All Ashore: Our Favorite Dining Discoveries in Ports of Call
This commoner sits astonished at a London hotel breakfast fit for the Queen. The eggs taste as fresh as if The Dorchester chef just swiped them from underneath a laying hen. Surely a generous pour of double cream (heavy cream to Americans) was whisked into the scramble. How else could they taste this custardy? English bacon, thicker and meatier than American, nails the chewy contrast. I may be jet-lagged, flying in from Los Angeles the night before today’s sail, but my head is clear from copious cups of joe. Yet, when I bite into a croissant and bits shatter into beautiful buttery shards, I feel Paris. Small flakes drift to my plate like confetti and I swipe them when no one’s looking.
As an unabashed foodie and decades-long cruiser, I’ve eaten my way around the world, on ships and on shore. I’m known to choose itineraries based purely on dining pleasures in port. Do you also harbor favorites, meals so deeply ingrained in your mind (and heart), that you must make a return visit? Breakfast at The Dorchester stokes my passion. Perhaps sharing such personal picks might help make your next cruise a food-lover’s best (and we’d love to hear your in-port culinary discoveries!).
I especially adore hotel breakfasts on embarkation days, when time permits lingering and indulging in lavish buffets. Anticipation is my salt and pepper; everything tastes better knowing that you’re soon setting sail. At The Peninsula Bangkok’s River Café and Terrace, the mesmerizing Asian and Western morning spread competes only with the parade-of-boats Chao Phraya view.
This buffet’s beyond bountiful, as if an army of cooks toils in the kitchen. Don’t miss the dim sum, its wrappers as delicate as Thai silk. Even though you’re in Asia, order coffee not tea. The café’s bold java proves another surprise, rivaling the excellence poured at Stanley Terrace in Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls Hotel. I’d add on an African pre-cruise safari simply to sip such singular beans, unlike any Zimbabwean brew – or any other coffee, for that matter – we find at home.
When your cruise itinerary includes Rome, book dinner at Rome Cavalieri, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, well in advance to ensure a coveted reservation. La Pergola – the city’s only Michelin three-star restaurant – perches atop the property, with glittery Eternal City views. Unlike many top toques today, chef Heinz Beck obsesses over cooking, not stardom. He’s grounded in culinary tradition yet pushes creativity’s bounds. Just reading his menu – citing dishes like lobster on spring onion brûlée emulsion with grape molasses; or duck foie gras with pumpkin, fennel flowerheads, barley coffee, and licorice sauce – makes me misty-eyed. I know the joy such plates bring.
Aim for an autumn sail, when Italian chefs go hog-wild with freshly gathered winter white truffles. Locals, outnumbering travelers, indulge in La Pergola’s extravagant truffle tasting menus, or, simply request the rare fungus shaved tableside over steaming pasta. Before anyone orders, servers present a boxful as reverently as Vatican jewels. This, my friends, is a moment. When they open the box, the unmistakably earthy aroma proves so swoon-worthy, waiters really should have smelling salts on-hand.
In Norway’s picturesque Arctic port of Tromsø, red king crab steals the gastronomic show. These humungous crustaceans – some weighing up to 18 pounds or more – slowly migrated here from nearby Russian waters decades ago. They’re prized worldwide, with long legs possessing the sweetest meat. Seek a shore excursion featuring local fishermen taking cruisers for crab-fests. Or, just stroll the waterfront at lunchtime and partake at an eatery. If overnighting in Tromsø, reserve a table at Fiskekompaniet restaurant; its chef hails from a Michelin one-star restaurant in Sweden. The ever-changing menu showcases fresh-this-minute local seafood and produce, like halibut tartare with horseradish, lovage, and cabbage; or baked cod with truffled seaweed. You’ll find the prized red king crab the crown jewel of Fiskekompaniet’s seafood platter, served au naturel on ice.
Tromsø matches the epicurean temptations of another foodie port, Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula in New Zealand, near Christchurch. Cruise ships anchor just off Akaroa’s coast, an easy tender ride ashore. Settled by the French in 1840, Akaroa still retains its Old World charm. Its wharf teems with artisan shops and charming cafes, some tucked into rose-bedecked historic cottages.
