Fiona Sims tours local vineyards before returning to gourmet dinners on board, hosted by winemakers
“More vegetable juice, Madame?” asks our jovial South African waiter, Robin. Don’t mind if I do. It will wash down the last of my courgette-stuffed egg-white omelette. I need all the brownie points I can get. We’re on a booze cruise, you see. Correction — a wine voyage. And it’s barely a cruise ship, more a very big yacht.
Starting in Nice, SeaDream Yacht Club I (there are two of them) is working its way languorously around the Med to Malaga, dropping in on picturesque ports where it cosies up to winemakers who host wine dinners on board. It also offers wine land adventures — escorted tours to nearby wineries with a few hilltop villages and artisanal food producers thrown in. Add to that unlimited complimentary wine from a selection that changes daily to sip with lunch and dinner, plus a 200-bin list curated by the land-based wine director Ida Elisabeth Dønheim for those who want to trade up, and you get the idea about our dietary dilemma.
I’m not a cruise kind of person. I’m a sailor — dinghies, small yachts, using an engine only when you have to. However, I do enjoy eating and drinking on board, which is half the fun of sailing for your leisure boater. But elbowing your way around the buffet on a big cruise ship? No thanks. And don’t get me started on having to share a table with strangers.
This one looks different. It’s small, with 56 cabins and 95 staff. In addition to the wine action, the food looks promising, with daily vegan and raw menus to dip into when the going gets tough. But here’s the deal-maker — for my husband and me, at least — you can dine à deux every night if you want to, and outside on deck when the weather is warm enough.
And so here we are, moored off Saint-Tropez, bobbing around in the bay because we can (at about 330ft, the boat can sneak in where larger cruise ships can’t), waiting to step into the tender that will take us to the harbour.
It turns out that a few fellow passengers are yacht owners too, to judge from the talk in the tender. The sailing nerds among us are rewarded with the last day of the famous regatta Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez, where 300 of the world’s most beautiful yachts strut their stuff. We compare notes with a couple from Sydney who sail their 38ft boat to the Whitsunday Islands.
They join us that afternoon on the first of the five wine land adventures offered, to the craggy hilltop village of Gassin and the smart rosé producer Domaine La Rouillère. Provence never fails to seduce, so the only downside to these onshore trips that I can see (apart from the fact that they cost a fair bit extra, about $149pp, or £110) is wishing that we could stay longer. If we had been able to do so we would have lunched at Bello Visto, the best place to eat in Gassin, whispered our guide, as she steered us around the tangle of sun-drenched streets before pointing us towards Marie Thérèse L’Hardy-Halos’ gem of a botanical garden, which she generously opens to visitors free of charge.
We also get to meet the charming owner of Domaine La Rouillère, the entrepreneur Bertrand Letartre, who arrives in his pristine vintage Porsche to guide our tasting session. “Provence’s reputation is rosé, but it’s important to taste the region’s whites and reds too,” he says as we knock back samples of his red, a juicy blend of grenache, syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
Our tour bus winds its way back down the hill into Saint-Tropez and to our waiting tender, past fragrant meadows edged with mimosa, the odd waft of lavender sneaking in through the driver’s window. Craving more of the same, we sign up for the next day’s stroll around Le Castellet, another village in the Var region, and another winery visit, this time in the Bandol appellation. One of my favourite Provence rosés is Bandol’s Domaine Ott Château Romassan (savoury, with a hit of white peach) and the wine is offered on board at $65 a pop, along with Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie’s Château Miraval rosé ($46) and Château d’Esclans Whispering Angel ($46).
You might be wondering why, three days in, I’ve not talked about any restaurants on shore. Our intention was to eat lunch every day in harbour bistros, where we would linger over local classics, but there’s a reason why we didn’t — the food on board is too good (and included in the price), so blame the Czech chef Ondrej Havlicek for his prowess. There’s always a fish of the day on the lunch menu — we enjoyed cod with sauce vierge and pan-fried swordfish with aubergines and olives, which we rounded off with a wodge of raw-milk French cheese, washing the lot down with the complimentary rosé, Ogier’s decent Côtes du Ventoux.
Eventually we resisted Havlicek’s lunchtime temptations and went in search of the regional delicacy, octopus pies (les tielles), discovering the best at the Sète bakery Dassé. We munched them with a glass of inky Languedoc red in a café next to the city’s impressive market.
We then made tracks to Kaiku on Plaza del Mar, on the waterfront in Barcelona, for its heady, smoky seafood rice, which we washed down with a bottle of aromatic Catalan white that induced such a deep post-lunch snooze on the beach that we nearly missed the boat. That’s the great thing about cruising in my book: easy access to the best food and wine from that region, using homegrown ingredients, scoffed in eateries buzzing with lively locals. The onshore eating-out prize went to Casa El Famós on Camino de la Iglesia de Vera on the rural outskirts of Valencia, renowned for being the place to eat wood-fired, oven-cooked paella.
The wine dinners on the cruise are a chance for the chef to show off. We tucked into a menu that included sesame-crusted ahi tuna, lobster bisque and herb-crusted roast rack of lamb, matched to wines from the rioja producer Finca Valpiedra.
These dinners are a chance for the guests to show off too. We never did get the dress code. Yacht casual, said the pre-embarkation instructions, which translated as slacks and open-neck shirts for the boys, with jackets for some, while for the girls (average age 65, but looking ten years younger) this meant full-on evening wear for event nights, with bodycon dresses de rigueur on other nights — the lot paired with 4in heels, particularly impressive on the choppier sailings.
“It’s known for being one of the dressier cruises,” offered a trim, tanned San Diegan with a diamond ring the size of the caviar-topped blini canapé I nibbled at one of the nightly pre-dinner cocktail parties. And, to judge from the big hair on show, a fair amount of time is spent in the onboard beauty salon. There’s a spa with eight massage therapists from Thailand too, which is one of the only ones of its kind at sea, and a sizeable gym, which took a daily pounding.
We also exercised in the ship’s Tardislike water-sports marina. When the ship is at anchor a floating island is attached to the stern, which we swam to in the swell in an effort to make more room for dinner. This was alongside other toys, such as paddleboards, windsurfers, jet skis and even a sailing dinghy or two. There are also mountain bikes, which came in handy for zipping around the harbour in the larger cities.
A membership card arrived with our pre-embarkation instructions – they’re obviously hoping we’ll come back. Of the 89 passengers on board, 58 had sailed with them before, announced our droll Norwegian captain, Bjame Smorawski, on the last night, prompting a few whoops.
So what makes guests return? The food, certainly. The sleek ship, for sure. But it was the staff who garnered most of the praise in my casual poll. I’ll miss Robin, and maître d’ Tomislav- and Brian, who was always ready with refreshments by the saltwater pool and has been working on the ship for l2 years. “We’re like a family,” he says. Room for two more?
Fiona Sims is the author of The Boat Cookbook, and The Boat Drinks Book, both published by Bloomsbury, at £16.99