Friday, August 16, 2013

Goldring Travel Cruising on SeaDream Yacht Club - Italy and Corisca 2014 - Part IV (Calvi, Monaco, Portofino, Porto Azzurro...and Stale Bread)

Stale bread. 

Portofino on SeaDream II
I need to take a moment to discuss “travel”.  Since Bonafacio SeaDream Yacht Club’s SeaDream II has been to Calvi, Corsica (not a great port), Monaco and Portofino (a great port…read on), but today we are in Portoferraio on the island of Elba.  (Our itinerary has changed, eliminating Portovenere/Cinque Terre, due to heavy swells…a disappointment).  

Rather than staying the rather depressing port of Portoferraio we take a 20 minute taxi ride to Porto Azzurro (more on the port later). After our walk we find all the good restaurants are only open for dinner, so three of us are sitting at a quayside restaurant and are presented with a basket of stale bread.  It is an insult.  We are American tourists.  We are offended.  It is not good.  Or is it???

A seafood feast in Port Azzurro
I now regress.

Our second port is Calvi, Corsica.  It is not a port of any real interest.  You know if there is something in town worth finding I will sniff it out, but I am at a loss.  
OK, I did sniff out this little gem in Calvi, Italy!
So I am back on SeaDream II within an hour.

Aside from the two hour nap that I never take, I now have a good feel for the ship and its staff.  There is no question that by the third day I feel at home.  The staff has figured out that while I like to be pleased I also like to be teased.  They sense when I want to be left alone and when service is needed…always with a genuine smile.  

Zoltan shows off a perfect Pimm's Cup
on SeaDream II's Top of the Yacht Bar
In the evenings I like to drink Glenfiddich on the rocks.  Being outside in the summer the ice tends to melt a lot fast than I consume the whiskey…which I use as an excuse to drink slower than some others.  Michael has it figured out.  He asked me if I would like more ice; not another drink…unless, of course, there is almost nothing left in my glass.  (As you may have read, Silversea’s inability to provide this sort of service – no less on a consistent basis – was a real disappointment.)

So while you know I am impressed and enjoy the service, many of you have asked how the cuisine is.  It ranges from very good to excellent, but is always creative and enjoyable.  It doesn’t matter if it is a Caesar salad with anchovies or escargot with a gratin or osso bucco (properly prepared, so it not just the name of a dish) or Dover sole or lobster, there is always a subtle twist.  I, and the other guests, really enjoy the surprise to the cuisine.  I have not had a disappointing taste on board…not one.

I mention to the chef when we are heading to Portofino that I love a local pasta called trofie with pesto I find he added it to the menu…with truffles! 

I wasn’t going to have breakfast, but my friends said, “You have to try the French toast”.  So – to be polite – I did.  It wasn’t your ordinary French toast, but rather a thick, but light, grain bread with a light nutty texture…even with maple syrup.  Who knew?!

SeaDream II's Chef's Play on French Toast.
Chef Tomasz Kozlowski explains to me that there are no set menus, though there are regular or consistent items.  Because of the small galley staff there are no assistants, so everyone must be on their game, so with the flexibility of the menu comes a heighted responsibility to assure everything leaving the galley (which is almost always cooked ala minute) is prepared, seasoned and presented at a very high level. 

I will have more to say about the cuisine after the last night’s Degustation Menu, which will be served in the main dining room.  There is necessarily a definite difference in menu and presentation when dining al fresco versus in a dining room…so stay tuned.

After Calvi we cruised to Monaco which I used as a lazy day, but one to really take a good look around the ship.  Even though she was built in 1985 and shows her age here and there, when something is painted, it is painted well.  If something is repaired it is repaired properly.  In fact, I am impressed that the water pressure is excellent, the water is clean and hot water is not an issue.  (I am told virtually all of the water lines have been replaced with modern, plastic, lines…which is the wave of the future… and the water-making equipment is brand new.)

But make no mistake, this is not a new ship.  The cabinetry in the staterooms show a bit of age, no matter how well maintained, but everything functions well.  One will quickly and happily remember that “It is the software (people), not the hardware” that matters most on SeaDream Yacht Club.

Sailing out of Monaco is my night to enjoy the SeaDream Yacht Club Sleeping Under the Stars on one of its Bali beds.  There is no question that the one on the bow is “prime” as it is secluded, quiet and receives the best breeze.  If you can get that one, do it.  My bed was the only one on the starboard side aft with three others being made up on the port side.  (SeaDream II obviously got the memo that I snore loudly, so it made sure I was alone…and separated from the innocent others by the ship’s funnel!)

It was a nice experience, but honestly it is not for everyone.  If the bar is open late you can be disturbed.  (I grabbed my headphones and some music seeing the situation.)  If the ship is moving slowly (as it did in my case) you can get a whiff of the exhaust from time-to-time.  (This would not be a problem if there is any distance between ports, but on this cruise they are all close together.)  At 6:30 a.m. I heard the staff setting up for breakfast…but then the next thing I knew it was 7:30 a.m. and I felt well-rested.

