Kosher cruises a new option for food-conscious travelers

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — Kosher-conscious cruise-goers look out. Here's something to top your Hebrew National hot dog. Long a popular means of travel for seniors and families, cruises are now offering the kosher option.

Among them is a new kosher travel company, Chosen Voyage. At first the company will offer five weeks of chartered cruises aboard Windstar Cruise's superb sailing vessel, the Wind Surf, Chosen Voyage CEO Matthew Shollar said.

Why this ship?

"Usually, 50 percent of our passengers are repeaters," said Francois Birarda, the ship's hotel manager. "We do unusual islands. And the staff gets friendly with the guests, remembering their names."

Thelma Weinberg of Bay Shore, N.Y., has sailed on three Windstar cruises with her husband, Harold.

"We like the concept of a small ship where we get to know the other passengers and crew," Thelma Weinberg said.

"We appreciate that we don't have to dress formally," Harold Weinberg said. "Yet we don't want to sacrifice the high level of food preparation and service that we're used to."

Windstar ships also draw younger cruisers than most lines because of the soft adventure offered to off-the-beaten-path destinations — along with an Internet center, a fitness center and a watersports platform. All watersports are complimentary, except scuba diving. Though a high ratio of staff to passengers, increases comfort level among seniors, according to Chosen Voyage.

Other onboard diversions include a large casino and spa and, on select Chosen Voyage cruises, Jewish comedians and lecturers.

Other cruise lines answer these needs as well. Some cruise ships, such as those used by Lotus Tours, offer limited kosher cuisine and Judaic programs.

Other lines, like Kosherica's, have been operating kosher cruises for seven years and sail the Caribbean, but kosher guests make up only a segment of the passenger list.

Some travelers are enamored of the romantic appeal. Steven Korn of Boca Raton, Fla., who honeymooned with his wife, Felice, on a Windstar ship, noted that dining "was like eating at a premier French restaurant every night."

Birarda, the hotel manager, said "the menus will copy those for regular Wind Surf passengers, but using kosher ingredients."

Examples include a crispy filo cup filled with wild mushroom ragout or roasted duck breast with sweet potatoes and sour cherry sauce.

Three kosher dining rooms and an outdoor grill will accommodate meat and dairy needs. China, flatware, glassware and pots either will be kashered or bought new.

CEO Shollar said a team of mashgichim, or kosher slaughterers, will be on all the cruises to supervise kashrut, as will a rabbi to lead daily services.

The first itinerary is a six-day cruise for Chabad-Lubavitch in December. The cruise will offer a different itinerary, including a one-day stop at sister cruise line Holland America Line's private island, where passengers may enjoy the beach and water sports and have a kosher beach barbecue.

Then come four seven-day cruises, some with themes such as food and wine, Jewish humor and Judaic culture and arts. An art auction will include works by Chagall and Agam.

The itinerary includes several ports rich in Jewish history.

Tiny Nevis, for instance, played a major Caribbean role. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jewish communities there were highly successful in the sugar industries.

Archives describe a synagogue dating from 1678, during the island's sugar-producing heyday, when Jews made up one-quarter of Charlestown's white population.

Though earlier theories that a building on "Jews' Walk" might have been a mikvah have been disproved, there are other signs of prior Sephardic origins on Nevis: The cemetery where 19 identified tombstones are engraved in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese has been restored.

The Caribbean's most vibrant contemporary Jewish community is in Puerto Rico. It boasts two 20th-century synagogues and a small Chabad group that started about seven years ago.

About 2,500 Jews live in Puerto Rico, including many shopkeepers.

Old San Juan's La Casa del Libro, or The House of the Book, has about 4,000 rare books, including several of Jewish interest.

Holdings include fascinating items such as a 1563 Bible that mentions "Sepharad,'' considered the only Bible to use the word; a polyglot Bible, printed in Spain between 1516 and 1522, since Spain retained the Hebrew language after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 so people could study from the original Old Testament; a page from a 1490 Pentateuch; original books Christopher Columbus read that appeared to influenced him; and books published by Conversos in Spain.

All items aren't always displayed at the site, however, so it may be necessary to prearrange visits.