Monday, October 15, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part IX (Shopping With The Chef)

We were up early on the Seabourn Pride because today was, finally, our Goldring Travel Private Shopping with Chef Kurt Timmermans in La Coruna, Spain. 

 We arrived at what appeared to be a modern shopping mall with clothing stores.  Huh?  But, as Chef Kurt assured us, inside is an amazing market.  So, with a quick turn into an unassuming door, culinary nirvana upon us!  Three floors of food:  First floor for seafood, Second floor for meats and Third floor for vegetables.


We spent over an hour just wandering about the fish market.  The variety was remarkable, but the freshness was incredible.  I have never been to a market where so much of the product was vibrantly alive.  Squid that were still quickly changing color, langoustine grabbing whatever they could (some overflowing with roe), crabs snapping way, clams squirting…all in extremely clean and well-lit environment with the friendliest fish mongers I have ever encountered outside of Catania, Sicily.

After Chef Kurt made some purchases for the Seabourn Pride’s Galley Market Lunch and our Food & Wine Tasting, it was time to head upstairs to the meats.  Chef Kurt was checking out the huge cured ham legs and trying to negotiate better prices. 

Note the sign in the top right:  Wine for 1.20 Euros.
I bought some for  the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tasting on the Seabourn Pride.

While he was doing his thing, I was doing mine.  I spotted a sign at the same butcher selling a blanco and tinto wine for 1.20 Euros!  I mean this is the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise and if my guests can quaff Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lynch-Bages the can most certainly swirl a bit of plonk!  So for my 2.40 Euro investment I was very happy…and wondering just how bad the wines might be…or not.  You never know!
 Then I started wandering around.  All the way at the end of the market were, by far, the largest blood sausages I had ever seen.  And when Chef Kurt got there he concurred.  He bought some for our Tasting.


 While the others in our group went their separate ways (some up to the third floor and others into town) we headed with Chef Kurt back to the Seabourn  Pride and then into town.  We had been recommended to visit one of the more expensive and touristic restaurants in La Coruna so me and my wife set out in search of it and to do some window shopping.  When we got there we knew it really wasn’t for us. 

We saw the tourist office and headed in.  (Tourist offices can be a valuable resource as local knowledge is generally the best…and, similarly, why you should use a travel agent that has “been there and done that’ rather than having merely read about it…if you are lucky.)  In literally ten seconds she told us where to go…where the locals eat…and it was just a short walk.

Should we eat here?  Should we eat there?  Seafood?  And then, at least for me, there is was:  A small old and dark shop with about 100 curing hams hanging from the ceiling.  


My wife wasn’t so convinced, but was a good sport about it…humoring more than agreeing with me.  She was a bit concerned with the cost of my ordering a plate with some of the local cheese (known as “breast cheese” because of its shape) and one of local cured jamon (ham) along with a nice bottle of Rioja…typical for the region. But I knew it would be OK because it was a local place.  It came to a whopping 20 Euros.  What a bargain and, more importantly, what a great lunch!

Shortly after we sat down at our small table, the locals started to come in, young and old, mostly purchasing enough for their lunch at home, but a couple choosing to sit down.  We had a great seat for people watching too.  Before we knew it, it was time to leisurely stroll back to the Seabourn Pride. 
So as we sailed off from our last port of our cruise I still had lots to look forward to as tomorrow, our last day, brings us not only the Galley Market Lunch, but the famous Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tasting created by Chef Kurt.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part VIII (Relaxing and "Basque"ing)


As we arrived in St. Jean de Luz, I was still winding down from the incredible time I had in Bordeaux and, as such, I had no intention of doing anything other than leisurely wandering the streets with my wife.  We arrived early afternoon and there was a bit of swell in the harbor, so we did not get onto a tender until a bit after 2:00 p.m., which was absolutely fine with me.


Honestly, this was not my favorite port as it seems to be more of a summer resort for the French (and this is October) and other than surfers working the waves breaking to the north of the ship as the tide rose not much was going on.  We did take the tourist train to get our bearings.  I mean what could 30 minutes do to hurt our day.  Trust me:  Big mistake…Big mistake.  Don’t do it!  


So after that it was a very nice stroll past very expensive stores…and then “that” store caught my eye.  You know the one.  The one with the cured meats.  One in particular fascinated me.  It looked like a French beanie.  Picked that up for the Food & Wine Tasting!  


So after a Whiskey Crème ice cream cone it was enough so we strolled back to the ship…looking for anyone we knew to warn them off the tourist train who were about to embark.  And, of course, a nice long soak in “my” hot tub on the Seabourn Pride…with a glass of champagne.  (OK, two.)


