So here we were, in a farmhouse surrounded by blackberry-laden hedges, rolling hills and wizened olive trees in the heart of the Tuscan countryside. Our animated chef for the morning was working at lightning speed – she was showing us how to make pasta and made it look so easy. We had come, not only for a cookery lesson, but also for a lunch of local food and wines. As we worked she taught us all sorts of culinary tips. Crushing garlic? Use the base of a jam jar. Cutting pizza? Use scissors. Frying? Don’t use the same oil twice.
We had arrived that morning in Livorno, the port for Florence and Pisa on our cruise ship Island Princess. We would be there for the whole day so a lot of decision making had gone on between Mike and me as to which shore excursion to choose – not easy with 12 options jostling for our interest. Let’s opt for the tour of Florence, he’d said. Certainly it sounded interesting and neither of us had been to the Academia, home to Michaelangelo’s sculpture David, or seen the Piazza del Duomo, one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. What about Cinque Terre, a UNESCO world heritage site on the Italian Riviera? I pondered. But it was the chance to learn to make Italy’s most famous dish right here in its birthplace which won the day.
In fact, lots of foodie elements were incorporated into this itinerary, not only by way of shore excursions but also on the ship itself. New to Princess is Chocolate Journeys, a theme rolled out across the fleet. Menus offer 15 chocolate desserts including chocolate pistachio dome with almond and pistachio nougatine and chocolate truffles, which feature at the Captain’s welcome party. Passengers can expect to see chocolate inspired cocktails on menus too. There’s the unappetising sounding Dirty Piglet – definitely tastier than it sounds. This bourbon based drink comes with a touch of vanilla ice cream topped with chocolate dipped bacon. The Salted Caramel Hard Shake is a mix of caramel, cream, sea salt and chocolate, shaken with bacardi. Princess Cruises chocolate goodies are not just for eating and drinking though. Those who simply can’t get enough of the cacao bean can also wallow in it with chocolatey spa treatments such as chocolate renewal scrub, whipped chocolate body mask and chocolate massage oil.
The ship’s next stop was Toulon in the south of France and we hopped on a coach which whisked us through the glorious countryside that is Provence. We passed herby landscapes peppered with quaint fortified towns before arriving at Le Castellet, a medieval village with amber-coloured, flower-bedecked houses, their wooden shutters half closed like sleepy eyelids. We toured a vineyard surrounded by fields of scarlet poppies where we learned how to check a wine’s colour and clarity and how to smell, taste and analyse its flavour. It was enjoyable and a great way to soak up the local atmosphere, not to mention the wine.
Back on board, Island Princess has a smorgasbord of eating options. If you’re not breakfasting in Horizon Court, having lunch in Alfredo’s Pizzeria or The Grill or dining in the Provence restaurant, then you’d need to try afternoon tea, a little mountain of sandwiches and cakes in the Bordeaux dining room. If you can’t fit all that in and believe me, it isn’t easy to find the time, you can opt for room service. There are also two reservations-only dinner venues where a reasonable supplement is payable. One is the Italian-themed Sabatini’s, all Roman pillars and Italian-esque murals, the other is the Bayou Café & Steakhouse, a New Orleans-style restaurant featuring Cajun and Creole specialties eaten to a background of live jazz.
For guests in balcony cabins who want to splurge on a special treat, the Ultimate Balcony Dining option is the way to go. As the name suggests, this is where a waiter comes along to set up and serve a meal on your balcony. If you opt for breakfast – it costs $45/£30 per couple – you can expect a half bottle of champagne and plates with fresh quiche, fruit and forest berries, smoked salmon with dill cream cheese and (too many!) pastries. A four-course dinner, which costs $100/£65 per couple, is along similar lines but more full on – a waiter dresses your table with sparkling white linen and flowers, offers champagne and canapés, then the ship’s photographer appears and takes a (complimentary) photo.
But even with all that food around, you don’t have to put on weight while cruising. Just avoid the lifts, use the staircase and don’t eat more than you would at home for breakfast and lunch. Besides, there is a gym on board and opportunities to take fitness classes too, so there’s no excuse for an expanding waistline.
• A 12-night Mediterranean cruise on Island Princess departing 25 October costs from £999pp (priced on two people sharing a cabin), including accommodation, meals, onboard entertainment and 24 hour room service. Flights not included, tel: 0843 374 2403 or visit www.princess.com/discover
• Holiday Extras offers a choice of parking at UK airports. To book Edinburgh parking from £38.99 for a week, tel: 0800 1313 777 or visit www.holidayextras.co.uk