Mealtimes are when Aria Amazon shines. The menus, developed by chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino (who runs Lima's popular Malabar restaurant) put local Amazonian ingredients -- such as Brazil nuts, yucca and paiche, the river's largest fish -- on display in creative and delightful ways.
The majority of meals are served in the dining room on Deck 2. During breakfast and lunch, it's full of light from the long windows on three sides; at dinner the space feels more formal, dimly lit by small lamps on the tables. There's no assigned seating, and passengers mingle freely. Most tables sit four people, though there is one near the window set for two if you want a more intimate meal. Guides let passengers know what time the next meal will be at the end of each excursion (or, in the case of breakfast, at dinner the night before).
Breakfast is served buffet-style and features ham, turkey, cheese, cereal, yogurt, bread, muffins and a rotating variety of local dishes such as tapioca mingado (similar to rice pudding) or cecina (a dried meat) and fried chorizo with cocona sauce. There's also a daily special such as French toast or eggs Benedict. You can order eggs any style, and waiters come by the tables with tea, coffee and fresh fruit juices. Breakfast is typically served one hour before the start of the morning excursion.
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The lunch buffet starts about an hour or 90 minutes after the end of the morning excursion. You can choose from eight or nine different options on the buffet each day. Sometimes there's a theme, such as an Asian-inspired lunch featuring egg drop soup, fried rice, spring rolls with shrimp and fried noodle salad. On other days it's simply an eclectic collection of dishes such as stuffed portobello mushrooms, coconut rice, baguettes with fresh tomatoes and dorado fish grilled with peppers and onions. Our favorite lunch featured a Peruvian menu, including ceviche, fried yucca, stewed beans and corn tamales.
You can choose from at least two different dessert options each day at lunch, including some local specialties such as mazamorra morada (a purple corn pudding with fruit) or suspiro de limena (similar to dulce de leche). Beer and house wine are included, along with nonalcoholic drinks. The four house wines include a Corralillo sauvignon blanc and chardonnay from Chile's Matetic Vineyards, a Reserva pinot noir from Cono Sur (also in Chile) and a La Flor malbec from Pulenta Estate in Argentina.
Eating dinner on the Aria feels like sampling a tasting menu at a fine restaurant each night. Although the kitchen seamlessly caters to food allergies or special diets, everyone otherwise eats the same fixed menu.
Evening mealtimes vary based on when the afternoon excursion ends. Passengers typically have about 90 minutes to shower and clean up, leaving most dinners to start between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Your guide will let you know as you get off the skiff.
You'll start with a different variety of bread each night (sun-dried tomato bread, tapioca fritters), continue with a couple of lighter courses (such as tomato risotto or crunchy avocado and fresh buffalo mozzarella salad) and follow that with a main course (such as grilled paiche with chorizo sauce and snake fruit puree, or lamb shoulder with refried yellow potato). While most of these drew rave reviews, the palate cleanser -- a shooter-sized glass with a frozen sorbet concoction that was almost always lip-pursingly sour -- went back to the kitchen nearly untouched night after night.
The meal finishes with a main dessert as well as a cookie or pastry option to be enjoyed with your post-dinner coffee. Desserts frequently showcase tropical fruits from the region -- like creamy soursop and banana yogurt with crunchy quinoa, or a passion flower and Brazil nut crumble.
As many of the local dishes are unfamiliar to passengers, the waiters usually explain what's in each item as they serve it. They are also attentive about keeping wine and water glasses full. As at lunch, nonalcoholic drinks, beer and house wines are included with dinner.
Between meals you can help yourself to coffee, tea and cookies at the bar in the lounge on Deck 3 between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. There are purified water stations for refilling bottles or carafes on Decks 1 and 3. There is no room service unless a passenger falls ill.
Occasionally you'll experience meals off the ship. For example, one morning we had breakfast "to go." Following a 6 a.m. wake-up call, we set out on the skiffs for some early-morning wildlife spotting. About 90 minutes later we settled into a shaded part of the river, and a couple of crew members pulled up with the makings of an impromptu feast. They handed us bowls of fresh fruit, jars of avocado with soft-boiled egg, pancakes with fruit syrup and sandwiches with ham, cheese and pineapple. Yogurt, cereal, juice, tea and coffee were also available.
On the day we arrived, we had a light lunch (salad, fruit) at Aqua's private dock before boarding the ship. On the last evening of our cruise, the staff surprised us during our second excursion with crispy yucca and plantain chips, local nuts wrapped in a palm leaf and mimosas to toast to the end of our time in the Amazon.