The next day brought us to Gijon, Spain.  Our complimentary transfer to the old town did not bode well for this day as it just seemed like a depressed city past its prime and on the economic decline.  My wife and I wandered the streets with two of our friends, one of whom writes Spanish language books and the other takes photographs for them.  It was interesting, but we all wondered where that special “thing” might happen.




As seems to usually be the case, I just had a feeling about a street so we wandered up it.  We decided to have rest at a sideria; a bar/restaurant that specializes in the local specialty:  a hard (alcoholic) apple cider that you are supposed to pour into a glass from an arm’s length above to aerate it.  Why not?  Well, as we sat there the friendly waiter came out and then the locals – including an absolutely adorable blonde-haired girl of about five pulling her father by the hand – went in.  I believe we found our place for lunch!




Lunch had to include the Asturian speciality fabada; a thick white bean soup made with pieces of blood sausage, chorizo and ham.  So after checking out a few more options it was back to the sideria for a feast…a feast that would wipe dinner off our plans for the evening on the Seabourn Pride.  We started with a platter of local cheeses and cured meats.  My friend, our guide, was surprised how good it was.  It was so good and so big that could have been lunch, but no.  I had to also order grilled sardines made with Asturian bacon.  (It didn’t fit within our palate of foods, but I had to have them…but couldn’t finish them.) And the, now on our third bottle of sider, the fabada…which was delicious, but so heavy and filling.


I do have to say that if you looked Gijon had some wonderful architecture and some back streets and plazas did look a bit like old Madrid, but it was not our favorite port.  So after lunch we headed back to the Seabourn Pride.  And, as the seas were going to be a bit rough as we departed – with a Western swell in the Bay of Biscay –  we opted for some quiet time in our suite.  I did, however, head to the “my” hot tub as we departed, but even with a wonderful salt spray and all that warm water, it could not relieve the fullness of my lunch.   I did wander out about 10:00 p.m. for a drink with our friends, but otherwise it was a very relaxing evening…well needed and appreciated after all of the events…with two more to go:  Shopping with the Chef in A Coruna and the Food & Wine Tasting on our last day.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part VII (Bordeaux- Day 2: Chateau Margaux and Chateau Lynch-Bages)

Today was one of the most important 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise Events.  If all goes as planned it will be a true life experience for any wine enthusiast! 
 
 
It was a beautiful cool and sunny day.  The 2012 Bordeaux grape harvest had literally just begun.  For this day I invited the Seabourn Pride’s Sommelier, Executive Chef and Hotel Manager to come along as a “thank you” for all they do for me (Goldring Travel).  With the ship having a big load-in only Juan, the sommelier, could come for the entire day, but Nick, the hotel manager and Chef Kurt planned to hire a car to meet us at my grand finale for the day:  A tour and wine tasting at Chateau Margaux.
 
Rumors on the Seabourn Pride was that tours to Chateau Margaux had been cancelled, but alas I knew they were not the same tours but rather literally nothing more than a brief glimpse at the Chateau, but with the tractors pulling container after container of grapes from the fields those tour buses would be too much of an inconvenience at such an important time.  We, however, were not getting a glimpse, but a very private experience.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
 
Our day started with a beautiful drive through the Bordeaux countryside passing many beautiful chateaus with the grape pickers already in the fields. 
 
 
We then arrived at Chateau Lynch-Bages for a very interesting tour of both the present and past wine making facilities as well as a Food & Wine Pairing Course.  We were met by a most charming, friendly and animated hostess and guide.  She had a great way of making this rather rarified vineyard and the Bordeaux wine-making process very accessible. 

 
The harvest of their small white wine grapes had been completed, but many of the red wine grapes were still on the vine…waiting for just another day or two; unlike the vineyards adjoining this bastion of fine wines.  (Some of the newer red wine grape vines had been harvested and were in the process of being transformed into wine, but in Bordeaux the vines must be at least three years old to be included in the best wines.)
 
As we entered the facility we saw on the right some vats that just had circulated some of the young wine-in-the-making in what is a very simple process:  Open the bottom of the large stainless steel vats and let the liquid pour into large plastic tubs with a large hose attached to a pump sucking the liquid up and pouring back into the top of the vat.  (Aeration is very important and there is nothing like frothing liquid mixing with air to do that!)
 
