It’s now late October 2023. Lindy and I (Paul) have been providing cake design classes on cruise ships for about four months this year and we are about to make it five. Is this the life I wanted when I retired? I didn’t know it but YES definitely! This cruise is from Southampton to Dubai with us teaching sugarcraft aka cake design classes on sea days.
Preparations and Embarkation
Lindy has to prepare 26 sugarcraft lessons, two per day. Despite having around one hundred pre-prepared classes at her disposal, she remains committed to crafting fresh ones for our upcoming new port calls – watch out for the Scarab.
We safely reach Southampton, each with a suitcase, and carrying two more filled with equipment along with seven boxes of heavy sugarpaste. We return our hire car and take a taxi to the port. The MSC Virtuosa, our home for the next few weeks, never fails to astonish me with its immense size, splendour, and opulence. Witnessing the embarkation process is fascinating to watch, such a remarkably efficient logistical operation.
Cake Design Classes
If you were a passenger, what would you think about seeing “Cake Design” on the daily planner? One guy thought “yummy” – but unfortunately, we had to disappoint him. The reason passengers see “cake Design” is that the ship is owned and run by Italians and in Italian, sugarcraft and cake decorating is known as “Cake Design”. Consequently, some were a bit perplexed to start with but not for long. We were immediately oversubscribed, and the lessons were a delightful surprise to many. One lady was a real ‘fan’ of Lindy’s work and couldn’t believe she was teaching onboard! Now that is the cherry on the top.
An Official Visitor
Normally we don’t see the cruise director, they are much too busy and usually delegate others to check we are OK. However, something extraordinary happened while we were teaching the Octopus lesson. The Cruise Director came in to see what we were doing. It was good to see him, his name he told us was….no really…..what?…..Octopus in Italian! Francesco Polpo. Francesco Octopus. Wow, we couldn’t have planned that better. We were so impressed that not only did he bother to come and see our activity, but also later sent us a personalised thank you.
A Typical Teaching Day
We run two lessons a day one at noon and another at 2.00 pm. They require us to pack up a suitcase of equipment and carry heavy boxes of prepared sugarpaste from our cabin down to the restaurant, about half an hour before the start of the first class. I help Lindy layout 28 places – we are limited by the number of mats, tools, paste, boards, and worksheets. We are a well-oiled team. I thoroughly enjoy meeting and greeting the queue, I can chat, find out nationalities and share a joke or two. After the lesson (some are slow to finish) we must clear up, wipe mats and tools, and resupply new paste and sheets for the afternoon session. Grabbing a coffee is a must but also a challenge given the short time available!
After the lessons, we pack away and remove everything back to the cabin, where the washing up and drying begins. Have you ever washed up 30 sets of tools in a small cruise ship bathroom sink? Ah, it’s a skill. We are tired and need food. But what about tomorrow’s lessons? Participants will need 28 packets of various coloured sugarpaste in different sizes! With every lesson being different, this clearly requires planning – and Lindy is exceptional at this. Usually, but not always, we have used our free time several days beforehand to cut up and bag the paste. I reckon I can now cut up 10g, 25g and 50g blocks of sugarpaste in my sleep!
Travel Tips for Italy
We always enjoy port stops, especially ones we’ve not visited before. The port of Civitavecchia (try saying that quickly!) was new. We had a trip booked but it was cancelled, forcing us to make our way to Rome for the day. I told you – it’s a hard life! This is an hour by train, but as long as we get back in good time it is easy. Near the Colosseum, watch out for people with “badges” trying to get you fast-tracked in the queues, we thought they were dodgy…unless you actually want to go into the Colosseum (the ticket queue was an hour and a half – not for us).
Here’s another tip – when at the Pantheon, and you need an ice cream, don’t get one from the same vicinity. One (massive) ice cream was 20 Euros, and we couldn’t finish it. A mistake and one we knew but we still got caught out – Oh well.
Flexibility is Key
As we head towards Athens and the port of Piraeus, our teaching venue is moved to another restaurant. It turns out the restaurant we had been using was being made ready for Abu Dhabi and the Formula 1 championship. MSC are a sponsor for Formula 1 and we were led to believe they were going to host the drivers onboard, and have Shania Twain perform. None of this would we witness, as we would fly back from Dubai the day before. Evidence of their commitment to F1 was the giant chocolate F1 car being constructed by the chocolatiers in the Jean-Philippe Chocolate & Cafe on board.
