Friday, March 27, 2015

Off to the Caribbean on MSC Cruises

I have been on many different cruises on various cruise lines. I have to admit, however, that I knew nothing about MSC Cruises. As soon as I did, I was immediately intrigued at the concept of this European line who had one ship in the U.S. I was also fascinated with their Yacht Club idea which gives a luxury “ship within a ship” experience.

It didn’t take me long to say “yes” and before long Mom and I were off packing to head off on the MSC Divina.

The ship leaves out of Miami for the Caribbean, while the other ships of this Italian owned line travel throughout the world. (MSC is in the process of bringing two additional ships to Miami in the next few years.) It’s a fairly large vessel with 1,637 cabins that can hold nearly 4,000 passengers.

I’d like to say that the check-in process was all quick and easy, but there was a bit of confusion as to where the MSC Divina Yacht Club passengers were to go. Once that was settled and we were in the right place, we had champagne in our hands and a butler escorting us to our cabin before most of the ship had even finished registering.

Our room was within the exclusive Yacht Club section, which has its own specialty restaurant, lounge for breakfast and cocktail hours, a private pool area, and butler service.

We were in a Deluxe Suite for guests with disabilities (my mom uses a medical scooter). It was quite spacious with a European king bed, a coach, desk, dresser, closets, and a bathroom with a shower (the same room that wasn’t handicap accessible had a bath tub too).

The room also had a television, wireless internet, a complimentary mini bar, and comfortable robes, something all guests in the Yacht Club get regardless of the MSC Cruise they take. 

Mom and I didn’t have very long to get settled before we had the law mandated muster drill. After that was done, we unpacked and got ready for dinner.

The main dining room for the Yacht Club guests on the MSC Divina is actually Le Muse Restaurant. It was a bit tricky to get to, but our butler showed the way for us that first night.

Le Muse was nothing like I expected. It didn’t resemble any cruise main dining room I had ever seen. Instead, it looked like a quaint café in Italy, both in size and décor.

The service at Le Muse was perfect and we were instantly made to feel welcome with glasses of Prosecco.

As MSC Yacht Club members we were given complimentary beer, wine, and cocktails in this restaurant, as well as our lounge and pool area.

The wine selection was fantastic, but they didn’t hesitate if we didn’t happen to like the dinner choice to bring something else.

This list included: Caesar Salad, plain or with shrimp or chicken; a beef and chicken vegetable soup; pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil; an Angus beef filet; and a salmon filet in dill sauce.

The dinner menu gave us a choice of appetizers, salads, soups, main course and dessert. If we didn’t want something from the selection of the day, we could always chose to pick something from the “Alternative Choice” menu.

I started with a creamy and satisfying tomato soup and Mom enjoyed the Caesar salad with shrimp.

For a main course, I thought the Pumpkin Risotto with truffle and parmesan was amazing. Mom decided to keep in healthy the first night and went for the salmon with grilled vegetables.

We definitely indulged on the desserts. We were unable to resist when they came around with a fruit and cheese cart that rivaled some that I have seen in France.

It was followed by a delectable chocolate and almond brownie covered in a vanilla sauce for me and a mouth-watering coconut ice cream topped with bittersweet chocolate foam for Mom.  

After dinner, we decided to skip the show and head back to the cabin. We were both exhausted from the long day, and glad the next day was at sea so we would have plenty of time to explore the MSC Divina.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Tastes of Chicago from Eataly to Godfrey

I enjoy attending events in Chicago whenever possible and I’ve learned to stuff my trips to get in as much as possible each time I go. When I received an invitation to a wine pairing luncheon I had just the excuse I needed to plan what would be a delicious trip.

The first stop of the day was for the luncheon. It was at Baffo, the Mario Batali restaurant that’s a part of the Eataly plaza in Chicago. 

The meal was being paired with Consorzio Carignano del Sulcis wines.

I didn’t know much about this region on the island of Sardinia, nor had I tasted this red grape. It sounded like a perfect accompaniment to Batali’s Italian specialties and it certainly was.

I brought my friend Lisa along and it was a fun event as we learned about the region and tasted some incredible food at Baffo:

Salumi Misti with Gnocco Fritto with 2011 Calasetta Tupei
This antipasto and fried bread worked well with this rich wine.

Farfalle con Gambieri (without the shrimp for me) with 2010 Mesa Buio Buio
Bowtie pasta, with pancetta and tomato, was a good accompaniment to my favorite wine of the day.

Pappardelle al Ragu with 2011 Barrua AgriPunica
I love this wide pasta and the meat ragu picked up the peppery wine notes.

