THEY'RE called sampler cruises, but after three nights aboard Pacific Dawn, in foodie terms I'm feeling like the fatted calf or stuffed goose.
My short cruise is a foretaste of what's on offer when sister ship Pacific Pearl becomes the first superliner to be based in New Zealand from the end of the year.
The food I've dined on is gourmet, putting paid to the idea that cruises are about all-you-can eat buffets rather than culinary elegance. The former are readily available, but can easily be avoided on the Pacific Dawn, with its Luke Mangan restaurant, several winemakers and New Zealand chef Anne Thorp on board.
Thorp is delighted to have an army of chefs to prepare her seven-course degustation menu and blown away that 1370 of the 1800 passengers turn up to sample it on the last night of a loop out from Brisbane and back. Her degustation menu will be one of the highlights when the Pacific Pearl departs from Auckland for a three-day food and wine cruise in January.
Before then Lars Kristiansen, director of food and beverage operations for P&O's parent company Carnival, will have done more shuttling back and forth between Sydney and New Zealand lining up Kiwi suppliers. Two tonnes of salmon a month will be loaded locally on to the ship and he'll also be buying up large on dairy products and fresh fruit and vegetables.
The 20-odd New Zealand wines included on the wine lists of the P&O Pacific ships will be added to, especially on the refurbished 11-deck Pearl for its summer season of voyages out of Auckland to the Pacific and around our coast.
P&O is planning a giant public party with entertainment and fireworks on December 21 to launch Pearl's New Zealand-based summer season.
Kristiansen was aboard Dawn this month checking everything went smoothly for Thorp. He shouldn't have worried, the personable host of Kai Ora which screens on Maori TV and Sky's Food Channel, was in chef heaven. Her demonstration was well-received by hundreds of passengers and she could have sold boxes more cook books.
Kristiansen displays the sharp focus required to oversee the provisioning and planning for a fleet of ships.
Food trends need to be fed into 36 rotating menus, which these days means more vegetables and side dishes and lighter options such as the Vietnamese noodle soup chicken pho and filled focaccia sandwiches, alongside old favourites like grilled salmon, burgers and steak.
With 120 chefs, cooks and bakers to keep tabs on, corporate executive chef Uwe Stiefel says there's no time for democracy. The Dawn kitchen has to speedily turn out food to queues of waiters who will feed 13,000 plates, 10,000 glasses and 15,000 pieces of cutlery in to the dishwashers each day.
Escalators run upstairs to the vast main dining room which waiters enter through a series of revolving doors bearing trays laden with up to 10 covered plates at a time.
Passengers can also book into the more intimate Salt Grill, which seats 56 diners and has its own small kitchen and a team trained by Sydney celebrity chef Mangan to produce some of his signature dishes. The famed liquorice parfait and his crab omelette with enoki mushrooms in miso broth are faithfully reproduced. For the price of dessert at his Sydney brasserie Glass in the Hilton Hotel, you can enjoy a three-course dinner. It's one of just a few areas on board where holidaymakers pay extra to enter.
These areas are worth seeking out and also include the Oasis sundeck, where for $20 a day guests can lounge about in a child-free area with its own bar, sheltered from roaming groups on hen's and stag holidays and 50th birthday parties. There's also the Lotus Spa to retreat to for massages, and several cosy bars and cafes if you don't fancy the pokies in the casino or karaoke or quiz sessions.
One of the appeals of a cruise is that everything is paid for upfront, except for what you spend on alcohol or at the spa or shopping outlets (which are limited to duty free, gift and convenience stores). Meals are included and served either buffet style in a large forward restaurant or aft in the more elegant a la carte restaurant. The traditional early and late sitting times at set tables have been given the heave-ho and guests can turn up to dine at their convenience.
Well-priced snack-style food is also available at several smaller cafes and grills dotted about the ship, including on the pool deck, if three good hotel-standard meals a day don't suffice.
Pearl will be the third P&O ship to have a Salt aboard, with a planned cover charge of $30 for lunch and $40 for dinner. A few menu items, such as crayfish, incur a surcharge. Mangan spends 20 days aboard and told Kristiansen he was stunned to find some of the meat P&O has access to is better than he can buy on shore. It all comes down to spending power, with Kristiansen, whose ships each serve up to 8000 meals a day for passengers and around 700 crew, waving the bigger wallet.
Mangan's association with P&O has seen his Salt brand revitalised. The chef made his name in Sydney when he established the first Salt in 1999 after returning from London. He closed it six years later and went on to open Glass at the Hilton. He now serves as first class chef for Virgin America, maps out business menus for V Australia, writes cookbooks, sells his own olive oils and dressings and has also been a judge on MasterChef.
Salt at sea debuted last year and now there are three, with plans to open ashore on the Gold Coast, Bali and Singapore, with a restaurant already established in Tokyo's business hub of Marunouchi.
His food philosophy is similar to Thorp's with a belief in healthy, fresh ingredients, served relatively unadulterated, but with unexpected twists. This includes Salt's offering of a tin of anchovies as an appetiser. Never mind they cost more to bring on board than the steaks and were melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
If tinned goods are not for you, then there's kingfish carpaccio or wagyu beef bresaola. I had a perfectly cooked piece of Coral Sea trout and shared some super side dishes, including truffle mash and carrots coated in dukkah, before swapping half my chocolate tasting plate for some of the surprisingly delicate liquorice parfait nicely cut through with lime syrup.
Wines were chosen by Kristiansen starting with Tasmanian bubbles, exploring chardonnay from way out west and some verdelho before heading red. Once we got to their familiar territory, Hunter Valley winemakers Andrew Margan of Margan Family Wines and Duane Roy of Glandore Estate joined the fray.
They were on board to conduct tastings and masterclasses ($10 and $14 each) at which passengers were overviews of wine types, including some New Zealand selections.
"Winemakers like to use flash words and to take simple things and make them complicated," Roy told passengers. "Wine is really a very personal thing - not about silly rules, it's about enjoyment."
My appreciation of the variety of Australian wines certainly grew greatly in a few days - along with my waistline.
On the Pearl's January cruise, a cheese tasting and coffee appreciation session will also be on the menu along with cocktail making and a likely look in for beer drinkers too.
Pearl's Renzo Piano-designed lines will come into view when she arrives in Auckland just before the launch party. Some say the designer of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and Japan's Kansai Airport, has fashioned for her a prow that looks like a dolphin.
I say it's a wonder she floats at all when you consider up to 80 tonnes of food and drink can be consumed on a single cruise.
* The three-day voyage food and wine cruise departs Auckland on January 27. Twin-share price is from $599 per person, with quad berth cabins also available. For more information visit pocruises.co.nz or your local travel agent.
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