The Ultimate European Tasting Tour—in Cruise Form
Until not that long ago, just breaking bread with locals was considered a perfectly immersive way to experience a place. But hey, what about baking bread with locals? Or for that matter, milking sheep, reviewing the day’s catch—or even blending teas? Amazingly, these are actual activities on offer from one cruise line that’s going next-level with its immersion excursions, and especially where food and drink are concerned.
Already known for exquisite culinary offerings on board (with no less than Jacques Pépin serving as executive culinary director), Oceania Cruises is taking its “finest cuisine at sea” motto to the streets—as well as the farms, breweries, distilleries, bakeries and markets of the line’s ports of call. Pretty much anywhere there’s an amazing local foodie experience to be had, the line's scouts and planners have orchestrated the best possible version of it for you to try.
Read on for five of our favorite cases in point, plus the best ways to experience local food back on board.
Count sheep in Basque country
Tending sheep in Mediterranean climes has a history of, well, biblical proportions—with everyone from Caravaggio to El Greco to Bruegel (the Younger and Elder) immortalizing the theme on canvas. And though we can’t promise that an Old Master will be on hand to capture the moment, you can still get a taste of the venerated tradition for yourself (along with a taste of amazing sheep’s milk products) thanks to Oceania Cruises. In fact, the line offers two separate shepherding experiences in Basque Country.
On the Shepherd For a Day excursion, you’ll disembark in France’s Saint Jean de Luz, then set off on an increasingly mountainous drive to Urkiola Natural Park in the culturally and linguistically distinct Basque lands of Spain. Soon, you'll meet your new flock—indigenous laxta sheep—and learn all about local shepherding life as you stroll through the fields. If the timing’s right, you can try your hand at shearing, and perhaps even milking. You'll celebrate your triumphs over a picnic of local foods—not least, Idazabal cheese from the very sheep you've just been tending.
Then there’s the Meet a Local Farmer in Shepherding School excursion that departs from Bilbao. Once you’ve made your way to Gomiztegi—a bucolic off-the-radar expanse of Spanish Basque country—the local shepherd (and his pooch) will reveal the secrets of the trade. (Yes, the dog, too: You’ll see how canine sheep-herding works.) Once again, a picnic of hyper-local cheese and other artisanal foods awaits. On the way back to the ship, you’ll stop at the stunning Franciscan Sanctuary of Arantzazu in the Aizkorri Mountains, on the spot where—according to legend—the Virgin Mary appeared to a local shepherd in the 15th century.
Have your own tea party on the Emerald Isle
Tea and soda bread. They go together like pints and oysters—at least when you’re on the Emerald Isle. And though we recommend all of the above, studying the local tea time traditions will leave you with the most applicable real-life skills.
A staple of not just tea time—but local life in general—soda bread is the star of the Traditional Irish Bread Making excursion in Belfast. After disembarking, you’ll be (forgive us) whisked to the 18th-century farmhouse of master baker Tracey Jeffrey, who’s got a stunning perch on the banks of Strangford Lough in County Down. Settle in with some tea, strap on an apron and start working that buttermilk-baking-soda-and-flour dough. You are, after all, in the home county of the first published recipe for soda bread: According to the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread, the reference occurred in a November 1836 issue of Farmer’s Magazine. So where better to hone your skills?
As for how to create a proper cup of Irish tea, you’ll want the Splendidly Blended Bewley’s Tea & Dublin City excursion for that. After exploring the 19th-century George’s Street Arcade (Dublin’s first shopping center), you’ll head to Powerscourt Townhouse Centre—a constellation of shops housed in a beautiful Georgian-era building. Next up: Iveagh Gardens, a secret swath of green space (complete with yew maze and grottos) once owned by the Guinness family. And finally, tea time! At Bewley’s Grafton Street, a tea house that has been in the business since 1840, you’ll learn the secrets of tea blending and drink a most extraordinary cuppa.