Expect the unexpected
Now a good example of cruising the seas – unexpected events. Halfway to Greece, we had to, turn around and head back towards Sicily. Someone unfortunately had a bad fall and needed an airlift to a hospital. A small delay but these things happen at sea. Expect the unexpected!
A Land of Myths, Legends and a Cake Museum
Having disembarked at Piraeus, the port for Athens, we walked into town and caught a spectacularly graffitied metro into central Athens. Crowds to enter the Acropolis were teeming – another thing cruisers should be prepared for. But we were doing our own thing and once we found a second entrance and a much quicker way to the top, the views were spectacular of course. Wonder where the frescos went?!
Crete next, and the capital Heraklion. We wandered around taking photos and finding coffee. Quite surprisingly we found a coffee and cake shop with a small cake decorating museum (closed, unfortunately). Happy to say none of the decorated cakes were in the same class as Lindy’s professional work, but the coffee and baklava were nice.
Seven days of teaching – through the Suez and beyond
Cancelled Ports in the Middle East
Many passengers had chosen this cruise primarily to see the archaeology at Petra (Jordan) and Luxor (Egypt). Both were cancelled before we set sail due to the Israel-Gaza conflict. In fact, we were one of the few cruise ships to transit the Suez Canal this winter. Lots of people were resigned to the unexpected cancellations but hey ho. There’s always a cake design class to go to!
Popular Cake Design Classes with Enthusiastic Participants
Now the plan was to not stop until we reached Muscat in Oman. That’s seven days at sea. For us, that’s 14 lessons with no break. Busy – but that’s why we are here. From Italy onwards numbers and the queue for our classes dropped to sensible numbers, so thankfully we were no longer turning anyone away. Those passengers who remained on board and came to our classes became regulars, became friends, and became enthused. Missing out Egypt was partially smoothed over by Lindy’s creation of the Scarab beetle class – which was very popular.
Armed Guards Onboard!
In the Red Sea, we picked, up some armed guards as extra insurance against pirates – but it seems the threat is more of a thrill for passengers to talk about than a reality. No pirate has ever boarded a cruise ship. Plus, we saw some military warships, and apparently, the shipping lane was protected by an unseen military ‘umbrella’ throughout the straits of Bab al-Mandab and around the Horn of Africa. All in all, a long uneventful seven days, but getting warmer!
Did we dare do a Pirate face lesson at this point? Yes, we did!
Inspired by Arabia
Lindy had prepared a class to make an Arabian coffee pot so that passengers might be more appreciative of them when they visited ashore. This was probably the most challenging lesson for the students. We found as ever that people have different skills that sometimes they don’t know they have. Some people have to follow instructions step by step, whilst others (though fewer) have a more creative brain and are adept at being more artistic and going off-piste. This mix is another nuance that makes the lessons so enjoyable.
The afternoon session before Muskat was the Hand of Fatima or Hamsa Hand. Wiki tells us that this ancient protection against the evil eye is often adorning jewellery and wall hangings. These were done brilliantly – and are evidence that students have made progress with their skills.
Port Day Highlight
I have never visited the Middle East before, although Lindy has. It’s not very green, is it! But our trip to Wadi Shab was magical. Beating the crowds is always brilliant. We walked an hour up a canyon which is only passable in winter since the temperature can reach 50 degrees C in summer. Then swam, the only way to get there, to a cave that had a waterfall inside it. Adding to the fun, the entrance was a small triangular opening which meant swimming sideways for about 10 m, with a gap for your head about the size of a football! Amazing. Glad I had a GoPro to record it.
Two days here instead of one was a small recompense for missing out on Jordan and Egypt. Souks are a big attraction for tourists – but not everyone likes the experience (personally urgh, Lindy yeah). Still – I saw Frankincense for the first time.
Finals Cake Design Classes on Board
Going through the Straits of Hormuz we learned that the sea between Iran and Oman is disputed, such that there are no international waters for shipping. There is an imaginary line down the strait that ships must stick to. This is the line we were travelling along on our last teaching day.
Lindy’s cake design classes culminated in a demonstration of how to model a sugar Rose – skill and experience required! A spontaneous round of applause afterwards was much appreciated. A great many positive things were said, and Lindy thanked them earnestly. This is always a highlight for us.
Cake Design classes on a previous teaching trip
If you’d like to take a look at one of our earlier trips here’s a link: