Caribbean Cruise for Culinary Connoisseurs

My good friend who lives on the Delaware shore desperately needed a post-holiday warm-weather escape. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I decided that a cruise getaway to some lesser-known Caribbean ports while dining on gourmet cuisine all along the way would be ideal for both of us.

He’s typically drawn to the newest, largest monster ships cruising, loaded with onboard amusements, more restaurants than a food court at the mall, and holding more people than some Midwestern towns. Even so, I suggested we join a 10-day “Western Caribbean Wonders” cruise aboard Oceania Cruises Sirena. 

Having cruised extensively on assorted lines over the decades, I know from experience that Oceania’s food is a tasty cut above. Indeed, they boldly profess to serve the finest cuisine at sea, boasting everything is “cooked to order” or prepared à la minute.

I also like that the gourmet specialty restaurants are free of charge, as is Champagne, wine, and beer during lunch and dinner, all specialty coffees and bottled water, and unlimited Wi-Fi. A promotion on our cruise included four free shore excursions (valued up to $1,400 per cabin).

A Gourmet Heritage

Chef Jacques Pepin

Yes, Oceania has the bona fides to satisfy both a foodie like me and my sun-starved friend. The company, founded in 2002, has been affiliated with celebrity chef Jacques Pépin for more than 20 years. The beloved, French master chef, cookbook author, culinary educator, and television personality served as the cruise line’s Executive Culinary Director until this year, when he transitioned into an advisory role.

The Ship

Sirena was built in Saint-Nazaire, France, at Chantiers de l’Atlantique, the shipyard famous for building such iconic trans-Atlantic liners as France, Ile de France, Normandie, and more recently, Queen Mary 2. Despite such large-ship forebears, Sirena is my idea of a perfect size, carrying just 670 passengers: prime for offering a relatively uncrowded setting, high-end dining venues, elegant accommodations, and a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than you’ll find on big ships.

Concierge Level Veranda Stateroom

The 25-year-old vessel — completely gutted in 2019 — is quite chic, providing a modern, airy atmosphere, similar to that of an elegant estate home. Stylish, richly appointed interiors have a color palette of soft sea and sky tones incorporating silvery grays and greens alongside vivid sapphire and taupe.

My Concierge-Level Veranda cabin was cozy (216 square feet) but comfortable, with twin beds or queen-size, a large sliding-glass door, flat-screen TV, personal safe, loveseat and coffee table, mini refrigerator stocked with soft drinks (daily), cashmere throw blanket, and a number of free laundry and pressing vouchers. Closet space was generous and there were multiple storage drawers. The veranda has two chairs and a side table. All accommodations feature the line’s proprietary Tranquility Bed — a luxurious, pillow-top mattress. If you splurge for one of the 48 penthouses, they are a spacious 322 square feet and come with their own butler. 

The Food

Cuisine Toscana Aragosta Fra Diavolo Lobster Tagliolini

As I stated, my primary criteria when selecting Oceania Cruises was the high-quality food. They claim that half of the ship’s staff is dedicated to the culinary experience. From the main dining room to the indoor/outdoor buffet restaurant, poolside grill, ice cream shop, coffee bar, and two no-charge specialty restaurants, everything is gourmet aboard Sirena. And by that, I mean dry-aged beef, the highest quality seafood, and breads made with imported French flour are served on Versace china.

Lunch at Waves poolside grill might include a wagyu burger or surf-and-turf. Their version was a petit filet mignon and medallions of Caribbean lobster tail served on a ciabatta roll — most days, I asked them to hold the roll to mind my waistline.

You can also enjoy lobster at Tuscan, one of the two specialty restaurants. But here, it’s a whole Maine lobster. (Have no fear, the server removes it from the shell for you.) Tuscan is a hybrid of the Polo Grill steakhouse and Toscana Italian restaurant found on other Oceania ships.

Aragosta Fra Diavolo con tagliolini Freschi

If you really like lobster, it’s also prominently featured on the menu at Red Ginger, the ship’s popular Asian-fusion specialty restaurant. The lobster pad Thai is stellar, and I recommend ordering it at least once during your cruise.

About that: Every guest is guaranteed one reservation at each of the alternative restaurants. We found it was no problem to dine there on multiple occasions if you are flexible on the dining time. And there is no surcharge whatsoever — a big plus compared to industry trends.

Whether enjoying a slice of well-cooked, thin-crust pizza at the Terrace Café or caviar blinis in the Grand Dining Room, every meal in every venue is truly amazing. My friend joked that he had more racks of lamb in 10 days than he’d had in the past decade.