Mix it up with Portuguese fishmongers
In foodie circles, Portugal is all but synonymous with bacalhau (salted cod), among countless other local fish. And the best way for you to do a deep dive into that scene is the Meet the Locals at the Market excursion that departs from Lisbon.
After an hour-long drive through ever-shifting scenery—everything from time-worn tiled facades to bucolic rolling hills—you’ll reach Setubal, once an ancient Roman fishing town that was washed away by a tsunami in the fifth century. Along the promenade, you’ll spot fishermen coming in with their morning catch—all bound for the bustling market, the largest covered market in Portugal and a multi-sensory feast. While you’ll be perpetually and giddily distracted—there are the wavy-tiled floors, the larger-than-life traditional vendors, the dreamy azulejo walls—you’re there for the fishmongers. And these guys—and their spread—don’t disappoint: sardines, Atlantic horse mackerel, red mullet, bass, cuttlefish, clams, oysters…the list goes on. Your guide will facilitate all kinds of lively conversation about local fishing and fishmongering, until you can’t go another minute without trying the goods.
Then it’s off to a nearby restaurant that serves all kinds of local seafood specialties, but look out for the choco frito, or fried cuttlefish. The squid-like creature is brined, breaded, fried—and traditionally served with potatoes. Hint: It pairs nicely with a Douro Valley white.
Farm like a Norwegian villager
For the love of goat cheese, and the animals that produce it, book From Farm to Farm in Flam, Norway, where, p.s., the beauty of the fjordlands is gobsmacking. In fact, go ahead and google the Aurlandsfjord. We’ll wait.
So, yeah: Driving along that body of water is just the appetizer to this excursion. The main course? A two-mile (or so) farm-to-farm walk that the local goats are wont to do, too—though they seem totally indifferent to the surrounding gorgeousness: green cliffs, large meadows and an obligingly babbling brook that flows into the fjord.
When you can stop staring at the scenery long enough to register anything else, the farmers will give tutorials on goat-milking, cheese-making and life in these beautiful boonies: The main local village of Undredal—which was accessible only by boat until 1988—is home to 100 humans and 500 goats.
Of course, there will be tastings, and you won’t want to miss the insanely creamy, butterscotchy brown gjetost (sometimes called brunost), in addition to the more familiar white goat cheese. Once you’ve had your fill, you’ll walk it off with a stroll around the village, where the church is a highlight: This is Northern Europe’s smallest stave church, built in 1147.
Drink like the Dutch in Rotterdam
Imagine: 100 fresh produce sellers, 15 food shops, and eight restaurants. All in a football field-sized market covered with a jaw-droppingly beautiful ceiling mural. Welcome to Rotterdam! Hungry yet? We thought so.
But before you reach that portion of the Rotterdam Beer Experience excursion, you’ll hit the medieval enclave of Delfshaven, home to the renowned Pelgrim craft brewery. After a learning tour, the artisanal beer is served: You may sample anything from Russian imperial stout to Belgian dubbel to German bock. Whatever you try, here’s one of the secrets to its tastiness: Rotterdam is famous for its water purity.
Next up, the aforementioned football field-size Markthal, where you’ll chat and nosh your way through the stalls. Bon appetit, or rather, smakelijk!
Eat like a local back on board
Of course, parting is such sweet sorrow when you’ve just eaten your way through an entire port town. But Oceania Cruises will reunite you with your favorite local foods back on board, where you’ll find the Chef’s Market menus at dinner. Each is the result of the executive chefs' incursions into the local markets, where the freshest, most flavorful ingredients dictate the evening's lineup. Sure, there are certain guidelines in place, but there's also a lot of room for improvisation and innovation, once the day's market haul is in hand. Still, you can expect some classics, from Irish lamb stew in the British Isles to crispy pork leg with apple compote in Scandinavia.
But whatever region you’re visiting, you’re guaranteed an unforgettable taste of it thanks to Oceania Cruises’ finest cuisine at sea cred.