Costolette D’Agnelo with 2009 Is Sardus Pater
An interesting wine with a slightly sweet finish complimented the lamb chops with eggplant.

Formaggi Sardi with 2008 Terre Brune Santadi
The cheese and jam matched this wine, filled with dark fruit like blueberry and blackberry.

After the luncheon, we went next door and met Valeria Fanelli, from the Public Relations department of Eataly Chicago for a private tour.

To say I was impressed with Eataly would be a gross understatement. I expected a gourmet food store and instead felt like we landed in the middle of Rome!

We knew immediately this wasn’t going to be an ordinary tour so we made our first stop for cappuccinos at one of the most complex espresso machines I’d ever seen. The coffee was as good as it looks and it reenergized us for the walk through the two floors of this food and drink mecca.

The premise behind Italy is not only finding gourmet and unusual items, but getting them as fresh as possible. On these premises they make bread, cheese, sausage, pastries, and even beer.

The selections of wine, olive oils, and pastas (including freshly made varieties) are the largest I’ve ever seen, and the produce and meat aisles contained unique items.  

Whenever possible Eataly obtains its produce, meat, and cheese as close to the location as it can.

You can shop for cooking or bring prepared food home from Eataly, or enjoy it there with a glass of wine if you’d like, in the various areas such as the pizza, pasta, or sandwich bars.

Before Lisa and I left Eataly we sampled some cheeses from the Fromaggi section. We picked up some cheese, bread, and sauces before leaving. It was easy to get exactly what we wanted as the staff is very well trained and extremely helpful.

From Eataly we headed to the Godfrey Hotel to check in for the night. It’s a fairly new contemporary addition to Chicago and the rooms are quite nice. They also include many extra amenities, such as complimentary Wi-Fi, bathrobes, and L'Occitane bath products.

We had a bit of time to relax and change before we headed to the IO Urban Rooftop Lounge. The weather was too cool for the retractable roof to be open, but we could clearly see that this modern and comfortable lounge would be more spectacular when the top was removed.

The views of Chicago from Godfrey’s rooftop are spectacular and, with a total of 15,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor space, it would be difficult for this place to feel crowded.

We indulged in the small plates from the menu, trying a little bit of everything. The menu does change seasonally, but you can’t go wrong with anything here.

A few of the items that stay on the Godfrey Rooftop menu for you to try are the Signature Black Truffle Fries, the Lamb Lollichops, and the Prime Beef Sliders. You’ll also want to give the special spreads and risotto a try, but save room for dessert – they certainly know how to satisfy a sweet tooth.

I’d also have to give a shoutout to the handcrafted cocktails here, including a spectacular mojito.

Lisa and I spent a few hours enjoying the Urban Rooftop at the Godfrey for hours before we retired for the night, full and relaxed from another Chicago outing.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leaving Nevis for St. Kitts

I had fallen in love with the Nisbet Plantation on Nevis and was going to make the most of my final day here.

Friend and fellow travel writer Sue Campbell, who was going to be heading back to snowy Montreal when she left, was right alongside me – on the beach. Fortunately, we did have a little more sun time, even when we left here.

The first thing that excited me when I was reading about Nisbet Plantation was the hammocks on the beach. Ironically, I had been here four days and hadn’t made it to the hammocks.

After we had our last beachside breakfast at Coconuts, Sue and I went right down to those hammocks. I actually finished a book for the first time in months.

All too soon it came time for our driver to pick us up and take us to the boat launch to St. Kitts

We said goodbye to the staff, especially our very gracious host, General Manager, Alistair Forrest.

We waved goodbye to Nevis as our boat docked in St. Kitts after a very short six minute ride. A driver was waiting to take us to the Marriott Resort.

We only had 24 hours in St. Kitts and we decided to stay put at the hotel and enjoy the resort, but we did enjoy the fact that our driver showed us some of the scenic points of the island  -- including the spot where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic.

The St. Kitts Marriott is nothing like Nisbet Planation. That wasn’t at all a bad thing, just different.

Unlike the small property we had just left, this one was huge, with multiple restaurants, a large pool and beachfront, and even a casino (which was very good to us). 

It was also a resort for family, singles, and couples, while we hadn’t seen any children at Nisbet.

Sue and I were torn between garnering the last minutes of sun and eating when we arrived, but were happy to hear we could do both. We ordered some delicious pizzas by the pool and relaxed for a while before we had to head upstairs to shower and change for dinner.

Our rooms at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort were very comfortable and had excellent beach views. We also had welcoming champagne from the staff. We opened a bottle and toasted to the last night of our trip.

