TUESDAY: There’s a red light flashing on the cabin phone when I wake up. Message waiting. Fernando, the concierge at Barefoot Beach has a private cabana available if we want it. Well, it would be rude not to, don’t you think?
Allure of the Seas has arrived at Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s private 260-acre resort on the north coast of Haiti. The ship is tied up at the pier, built in 2009 specifically for it and Oasis of the Seas – until then, visiting ships anchored in the bay and passengers were taken ashore by tender.
It’s the first time we have left the ship and it’s a surprise to discover there’s an escalator to take us down to the gangway. All very well until a passenger – and there’s always one – has to search for their cruise card to be scanned before security can allow them off. A queue builds up, but the escalator is still delivering people into the limited space. No problem, staff quickly open up another line and we’re moving again without incident.
It takes less than 10 minutes to walk to Barefoot Beach where our beach butler shows us to the cabana, fetches towels and offers to bring floating mats or a snorkel and flippers. Not for me, thanks; there’s bottled water chilling in the icebox and I’m going to take advantage of the sun while I can. It’s another breezy day and the weather forecast is not that great.
Before long, Russell discovers the $89 jet-ski excursion he has booked is cancelled because it’s too windy, and it looks like the early birds were the only ones who got to ride on the Dragon’s Breath Flight Line – a 50 mph zipwire that plunges 2,600 feet from high on the hillside and over the sea to Dragon Rocks.
That was never going to be how I was going to spend my time on Labadee, especially at $85 for the privilege. And I’ll pass on the Dragon’s Tail Alpine Coaster as well at $19 for a single ride.
I’ll just crack open the Kindle and settle myself down to read – looking up occasionally to make sure that my fellow guests are still enjoying splashing in the sea, and checking that Allure hasn’t quietly sailed off without me.
Lunch from the barbecue has been brought across from the ship’s kitchens, and I don’t need cash to buy a beer – just show my cruise card as if I were in one of Allure’s bars.
There’s a bustling craft market (above) over at Town Square, but although Russell is having pangs of guilt about the plight of the Haitians beyond the fence, still struggling to restore their lives after the 2010 earthquake, I don’t see him putting his hand in his pocket to buy a T-shirt or a painting to support the local economy.
Royal Caribbean say that hundreds of locals benefit from cruise ships visiting Labadee, and the company is among the biggest contributors to the island’s under-developed tourist industry.
Anyway, an unwelcome splash of rain sends us scurrying back to the ship – our blissful day at the beach is to be followed by dinner in Allure’s top restaurant.
While I was on board for an inaugural cruise in 2009 I had a lesson in haute cuisine from chef Molly Brandt, who showed me how to make her signature smoked sweet potato soup, complete with a garnish of smoked duck and delivered to the table in a haze of hickory smoke. It was delicious, though I say so myself, so I am looking forward to dining at 150 Central Park (above) for the first time.
We have a moment or two for an aperitif in Vintages wine bar first – I’m surprised to find it almost deserted, and the usually-efficient barman has trouble locating a wedge of lime for my G & T.
But now it’s on to the main event, which was described to us course-by-course by our attentive South African waiter. I’ll follow his example, so you can see what we got for out $40-a-head cover charge and – just because we can – the $75 each for the accompanying wine pairings.
We were intrigued by what was first brought to the table: six individual dishes containing differently-flavoured (and coloured) salt to accompany a basket of breads. I tried to pay attention to the descriptions, I promise, but – foolishly – I couldn’t get excited about what I thought was a gimmick. How wrong could I be? While some of them tasted of nothing more than, well, salt, a couple were sensational. Especially the one that had me believing I was eating a hard-boiled egg, even though it was nothing more than a few grains on a piece of bread.
Russell was equally impressed. He’s even done his research and tells me it was Kala Namak and comes from India. I loved it.
We examine the menu, but of the six courses, plus cheese, we have only one decision to make, and that’s to choose between duck or beef for the main. Bearing in mind we have dinner in the Chops steakhouse and the Samba Grill churrascaria before the end of the week, we both opt for duck.
So, first up, it looks like a small samosa, but it’s described as a wild mushroom cigar with sweet and sour apricots, Swank Farms watercress, pickled ginger, sea beans and toasted sesame, matched with a glass of Taittinger “La Francaise” Brut Champagne.
We’re already off to a taste-bud tingling start, and the soup is next. Uh-oh, it’s not “my” sweet potato but a parsnip velouté with buckwheat waffle, whipped buttermilk, maple and American paddlefish caviar. The first sip is actually a bit of a disappointment – could it be a bit sour? But I follow the waiter’s advice, swirl all the separate elements of the dish together, and it is sublime. The Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma, California isn’t bad either.
On to Gruyere-thyme tortellini with Swiss fondue sauce, grilled landjager sausage, jardiniere pickles and pumpernickel breadcrumbs, washed down with a glass of Chateau d’Esclans Rosé from Provence. Then comes a near-perfect pan-roasted monkfish with patatas bravas, piquillo pepper emulsion, saffron, black olive crumble and Swank Farms baby fennel accompanied by what was a surprise to me, Chateau La Nerth, a white wine from Chateauneuf du Pape.
Pause for a moment. The way I am listing the meal doesn’t go anywhere to doing it justice. It was a leisurely affair – the waiter had already ensured we did not have to leave to see a show – and we had time to savour every nuance of the food and wine. Other tables came and went, but we took our time, enjoying every new treat.
I must admit, however, that I was beginning to fear I would not be able to do justice to a big, fat, juicy duck breast, even one glazed with root beer molasses and accompanied by smoked sweet potato puree (Molly must have known I was coming), roasted brussel sprouts, glazed turnips and sassafras-pickled dates.
I need not have worried; one duck breast probably served four diners and my portion was perfectly manageable. I could have done without the sprouts though, but they are my least favourite vegetable. Thank goodness there was a glass of Tenuta dell’Ornellaia “Le Sierra Nuove” from Tuscany to take the taste away. Perhaps it was the extra glass of Wagner Vineyards Ice Riesling from Finger Lakes, New York state that was to blame but the carrot-ginger cake with raisin coulis, cheesecake ganache, sweet carrot ice cream and 150 Central Park’s own special rum-raisins, and the cheese plate all passed in something of a blur.
I was still trying to summon up descriptions worthy of Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace when Molly (above) appeared at the table to ask how we’d enjoyed it, and I probably failed to come up with anything that adequately matched the experience.
A superb evening; it’s no wonder that tables in the restaurant are in such demand week in, week out. And how long will it be before chef Molly earns the first Michelin star for a restaurant at sea?
TOMORROW: Falmouth, Jamaica