After a brief look at the rest of the modern facilities and computer controls (for some aspects of the wine making process; especially temperature control), which was fascinating, there was a surprised as we moved into the first year aging cellar.  A man with a backpack was coming out where our private tour was going in.  I was thinking, “Who is this guy let loose in this place?” but quickly came to find that he was the owner…just doing his thing.
 
As we traveled through the facility we found ourselves in a room filled with old wooden vats that it no longer uses. 
 
Up the stairs was a virtual museum of the old methods of making wine.  Our guide gave us a fascinating and enlightening history lesson from how grapes were crushed (yes, by women’s feet) to how the stems and piths were pressed, to the vats were filled…using essentially a railroad-style turntable with huge tubs.  She did, however, pause to explain the annually changing art collection and how it is “paired” with the wines of the vineyard…though the labels of Chateau Lynch-Bages never changes.
 

Our tour passed by the “normal” tourist tasting room to the Cerle Lynch-Bages building in the charming courtyard that is part of the Village of Bages for our private, and very interesting and fun, Food & Wine Paring Course.  We entered our modern classroom, set up with desks with four glasses for each “student” appropriately sitting on white paper with a small notebook.   Our “teacher” was our guide, so we knew it would be both approachable and fun.
 

 
After we were all seated and quiet (sound familiar?) she poured us for wines:  a Sauvignon Blanc, a white Chatenauf du Pape, a Merlot and a Chateau Lynch-Bages Bordeaux.  With this came a very small plate consisting if a mere taste of a hard cheese, cured ham, dill pickle and bread.  It was very interesting not only discussing pairing, but why the pairings work or don’t work. (If you are intrigued, you just might want to take one of the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruises!)
 
After our taste buds were alive (and spoiled by the great wines) it was time for our lunch at Café Lavinal.  I arranged a fixed menu and wine pairing:  Lightly-cooked foie gras, red onion marmalade and balsamic reduction to start, Gilthead bream, wine reduction and sweet spices, cauliflower risotto as our main and Platter of French Cheeses to finish paired with Chateau Sainte Marie 2011 (Entre deux mers) as our white wine and Les Palerins de Lafon Rochet 2006 (St Estephe) as our red.  I was so pleased to see Juan, our Seabourn sommelier, step in an discuss the pairings.
 
 
It was then a 45 minute ride to Chateau Margaux, but we arrived a bit early as surprisingly there was no traffic during the harvest period. 
 
 


So as we waited for Emilie Janot who we were so fortunate to elegantly guide us through this pinnacle of wine-making, the Seabourn Pride’s Hotel Manager, Nick, arrived…without Chef Kurt!  The Chef, showing his leadership and care for his staff, stayed behind to assist with a four hour delayed shipment that was made incredibly difficult as the lowering tides of the Girande River made use of the ship’s loading doors impossible, so all of the trucks has to be unloaded by hand.  I felt so bad for Chef Kurt…who so deserved this experience.
 
 
As the harvest was underway we were required to walk down that famous white stone path past the elegant chateau while the family dog ran by and the family scurried inside for we obviously interrupted their time on their veranda.  Amazing!
 
We then entered into 200 year old first year aging cellar.  It was filled with hundreds of brand new French oak barrels waiting for use.  Emilie explained that Chateau Margaux looks at every possible aspect of the winemaking process to be sure the ultimate in quality is achieved.  Everything is considered. For example, the cases used for the grape harvest allow for the depth of only one bunch of hand-harvested grapes so the grapes are not damaged.  Similarly, the wine aged after the first year is all combined because those new oak barrels are actually made by six different coopers and each burnishes the inside of their barrels slightly differently, so the character of the new wine will vary slightly.
 
 
We walked to the left and a huge wooded door was opened.  No steel vats (though a few do exist and are being experimented with at the chateau), but 20 and 60 year old wooden vats for the vinification process.  Ironically, I see very modern overhead hoists and stainless steel mini-vats with the newly crushed grapes being lifted into these oak vats.
 

From there it was to the true aging cellar.  It was, honestly, a magical experience that literally sent a chill up my spine.  While the 2011 vintage was relatively small, this cellar looks and smell like the ones wineries (dare I call them chateaus?) seek to copy.  Wow!
 
 
And then it was time:  The Tasting.  We were brought to a room that had a huge fireplace and old, plush, comfortable chairs with an aged round wooded table in the middle. Beautifully simple and elegant wine glasses (absent any mention of Chateau Margaux) were brought over and then Emilie went into another room and brought out two wines for us to taste:  2008 Pavillion Rouge and 2008 Chateau Margaux.
 

Tasting these wines in such a setting…with the grape harvest literally being processed just outside the window was incredible.
 
