Paul Gauguin Dining
I've always thought that the quality of provisions and a tasty, varied menu served by professional waitstaff are paramount to a successful cruise ship dining experience. Paul Gauguin Cruises definitely gets high marks on those counts.
We took our first meal aboard the ship in the main dining room, L'Etoile. The menu was extensive, portions were just the right size, and each course made our taste buds sing! We hadn't necessarily expected a fabulous dining experience, since food in French Polynesia is generally known for being outrageously expensive and not particularly pleasing for American sensibilities. Cross "mealtime" off your list of worries.
The cruise fare includes all meals, nonalcoholic beverages, house wines (think Dry Creek, L'Enclos de Saint Jacques and Cline Cellars) and spirits. You may also purchase wines from an extensive cellar list; bottles start at $30.
The casual vibe onboard lends itself to open seating, and it was equally easy to secure a romantic table for two or join other travelers for a convivial dinner.
There are three restaurants aboard the ship:
L'Etoile is the main dining room on Deck 5 aft; it's open only in the evenings from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and serves French food with a Polynesian flare. The room is impressive with its high ceilings, inset lighting, blond and dark wood finishes, and red and black round-back chairs. Windows line three sides of the dining room, while the fourth wall features shelves that show off more than a dozen ornate vases and dinner platters.
My first -- and most memorable -- meal at L'Etoile started with a tropical fruit cup, accented with toasted coconut, followed by a "Tahitian Wok" that consisted of succulent pieces of pork that were stir-fried with a delectably creamy coconut milk sauce alongside fried rice.
The waitstaff is attentive, but not intrusive, and the sommelier fills your glass all evening -- whether you're drinking wine or a nonalcoholic beverage like iced tea. Reservations are not necessary.
We especially enjoyed dining at La Veranda for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Floor-to-ceiling windows accent the light and breezy interior, and the aft location provides breathtaking panoramic views. You can dine inside or al fresco.
At both breakfast (7:30 to 9:30 a.m.) and lunch (noon to 2 p.m.), you may order off the menu and/or make selections at the extensive buffet. Daily lunch buffets are themed to various cuisines, including French, Pacific, German, Tex-Mex and Italian. In the evenings from 7 to 9 p.m., this location transforms itself into a reservations-only French bistro with a set menu throughout the cruise. Highlights include terrine of chicken livers and foie gras accompanied by prune marmalade and served with brioche, beef consomme with porcini quenelles, and rack of lamb with Provencal vegetables and dauphine potatoes. Cap off the meal with Tahitian vanilla creme brulee. Meal substitutions are frowned upon.
Three special dinner menus -- vegetarian, light and healthy, and no salt added -- are available at L'Etoile and La Veranda. These weren't your boring plain salad or baked chicken breast options, either. We ordered from these menus frequently and were quite pleased. My favorite "no salt added" dish was the pomelo salad of Tahitian grapefruit, chicken and shrimp, infused with coconut milk and tamarind sauce. My husband preferred the vegetarian moussaka. Chicken, mahi mahi and New Zealand salmon were on the menu almost every night.
Passengers also take many meals at Le Grill on the Pool Deck, open for buffet breakfast (7 to 9:30 a.m.) and buffet lunch (noon to 2 p.m.). You'll find many of the same options there as you will at La Veranda, but the vibe is more casual since you're dining on a covered deck. Note there are no tables for two there; as it gets busy at lunchtime, you may need to dine with fellow travelers. Like La Veranda, lunch buffet offerings are pegged to a different ethnic cuisine each day. You may also order hamburgers and hotdogs from the grill.
In the evening, Le Grill becomes Pacific Grill and offers a Polynesian menu. It's a must-dine if you've never tried poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk) or braised suckling pig. The atmosphere -- whether the ship is anchored in port or sailing the azure sea -- is pure vacation bliss, complete with a tropical breeze at your back.
Editor's note: Reservations for La Veranda and Le Grill may be made during breakfast and lunch each day.
Room service is another solid option aboard this ship, whether you're seeking breakfast served on your balcony, a romantic four-course dinner for two or a simple midnight snack. A limited menu is available 24 hours a day, but during dinner hours, you may also select items from L'Etoile's menu. Room service offers a variety of appetizers like smoked salmon and shrimp cocktail, three types of salads (mesclun greens, classic Caesar and chef's), soups and sandwiches, and entrees like medallions of beef tenderloin, vegetarian stir-fry, pizza, and the obligatory hamburgers and hotdogs. Save room for dessert. Our favorites included the bourbon pecan pie and chocolate mousse.