Ultimate Dinner Parties At Sea, Just $1000 To Attend

Have a conversation about cruise ships and the topic of dining options usually comes up. It’s just a popular topic that cruise lines invest a lot of time and resources in, striving to provide exactly what their passengers desire. Now, more than ever, cruise lines are doing just that, often tapping well-known culinary experts to bring their shore-side influence aboard the ships. Crystal Cruises is no exception and has their own unique twist on the food focus with what they call Ultimate Dinner Parties At Sea.

To begin the name-dropping we have Napa Valley vintners Bo and Heidi Barrett and multiple Michelin star-winning Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa each hosting one of Crystal Cruises’ 2013 Ultimate Vintage Room Dinners, all for the first time ever.

“The Ultimate Vintage Room dinners allow us to push the culinary envelope over the top, with each event truly a once-in-a-lifetime affair created just for Crystal guests,” said Toni Neumeister, Crystal Cruises vice president, food and beverage operations in a World Traveler article.

The exclusive events can accommodate just 12 to 14 guests (per event) who will have the opportunity to attend one of the seven-course, ultra-rare, wine-pairing feasts, either while sailing a Mediterranean cruise aboard Crystal Serenity (starting May 18) or the Black Sea aboard Crystal Symphony (departing July 13), respectively.

Held in the ships’ private Vintage Rooms just once or twice a year, the “dinner tab” to attend is $1,000 per guest.

Will it be worth the price? First, check the pedigrees of the hosts:

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa
A noted celebrity chef, restaurateur and the brains behind a culinary empire, Matsuhisa will be on board with his first-ever “ultimate” meal for Crystal, accompanied by rare wine and champagne pairings.

Nobu will also hold autograph sessions, cooking classes, and larger omakase dinners throughout the sailing.

Bo and Heidi Barrett
Between Bo’s Chateau Montelena winery, depicted in the film “Bottle Shock,” and Heidi’s award-winning “cult” offering 1992 Screaming Eagle (averaging $6700 per bottle), the Napa couple is aptly credited for putting California wines on the map.

Accordingly, they will be personally selecting each vintage served for the evening.

The cruise itself? Not shabby either, a choice of two, 12-day voyages boast equally interesting itineraries that chime in on the destination focus craze staying late in port if not overnight.

The May 18 sailing actually overnights three times, in Monte Carlo (during the Grand Prix) and in Istanbul and Barcelona with visits to Mykonos, Santorini/Thíra, Sorrento, Bonifacio/Corsica and Florence/Livorno.

The July 13 Black Sea voyage explores Rome/Civitavecchia, Sorrento, Sicily/Taormina, Contanþa, Yalta and Sochi, with overnights in Odessa and Istanbul.

Cruise lines have been charging extra for upscale dining for quite some time. This is nothing new. But ultra-lux Crystal Cruises touts a more-inclusive way of doing things and fabulous culinary experiences as part of what they do.

Standard fare on a Crystal cruise includes the line’s unique cheese and wine cellars, overseen by on-board, certified cheese and wine sommeliers. Passengers enjoy fresh, chef-like cocktails served by certified mixologists too. Featuring gourmet dining options at every meal, whether in the Crystal Dining Room, at afternoon tea, or in the privacy of a stateroom, Crystal seemed to have all the bases covered.

Still, even Crystal has to draw the line somewhere.

Why not a $1000 upcharge for a lifetime dining event with world-class culinary experts? It’s probably a bargain.

[Photo credit – Crystal Cruises]

24 hours in Oakland, California

Over 9.5 million people flew in and out of Oakland International Airport in 2009, but few of them targeted Oakland as their vacation destination. Most folks fly in and drive out as soon as possible, headed toward San Francisco, Napa, or Sonoma.

When friends recently flew from Seattle to Oakland, a TSA agent gently chided them. “Oakland,” he said. “You need to go somewhere nice.”

Later, when they were seated in our Oakland home overlooking the San Francisco Bay and a forest of cypress trees, my friend said, “Oakland is so underrated.”

Blame Gertrude Stein, who famously wrote “There is no there there” in her book Everybody’s Autobiography. No one remembers she was on a return visit looking for her childhood house. Instead it’s become Oakland’s unofficial slogan.

Or blame the earthquake, the fire, and crime typical of a large city. But no large city is all of one thing. Oakland is large, vibrant, full of historical, natural, and culinary wonders.

So let’s pretend the formerly unthinkable happens. You are stuck in Oakland for a layover. Your plane arrives here at 5 pm on a Tuesday and due to airline bungling, you don’t have another flight until 7 am Thursday morning. You spring to action and follow these steps.While waiting in the car rental line, you pull out your iPhone and make reservations for two nights at the Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square. Drive ten minutes on 880 (yes, not a fabulous freeway, but the trip is short) and there you will be on the water. Ask for a room with a view, and quickly unpack.

Whip out that iPhone and make reservations at The Lake Chalet for dinner. Before getting back in that rental car or taking the cab to the restaurant, saunter down the waterfront, making sure to see Jack London’s Klondike cabin, a perfect replica of where London wrote White Fang. While admiring the relic, listen to the gulls, hear the water, and checkout passing Coast Guard cutters.

Drive the 1.4 miles to The Lake Chalet and do the smart thing and let the valet park you. The restaurant is situated on Lake Merritt. Once upon a time, the lake was actually a tidal estuary formed by several creeks. In 1868, Mayor Samuel Merritt proposed to dam and clean up the estuary, and the jewel of Oakland was born. Lit at night by a necklace of lights and surrounded by the city, it is a lovely sight.

