Uncover the Caribbean's Best Local Secrets With Excursions by Martha Stewart & MSC Cruises
If any region is renowned for its surface—a bliss-inducing expanse of liquid turquoise—the Caribbean is. And some (okay, many) would say that’s reason enough to cruise these waters. But what happens when you go beneath the surface? Not just to the kaleidoscopic reefs, but to the other buried treasures of the region—those tucked-away little spots where locals always go, and cruise passengers rarely do?
We’re talking about mom-and-pop restaurants where the traditional specialties are foodie heaven. Little bars that have been serving up amazing local craft cocktails (and equally amazing local lore) since well before mixology was a thing. Jungle-shrouded trails wending their way to stunning, secluded coves. Farms so Edenic, you’ll consider a whole second act in the field of botany. And that’s just a tiny sampler. But it starts to give you a sense of what happens when America’s favorite tastemaker partners with the world’s fastest-growing cruise line to curate a collection of game-changing shore excursions. Yes, we mean the buzz-generating new collab between MSC Cruises and Martha Stewart.
Not that the partnership applies only to what you'll do on land. One of our favorite new options on board (as of June 1) is the new selection of Martha Stewart Celebration Surprise Packages: birthday, honeymoon and anniversary gifts that include—at a minimum—a signature dessert, recipe card (because there's zero chance you won't want to re-create these treats at home), and personalized note from Martha. Our other favorite Martha-inspired addition on board? The three-course dinner menus she's curating for MSC Cruises' holiday dinners as of this Thanksgiving (then Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year's and Easter).
On the other hand, enjoying the new partnership requires no special occasion: As of this June, you need only head to the Caribbean with MSC Cruises and book one of the Martha Stewart & MSC Cruises Excursions. Read on for six of our favorites.
The excursion: Savoring San Juan's Culinary Delights
The lowdown: Long before Martha was a household name, she was a fan and frequent denizen of Puerto Rico. In fact, she's so seemingly at home there that on one recent visit, after tasting particularly amazing chicken at a roadside shack, she went all the way to the cook's farm just to get the recipe. And though you'll be following in Martha's figurative footsteps on the Savoring San Juan's Culinary Delights excursion, don't worry: You'll be provided with take-home recipes on the spot.
Your first stop on this foodie-focused walking tour of Old San Juan: Hotel El Convento, a 17th-century convent turned boutique hotel (the oldest member of the Historic Hotels of America, and neighbor of the oldest cathedral in the U.S., Basílica de San Juan Bautista). In the hotel's famously romantic courtyard, you’ll fuel up for the walk with a traditional Puerto Rican fritter, and a cocktail for good measure. Next, you’ll make your way through the Plaza de Armas toward Chocobar Cortés, a nearly century-old family chocolatier whose old-timey cartoon art—once a staple of the brand's packaging—still adorns the property. On the ground floor, you'll try a pairing that immediately goes from unlikely to addictive: dark chocolate on cheddar cheese, a Puerto Rican favorite. You'll then head upstairs to see the family foundation's galleries that doubled as temporary classrooms for more than 100 kids whose school had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria. (Martha is intent on supporting businesses that served others during that time.)
Next up: Lounge Cultura—a beautifully preserved 19th-century home that conceals a modern, muy Martha cooking school—where you'll learn to whip up some passion fruit cocktails and mofongo, the plantain- or cassava-based mash that's practically synonymous with Puerto Rico. After a quick stop for artisanal paletas (try the guanabana if they're on the menu that day), you’ll cap off the tour with a visit to the historic La Casita de Rones for an immersion course on local rums and—what else?—piña coladas, the official drink of Puerto Rico.
The excursion: Mixing the Perfect Margarita in Cozumel
The lowdown: Perhaps you've seen Martha doing shots of mezcal with Snoop Dogg on their VH1 cooking show—or championing tequila as a holiday gift on her own show. Point is, the woman loves a good agave-derived drink, so not just any tequilería would do for this excursion—and a whole succession of them got nixed on the grounds of inauthenticity (for starters). Enter La Casita, Cozumel's oldest house, whose neighbors in the tiny village of Cedral include 1200-year-old Mayan ruins and a colonial-era church that's believed to have celebrated the first Catholic mass in all of Mexico. On the grounds of the historic home, you'll find a sacred ceiba tree, free-range chickens—and a courtyard equipped for a serious tequila tasting. As you sip your way through this flavor- and history-rich lesson, a Maya-descended chef will prepare traditional tortillas and salsas—along with other local bites that pair well with the tequila.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before you arrive in El Cedral—you'll go to another place tourists rarely visit: the bustling local market in the heart of Cozumel, where you'll talk shop with farmers, fishermen and spice vendors and try a couple of local tacos. You'll also pick up some gorgeous fruits that will re-emerge at the last stop of your excursion: the private kitchen at the Mayan Cacao Company, where they'll be transformed into a stellar seasonal margarita. But traditionalists and chocoholics should have no fear: You’ll also learn to make a classic margarita—and a chocolate one as well. The bonus? You'll make your own chocolate bar, too.
The excursion: Riding Cayman's Swimming Horses
The lowdown: A veteran equestrian, Martha has five Friesian horses of her own. And though Sasa, Meindert, Rinze, Ramon and Rutger are great for exploring the countryside around Bedford, New York, and tending to Martha's farm, they're not exactly seagoing enthusiasts—because unlike Noland Stewart's crew, they weren't raised in the Caribbean.
