As a first-time visitor to French Polynesia aboard the 1,258-passenger Oceania Marina, I must admit that culinary pursuits were the last thing on my mind. I’d found an idyllic sun-drenched paradise here with a sparkling sea in a million shades of turquoise, overwater bungalows bordering emerald lagoons, watercolor sunsets, dazzling sea life, and a riot of brilliantly-colored flowers. I’d be content to just slip into my swimsuit and lose myself in the surrounding beauty forever, but I’m sailing with Oceania Cruises — a line that, since its beginnings in 2002, has consistently amassed a staggering number of consumer and industry awards for superb, innovative dining and food-related enrichment activities that educate and entertain guests while firmly connecting them with a destination’s nature, culture, and people.
With no less than the celebrated Jacques Pepin as executive culinary director and a line-up of superb onboard restaurants (all included in the fare except for the intimate, 24-person wine-pairing feast of La Reserve by Wine Spectator), it’s no surprise that Oceania has again demonstrated a fierce commitment to culinary excellence with the expansion of its Culinary Discovery Program from 50 largely Mediterranean, Scandinavian, and Caribbean ports to those of French Polynesia.
Island Eats …
It is in the lush, green hills of Nuka Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, that I am initiated into the program. I find myself on my second helping of manioc, a large, starchy tuber that, with its buttery coating, beats the pants off potatoes. The manioc is but one dish on a buffet table that also includes savory mashed breadfruit, exotic raw clams, fresh coconut, bright purple yams, and poisson cru, the delicious, ceviche-like French Polynesian national dish of raw fresh fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk. A lavish, seated lunch featuring goat stew, grilled bananas, and suckling pig roasted on underground heated stones awaits us beneath the shade of a thatched roof. Our intimate group savors the delicacies and sips coconut water right out of the shell while a quartet of local musicians serenades us, the female vocalist harmonizing as she weaves palm fronds into a stylish hat.
And that is just the appetizer, so to speak, of a delectable menu of tours available to guests during our 12-day Oceania Marina sailing.
RELATED: Oceania Cruises – Marina Ship Review
From a gourmet five-course meal with carefully selected wines at the St. Regis Bora Bora’s Lagoon by Jean-Georges to a visit to a local market to sample exotic fruits, vegetables, and traditional oils, Oceania’s Culinary Discovery tours bring travelers a literal taste of French Polynesia. You’d think there are no hidden secrets in the local diet of these extraordinary islands — the waters are teeming with life; coconut palms, mango, banana, and breadfruit trees are on every flower-lined lane; honey farms and vanilla plantations abound; and, particularly in Moorea, fields of small, sweet pineapple line rugged roads — but with your first taste of cheese drizzled with local honey, crunchy breadfruit chips, or a vanilla sauce atop a savory dish of grilled fresh fish, you are wowed at the transformation of these humble staples.
Island Adventures …
Of the 118 islands and atolls that comprise French Polynesia, only 67 are inhabited and, from the deck of Oceania Marina, those small, pristine, palm-tree studded islets (or motus) jut up from a glittering azure sea. At the stunningly beautiful, volcanically formed island of Moorea, we experience our own uninhabited island during a Culinary Discovery Tour that kicks off with a snorkeling stop so that we may share the crystal waters with giant stingrays, harmless (we hope) lemon sharks, and a rainbow of dazzlingly hued fish before sailing on to our private motu. A wet landing and images of Robinson Crusoe and, yes, Gilligan’s Island are conjured. Beneath hovering coconut palms, a barbecue lunch with smoky sausage, fresh-caught marlin, chicken, and salads is being prepared. Some of us watch a charismatic local demonstrate how to extract the milk from a fresh coconut to prepare poisson cru while most of us scatter to claim a spot on the deserted white-sand beach that borders our private slice of paradise.
It is not uncommon for the waters of French Polynesia to co-star in Oceania’s Culinary Discovery Tours. Let’s face it: Most of us were lured to this remote region of the world by stunning images of a sea that dazzles with clarity, color, and abundant life, and even the greatest foodie among us enthusiastically greets an opportunity to supplement a dining experience with a beach break or snorkel stop. But it is in Huahine that this combination of sea and sup reaches its pinnacle with a….
By Judi Cuervo
Photo: Judi Cuervo