Cruises are famed for the all-you-can-eat approach to dining, but it’s not often you get Marco Pierre White preparing your dinner. Richard Hercock books in.
My culinary skills are stretched when boiling an egg, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to join Marco Pierre White for a cookery masterclass. My wife sniggered, my nine-year-old son begged me not to embarrass myself in front of our fellow travellers on P&O’s Ventura cruise ship, but I was determined to give it a try.
Being a fellow Yorkshireman – Marco was born and raised in Leeds – I thought maybe the celebrity chef would take pity on me. So, after a day lazing by the pool, followed by a hearty lunch in the buffet-style restaurant – one of numerous amazing eateries on board – I turned up for what I thought would be a glorified cooking lesson.
Only when Marco asked if his 12 pupils, sat perched on bar stools in front of an open-plan kitchen galley, were hungry did the penny start to drop.
Our lesson would be to watch the maestro – the youngest chef ever to earn three Michelin stars – at work as he embarked on cooking us all three wonderful courses. Sailing the waters off the coast of Portugal, seafood was a huge influence, as our host regaled us with stories of growing up in Leeds.
How he knew the area’s greyhound stadiums intimately and how he snubbed the chance to follow Leeds United in favour of Arsenal to try to be different from his Whites-supporting brother.
“Whitey, you’ll do nothing in life,” said his old headteacher when he left school, and as we sit in Ventura’s galley kitchen it seems a long way from his first kitchen jobs at Harrogate’s St George Hotel and the Box Tree at Ilkley.
But Marco is now the teacher and, as the vessel gently rocks, we are all enthralled and inspired by his simple but exquisite culinary skills.
Of course, cruising is like letting a young child free in a sweet shop when it comes to food.
The Ventura does not disappoint. Sailing from Southampton, on a week’s break down the coast of France, Portugal and Spain, there is ample opportunity to sample the varied menus and restaurants.
Embarking could not be easier. Drive right up alongside the ship, and porters are there to smuggle your baggage away, and the next time you see it is in your cabin.
All you have to worry about on cruise ships like Ventura is simply not getting lost. But, as soon as we located our balcony cabin, my nose led us to the nearest restaurant and you quickly get orientated with the ship’s layout.
We had freedom dining, which meant we could pop along for dinner anytime between 6 and 9pm, and a waiter-service table would be waiting for us.
Or we could return to the less-formal buffet diner, or one of the several speciality restaurants – like the Epicurean or Sindhu. One night you can be sampling Asian delights at Sindhu, such as lobster, rice pancakes and asparagus, the next evening dining at Epicurean, where you have classic fare like a rack of lamb or loin of wild boar.
And on our cruise, there were even two formal black-tie nights, the chance to glam up with ladies sporting cocktail dresses.
Sailing out of Southampton, we swiftly navigated the Channel, and headed south where – following a relaxing day at sea – our first port of call was Vigo in Spain.
Walking down the narrow streets, steeped in fine Spanish architecture and steeples at every corner, or people-watching from a roadside cafe, Vigo is a lush, green bustling port. Beaches are just a short taxi ride away, or P&O offers plenty of organised tours if you want to venture further afield.
But we are back on Ventura for a cheeky ice cream, before we set sail again, destination Portugal. Here we visit two heavyweights in Lisbon and Oporto.
Oporto (more commonly known as Porto) is brimming with history – it’s even designated a Unesco World Heritage Site – and too many museums to visit in a day.
A quick shuttle bus from the port takes you into the centre of Porto, where are there are plenty of boutique shops to lighten your wallet. As the crow flies, the capital Lisbon is 195 miles south of Porto, but to cruise travellers that is simply an evening’s entertainment – maybe take in a theatre show – and a good night’s sleep.
Waking up in Lisbon, this was my favourite port day. The city is stunning, with hills cascading down to the water’s edge of the River Tagus.
We even embraced a spot of tourism and took an amphibious tour. One moment we were being whisked along the streets of Lisbon, the next making a huge splash as the bus turned into a boat for a river cruise.
Try the bacalhau – cod, supposedly cooked in 365 different ways, although I didn’t have time to try every variety – or the oh-so-sweet cakes rich in marzipan.
After three days of sightseeing, a sea day is a welcome distraction, to put your feet up, maybe try a spa treatment or hit the gym.
We are heading north now to the Channel Islands, with St Peter Port in Guernsey being our final port of call, before landing back in Southampton.
As we disembarked after a memorable week on Ventura, I left with wonderful memories but still none the wiser over how I can master the kitchen.
P&O Cruises ( 0843 373 0111, pocruises.com) is offering a seven- night cruise on Ventura (N808) from £599 per person for an inside cabin. Departing on May 4, the price includes kids’ clubs, full board meals and entertainment on board.
Departing from and returning to Southampton, ports of call are Vigo, Lisbon, Oporto and Guernsey.