The Caymanian Stewart (no relation) is also a stable owner and avid rider (so much so that even as a kid, he worked untold hours to buy and maintain his own horse). Eventually, he made a discovery while breaking horses in the gentle, warm, clear sea: The animals loved going in the water, and so did the people riding them. To see for yourself, you'll saddle up at his stables and take a morning ride along the shoreline of Barker's National Park. About a mile in, you’ll dismount, lose the saddle and ride bareback into eight or so feet of water.
To help you digest the extreme surreality you've just experienced, lunch is kept light: You'll find a vegan tasting menu at chef Michele "Miki" Zama's farm-to-table Vivo restaurant. Think organic red beetroot hummus or guacamole-topped black quinoa with sweet potato bites.
The excursion: Exploring Roatán's Fishing Villages
The lowdown: Fishing is one of Martha’s oldest and most beloved hobbies. At 3 a.m. on Saturdays in August and September, her father would rouse her and her siblings to go in search of Shark River bluefish in Neptune, New Jersey. Now, "what I catch matters less than catching," she says. "For me, the peace and the opportunity to be in nature are as good as it gets."
You'll see what she means on the lush Honduran Bay Island of Roatán, where your first stop will be Punta Gorda, home to 150 or so Garifuna families. Their ancestors—a mix of African slaves and indigenous locals—bequeathed them an endlessly rich cultural heritage, and the generations-old fishing traditions there are the perfect case in point. While a local guide and fisherman walk you through some of those artisanal techniques (line fishing, in particular) a cook will be frying up the catch of the day and doling out tastes on banana leaves, lest anyone go hungry before lunch.
As for that lunch, it comes at the end of a gorgeous journey: You'll hop into a traditional wooden cayuco and boat to the so-called Venice of Roatán: Oak Ridge—a collection of rainbow-colored houses on stilts—whose trajectory from pirate hideout to fishing hot spot will fascinate you. Then, through amazing mangrove tunnels, you'll make your way to neighboring Jonesville, home to a favorite local hangout: the Hole in the Wall restaurant (seriously), where a Honduran seafood feast awaits, as do hammocks, lovely vistas and even the occasional moray eel in the rocks below.
The excursion: Relishing a St. Maarten Culinary Course
The lowdown: At the Rockland Estate, you'll begin by learning an amazing bit of backstory—namely, that a slave who was born on this onetime sugar plantation gave birth to the property's eventual owner. (You'll find the whole history at the on-site Emilio Wilson Museum.)
Next comes a gentle hike along the estate's trail to explore another of Martha's passions: botany. One of the indigenous plants you'll no doubt study? Albizia lebbeck, known as woman’s tongue for the “chattering” of the seeds inside the pods. Despite the nickname, the tree actually has soothing properties—the bark, in particular, is a prized anti-inflammatory.
Then it’s on to Emilio’s—the plantation’s restaurant—vetted and approved at Martha's request by her friend Stew Leonard (owner of the fabled grocery chain in the northeastern U.S. and also, conveniently, of a house on St. Maarten). At the restaurant, which has the largest wine cellar on the Dutch side of the island, you’ll help cut vegetables as the chef shows you how to prepare the catch of the day Creole style. You'll also learn how to make the local take on johnnycakes—the simple but exquisite flatbreads that turn up in various forms throughout the region.
While the dough is rising, a chairlift will whisk you to the top of the property (at 1125 feet up, this is one of the highest points on the island). The perfect accompaniment to the resulting vistas? The private bar's white rhum agricole, a French Caribbean alcohol made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, as opposed to fermented molasses (the main ingredient of rum-without-the-h). Duly dazzled, you'll head back down to fry up the johnnycake, then eat it with the freshly prepared fish and vegetables. And for dessert? Dutch stroopwafel and local guavaberry rum.
The excursion: Treasuring Ocho Rios' Konoko Falls & Murphy Hill Farm-to-Table Tour
The lowdown: Martha's an avid hiker who never turns down the opportunity to see flora and fauna—or get in a good workout—in the national park near her home in Seal Harbor, Maine. She likes to start early to savor the solitude, but you’ll be able to enjoy the peace at Konoko Falls whenever you arrive. This is one of Jamaica’s best-kept secrets: a smaller, just-as-gorgeous (and just-as-hike-able) version of the wildly popular Dunn’s River Falls. Konoko is also home to a zoo, an indigenous cultural museum and one of Jamaica’s largest collections of flowering plants (konoko is the Arawak word for rainforest).
For lunch, you'll head off to Murphy Hill Farm, whose owner, Anna-Kay Tomlinson (affectionately known as Miss T), shares Martha’s passion for organic, seasonal and local ingredients. You’ll help pick the ones that will go into your feast—among them, the Caribbean’s famous Scotch bonnet peppers—while taking in views of Ocho Rios (the farm is some 1800 feet above sea level). Miss T prides herself on introducing guests to authentic Jamaican cuisine beyond jerk chicken (though that, too, will be on the menu). So expect the likes of “run down” (a creamy local sauce made from blended fresh coconut, herbs, and those Scotch bonnet peppers), plus escovitch and ackee with pickled onion. Trust us; just eat.