Virtuoso Traveler 2019 June What It’s Like to Take a Culinary-Themed Cruise in Central America

What It’s Like to Take a Culinary-Themed Cruise in Central America

Panama City’s colorful Old Quarter.
Panama City’s colorful Old Quarter.
Photo by Sunshine Pics/Alamy
The recipe for an epicurean cruise in Central America? Take one James Beard-nominated chef, steep in the culinary scene at ports of call, and serve with a side of locally sourced coffee and chocolate. 

Chef Jamilka Borges whisks half a dozen eggs while telling us stories of her Puerto Rican mother. How, in the kitchen, her madre likes to have a glass of wine as she tosses together a mix of flavors in rhythm to the music that’s always playing.

“My mother is an amazing cook and loves to entertain,” Borges says, “from simple meals to the most elaborate parties. That’s something I got from her.”

The now Pittsburgh-based chef is clearly comfortable in front of the near-capacity crowd of culinary enthusiasts aboard the Star Breeze, demonstrating her coconut flan and sesame brittle, which will be served during a hosted tasting dinner later in the voyage. Watching her strain the flan mixture, I realize two things: First, I’ve never prepared a dish that required a water bath. Second, the pairing dinner will be one for the cookbooks.

Borges stepped aboard Windstar Cruises’ 212-passenger yacht in Puerto Caldera for our eight-day sailing around Costa Rica and Panama. The cruise line designed this culinary-themed departure through its partnership with the James Beard Foundation, best known for its coveted awards (widely known as “the Oscars of the food world”). The foundation also conducts a Chefs Boot Camp that educates young chefs on sustainability and food-policy initiatives, and alumni join select Windstar voyages throughout the year to give demos, design special menus, and work with the kitchen staff.

Virtuoso travel advisor Nancy Cutter says that, while Windstar’s food was always great, “the James Beard affiliation has really taken the line’s culinary offerings to the fine-dining level.”

Chef Jamilka Borges strikes a pose.
Chef Jamilka Borges strikes a pose.
Named Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2018 Chef of the Year, Borges helms the kitchen at The Independent Brewing Company in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, fusing her classical French training and Puerto Rican traditions in imaginative, seasonal fare that she describes as “vibrant, nurturing, and refined.” The chef earned her first James Beard Award nomination in 2015 and was a semifinalist for this year’s Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award. She’s also a huge supporter of 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that works to combat food waste.

“Besides being a fantastic chef,” says James Beard Foundation COO Kris Moon, “Jamilka does a great deal of work to redirect perfectly good food from landfills to those who truly need it.” Such efforts, he adds, epitomize the organization’s focus on sustainability and its guiding principle of promoting “good food for good.”

It’s appropriate, then, that we’re cruising around Costa Rica, where sustainability efforts are embedded in the culture. For starters, more than 95 percent of the country’s energy comes from renewable sources, and its organic and carbon-neutral agricultural practices were on international display a few months ago when the United Nations’ second global conference on sustainable food systems convened in San José.

Star Breeze’s small size allows us to take full advantage of the country’s bounty with daily supplies of locally sourced produce, and I start each day by piling a plate full of succulent melon, papaya, mango, and pineapple during an alfresco breakfast. (Confession: My first stop is actually the top-of-ship espresso bar, where our barista, Yogi, greets me each day with a warm smile and the query: “Hello, Miss Susan! Would you like your double cappuccino?”)

The voyage also features a series of culinary-themed shore excursions. In Quepos, for example, we walk through the local farmers’ market before a lunch of ceviche and picadillo at a nearby private ranch. Another tour takes me to Finca Kobo, a traditional cacao plantation, for a lesson in Costa Rica’s rich chocolate culture. Our local guide explains how the indigenous Chorotega people used cacao beans as currency until the early twentieth century and extols the fruit’s many health benefits, but the specifics get lost between bites of homemade banana bread dipped in chocolate fondue.
Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze. 
Windstar Cruises’ Star Breeze. 
Midway through our cruise, we reach Panama. The tiny country’s location between Central and South America, and the Caribbean and the Pacific, has created a melting pot of cultures – and, subsequently, gastronomy – recognized by UNESCO, which designated its buzzy capital as one of its Creative Cities in 2017. A stroll through Panama City reveals everything from crowded dim sum restaurants to street vendors hawking bollos (corn tamales), tightly wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Those wishing to delve deeper into Panamanian cuisine join a local chef in his kitchen during our call in Balboa. I, however, opt for a walking tour of Casco Viejo, the historic Old Quarter, that combines two of my daily staples: chocolate and the aforementioned coffee.