What a day! But, alas, it was time to return to the Seabourn Pride for our departure.  As I boarded her, Chef Kurt came up to me and explained what happened and his disappointment.  But, amazingly, he was exhausted, smiling and at peace…because he did what was right for his staff, the Seabourn Pride and its guests.  He had to rush off, however, because it was almost time for dinner service!  It was yet another life experience that fulfilled my day.
 
How do I top this day for the 2013 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise?  I am not sure I can top it from a wine aspect, but I can and will most certainly make it another extraordinary experience.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Federal Judge Finds TripAdvisor List To Be "Unverifiable Rhetorical Hyperbole"

I am not a fan of Cruise Critic or its sister site, TripAdvisor, because those sites posture themselves as bastions of accurate information when, in fact, they are depositories for a huge amount of misinformation and skewed perspectives...not accurate facts.  Now a federal court judge has issued an opinion consistent with my opinion. So if you don't want to believe me, how about a federal judge?

That is why I have always urged that you use an experienced, knowledgeable and honest travel agent...like me!

I recently wrote in an article during the 2012 Goldring Travel Food & Wine Cruise aboard the Seabourn Pride about a restaurant in Dover, England that boasted a clearly flawed 4.5 star TripAdvisor rating:
 
This was a “Why you need to be careful of TripAdvisor ratings” moment. In Dover, which is not exactly the hotbed of fine cuisine, there is a very small Italian restaurant called Il Rustico. In its window hangs a poster boasting its 4.5 star rating…and more mementos of its “success” on the walls inside. The place was nice enough and the food was OK to good and two people said the dinner the night before had excellent pasta, but 4.5 stars? I have dined at some pretty nice places that get 4 stars or less on TripAdvisor because the measure by which they are rated is clearly far different than the one Il Rustico is. For Dover I would probably give it a 4.5 star rating. But as compared to restaurants generally it would have been a solid 3 stars…and no more. 

Well, on the flip-side it seems, the Grand Resort and Convention Center in Tennessee was sufficiently infuriated by TripAdvisor naming it the 2011 "Dirtiest Hotel in America" that its owner filed a defamation suit against TripAdvisor, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Expedia, Inc. The owner of the hotel lost the case, but ironically it is because of the very reasons I do not trust, and urge others not to trust, the information on TripAdvisor.  Seaton v. Tripadvisor, LLC, Case No. Case 3:11-cv-00549.

Let me explain:

After this federal court judge acknowledged "Its website proclaims that Defendant TripAdvisor provides the world’s “most trusted travel advice.” and later stated, "TripAdvisor’s method of arriving at its conclusions, unverified online user reviews, is a poor evaluative metric", the judge goes on to observe that "when compiling its “Dirtiest Hotels” list, TripAdvisor relies solely on customer reviews; it does not inquire about, investigate, or consider any hotels except those receiving comments or reviews on the TripAdvisor website."

Even with that the hotel owner quoting a number of assertions published by TripAdvisor including, as the judge noted:  "The list was published in different configurations in different media outlets, with Grand Resort ranking “number one” on the list in each configuration. One configuration contained the following statements, which Plaintiff claims exhibit “an effort to assure the public and the media that this list is factual, reliable, and trustworthy”: (1) “World’s Most Trusted Travel Advice”; (2) “TripAdvisor lifts the lid on America’s Dirtiest Hotels”; (3) “Top 10 U.S. Crime-Scenes Revealed, According to Traveler Cleanliness Ratings”; (4) “Now in its sixth year, and true to its promise to share the whole truth about hotels to help travelers plan their trips, TripAdvisor names and shames the nation’s most hair-raising hotels.”; (5) “This year, the tarnished title of America’s dirtiest hotel goes to Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.”

So how does the judge find that TripAdvisor is able to claim it has "The World's Most Trusted Travel Advice", but also that it only relies upon unverified customer reviews and that it doesn't independently inquire about, investigate or consider any hotels not mentioned on its site?  Because the judge found that a reasonable person would not rely upon the information as being "fact", but rather "opinion".  Sound familiar?  (Remember, the judge was not ruling on whether TripAdvisor was actually the most trusted site, but merely whether it was reasonable to believe the stuff on the site was "fact" for puposes of a defamation suit.)

More specifically, before concluding "TripAdvisor’s “Dirtiest Hotels” list is clearly unverifiable rhetorical hyperbole." the judge observed: "[N]either the fact that Defendant numbers its opinions one through ten, nor that it supports its opinions with data, converts its opinions to objective statements of fact. Any reasonable person can distinguish opinions based on reasons from facts based on reasons—just because TripAdvisor states its reasons for including Grand Resort on its list does not make the assertion one of objective fact."