The Akaroa Fish & Chip Shop and its fresh blue cod rule my radar. Cooks fry the fish to a puffed golden crisp that’s crunchy to the last bite. So beeline it here for that cod, and then amble along the waterfront until you reach the Akaroa Cooking School. Introduce yourself to Ant Bentley, the friendly co-owner. This storefront often hosts shore excursion culinary classes, and even if you drop in, you’ll find Bentley happy to chat about New Zealand’s indigenous ingredients. Note her cookbooks for sale; do buy one as the recipes are easy to make no matter where you live. In my signed copy of Fresh from Akaroa, their latest tome, the pages are worn from use.
However, I can’t recreate any dish from Lá em Casa restaurant in Belèm, Brazil. A group from our Amazon cruise lunched here on delicacies celebrating indigenous Amazonian ingredients. We drank a fresh juice blend that made us feel exhilarated and giggly. We sampled tacacá, a soup prepared with jambu leaves (known as a “toothache plant” for its numbing properties) and tucupi, maniac root juice that must be boiled for days to remove toxins before using. Each sip, a wonder of flavors never before tasted, opened yet another portal to a beautiful culture we so richly experienced on this cruise.
Despite such indelible dining memories, I still ruminate over the meal that got away. A few years ago, I booked a breakfast-included hotel room at the Mandarin Oriental, Paris. I discovered that I had to depart for the airport minutes before the buffet opened. I sneaked into the restaurant laden with delicacies and froze at the sight. I had never seen so many styles and shapes of morning pastries and breads – and I once lived in France. Long and skinny, braided, fat and round, twisted, in hues ranging from pale yellow to burnished gold. Oh, the staggering bounty – heaps and piles of dreamy eats, like the decadent feasts featured on the television show Bridgerton.
Alas, my husband found me, interrupting my reverie. “The car service is here and the luggage is loaded,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at the one meal I’ll always miss,” I replied wistfully. “You’ll be back,” he promised. And at that very moment, I vowed I would.
More Dining Ashore
My editor asked for additional suggestions for fabulous food in port. As we wait, impatiently, to cruise again, here are some more good eats in fabulous ports of call.
Caribbean: On a cruise visiting Gustavia, St. Barts, head to the Fish Corner for a tasty casual lunch. No surprise, the seafood’s what’s to order. Consider tuna tartare, ceviche, and local fish soup the standouts.
New England/Canada: Montreal dishes up a slew of distinctive dishes, whether it’s their iconic bagels (slightly sweeter, with bigger holes, and baked in wood-fired ovens) or poutine, French fries and cheese curds with brown gravy. Many eateries serve decent poutine, but definitely buy bagels at St-Viateur Bagel Shop, and have your butler deliver the accompanying “schmear” back in your suite. For cutting-edge cocktails, head to the beautiful Nacarat at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel. The buzzy bar’s a favorite of locals and visitors alike.
American West Coast: San Francisco teems with gastronomic stunners. The iconic Restaurant Gary Danko delivers award-winning French cuisine of unparalleled style. One evening, I spotted United States Senator Dianne Feinstein dining here.
New York: My perfect day in Manhattan? A quintessential Big Apple brunch at Sadelle’s, pizza pick-me-up at Rubirosa Ristorante, and Keens Steakhouse for dinner, a historic establishment open since 1885, where the mutton chop is legendary and the dry-aged in-house USDA prime porterhouse for two rules supreme.
Alaska/British Columbia: Satiate that dim sum craving at one of Vancouver’s many such outstanding eateries, like Sun Sui Wah, for barbecued pork buns and steamed prawn dumplings. In Anchorage, java-up at Kaladi Brothers Coffee found in numerous locations, and dine at tiny wonderful Marx Brothers Café, an American eatery celebrating wild-caught, sustainable local seafood, like oysters on the half-shell and Kodiak scallops.