White tablecloths and Rosenthal china appear at every meal in the ship's two dining rooms, the Marco Polo Restaurant and Columbus Lounge, where five-star service shines. Servers are attentive and amiable but not overbearing.
Breakfast, which begins with coffee and pastries at 6:30 a.m. for early risers, transitions into a buffet and plated meals served until 10 a.m. Sparkling wine is complimentary if you wish to start the day with a mimosa. In addition to the usual eggs, breakfast meats, cereal, fruit and yogurt, there is a German-style array of ham and cold-cuts, salmon and cheese. Fresh-baked waffles, French toast and pancakes are made to order, as are steak and lamb chops.
At lunch, with open seating in both venues, you can stroll in pretty much any time between 12 and 2 p.m. There's a buffet and menu of plated dishes with starters and salads, soups, three or four main courses, desserts and coffee. I particularly remember the crispy honey-chili duck from the carving station during an Asian-themed buffet lunch.
Dinner in Marco Polo is always a lavish affair with one seating at assigned tables, usually beginning at 7 p.m. No two menus are the same during a cruise, but they always include a selection of starters, soup, an "in between" dish, sherbet, at least two main dishes, a cheese cart, at least two desserts and tea or coffee served with a plate of chocolates and cookies. On a whim, the chef might also whip up an amuse-bouche to begin the meal.
The ship is small enough and the chef versatile enough to incorporate fresh local ingredients -- such as lobster, salmon and crab bought directly from fishing boats -- into the menu. Some memorable dishes on my cruise were beef tenderloin with grilled foie gras, fresh lobster tail, rack of lamb, smoked eel with caviar dill sauce and a poppy seed souffle with blueberry sauce. If none of the evening's offerings appeals, you can choose from the a la carte menu, which features standards like shrimp cocktail, Caesar salad and beef, fish and pasta main courses.
While there are no separate low-calorie or low-fat meals, a vegetarian dish appears on every menu.
On about half of the evenings, an alternative dinner is offered -- at no additional charge -- in the Columbus Lounge, and it's based on an ethnic theme. My maritime Canada cruise offered an inventive "Trail of the Vikings" theme, featuring wild game. Another offered the "Best of Newfoundland." Hours are the same as in the main restaurant, but space is limited. Reservations are necessary.
The extensive wine list has vintages from nearly every wine-growing region of the world. Prices range from about 14 to 160 euros (Champagne). By the glass, prices are usually less than three euros.
Dinner service is practiced and professional. Most of the staff has graduated from hotel school and has worked at five-star properties. With the precision of a Swiss watch, they appear at tables to serve and clear courses in unison. They often remember diners' names and preferences. Passengers celebrating birthdays are serenaded and served complimentary chocolate tortes. As guests leave the dining room, the maitre d' bids them a good evening and offers cubes of ginger.
Cabin service is available 24 hours a day, and it arrives promptly. Order from the restaurant menu during regular meal hours, or choose from a cabin service menu that includes smoked salmon, burgers and sandwiches, salad, pasta, cheese and fruit plates, ice cream and cookies. Caviar is an additional charge. A hang tag for full or continental breakfast can be placed on your door each night before retiring.
An elegant tea is laid out every afternoon, and a Late Night Snack is available at 10:30 p.m. in either the Explorer Lounge or Observation Lounge.
* May require additional fees