Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served in the Clipper Dining Room. The low-ceilinged room has booths for six along the walls, and tables for eight in the center. Meals are open seating at breakfast and lunch so you choose your own table. At dinner, the maitre d' will seat you. At all meals, you can choose to dine at any time within the restaurant's operating hours (7:30 to 10 p.m. for dinner).
Breakfast and lunch are both served buffet-style. Breakfast options include cereal and mueslix, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice, meats and cheeses, an omelet station, toast and spreads, pastries, and hot options (bacon or sausage, potatoes, scrambled eggs, pancakes, crepes or French toast). Coffee and tea are served once you're seated (tea drinkers, look for the tea menu on each table).
The breakfast buffet is available from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. every morning. Early or late risers will find a small selection of juice, pastries and spreads in the Piano Bar from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. A self-serve tea and coffee station is located at the end of the bar, and is a godsend on blustery days at sea when sitting on deck gives you a chill. The hot beverage station and a display of fruit in the Piano Bar are the only 24-hour dining options on the ship.
Lunch is typically served from noon to 2 p.m. and is themed -- French, Creole, seafood -- though the theme is usually more noticeable in the decor than the food. Deli meats, a selection of cheeses and breads, and salads are always available, and a variety of hot options change daily. A carving station or made-to-order pasta station rounds out the selection of main dishes, and a variety of cakes, pudding and fresh fruit are available for dessert. Waiters offer complimentary water or iced tea, or you can order drinks from the bar.
On our 10-day cruise, we ate two ship lunches not served in the Clipper Dining Room. The first was a barbecue on the beach in Fakarava. The ship's staff set up serving lines with the usual cold lunch items, plus grilled burgers, hot dogs, chicken, fish and corn. A makeshift bar was situated nearby. On Taha'a, the barbecue was brought up on the Tropical Bar's deck -- again with the usual array of cold and grilled items, but this time, there was also a roasted whole pig. Weeklong cruises feature just one barbecue (the event is held while at Taha'a).
Dinner is a sit-down affair. You can arrive with your dinner party and the maitre d' will seat you together -- or he'll place you wherever a spot is free. The menu each night includes two starters, a soup, a salad, a sorbet, four main courses (one vegetarian and one Chef's special -- often a Polynesian dish) and three desserts (one is typically ice cream). One nice touch is that every evening prior to dinner, the menu is posted in the tropical bar along with a plate of each starter and main course. Not only is it helpful to see what your meal will actually look like, but it's quite a social activity -- it became a ritual for many of us to try to identify which menu listing goes with which plate and debating the merits of lamb versus lobster, fish versus steak. And though some speculation did occur on the first night, I can assure you the food for show is not plastic.
In addition, you can always request a few basic dishes, such as pasta or chicken. And if you change your mind mid-meal and want a different dish, you'll usually be accommodated. On our last evening, the vegetarian pancakes I ordered were undercooked and inedible (a first for the cruise), and I asked our waiter if I could have pasta instead. In a wink, he was back with a really nice tagliatelle with red sauce.
Every evening, there's a choice of a house red or white wine, usually about 23 to 26 euros a bottle. An additional wine list is available. If you don't finish a bottle in one sitting, the wait staff will store it for you for the next night.
The most highly anticipated meal onboard is five o'clock snack (officially referred to as "cocktail hour with hors d'oeuvres"). Snack consists of cookies, finger sandwiches, fruit and a hot treat (quiches, waffles, chicken fingers) and is served by the Tropical Bar. Although snack is called for 5 p.m., by 4:45 p.m. everyone is peckish after a day in the sun and starts to eye the offerings -- even I admit to pilfering a cookie or two on the early side. By the stroke of 5, the Tropical Bar is the site of a feeding frenzy not unlike those seen on the stingray-feeding excursion. Half the guests are jostling for treats with little regard for queuing etiquette, while the other half is bellied up to the bar for some happy hour revelry.
On the flipside, the least anticipated meal is the midnight snack. It's quite telling that midnight snack actually starts at 11:30 p.m. -- pretty much no one ever sees, let alone eats midnight snack. Only the late-night bar crowd, a small minority of the passengers, indulge in this final meal of the day, which is probably why snack is one sorry chafing dish filled with what I joked with my vegetarian shipmate was always "fried meat" -- chicken fingers, fried calamari, pigs in a blanket, etc.
And here's where I get on my alternative dining high horse. I'm a pseudo-vegetarian (I eat some fish), and the lunch and dinner options for non-meat eaters were pretty sad. Sure, you can eat watery white lettuce salads and cheese on bread for every meal, but it's not an appetizing way to go. Lunches did not typically have a vegetarian hot entree (the pasta almost always had meat in it) and the veggie courses at dinner were often too small or had no protein component. And although some buffet dishes had signs, vegetarian items weren't marked (I stuck my face dangerously close to some salads searching for hidden meat), and dinner menus marked items as vegetarian that actually weren't (like the Caesar salad with bacon on top). I'd recommend that vegetarians pack some peanut butter crackers or granola bars, and perhaps chat with the dining room staff on day one about menu options.
In general, though, I'd rate the quality of the food as good but not gourmet. Some dishes were misses (like those savory pancakes) and we heard some complaints of the meat not always tasting quite right, but the Captain's Dinner menu got high marks (lobster, lamb -- even the veggie dish was really tasty) and the soups were always perfect.