French Polynesia

Mmm Mmm Marina!

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….

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By Judi Cuervo

Photo: Judi Cuervo

Judi Cuervo is a New York City native who fell in love with cruising in 1976 during her first sailing aboard Carnival Cruises’ Mardi Gras. Twenty years later, she began her freelance cruise writing gig and, since that time, has covered mass market, ultra-premium, riverboat and expedition ships for regional, national and international publications as well as cruise websites.