Casco Viejo has undergone a renaissance of late, accelerated by Pope Francis’ visit this past January. Our small group – just four passengers and our guide – wends around plenty of scaffolding on our way to Bajareque Coffee House, roaster for the Lamastus Family Estates in the Boquete region. Panama’s famous Geisha coffee grows in Boquete’s highlands, and, squeezing our way to the back of this modest little shop, I would never have guessed that Lamastus made headlines in 2018 for producing the world’s highest-priced Geisha, which garnered an eye-popping $803 per pound. While we don’t get to sample those magic beans, our barista serves us a Geisha brew that’s unlike any coffee I’ve ever tasted: light, smooth, and fruity, almost like a tea.
Pouring the perfect cup at Bajareque Coffee House.
Pouring the perfect cup at Bajareque Coffee House.
Next stop: Tropical Chocolate Café, a tree-to-bar chocolate maker whose delightful co-owner, Carolina Buglione, leads us on a tasting. It seems an odd career choice: Buglione previously did humanitarian work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet her experiences there – organizing a microcredit project with a group of women and witnessing the use of child labor – fueled her desire to create a high-quality chocolate that respected social and environmental standards.

“It’s so important to be conscious about the products we consume,” Buglione tells us while describing Tropical’s cacao plantation in Almirante, which is totally organic and employs mostly indigenous Panamanians. Bonus: Her delicious bonbons are mini works of art. Boxes of the pineapple-, passion fruit-, and rum-filled treats will make nice gifts for friends back home – if I don’t eat them first.
From tree to treat: Tropical Chocolate Café’s bonbons make sweet souvenirs.
From tree to treat: Tropical Chocolate Café’s bonbons make sweet souvenirs.
Borges’ special tasting dinner takes place during an at-sea day, and the ship’s main restaurant is humming in anticipation. This cruise paired Borges with Sarah Thomas, sommelier at New York City’s three-Michelin- starred Le Bernardin, who’s had us compare Panamanian beers and taste a variety of rums ranging from the dry, white Caña Brava to a Ron Abuelo that’s dark, spicy, and bold. For now, however, I’m content to sip a glass of Palacios Remondo La Vendimia from Rioja, Spain, a ruby-colored red with cherry notes and soft mineral undertones that Thomas chose to complement the chef’s marinated rack of lamb with raisin chutney.

Of course, what elevates any meal to the “unforgettable” category is the people you share it with, and the dining room is filled with fascinating fellow travelers and newfound friends, an impressive number of whom are Windstar devotees. The latter comes as no surprise to advisor Cutter, who’s sailed with the line more than 30 times. “The small size of Windstar’s ships,” she says, “means there’s a certain connectivity that happens – with the destination, with others on board, and with the sea itself.” That’s a winning recipe for any sailing.

Pack Your Appetite: Three More Culinary Cruises

SeaDream Yacht Club

Bubbly – including the rare Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs – flows freely during a Taittinger-hosted Champagne tasting aboard the SeaDream II. SeaDream Yacht Club plans a number of über- exclusive pours, plus vineyard visits and a winemaker’s dinner, during the 112-passenger mega-yacht’s seven-day sailing from Barcelona to Rome (Civitavecchia). Departure: October 12, 2019; from $4,599.

Avalon Waterways

Hidden microbreweries in Bratislava’s Old Town, a hops garden in Bamberg, and pints of crisp Kölsch in its birthplace of Cologne are in store for 128 beer enthusiasts aboard Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Tranquility II on a 15-day voyage between Budapest and Amsterdam. Departure: October 25, 2019; from $5,699.

Aqua Expeditions

Peruvian chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino took Lima to the top of the global food scene with his restaurants Malabar and ÁmaZ. The culinary superstar, who also consults for Aqua Expeditions, takes over the galley aboard Aria Amazon for a five-day, round-trip-from-Iquitos voyage, treating its 32 passengers to market tours and a master cooking class. Departure: November 18, 2019; from $5,400.

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