Photo: Maple Leaf Adventurers
As travel gets "smaller" and more intimate, boutique expedition cruises are becoming more popular, taking small groups outside the big box.

Food & Drink

What's a Teetotaller Doing on a Wine Cruise?

Lots! Here’s how to savour the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and the BC coast.

By Liz Fleming   |   May 10, 2021

I can’t drink alcohol—a lifelong allergy keeps me permanently on the straight and narrow. So when I boarded the Maple Leaf Adventures catamaran Cascadia in Nanaimo to set sail on a Salish Sea Wines and Islands cruise, I shared my dark secret with sommelier guide Tania Tomaszewska.

She was horrified.

“Can’t drink wine?” she shuddered, no doubt wondering if the kindest thing would be to push me quietly overboard.

Frankly, I was also of two minds about spending a week watching fellow guests sniff, sip and swirl, but I really wanted to explore the Salish Sea. Luckily, clever programming filled in all the non-alcoholic gaps and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The voyage was a blend of explorations—geographical, cultural, gastronomic and oenological. We hiked the lush rainforest islands of the Salish Sea, looked for shorebirds on deserted beaches, heard stories about the Indigenous people of the area, toured vineyards and wineries and learned about the winemaking techniques used by local farmers and vintners. I couldn’t taste their creations, but their passion was fascinating.

Whales & Bears
Maple Leaf Adventurers explores the the tastes, sights and sounds of the west coastline through a series of boutique expedition cruises on three ships.

Leading the charge on and off the Cascadia were Maple Leaf Adventures owners Kevin Smith and Maureen Gordon and, of course, sommelier Tomaszewska. All three radiated enthusiasm for the area—you couldn’t help but have fun.

One great advantage of not drinking is putting those lost calories on my plate. Working in a tiny kitchen, a talented chef and his band of merry food men used fresh local fish, meat and produce to create multicourse gourmet extravaganzas. As each course made its way up the narrow galley steps, our group burst into applause. We couldn’t help ourselves.

I became obsessed with the balsamic pearls on one savoury seafood salad. If you’ve never experienced the wild, earthy, sweet-and-sour flavour burst from a balsamic pearl exploding in your mouth, you haven’t lived. Full confession: Prior to this cruise, I didn’t even know that balsamic pearls existed, but once I’d been introduced I had to be taught to recreate them at home.

If you’ve never experienced the flavour burst of a balsamic pearl, you haven’t lived.


An impromptu lesson was planned and we packed ourselves neatly into the tiny galley to see the secret revealed. While balsamic vinegar was boiled and reduced, a tall measuring cup of cooking oil chilled in an ice bath. The thickened balsamic was carefully decanted into a squeeze bottle, and then tiny drops of hot vinegar were slowly released into the cold oil, becoming shiny little globules of perfection. We fished them out with a slotted spoon and ate every one.

This impromptu lesson was just one example of the kind of daily treats that made the days so memorable. The wine aficionados were treated to in-depth introductions to several vintages with each course, at both lunch and dinner, while I was presented with delicious non-alcoholic options, also perfectly paired with the food—a thoughtful replacement for my usual sparkling water. 

Though every adventure and meal was memorable, the biggest surprise came one cold, sunny afternoon. We’d just finished hiking up a longish path through the woods and were catching our breath as we drank in the view from a rocky cliffside overlooking the sea. Smith and Gordon appeared, grinning from ear to ear. And then we saw it: a lavish woodland picnic, arranged among the rocks and trees as if some group of culinary fairies had set it up for us. With the sun warming our backs and the sea wind in our hair, we tucked in to local cheeses, fruits, patés and breads and toasted our hosts—and our good fortune.

Liz Fleming

Liz has been exploring the globe, from Machu Picchu to the Arctic Circle and from Bora Bora to Botswana, for more than 15 years. She is editor-in-chief of Cruise & Travel Lifestyles and the host of Liz Fleming Travels on iHeartRadio. 

Look for Travelier in print soon.