Wine and cruises an increasingly popular pairing

By Tom Stieghorst
*InsightCruise lines and wine seem like a pairing made for each other. There’s plenty of time at sea to get to know more about grapes, vineyards and the wine-making process.MSC Cruises has wine blending courses that passengers can take to learn how various grapes change the flavor and texture of a wine. Princess Cruises has a collection of super Tuscan wines on the Royal Princess and Regal Princess. In the dining room of its Solstice-class ships, Celebrity Cruises has a two-story, glass-and-steel wine tower holding 1,800 bottles.

The latest entrant in the wine appreciation sweepstakes is SeaDream Yacht Club, which has expanded a series of wine voyages for 2015 and is inaugurating a certification course in which passengers can become accredited by the London-based Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).*TomStieghorst

The course is being offered for the first time on SeaDream I’s April trans-Atlantic crossing, which will allow enough time for the course work needed to take a level 2 WSET exam.

The cost for the course and exam will be $1,500, which largely underwrites the cost of buying wines to study, said Erica Landin, a Swedish wine journalist who has organized SeaDream’s wine program.

“For what you get it’s quite well-priced,” Landin said.

SeaDream’s season in the Med next summer will feature nine winemaker’s cruises, giving passengers access to top-level winemakers who will come on board for tastings, and dinners that pair food and wine.

The ship will also have excursions to vineyards and wineries where tours will be led by the owner or top winemaker at the chateaux.

Cruise ships aren’t the only way, or even the best way, for real aficionados to visit the great wine estates of Europe, but for groups it certainly offers more style than a bus tour. Ships can move from region to region, country to country with ease. SeaDream’s 112-passenger yachts can assemble groups big enough to command attention, yet small enough to be manageable.

And cruises also offer flexibility, so if one partner in a couple isn’t interested in wine, the other can pursue their passion without feeling like their spouse is being left behind.

“It should be enjoyable for people who are just onboard and who love wine and food,” Langin said. “It should be approachable for everyone. You can be as involved or not involved as you wish.”

And wine generally makes for good company and fellowship, Langin noted, adding to the camaraderie that a good cruise engenders among its passengers.

“My hope is this group will enjoy each other’s company in the evening, they’ll maybe have dinner together and share bottles in a more relaxed way than in the class,” Langin said.

Themes breathe new life into river routes

By Michelle Baran
Insight It isn’t easy to reinvent the wheel, so one has to give it to the river cruise lines for getting creative with itineraries that go up and down the same rivers week in and week out by crafting unique and engaging themed departures.

River cruise companies have been toying with themed river cruises for years —holiday-themed winter cruises came onto the scene several years ago as a way to extend the river cruise season and continue to be a mainstay in all the river cruise lines’ brochures — but they’re getting more innovative with themes and definitely having more fun with it.

AmaWaterways’ wine-themed cruises have become so popular that the line now dedicates an entire brochure to its In Celebration of Wine cruises. The company also hosts Jewish heritage cruises, chocolate-themed cruises and even knitting cruises: AmaWaterways will have a “Knitting New Year’s Cruise” this year on the Danube, which will showcase the latest in luxury yarns, forums on fashion trends, and classes on new stitch patterns and techniques. The knitting cruise was suggested by one of AmaWaterways’ travel agent partners and will be hosted by Barry Klein, owner of Trendsetter Yarns in Los Angeles. MichelleBaran

For 2014, Avalon Waterways increased its special-interest cruises by 30% to meet demand, adding beer-tasting, golf, wellness and World War I history cruises to an already innovative roster of themed cruises. They also offer cruises based around the themes of art and impressionism, authors, food, wine, music, Jewish heritage and history. Tauck, too, has culinary, art and music-themed cruises.

There are also themes that are more timely, such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day, which many river cruise lines have incorporated into their France itineraries, including Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.

And stateside, American river cruise lines have endless themes to enhance their Mississippi and Pacific Northwest river itineraries. The American Queen Steamboat Co. has cruises centered on baseball legends, Mardi Gras, music of the 1950s and 1960s, Elvis, bourbon and bluegrass, and many others.

American Cruise Lines has Mark Twain, Lewis and Clark and Civil War cruises, and for the American foodie, lobster cruises and crabfest cruises.

Not convinced by river cruising? Perhaps you’ll be lured in by your love of shellfish … or knitting … or bourbon. Pick your poison.