Confetti cannons blew a riot of red and yellow slips skyward, and you could sense the envy of passengers looking on from a neighboring cruise ship. Chef Cat Cora had just christened Oceania Cruises’ newest vessel in sunny Barcelona, and the Riviera’s horn echoed with baritone bravado as its stewards, cooks, housekeepers, and other staff cheered from balconies.
I’d joined the 1,250-passenger ship five days earlier in Monte Carlo with international media, travel industry veterans, and around 50 top Virtuoso travel advisors for a preview (look for it in Virtuoso Life’s July/August issue – along with cruise writer Fran Golden’s previews of Viking River Cruises’ Odin and the Disney Fantasy). While on board, I’d put to the test Oceania’s claim of serving some of the best cuisine at sea, had one late night too many, and crossed my sun-soaking threshold by at least a couple of hours – all for the sake of journalism. Here’s a taste of the trip.
Of all my meals – including Chesapeake Bay crabcakes and aged rib eye at Polo Grill and an extravagant three-hour “lunch” at Jacques – dinner at pan-Asian Red Ginger topped the list. In the restaurant’s tastefully bold dining room, where a playful horse-faced painting dominates one wall, you begin meals by selecting from an assortment of chopsticks. What my wife and I would order all over again: caramelized tiger prawns, spicy duck-and-watermelon salad, the clay-pot chicken, and yuzu citrus sorbet.
Canyon Ranch SpaClub was fresh out of appointments on our only sea day, but the Bon Appétit Culinary Center squeezed me in for a brunch session, in which 23 classmates and I whipped up scones and frittatas and learned to perfect poached eggs. Unlike on other cruise lines (and at many hotels and resorts), Oceania’s culinary courses are hands-on, with participants pairing up and making each dish from scratch. On the class roster for the rest of its European season: crepes, pasta making (with sauce and wine pairings), and modern Greek cuisine, as well as a host of regionally focused classes and favorite dishes from Riviera’s specialty restaurants.
One of the advantages of traveling with Virtuoso advisors is insider access. Bill Smith, Virtuoso’s VP of cruise sales, worked with Découvertes to organize an outing in Aix-en-Provence for advisors and guests, followed by a garden lunch at Chez Thomé (www.chezthome.fr), which sits in a quiet valley Cézanne frequented when painting Mont Sainte-Victoire. The finale: a tour of Château de la Mignarde, a private estate and onetime home of Napoleon’s sister, Pauline, that’s closed to the general public.
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