I can’t say enough about our dinner at La Cucina La Dolce Vita with the hotel General Manager Jacques Hamou. 

We happened to be there on the night the restaurant does an interesting mix or buffet and sit-down dining.

We were able to choose from a large display of antipasto, which included artichokes, pasta, crab stuffed tomatoes, Caesar salad, flatbreads, and eggplant parmesan. I chose a little of everything that didn’t have seafood. It was all delicious.

After the antipasto and a refreshing glass of Cavit Pinot Grigio, we were served our entrees. For me, that was an amazingly fresh Veal Carbonara.

Sue raved over the Spaghetti ai Frutti Di Mare. It included shrimp, squash and a pesto sauce.

For dessert, we were back in the buffet area, trying to choose from a scrumptious display when we were already pretty stuffed, but did have some of the chocolate fondue and some gelato.

After breakfast, we headed down to the beach for a few hours of sun and surf before it was time to change and pack up for the airport.

I was impressed that not only were there plenty of gazebos with lounge chairs on the beach, but they were also complimentary.

All too soon we were back at St. Kitts airport. It had been one of the most relaxing trips I’d been on in a long time and I got to visit two breathtaking islands, as well as spend some time with Sue. I’m looking forward to seeing all three again soon. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Monkeys, Beaches, and More Touring Nevis

I slept well after a full day that had included an amazing snorkeling trip on a catamaran. After dressing casually I took a stroll down to the beach to meet my friend and fellow travel writer, Sue Campbell, for breakfast at Nisbet Plantation in Nevis.

Coconuts is the name of the beachfront restaurant at the resort. It was once again a beautiful day to enjoy the view of the turquoise sea while we ate. 

I had some tasty banana coconut pancakes with fresh juice and yogurt.

We didn’t have much time to admire the view as we were being picked up soon for a tour of Nevis with a representative of the island’s tourism board.

Our first stop was to look at the remains of the last sugar plantation on the island. It was here we also started talking about the monkeys.

We were told the green monkeys in Nevis outnumber the people, yet we hadn’t seen any in the three days we had been there. 

There were none to be seen at the old plantation, so our hopes were on the next stop, a rebuilt plantation.

We parked the car and took a walk through a lush pathway. It opened up to quite an oasis.

The modern and eclectic furnishings and art at Golden Rock Plantation definitely caught my eye. Everything around us was a piece of art, which wasn’t surprising since the owner is a New York artist. Even the pool appeared to be “drawn” into the mountains (Nisbet is the only hotel on a beach).

We were back in the car, looking for monkeys again on our way to Hermitage, a totally different, yet also luxurious property. This one seemed quainter and still had the feeling of a plantation left within the pastel walls.

Montpelier Plantation was the next accommodation we stopped at and it is certainly fit for royalty. 

In fact, Princess Diana agreed with that statement and had been a guest there, along with her two young princes.

By the time we were done touring hotels, I had a clearer picture of Nevis. Nearly all the hotels on the island are luxury, but not in the sense you would expect in the U.S. 

They were more boutique hotels with attention to detail and service in a few dozen rooms.

I had heard from locals and other tourists that Bananas was the bar to visit. We hadn’t had a chance any of the evenings, so we asked to stop by for cocktails.

Sue and I drank them on the rooftop, watching the waves and imagining that, yes, this place had to have an amazing sunset.

It was after that stop that we finally saw some monkeys in the road. We weren’t able to get any close-ups, but at least we were able to witness them with our own eyes.

After driving through Nevis’ main downtown of Charleston, it was time for lunch.

We ended the tour with lunch at Chrishi Beach Club. The view from our table was just amazing, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen. We also had a view of St. Kitts.

I really enjoyed my Raspberry Daiquiri and pizza, and Sue couldn’t stop raving about her Fish and Chips.

Before we left the restaurant, we spoke to the owner a bit. She showed us the beach houses she has been building next to the restaurant. The houses themselves were fairly basic, but they had that same breathtaking view the restaurant did and they were mere steps from the beach.

We were back at Nisbet Plantation in time for my massage. Although the spa itself is not very big, the masseuse was top notch and did the job of relaxing me even more.

I dressed for dinner and met Sue up at the Great House for drinks and dinner. The hotel’s General Manager, Alistair Forrest, was also there performing with his band. Sue joined in with them for a few songs.

We enjoyed music, cocktails, and our final dinner at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, which included a tender goat stew.  Fortunately, we did have some time to enjoy the grounds until the next afternoon, when we’d be heading to St. Kitts.