot and there's no refrigeration  
                                            Fiji markets are huge and busy.  Very exciting.

Now here is a really important fact that all first time cruisers must pay attention to.  DON’T PAY FULL PRICE.  Did you get that?  NEVER pay the brochure price for a cruise.  Not unless money is no object and even then you can save a bundle and send the rest to me.  I’m not rich after all.  The brochure price is only a guide line, a figure to base your budgeting on, NOT what any sane person would pay. 

Here is a really good example.
The brochure price for the 14 day cruise on the Holland America Line MS Oosterdam was $3800 each for a twin share interior cabin.  By the way, the interior cabins are beautiful (5 star all the way).  We joined the online Holland America Mariners Club and within a couple of days were receiving email specials and discounts.  Four months before the cruise was due to disembark (that’s nautical talk for leave), I received an exclusive Mariners club deal in the snail mail.  The deal was if I book and pay for the cruise by the end of the month, I could have it for $1800 each.  That’s $2000 discount each.  Amazing! 

I booked and paid for that cruise so fast it made my head spin.  But wait, there’s more to this story.  Two weeks later I was watching the weekly half hour cruise deal show called “Cruise Savers” on TV4ME free to air channel, and they were selling the same cabins on the same cruise for the next 30 minutes for only $1200 each.    

I still think I got an amazing deal and so there’s definitely no regret, but you can see that there are some mind boggling deals out there just waiting to be snapped up.  Every cruise line has some sort of on-line club that is free to join.  This way you can receive their weekly email deals.  

The closer to the embarkation date for a cruise, the cheaper the fare.  It’s as if they don’t want to sail with empty rooms, because passengers spend money while on board, which makes sense.  So don’t just pay what the travel agent is asking or the brochure price.  Look around, do your home work and save a bundle.  That’s more money for you to spend on your holiday.

           Our interior suite was beautiful

                                                       Our upgrade was even better

You never know your luck, because you might get a lovely surprise, once you’re on board your ship, as we did.  On the first night of our cruise, we were up graded for free to a deluxe balcony suite.  The brochure price is $5500 each.  So that’s $11000 worth of cruise for $3600.  I don’t know why we were upgraded, but I’m sure it happens a lot.    

I can’t think of a better way to travel.

Speaking of which, we had a ball.  Do you remember that earlier I compared the Pacific Dawn with a floating pub?  Well the Oosterdam is like a floating palace.  It sparkles with polished wood, crystal and brass.  The service is immaculate and the food is so first class.  Our fares included dining in opulence three times a day.  Ordering off a menu for breakfast every morning after my workout, steam and spa became a luxurious routine.  And I became used to seeing Lobster tails and snails on the dinner menu.  Even the different types of bread that appeared on every table were gourmet.  

                      View from the Vista Restaurant
Fine Dining at the Vista is included in your fare

                                                                                         The Vista is a multi level venue

For as little as $69 each we were treated to the Cellar Masters dinner, which consisted of seven breath taking courses, all accompanied by a French, Californian or Portuguese wine.  Every course was introduced by the Maitre d' and each wine was explained by the Cellar Master.  The degustation was held in the opulent Pinnacle Grill restaurant and the service was world class.  Of course lobster made an appearance and there was a truffle infused mousse, crab, steak, fish, and two dessert courses.  The dinner took us nearly three hours to eat.  This was truly a genuine food trek experience that will be hard to forget.   

              Atrium Cocktail Bar

                                                      Pinnacle Grill Restaurant

                                                                                 Our romantic little table at the Pinnacle Grill

The Vista restaurant is the huge dining room where all meals are included in your fare.  The menu is updated daily and the food and service is superb.  There is no pre cooked, alternate menu, banquet hall type, mass produced garbage here.  The food is fresh and cooked to order.  The presentation is what you would expect at any amazing restaurant and the serving staff is friendly and professional.

The Vista dining room can seat hundreds at a time and it never seems crowded

The Oosterdam also has an all you can eat, available for most of the day, buffet that is all about quality and variety.  As you make your way along any one of the food stations, you just point to what you would like and a server will oblige.  By the Lido deck pool on any given day is a Mexican food stand that boasts an array of delicious tacos, burritos and enchiladas, along with all the trimmings.  Across the deck is a burger joint that also dishes up some good old fashioned snacks like New York beef or turkey hot dogs, and fish and chips.  You can even grab a slice or two of wonderful pizza up until 11.30pm to satisfy those late night cravings. 