As part of Oceania’s current “Simply More” promotion, we had free Champagne, wine, and beer during lunch and dinner. And there were many varietals to choose from, including chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, rosé, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, and zinfandel. To our great delight, there were sometimes multiple choices of each. For example, my buddy drinks sauvignon blanc and they offered him a New Zealand, a Chilean, or one from California. All of the wines we sampled were good, without exception.

Sirena offers nightly entertainment, including a talented four-person troupe of singers and dancers. But for us, the main attraction was the dining experience, and most nights we turned in after savoring a leisurely, multi-course meal.

The Itinerary

Honduras, Roatan

Having lived in South Florida for 35 years, the specific Caribbean ports on my itinerary were not so important for me. Of the 650-plus passengers on our sailing, the vast majority couldn’t care less, either. Virtually all of them were drawn to the balmy Caribbean for a needed respite from winter doldrums back home. 

Sirena provided that. From Miami, we headed for Costa Maya on Mexico’s Atlantic Coast. Unfortunately, strong winds prevented us from safely docking there, but the next day we visited Roatan, Honduras, a port famous for its underwater attractions.

In Santo Tomas, Guatemala, I joined a half-day tour to Las Escobas Springs Rain Forest. It was rainy and cool during my January visit, but it would have been lovely in better weather.

Harvest Caye was our stop on the following day. This private island was developed by Oceania’s parent company in cooperation with the Belizean government. The cruise line offers optional tours departing by boat, but many guests opted to do nothing but enjoy fun in the sun. A convenient golf-cart continually shuttles guests between the gangway and the beach area. There’s also a large swimming pool with swim-up bar, optional zip-lining, refreshment stands, kayak and pedal-boat rentals, and various kiosks selling everything from local rum to souvenirs, hats and tee shirts. Umbrellas and private cabanas are available for those wishing to avoid the sun. The facilities include changing rooms, showers, and restrooms. Many of my fellow passengers felt this man-made attraction was their favorite stop.

Our visit to Belize City offered a more authentic, unfiltered look at the Caribbean nation known as British Honduras until 1973. I took a tour to a local brewery. Later, aboard Sirena, a fellow cruiser told me that I missed seeing the most beautiful parts of Belize. For example, cave tubing near Jaguar’s Paw Resort. Note to self, do more research in advance.

Cooking in Cozumel 

Cozumel was first discovered by American tourists in the 1950s and has attracted them ever since. Our optional sightseeing choices included the ability to drive a speedboat … or to learn how to cook, Mexican-style.

Since my knowledge of the Mexican kitchen was limited to fish tacos and quesadillas, I joined the Mexican cooking class with my college chum and two new friends from the ship. Beverages, both soft and alcoholic, were provided at the outset and the instructors were fun, albeit a little silly and overly animated.

We first prepared a chocolatey plantain dessert that immediately went into a cooler to chill. Then, we formed a pastry cup from homemade tortilla batter that served as an edible serving dish for a Mexican-spiced shrimp appetizer. The main course was filet of fresh, local fish, lightly pan fried with mixed vegetables.

After preparing the meal we adjourned to an upstairs dining room overlooking the ocean to be served the fruits of our labors. All in all, this adventure was a shoreside highlight.

The Cost

A Concierge-Level Veranda stateroom on a similar Caribbean itinerary in 2025 will cost about $450 per day per person, double occupancy. Included in these fares are wine, Champagne, and beer with lunch and dinner, a selection of free shore excursions (valued up to $1,400 per cabin), and free Wi-Fi. Alternative restaurants, specialty coffees, and bottled water are included on all Oceania voyages.

Owners Suite Foyer

Next winter, Sirena will offer an enhanced 10-day Caribbean itinerary from Barbados to Miami, departing January 29, with visits to St. Vincent, Grenada, Curacao, Aruba, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Prices for the “Steel Drum Serenade” range from $3,099 to $8,699 per person, double occupancy. The Owners Suites are already wait-listed. Following her Caribbean cruises, Sirena crosses the pond for a series of spring, summer and fall voyages throughout Northern Europe, the British Isles and Scandinavia, from May to November.

The Bottom Line

My Italian-American mom was a kindergarten teacher and a gourmet home cook. Some folks may say she raised a food snob. But I prefer to say I’m a culinary connoisseur. Definitely I care about quality food. If you want to cruise close to home and appreciate fine cuisine, Oceania’s Caribbean cruises for 2024-25 range from 7 to 14 days.

By Gary Gerbino