It’s the ‘sail-in’ that I love; that moment of land ahoy and then coming in to port. Standing on the balcony of my cabin, I can feel the sun’s heat on my face as Ventura crosses the waves of the Caribbean. St Lucia seems within touching distance and looks almost like a toy island. It is beautiful and evergreen, hemmed by white shores and dotted with mango trees, ancient plantation houses and crumbling sugar mills.
The agenda for today’s lazy day goes like this: take a speedboat around the coast and have lunch at a cocoa plantation in the shadow of the Pitons, a pair of volcanic spines rising spectacularly from the sea.
Sea food: Marco on the balcony of his restaurant on the cruise ship Ventura
For most of my life I have missed out on travel, and therefore the excitement it brings. As a little boy growing up in Leeds, I made a couple of trips to Italy with my Italian mother. She died suddenly when I was six and I stayed rooted in Britain for 30 years, moving from kitchen to kitchen, restaurant to restaurant.
Holidays did not happen. In fact, I managed to win three Michelin stars without ever having set foot in France. As an aside, I finally crossed the Channel – by then in my late 30s – but didn’t own a passport.
So I waved a fishing permit as ID at bemused officers in Calais. Shouting ‘You are a crazy Englishman!’, they let me in. It seemed that my life’s journey was not destined to include many trips abroad.
That changed eight years ago when I joined P&O Cruises and opened my own restaurant, the White Room, aboard Ventura.
Cheeky: A monkey with a baby sips on a cocktail at a bar on the island of St Kitts
Since then, travel has been a significant and important element of my life. Whenever I can find the time, I sail the seas, discovering the world I never dreamt I’d see.
A cruise allows me to combine work with immense pleasure. It has enriched and deepened my knowledge of food. I trained in French cuisine and know a little bit about Italian cooking, but cruises around the globe have left me with colourful, gastronomic snapshots and insights into other food cultures.
Sure, I can buy pretty much anything in the supermarket in Britain, but in the Caribbean I have tasted mango, vanilla, ginger and avocados like I’ve never tasted before. There are dishes of buttered lobster, which is rich and tender, jerk chicken and other spicy dishes. The islanders don’t measure their spices. Caribbean cooks tell me: ‘I have no recipe. I just know how to make this dish through taste and touch. I learnt it from my grandmother.’
This cruise begins with the fantastic check-in at Gatwick: you drop your bags and don’t need to think about them for the rest of the trip because the next time you see them is in your cabin. The plane takes off in wind and pummelling rain. Eight hours later, we land in paradise. I step off the plane at Barbados, which is just a little larger than the Isle of Wight, and stand for a moment to savour the heat and gentle, tropical breeze.
Then we take a bus to the port in Bridgetown, and I am reintroduced to the sights and scents of the Caribbean; the hot roads lined with trees of palm, coconut, guava and breadfruit; the yellow, green and blue pastel colonial buildings; the remnants of British rule that include roundabouts and red post boxes (Barbados is known throughout the Caribbean as Little England).
The bars are taking deliveries of Bounty rum and Carib beer, and we pass pretty little houses that have names like ‘Aberdeen’. There’s a statue of former Barbados resident Admiral Nelson, and there are signposts to Hastings and Worthing.
Paradise island: St Lucia is one of Marco Pierre White’s favourite Caribbean destinations
Once on board, I go for a wander to my restaurant at the top of the ship, on Deck 17. For me, Ventura is a floating hotel with something for everyone. There are four swimming pools, a spa and a gym. I tell passengers: ‘Please eat at mine, but if you don’t then you have a choice of 11 other dining rooms.’
There are also bars, a tennis court, a library, a casino, shops, non-stop entertainment and black tie and casual evenings.
Ships are happy places, and that happiness starts at the top, with Captain Paul Brown. There is a level of service on board that reminds me of my early career, when I started at the Hotel St George in Harrogate; that was an era when the customer got what the customer wanted.
Nothing is too much trouble for Ventura’s stewards and waiting staff. On the first day I asked: ‘Can I have HP Sauce, please?’ On subsequent mornings I didn’t need to ask, as they remembered my cherished HP. We need our creature comforts, don’t we?
