Eating well in Puerto Limon . . .

High above the harbor, where the air is clear and the streets are filled with cars and people rather than warning signs and concertina wire, our cab driver pulled to the side and indicated a colorful sign and an open doorway. We had arrived at our destination, and a smiling waiter came out to greet us. 100_4759

Crew members on board our cruise ship had said this was the place to go for lunch in Puerto Limon. We were early but it was comfortable enough to just sit and “be.” The big-screen TV that hung from the ceiling, thankfully, was not blaring, and the hum of quiet conversation from two or three adjoining tables was pleasant “background music.” We ordered cool drinks. We did not expect to be alone for long.

The ‘back side’ of Costa Rica

This is not the tourist’s Costa Rica. Puerto Limon, the busiest port in the country, has the look and the feel of a “real” town. Bananas, grains and other goods leave here bound for destinations across the globe, but it has not yet become a prime cruise ship destination. It retains its working class flavor, refreshing in a time when glitzy storefronts and undistinguished trinkets welcome disembarking passengers in most other ports.

This Caribbean port has island roots and they stretch all the way back to 1502, when Christopher Columbus set foot on the land. Beaches stretch in both directions, and the sea is beautiful, but the city itself is a bit disheveled and has suffered the ravages of earthquakes, storms and economic blight. Like much of Latin America, it is defined by gates and barricades, and the ever-present concertina wire.

Limon is not postcard pretty, but the people we met were gracious and friendly, although busy with their own pursuits and not impressed by cruise ship crowds. We had no desire to shop in town, but the fruits and vegetables displayed at the market looked lush, ripe and inviting.

My journal note from the day:

“The Red Snapper (or Da Domenico; we were never quite certain exactly where we were!) is unassuming from the street, pleasant enough within; with a friendly local ambience not unlike bars and restaurants elsewhere in the tropics. Sea breezes circulate under a soaring ceiling, wafting through open-air rooms like invited guests. Dark wood interiors punctuated with spots of bright color keep it cool, but lively. And the good-natured banter emanating from the kitchen makes us smile. So, too, does the sleeping dog that patrons are careful to step over or around!”

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Views of the harbor — our glistening white cruise ship seemed far away and far below — were mesmerizing. We looked over the rooftops toward the horizon and were captivated. We drank in the beauty of the sea, ordered cool drinks, and knew we had been given good advice.

We also knew it was going to be a long and satisfying lunch! We were not disappointed.

Sampling the sea’s treasures

Because the best part of travel involves putting aside the familiar, we asked our waiter for lunch suggestions. We specified fish or seafood. Little did we know what a feast would be set before us, so we also decided to share a pizza marguerita “appetizer.” No way could we consider it a mistake in terms of flavor, but there is no way a starter course was necessary!

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Our surprise dishes were delightful — and the three of us happily shared two distinctly different orders. The first, a whole fish served with fried plantain and a fresh green salad, was not only impressive to behold, but would have offered sufficient food for three on its own! And it was presented as beautifully as cruise ship fare.

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The second house specialty included perfectly-prepared seafood steamed in a delicious sauce and served in its own foil pack hot from the oven. 100_4748Overloaded with shrimp and mussels swimming in flavored sauce atop a bed of pasta, it was Caribbean in character, boasting plump cherry tomatoes, fresh parsley and subtle exotic spice, perfectly executed, but too much for one person!

When our congenial cab driver returned to pick us up, he obliged by taking us on a short tour through his town — a request we always try to make. As we made our way back to the dock, we were happy to have shared a great meal in Puerto Limon, sorry that we had no more time to explore this back side of Costa Rica more fully.

We will savor the experience we had, and we will continue to wonder about our young waiter who dreamed someday of joining a cruise ship crew to see the rest of the world.

 

Cruises: An unending buffet of treats

It’s true. There’s a lot of food — and drink — available on the average cruise ship.

But even the cruise lines have lightened up a bit. Gone are the midnight buffets, although there are definitely ways to get food around the clock. Gone are the late night chocolate extravaganzas that were as much a feature of cruises as the welcome aboard champagne towers.

Healthy has come to cruising

Sit down breakfasts in the dining room are as apt to include healthy oatmeal and fresh fruit as Eggs Benedict, corned beef hash and fried potatoes; smoked whitefish and soft boiled eggs in addition to bagels, lox and cream cheese. Waiters still circulate with trays of croissants and pastries, and we hope that never changes!

Ever-present buffets are heavily laden with salads, fish and fruit, including Scandinavian and Mediterranean specialties, in addition to hot entrees. It’s still hard to be sensible with buffet selections, but not as difficult! There are many more choices that reflect the cultural identify of scheduled ports. A relatively new alliance between Australian Chef Curtis Stone and Princess Cruises has led to revamped menu offerings on the line’s 18 ships, as well as new a concept dining venue called “Share,” soon to be available on most of them.

Lighter, but as pretty as ever

It’s an interesting, welcome and delicious departure. Food on cruise ships has always been something to write home about — mostly, in days gone by, for its calorie-rich decadence as much as for the quality and the abundance. Today, the food is different.

It’s beautiful to look at, thoughtfully prepared and presented, regionally appropriate — and it’s lighter, fresher and healthier. An extensive array of vegetarian offerings reflects a changing culture and the global trend toward health consciousness and fitness.

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Desserts are often fresh fruit, lighter sorbets, cheese trays and sugar-free cakes. But the Baked Alaska parade by waiters is still a feature! And, although the variety, preparation and presentation are still worth celebrating, food service as practiced by the cruise lines has achieved something much more notable.

It is entirely possible to return from an extended cruise vacation not a single pound heavier, and at least as healthy as when you stepped aboard, with no hint of deprivation.

A newly enriching travel experience

Food is a part of the experience and, in the words of Chef Stone: “When good food and travel brings people closer together, you experience the world in a whole new way.”

On a recent Eastern Caribbean sailing with Princess Cruise Lines, our party was delighted by the variety of dishes, the range of flavors, and the visual appeal of every plate brought to our table. We were equally entranced with the buffets — Danish smorgasbord for breakfast; shrimp salad and fresh fruit for lunch. Lighter custards, along with tempting fresh-baked cookies, for an afternoon pick-me-up.

The food on board was so good, in fact, that I sought out some Curtis Stone recipes upon returning home. You can try some too, if you’d like!