Credit: Antonio Barbieri/Concierge

Ask an Expert: T+L Italy Correspondent Valerie Waterhouse

Q: Know of any great reasonably priced cooking programs in Tuscany? —Kris Karvelis, Northville, Mich.

A: Outside Arezzo, at Agriturismo Fattoria la Striscia (3 Via dei Cappuccini; 39-339/880-1017; three-day courses from $287 per person, not including lodging), you can learn how to press sheets of pappardelle to wafer-thin perfection in the airy kitchen of an 18th-century farmhouse. Students at Tenuta di Capezzana (100 Via di Capezzana, Carmignano; 39-055/870-6005; five-day courses from $1,578 per person, double) make bistecca alla fiorentina, the unofficial dish of Florence, and visit a local chocolatier. Organic Tuscany (Il Pino Certaldo; 347/417-5907; six days from $2,225 per person, double) offers tricks for making addictive basil pesto and includes lodging in a frescoed 17th-century villa.

Q: I want to take a cruise, but I’m on a budget. Thoughts? —Manon Tardif, via e-mail

A: T+L A-List agent Lois Moran has a tip: choose a port of call that’s close to home to avoid pricey flights. Travel in the shoulder season (fall in the Caribbean or Alaska; spring in Europe), when rates are low. Reserving early is also key. Silversea Cruises starts booking two years in advance at a discount of 60 percent that decreases as cabins fill up. Oceania Cruises has similar early-bird bonuses, with two-for-one fares and complimentary flights. One especially affordable option: Carnival Magic, the newest ship from Carnival Cruise Lines, has seven-day Caribbean cruises from $659 per person.

Q: I’m thinking of traveling to the Middle East. What safety precautions should I take? —Catherine LeGraw, San Francisco, Calif.

A: We recommend registering with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a service that keeps you up-to-date on security announcements and ensures that the local U.S. embassy can reach you in case of emergency. At press time, the State Department had issued several travel warnings for the region, but T+L A-List agent Malaka Hilton, of Admiral Travel International and AuthentEscapes, says that visiting now has its advantages. Fewer tourists can mean more-accessible museums and lower-priced hotel rooms (some with money-back guarantees if the political situation should turn for the worse). Before you leave, keep on top of the news, and don’t skimp on travel insurance. Once there, steer clear of military and holy sites (and public transportation) and limit after-dark exploration.

Q: We’re heading to Europe this summer and want to bring home sausage. Any advice? —Jake and Dottie Paxton, Fort Dodge, Iowa

A: While USDA regulations do allow you to bring in small amounts of meat and poultry for personal consumption, you would have to declare it, at which point customs may confiscate them under Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service restrictions. Why go through the trouble when you can get some of the best products stateside? Genuine jamón ibérico—the king of cured meats—recently became available after two Spanish producers were given the green light to introduce it here (see for information). Set on an edible souvenir? Consider preserved fish, which is allowed. In Italy, mosciame is a must. The tuna, salted and cured, is perfect sliced thin with a squeeze of lemon and drizzle of olive oil.

Oceania Cruises

Oceania’s three identical midsize ships—the 684-passenger Insignia, Nautica, and Regatta—are geared toward a crowd that wants to explore interesting ports and enjoy a taste of finery— including gourmet cuisine (menus are overseen by Jacques Pepin), personalized service, resort-like pool decks, and nice accommodations—without paying a steep price. Think of Oceania as an affordable Silversea. There is no need to pack the tux, though; these ships are as casual as country homes. (In 2009, Canyon Ranch signed on to operate Oceania’s spas.) Two newly commissioned ships, the Marina and the Riviera, will join the fleet by 2012.
Geographic Areas: Mediterranean, Baltic, Asia/Far East, Transoceanic, Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Australia.
Type: Premium.

Silversea Cruises

Silversea’s fancy, pampering experience is delivered on six sleek, 132- to 540-passenger ships, done up in contemporary décor, with gourmet cuisine, spacious ocean-view suites, free booze, and top-notch service—the solicitous crew even shines your shoes and brings room service, course by course. Steaks are prepared the way you like them. And yes, the bartender knows your name. An impressive guest lecture series includes famous chefs. The line also operates the upscale 132-passenger soft adventure ship Prince Albert II.
New and Newsworthy: The 540-passenger Silver Spirit debuted in 2009; it’s the line’s first new ship in eight years. Silver Wind recently had a multimillion refurbishment including a new observation lounge and spa.
Price: Weeklong cruises from $2,638 (plus air–inclusive offer).
Geographic Areas: Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Baltics, Africa and Indian Ocean, Far East, South Pacific, Caribbean, South America, Central America, New England/Canada,
Type: Luxury.

Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival Cruise Lines offers trips from the Port of Miami to destinations such as Tahiti, Bermuda, Greece, and Mexico. Onboard the ships, travelers enjoy multiple restaurants, complimentary 24-hour stateroom service, and a variety of nightly entertainment. Possible journeys include a three-day vacation to the Bahamas and a four-day Western Caribbean cruise to Cozumel, Mexico and Key West, Florida aboard the Carnival Imagination. Besides in-port activities, the 855-foot Imagination also features the Carnival WaterWorks park, a 9-hole miniature golf course, and an adults-only retreat with a hot tub and lounge chairs.