It’s a family-friendly ship. There’s a nursery for babies and the Reef Club for kids of all ages. My sons Luciano and Marco have previously joined me and had the time of their lives. Life on Ventura is stress-free for parents, and children find it exciting to wake up beside the sea, but in a different place each day.
Little England: Pastel colonial buildings line a street in Bridgetown, Barbados
I like to sleep with the balcony door open: I am one of those people who feel reassured by the sound of rolling waves as the ship voyages towards tomorrow’s port of call which, over a 15-night holiday in the Caribbean, could be Grenada, Dominica, St Kitts, St Maarten, Tortola, Curacao or Bonaire. Or it could be St Lucia, my favourite of the Caribbean islands I’ve visited. The speedboat drops us in the little port of Soufriere, meaning sulphur-in-the air (thanks to the nearby sulphur springs).
At the top of the town sits a Catholic church – most of the islanders are Catholic – and along the front of the port there are rows of brightly painted wooden houses. These are people’s homes which in the evening double as bars for locals and tourists.
We take a short drive into the hills to the Boucan, a boutique hotel and restaurant on the Rabot Estate, a cocoa plantation owned by the British chocolate company Hotel Chocolat. The estate is overseen by British couple Phil and Judy Buckley, who moved here eight years ago.
We chat over ‘cocoa tea’, a St Lucian breakfast speciality which tastes not of tea but cocoa, and are given a guided tour by Cuthbert Monroque, the nursery supervisor. He breaks open a cocoa pod and invites me to suck on a young bean, which is covered in a slimy, sweet mass.
Cuthbert takes me through his concoction for insecticide and fertiliser, which contain ‘ingredients’ such as chives and garlic. It’s like listening to a chef recount a recipe: ‘…add bicarbonate of soda and cayenne pepper, blend and leave to soak for one month,’ he tells us.
The tour ends at a greenhouse where Cuthbert invites me to graft a cocoa tree. Prince Charles and John Major have also grafted trees for this plantation.
At lunch, Boucan’s chefs high light how to use cocoa and choco late in food. I’ve used it as a thickener to a sauce – it replaces blood, the original sauce thickener.
The chocolate gives richness and a velvet texture.
Sights and scents of the Caribbean: One of the colourful homes on the island of Barbados
At Boucan, I have tuna with a cacao and herb pesto sauce, served with crisps made from plantain, and then a delicious casserole of chicken breast with curry-spiced creamed coconut and cacao nibs.
I drink glasses of chilled grape fruit juice and fresh lemonade and stare out to the Pitons – Gros Piton and Petit Piton – and feel incredibly privileged to be in such an amazing setting.
There is another lovely lunch when Ventura berths for a day in Grenada. BB’s Crabback is a really cool, chilled-out restaurant where the customers don’t leave without writing their names on the wall. It’s a five-minute stroll from the port and overlooks St George’s Harbour and, on the other side of the harbour, Grand Anse beach.
I have fried shrimps with black pepper; sweet shellfish with hot pepper and some home made mango salsa to cool it.
I also have goat curry with the same home-made mango salsa. Before heading back to the ship, I have a couple of scoops of nut meg ice cream – a first for me and utterly delectable.
The cruise includes a day at St Maarten and another at St Kitts. On the latter, there’s a short drive to Cockleshell Beach, where two greenback monkeys dart in front of the car. Leroy, the driver, says: ‘We’ve got 45,000 people on St Kitts and 55,000 monkeys. So more monkeys than humans!’
At the beach there’s the Reggae, a buzzing bar and restaurant where Bob Marley’s music plays loudly. For about £15, you can enjoy baby back ribs ‘the best on the island’, and on every table there’s a bottle of Brimstone Flavours. It’s a sauce made from Scotch Bonnet peppers and the label says: ‘Hellfire for your food, not for you soul.’
Try it, but with caution.
P&O Cruises (pocruises.co.uk, 0843 373 0111) offers a 15-night Caribbean fly-cruise on Ventura from £1,649pp with return flights from the UK, full board and entertainment. The cruise departs Barbados on November 7 and visits Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts, St Maarten, Tortola, Curacao and Bonaire.
Marco is on board a number of cruises this year and next to offer masterclasses, demonstrations, hosted shore excursions and more. A 12-night cruise to Madeira, Canaries and Portugal with Marco from August 11 starts from £1,089.