He also noted, "[A] reasonable person, in other words, knows the difference between a statement that is “inherently subjective” and one that is “objectively verifiable.”

And this has always been my point:  Just because it is posted on TripAdvisor or Cruise Critic, you should not consider it "fact based upon reason", but merely "opinion based on reasons"...potentially skewed, bad, irrelevant to you or irrational reasons.

So when you read Cruise Critic or TripAdvisor be sure to know when someone's statement is "objectively verifiable" and when it is unverifiable; especially because Cruise Critic bars the challenging of  "unverifiable, rhetorical hyperbole".

But when you want true "objective fact" and clearly identified "subjective opinion", contact me at Goldring Travel by phone US:  (877) 2GO-LUXURY, UK: 020 8133 3450, AUS: (07) 3102 4685 International: +1 732 578 8585 or email.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Goldring Travel's 2012 Food & Wine Cruise on the Seabourn Pride - Part VII (Bordeaux- Day 1)

I was up early for the sail up the Gironde River to Bordeaux, France.  While it started off cold and dark, as the sun rose it warmed and was quite enjoyable…and beautiful. 
 

 
I had been to Bordeaux back in 2006, but this is a newer, fresher and more lively Bordeaux.  From the tram to the renovated promenade along the river to the freshly replanted green spaces to the incredible number of sandblasted clean buildings and new pedestrian walkways, my time here has made it one of my favorites.
 
 
 
After docking right in downtown (a great benefit of sailing on a Seabourn yacht), a few of us ventured over to the flea market to see what the locals were doing on an early Sunday morning.  (In Bordeaux Sunday morning is not exactly the hotbed of activity.)  It was a lot of fun seeing what was available from beautiful old chairs to ratty stuff foxes on this wonderfully sunny day while wandering through the local folks.
 
And then there was a “moment”.  A group allegedly from northern Portugal arrived in traditional dress and with traditional instruments.   Their leader began talking as the rest started some traditional dances…and then my wife was pulled out of the crowd to dance with them.  It was quite funny; especially as she was spinning to the left as they all spun to the right!  (I am still trying to get permission to post it on YouTube, but I think my desire for marital bliss far outweighs the consequence of doing it without her permission!)
 
 
 
After that it was a leisurely coffee and walk around downtown Bordeaux.  What a huge difference from a few years ago.  So many of the buildings have been cleaned.  There are more pedestrian walkways.  The architecture in this still sleep city just started to jump out at you.
 
 
Back to the ship for a quick lunch and it was time for the Ensemble Travel Group Ensemble Experience.  And to be sure it was a wonderful experience.  It began with a city tour including about 45 minutes of walking, but with a twist.  Aside from the “Oh that what that beautiful building is we saw this morning” (at least for a few of us) it was a study in the architecture of balconies.  Who knew it could be so fascinating?  I have no idea how the financial side of things have worked, but it seems everyone loves the mayor and the results in a very short period of time show he has vision.  (Honestly, while spending three days in St. Petersburg, Russia may be needed to explore all the museums, three days in Bordeaux is needed just to enjoy this fantastic city.  But I digress. )
 
After our city tour it was time to drive into the Right Bank to Chateau Camarsac, a 700 year old chateau and castle.  With its vineyards literally ripe for the picking (yes it is harvest time in Bordeaux), a clear blue sky, and the most charming of hosts, it was a fantastic afternoon. 
 

 
We walked through a bit of the vineyard, tasted some of the grapes as they process of winemaking was described and then walked into the former horse stable to find the owner and his wife, splattered with grape juice, turning over some of the earlier harvested juice.  He stopped what he was doing and explained the process to our group with a smile.

 
It was then time to “storm the castle” for a wine and cheese tasting.  But before the tasting we were shown a few rooms, including a hidden staircase formerly used to climb the turret!  Legend has it that the castle was either built or funding by “The Dark Knight”, his armor oversaw our tasting of a very nice white and red Bordeaux wine. 


 
But before we left I did pick up a couple of bottles of Camarsac’s 2009 red Bordeaux which was awarded a 91 by Wine Spector…one for the Goldring Travel Food & Wine Tasting on the last day of the cruise…and one for my wine collection!
 
Arriving back at the ship, we relaxed and waited for our al fresco dinner at the Sky Grill overlooking a beautifully lit up Bordeaux.  Nigerian shrimp and filet mignon were wonderful (as was the service), but the views of the city were the highlight.