Whether it’s cruising down a Panamanian river by canoe or picnicking in the gardens of Versailles, Nikki F. Upshaw has a passion for exploring the four corners of the globe. As Senior Vice President of Oceania Cruises, she is often on the road for work, but some of her most memorable travel experiences are when she has a chance to share the adventures with her three children: Alexandra, 19; Connor, 16; and Keira, 9. This year, Nikki is thrilled to be hosting the 14th Oceania Club Reunion Cruise, an alluring Greek Isles exploration with two overnights in Jerusalem. We sat down with her to find out what she’s looking forward to most on the Reunion Cruise, some of her most favorite travel memories, top culinary destinations and more.

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Tell us about one of your most memorable travel experiences.
I took my children to Panama for the first time last summer, which is where I’m originally from. Part of what makes it memorable is re-connecting with family. I had forgotten how many different types of experiences that you can have in such a small country – you have the stunning beaches, thriving city life and mountainous region all within 3 – 6  hours. One of the most unforgettable days was when we went by way of a wooden, dugout canoe to an indigenous village near the Chagres River and had lunch with the Embera tribe in that area. They prepared tamal en hoja, fresh fish, patacones (plaintains) and fresh fruit for us. They shared their culture, dances, and traditions.  It was one of those up-close and personal experiences, an immersion into the culture. The kids just loved it.

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What are some other destinations you’ve enjoyed taking your children?
Two years ago we went to Paris and the Loire Valley, and this was my children’s first time to Europe. We did a great biking tour in Versailles where we stopped at a local market to pick out what we wanted to have for lunch. Then we had a picnic lunch among the beautiful gardens of Versailles. It was so nice to be able to go into the town, roam the vast forest, and actually spend some time there. Most visitors just take the train from Paris right to the palace and then leave. While we were in France, my kids all tried escargot and mussels (moules frites) – they fell in love with mussels, and of course chocolate mousse. My youngest now loves cheese, and I think it’s because she tasted so many cheeses – it opened her palate up to European cheeses!

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Tell us about some of your favorite culinary experiences.
Buenos Aires is the first one that comes to mind – we went to a beautiful countryside ranch for a traditional asado – and Argentinean barbecue. It was a true local’s experience at a family-run ranch. They really know how to do meat in Argentina! Ironically, I do not eat meat but just loved the tradition and outdoor experience. And yes, they made some fish for me! I also love the night market and street food in Chiang Mai. My go-to dishes are coconut curry dishes and scallops or fish. I’m also a wine lover – recently I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa (where I fell in love with their Bordeaux red blends) and also New Zealand where I enjoyed their sauvignon blanc and pinot noirs.

Of all the places I’ve traveled though, I have to say my favorite culinary destination has always been Spain – the tapas experience. Not only the food, but the conviviality of it. You can be in one tapas bar and then sightsee and then pop into another one with a different ambiance and meet new people. Speaking of – I’m really looking forward to sampling our new tapas menu at Terrace Café when I’m on board.

What do you like to get out of your travel experiences?
I think more than anything it’s seeing it through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. It makes you see it in a fresh way. I think the biggest thing for me is the connection with people, trying to do things that open the door to learn about the uniqueness of the region. You also usually wind up learning that most people are looking for the same thing: connection and relevance which leads to fulfillment and happiness. It all leads back to friends, family – human connection. I love to interact with locals – when I go out to eat, go to a market, wander the streets. I want to meet the restaurant owner and learn how long they’ve been open, what their story is, how the recipes originated. It lets you get a glimpse of local culture – that’s what makes travel meaningful.

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What are you most looking forward to about this year’s Reunion Cruise?
I’m really looking forward to meeting many our Oceania Club members and re-connecting with our onboard team and the Oceania Cruises experience. Of course, I’m looking forward to the cuisine on board too – it’s been too long since I’ve last had my favorite dish – the Miso-Glazed Sea Bass at Red Ginger.

In terms of destinations, I’ve never been to Jerusalem so I’m excited to explore such a historic place. There are so many sacred sites and historical aspects that will be really fascinating to see up close and in person. The famous Via Dolorosa, Wailing Wall, Bethlehem and Nazareth are just a few on my list. I have spent some time in the Greek Isles, but I’m excited to return on this special cruise. It’s going to be so nice to see it through the eyes of our guests – I know that this is going to be memorable.

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