I needed that restful sleep for our next stop:  Portofino; the picturesque Italian port.  However, today is not set for “the beautiful people” but rather a 10 kilometer hike right up the mountain and ending in Santa Margherita.  It was a real hike, but well worth it.  Besides being great exercise, the views were fantastic and our guide was energetic, experienced and charming.  
The view while hiking
from Portofino to Santa Margherita, Italy

But it almost didn't happen.

You should appreciate that SeaDream Yacht Club has a definite focus on those wishing a more active experience.  When at anchor the complimentary wave runners, sailboats, kayaks, water skiing and trampoline are offered alternating with time for swimming.

Part of SeaDream II's fleet of water toys
Interested in bike riding?  There is a small fleet of high quality touring mountain bikes which you can take yourself or join a complimentary bike tour headed by the activities director or the captain.  Those bike tours range from a casual scenic ride to very serious, challenging, expeditions that will leave even the most fit with burning thighs.

 SeaDream Yacht Club also offers a small variety of additional cost tours ranging from very low key to very active.  The hike from Portofino to Santa Margherita was one of them.  Unfortunately, I was the only one to sign up for it.  I am told 48 hours prior that it won’t be going.  I mention this to a couple and they said they would love to take the hike too.  So I ask the concierge, Kathrin, if we could hire the guide directly.  Rather than the standard cruise line “No!” I received the SeaDream “Yes”.  I asked if we should pay the guide directly.  Silly me.  SeaDream had it all taken care of.  As the group increased to five people, they did the accounting directly so nobody has to worry about collecting funds.

As our hike finished in Santa Margherita one’s initial impulse would be to purchase its famous pinot grigio.  Not me.  I wanted to purchase what the locals drink which I found out was Vermentino and Pigato grape based Riviera Ligure di Ponente.  So with a bottle in hand along with 3 bags of dried trofie we take the 6 Euro/15 minute ferry back to Portofino.  We have touristic, but nice, lunch at Del Fino (The Dolphin) with a perfect view of the beautiful people…and a good number of tourists before heading back to the ship.

A soak in the hot tub was, unfortunately, interrupted by the Norwegian toddlers that the parents/grandparents have let pretty much overtake the swim deck when they are present.  SeaDream has done a great job with segregating them during meals, but the parents and grandparents need to do their jobs and not have SeaDream Yacht Club be the babysitter/children police.  Overall the Norwegian family’s children have not been too much of an aggravation for me, but for those that live by the pool the opinion is quite different.  If SeaDream Yacht Club failed anywhere on this cruise, it is with how the children (and their parents) have not been told, “No!”  (SeaDream has even tried to create a Kid’s Club to move them away from the other guests, but it isn’t enough.)
SeaDream II's Dessert Extravaganza
Rant over, a wonderful lobster dinner was followed by SeaDream’s Dessert Extravaganza poolside.  It was nice but not really my style.  But with the Top of the Yacht Bar closed for the evening, it was time to join ‘em, rather than fight ‘em, before calling it an evening. 

The problems I have mentioned are like the stale bread I mentioned before… 

Back now to Portoferraio.  We find an old Italian taxi driver that tells the fare to Porto Azzurro is 38 Euros.  We get in his taxi and are greeted by a sign in four languages, “I am an honest Italian taxi driver”. He points to the sign and says, “Impossible!” with a laugh. 

As we are driving I hear a harmonica…and then a familiar tune…and then THE voice:  Bruce Springsteen.  My friends speaks Italian and they start talking.  The taxi driver exclaims he has seen Springsteen ten times and he likes him because his grandmother is Italian.

So with the Jersey Shore serenading us we arrive at a very pretty Porto Azzurro.  We wander the town and stumble upon a sign for a ceramic studio.  I follow a small path through residences to a garden/studio where we meet Talo, the gray and wild-haired, slight, elder artist who has combined Italian and Japanese Raku techniques.  I buy a memento.  (Now I just need to get it home!)

Italian Ceramic Artist Talo in Porto Azzurro, Italy

Oh, yes, back to the restaurant!  After the stale bread was removed for fresh bread, nice local white Vermentino wine was brought to the table along with a seafood feast of local fish, swordfish, squid, octopus, mussels, clams, prawns and langoustine. Porto Azzurro provide us with a fantastic lunch and we are picked up by our Springsteen loving taxi driver for the ride back.  Oh, yes, it was 38 Euros each way. 

Back on the ship my friend says he wants to go off the ship to get an espresso as the ship’s isn’t really to his liking.  The best place, we are told, is next to the taxi stand.  Our taxi driver is there…and buys us espresso!

We had a great day with a Springsteen loving Italian taxi driver, a wild-haired Italian artist, a beautiful port, a great seafood lunch and SeaDream II...or we could focus on the stale bread (or a few children whose parent/grandparents should be ashamed of themselves).

I’m without question focusing on another great day on SeaDream II!