The MS Oosterdam is foodie heaven, and you can indulge yourself to your hearts content completely on this cruise.  Did I mention the midnight desert festival held on the pool deck?  The deck is covered in tables of sumptuous desserts and chocolate fountains, being feasted upon by lucky passengers, who eat, drink and dance to the live band under the coloured festoon lights in the warm tropical air.  Oh man, I’m there.  

The view from our balcony 

Now this is what I call a spa

Did I also mention the cocktail tasting every afternoon?  The barman is almost acrobatic in his dexterity as he mixes countless varieties of delicious mind numbing concoctions to the delight of everyone who were fast enough to get a seat at the popular atrium cocktail bar. 

How about trying your hand at a cooking class?  The Holland America Culinary Arts School hold expert cooking classes in the purpose built cooking studio, hosted by a world class chef who then serves you your creation along with some complimentary wines.  There is also chocolate and Port tasting sessions and wine of the world tasting experiences. 
            Culinary school was a lot of fun
                                                    Allan can do wonders with booze

Food Trekking in the Tropics.

In two weeks of brilliant dining experiences and first class travel, we managed to visit three different countries that offered amazing adventures as well.  If you can’t find some decent French food in Noumea, your just not trying very hard.  The place is loaded with restaurants and bistros that will have you thinking you’re in Paris

There are many beautiful resorts that compete for the title of the best French cuisine in the South Pacific.  There are so many good places to eat, I think you will be amazed when you Google restaurants in Noumea.  This time around we indulged in some French wine and cheese tasting.  They were really very good; however I am a bit in love with Australian wine and cheese, so I’m not a fair judge.
                 French wine and cheese in Noumea

                                                    We made a lot of Friends on the cruise

The stand out shore restaurant on this cruise for us is called “Chill” in Port Villa, Vanuatu.  Just ask any of the thousands of taxi drivers (I think everyone in Villa is a taxi driver) and they’ll take you straight there.  This beautifully appointed venue is the perfect escape from the tropical heat and humidity.  The panoramic windows give the diner an excellent view across the waters to the Iririki Resort.  The specialty of the house is the full lobster.  They are monsters and they’re cooked with a decadent butter sauce and served with salad and chips or any other superfluous side dish.  These babies are so big we couldn’t eat anything else besides the lobster themselves.  The local beer is called “Tusker” and is the perfect icy cold accompaniment to the seafood.  The lobsters were only $40 each.  I think we would have paid at least $100 for a lobster this size back home in Australia.
       Monster lobsters at "Chill Restaurant" in Port Villa

                                      Those lobsters smelled amazing.  See how excited we are?

It’s a scientific fact that no matter how much a woman eats, she always has room for dessert.  Chill restaurant is famous in Vanuatu for their chocolate soufflĂ©.  You must give the chef a twenty minute head start but the result is impressive.  I couldn’t eat another thing, but I watched with fascination as Kelly worked her way through this masterpiece.  With each bite she went deeper into a trance that can only be induced by an extreme rush of chocolaty goodness.  If the waitress had tried to take Kelly’s plate early I believe there would have been blood shed.  After nearly licking the chrome off the spoon, Kelly wanted to hug the chef and steal his recipe.  I got her out of there with out an international incident.  This was the second time we have eaten at Chill and we are super impressed.  Is love too strong a word (not when it comes to the chocolate soufflĂ©).  We recommend the place to everyone and can’t wait to go back to Port Villa to visit our favourite south Pacific restaurant.

             Another beautiful day in the tropics.

They sell everything in Noumea

                                                                                Lifou Island is typical paradise material.

         Mystery Island is fantastic for snorkeling.

Can’t get enough of that high seas cuisine.

The end of a cruise is always a little heart breaking for me.  I don’t want to get off.  But I have my memories, my photos and the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before I get back on board one of these giants of the sea, travel to exotic places, and eat and drink myself silly.  I’m doing my homework and researching the best deals, and I’ve only managed to narrow down my options to somewhere on this big blue planet.  There are so many ships, so many ports of call, so much food, and so little time.  I’m just going to have to try them all.
So until next time my friends,

Bon Voyage and Bon Appetite. 

Karl and Kelly
Our first cruise ship formal night



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