Drive back to the hotel, park, but don’t go into your room just yet. Cross the street and head to Yoshi’s Jazz Club for some music. Occupying 17,000 feet of performance space and sushi bar, Yoshi’s offers live performances almost every night of the week and has hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Diana Krall, Branford Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Harry Connick Jr., and Oscar Peterson.

You’ve had a long day. Time for a lovely sleep in your king-sized bed. But in the morning after a cup of coffee, skip the gym and take the hotel shuttle back to Lake Merritt. Walk (or run) the 3.4 miles around the lake, stopping and heading up Lakeshore Avenue to get some freshly baked brioche or muffins at Arizmendi Bakery. Stroll up and down Lakeshore and Grand Avenues, making sure to appreciate the Grand Lake Theatre, one of the few functioning art deco theatres left in the area. If you get peckish, stop for a light lunch at Cafè DiBartolo on Grand Avenue.

At 1 pm, head to the Camron-Stanford House located on Lakeside Drive for your docent tour of one of the few remaining Victorian houses in Oakland and the first site of the Oakland Public Museum. The docent tour will provide you with a look at a grand house but also with colorful information about Oakland’s past.

Back to the hotel with you. You need to rest. You’ve walked for miles. And there’s more to do. Take a shower, put on some comfortable shoes, and get back in that rental car. It’s time for nature. Drive the 12 or so miles up into the hills to Joaquin Miller Park and the Sequoia-Bayview Trail, a flat and wide trail that winds in and out of a canopy of Redwoods. Yes, you are in the forest. Lovely views of downtown Oakland, the Bay and the San Francisco skyline.

That’s enough. It’s time for a drink. You have to fly out tomorrow, and you’ve walked and learned quite a bit today. Head back down to the Rockridge District. Park in the BART parking lot, and walk down College Avenue to A Cote, tasty small plates establishment that serves up a wicked margarita and has a wine list that makes a layover worth it. One small plate to order: the French fries.

Saunter back up College Avenue, stopping into some of the wonderful stores like Itsy Bitsy, and then it’s time to go back to the hotel. Sure, you could go to Yoshi’s again (Diana Krall might be there) but you have to pack.

Thursday morning, you are at the airport by 6, all checked in and ready to go. You’ve just spent a full day in Oakland, and while you are looking forward to being in Bali, you’ve had a good time. There is a there there. Nothing untoward happened. Water, history, forest, and food. Who knew?

Jessica Barksdale Inclan is a novelist who teaches literature and creative writing for Diablo Valley College. Visit her at Red Room to read more of her work, including her latest supernatural romance novel, The Beautiful Being.

[Photos: Flickr | Eric Fischer; darinmarshall; hitchster; Allan Ferguson; www.bluewaikiki.com]

Top 10 wine spots, none in U.S.

I realize that, on the world stage, our homeland isn’t exactly the most popular place right now. Part of it stems from eight years of political buffoonery, and a healthy dose comes from traditional “old world” bias against the United States. Like most of us, I’ve learned to adjust for a touch of this when I read international news coverage. To a certain extent, I understand it … we’re more like France than we realize. But, it’s tough when our country doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

This is especially the case for wine.

In an article detailing the top 10 wine spots in the world, Forbes deemed none in the United States worthy of the list.

1. Castello Banfi, Tuscany, Italy: not an adventurous pick for the top spot
2. Montes, Colchagua Valley, Chile: trying to seem enlightened, succeeds
3. Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch, South Africa: see #2, with the same results
4. Fournier, Mendoza, Argentina: doubling up on South America in the top five? Trying too hard …
5. Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia: could call for the middle of the pack
6. Felton Road, Central Otago, New Zealand: again with the doubling up …
7. Bodegas Ysios, Rioja, Spain: classic location, should probably be higher
8. Quinta do Portal, Douro Valley, Portugal: this would have been more exciting at #3 or #4
9. Chateau Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, France: obligatory, but at #9?
10. Peter Jakob Kuhn Oestrich, Rhein/Mosel, Germany: obviously added to the list out of a sense of obligation

And, where are we? No Sonoma? No Napa? Or, a break from the norm with Oregon?

The collection of wine destinations seems to a certain extent like a Little League awards banquet. No country is on the list twice, giving the impression that the reporter sought to dish out as many trophies as possible. The wide reach, of course, makes those absent even more evident.

As you can see, the list is more likely the result of a careful analysis of balancing out different regions and meeting reader expectations than it is a genuine reflection on the most interesting wine destinations in the world.

This is why I hate “listicles”: they have less to do with the content than they do with managing perception. Blech.

Ride to Live, Live to Drink Wine

There are only a few things better than firing up the Harley Heritage Softtail (with a Springer front fork, rented this weekend) and heading out for a motorcycle ride through Napa and Sonoma Counties in now-sunny California, where I happen to be right now.

It’s the middle of the wine harvest, most of the tourists are gone, and the weather is perfect, so the locals head out to see the harvest in action. Although Napa only produces 4% of California’s wine by volume (according to the Napa Farm Bureau), it’s definitely the heart of the wine industry here, and accounts for 27% of it’s wine sales volume. The trees are just starting to turn and you can smell the sweet smell of grapes in the sun. Just don’t get squashed by the massive trucks hurtling by, carrying juicy grapes.