Cruising and eating go together like Laurel and Hardy - but even the great, food-loving Oliver himself would have been outfaced by Crystal Cruises’ Ultimate Vintage Room Dinner
I can't remember exactly when, but I think it was as the seventh course arrived and they opened the sixth bottle of vintage wine that I finally realised it really is possible to have too much of a good thing. Taking a "wine tour of the world" as part of a $1,000 dining experience was never going to be a walk in the park but, well, someone's gotta do it and I was willing to risk life and liver for the noble cause of reporting on the latest luxury cruise line attraction.
Crystal Cruises has built up a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its food and wines so, when it relaunched its Crystal Symphony following a $23m refit, it decided to add a new dining option: the Ultimate Vintage Room Dinner. The per-head cost actually varies depending on the wines chosen and how many people book the dinner in the small private Vintage Room (it's usually about a dozen but one male guest has already booked it just for two - one of the more expensive ocean-going romantic gestures).
Whatever the price paid, the value is undeniable. At my dinner, the retail cost of the wines - one champagne, two whites, three reds and and one dessert - averaged $300, ranging from $78 at the bottom end to $595 for a 1990 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac and $610 for a 1990 Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes.
Having amused our palates with caviar and cannelloni filled with king crabmeat, we had also moved through lobster tail, duck confit, black bass, venison and Kobe steak before my resistance crumbled with the arrival of blue cheese truffles and "Sweet Dreams" from the pastry chef. At this point, I made my excuses and left, heading for a well-deserved lie-down in a darkened room in my balconied cabin, to reflect on the meal, which was served with a running commentary by an excellent wine sommelier.
Travelling on a Crystal ship is always a rich culinary experience just dining in the main restaurant or in the alternative Italian (Prego) and Asian (Jade Garden) restaurants, which are all included in the cruise price. Single travellers will also welcome Crystal's recent move to set aside tables for eight in Prego and Jade Garden just for them. Knowing that they are assured company for dinner in restaurants inevitably dominated by couples should encourage more singletons to dine there.
But the Vintage Room was something extra special and it seemed so appropriate to be dining there, having spent the day touring the spectacular Rothschild Villa and Gardens, designed by Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild and tucked away in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. I have cruised to Monaco (as well as Cannes, Nice and Villefranche) many times and never realised this oasis of calm existed away from the hustle, bustle and conspicuous consumption of those Riviera resorts.
It was the shoreside highlight of a cruise that began in Rome and ended - after other calls in Livorno (for Pisa and Florence), Gibraltar and Le Verdon - in Dover. But it did have some competition from the Le Verdon call where, instead of heading for Bordeaux, I decided to take the free 15-minute shuttle to a place I'd not heard of: Soulac-sur-Mer, which proved to be a charmingly pristine seaside resort and market town.
It was full of appealing cafes and restaurants but I suspect even the most hyper-critical of their chefs and diners would have found little to complain about on board Crystal Symphony, where there are even expert sommeliers for cheese...