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“That was typical of our city tours,” Kelly told me back in the kitchen as we prepared to start cooking, “but our rural ones can be even more ambitious. In Crete we go up into a mountain village, spend the day working alongside a local grandmother, mother and daughter, grating zucchinis, rolling grape leaves, and then eating lunch on a stone terrace overlooking the sea and a family of goats.”
All that curated authenticity suggests an ongoing sense of mission that rarely fails the Riviera, so the occasional minor lapses I noticed in the course of the week were easy to excuse. The manic, splashy funhouse Cirque-like décor that gilds the ship’s public spaces is a matter of taste; thankfully all the Day-Glo blown glass and candy-colored paintings don’t follow you into the understated, surprisingly airy cabins. The standard-issue cruise ship entertainment proved to be the usual Vegas Strip mix of standup comics and spangled, high-kicking chorus lines. And at least one restaurant, the Toscana — judging from my dinner — should probably rethink its menu of oddly leaden raviolis.
But ultimately those slips barely register on a ship that gets even the buffet right. Offering anything but your usual culinary walk of shame, the Terrace Café’s nightly smorgasbord would end up featuring some of my best bites on board, including a classic butter-spitting grilled lobster tail and a very creamy raspberry white mousse cake.
If you don’t like one meal, there is always another ready to seduce you. I realized this my last day on board, when there were no distracting ports of call. Instead there was a 9:30 cooking class (“Passion for Pasta”), an 11:15 demo with Senior Executive Chef Alexis Quaretti, a new hamburger special at the Waves Grill, a 1:30 wine tasting with the sommelier team, a high tea featuring crab finger sandwich and a supernal pear and marzipan tart, and a pre-dinner martini tasting.
What hadn’t I sampled yet? Jacques Pepin’s own restaurant, though it was fitting that I saved the Parisian bistro, outfitted with damask wallpaper and butter yellow walls, for last. The special that night was a fresh bream picked up at a morning fish market, but it was Pepin’s signature dishes that commanded attention. The duck l’orange alone was the perfect antidote to all those insipid ducks dished up in generic restaurants these days, carved into tasteless, skinless little flaps; Pepin’s version was all crackling golden skin golden drizzled with a dusky, fruity sauce. But it was the crêpes suzette dessert that triggered déjà vu. Where had I seen that fiery act before? I mulled and then remembered. It was years before, sitting at my empty table, watching the flambé flames shoot high, threatening to shower down and set my big head of hair on fire. Maybe the flaming crêpes were the only grace note on that first sailing. But on this one they made for a fittingly exuberant finale.
Raphael Kadushin is senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press. His travel writing appears in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.