The food is the Michelin star of a gastronomic journey across the seas, writes Kim Knight.
Shortly before 6am, the sun rose like a postcard. For a few quiet moments, the handful of passengers on the bow of the Majestic Princess stood in awe. Then they switched their cellphones to "selfie", balanced that far away sun in their strategically outstretched hands and posted the moment to social media.
Nowhere does the sublimation of nature feel more complete than on a cruise ship.
Outside, endless seas. Inside, animal towel-folding demonstrations!
Japan was behind us, Taiwan ahead of us. That rising sun was a scarlet mirror ball. It was also a red hot frying pan, a ruby grapefruit and a pomodoro pizza. It had been a full seven hours since my last meal.
On a cruise ship, you are never more than 3.6m away from a food and beverage option*. Fact: Later that day I would consume a steak the size of my head with a side of lobster tail.
"Is the melted butter for dipping?" I asked a shipmate. "It's for pouring," she said. I followed her lead. My lobster was a teensy bit dry.
The Majestic Princess voyages to Australia and New Zealand in September. I was on board back in May, for a three-night "culinary cruise" from Keelung, Taiwan to Okinawa, Japan and back again.
The ship is the biggest in the Princess fleet. I gave the numbers a perfunctory glance but consider this: its 330m length is equivalent to lying the Sky Tower on its side, PLUS a rugby field.
First impressions? Dizzying.
Second impressions: Don't look down — that cantilevered glass "seawalk" is almost 40m above the ocean.
Cruise ships are not everybody's cup of bottomless tea. But as I've got older (and by that I mean closer to 50 than 40) the appeal of a single unpack and zero airport lounges and train stations between countries has grown. At the same time, the cruise industry has embraced gastronomic tourism. The all-you-can-eat buffet is still there, but on the Majestic Princess you'll also find a dim sum bar, a pizzeria, aforementioned steak grill house, and two restaurants with Michelin-star chef connections. There were 13 different dining options all up. I boarded on the premise that if breakfast was the most important meal of the day, then two breakfasts would make me very important indeed.
It's easy to feel entitled on a cruise ship. Everyone smiles at you. You can wear sequins to formal night and Lycra to line dancing and you will always look beautiful. Your water glass is never, ever empty. If you have your first complimentary breakfast in the Allegro dining room, a waiter will place a real cloth napkin on your lap. That morning, the ship rocked oh-so-gently and classical music tinkled in the background. I felt calm.
Contemplative. I ordered a steamed bun, an omelette, three spinach dumplings and sat in awe of the man next to me who ate two fried eggs with a pair of chopsticks.
Next stop: World Fresh Market. The plates are plastic and the hand-washing compulsory (a smiling crew member is permanently stationed at the basin to check you're appropriately sanitised). It is a buffet, but it was not the bun fight I was expecting, even at the all-you-can-dollop guacamole station. In the bright morning light, the only thing between me, my custard pastry and the East China Sea was a window. I could have stayed there all day. (Insider tip: nobody would have minded).
The Majestic's galleys produce 12,000 meals a day. Every 10 days, another 110 tonnes of food is delivered to the ship. The fresh flowers — and there are literally hundreds of vases — are changed every three days. Menus change according to the market. Less oil and salt for Taiwanese passengers; more wine, beer and fresh fruit for Australians and New Zealanders. In Europe, the galley loads extra bacon.
You could spend your entire cruise admiring the vegetable carvings on the buffet counters (yes, that is a crayfish made of carrots and a coral reef from knobbly ginger) but you'd be missing one of the Majestic Princess' major drawcards. At the onboard restaurants, Harmony and La Mer, the AU$39 multi-course menus have been devised by Michelin-starred chefs. And, back in May, those chefs were on hand to check everything was going exactly the way their reputations wanted it.
Richard Chen was the home-crowd favourite. The Taiwan-born chef once helmed Las Vegas' Wing Lei — the first Chinese restaurant in North America to gain a Michelin star.
"We all know Cantonese cuisine is all about the wok," he says. "It's the charred flavour in the dish. Before I came onboard, I was like, 'give me the biggest fire' …"
Sadly for Chen, fire and cruise ships are not mutually compatible. On the Majestic, even the candles have LED bulbs. Chen reckons he's become an induction burner convert — and I may be too, after Harmony's five-course lunch that started with chicken-beef-shrimp-duck and finished with a small food coma.
La Mer's menu comes courtesy of French chef Emmanuel Renaut. His restaurant Flocons de Sel received its third Michelin star in 2012. It books out up to six months in advance. The chef holds a "best craftsman of France" title. He has never been to New Zealand but hopes he may make it here in the wake of his ocean-going restaurant.
"I know New Zealand from Cloudy Bay and Dog Point," he says. "I love pinot noir from New Zealand. I will go."
Renaut tells his fellow cruise ship passengers that he wakes up every morning happy to go to work. As I consider asking someone to run me a bath of his sublime lemongrass lobster sauce so I can soak in it like a piece of red snapper and scallop mousseline on very thin slice of toast, I can only agree.
I've always wondered why anyone would eat on a cruise ship when there is so much great food to be found portside. The fact is, on a cruise you're often, well, cruising. Landfall is exciting, but I hadn't considered how relaxing the "at sea" days and nights would be.
Take the lift to icecream, noodle and espresso bars. Walk a full five minutes from your stateroom to an elegant cocktail lounge with live piano and looong drinks. Order room service pizza. For in the morning, you will Zumba.
* I made that up.
Eight things I didn't expect to find on my first cruise:
• A basketball court. Seriously.
• The view from the bridge. You have to be a very special guest to be allowed up here, but I suspect this enormous, glass-windowed panorama is as close to space travel as I'll get. Quiet, calm, serene (and this is where all the seabirds are — I hadn't seen a single one from my cabin but they were careening like crazy things upfront).
• When I say "cabin", I mean "stateroom". When I say "boat" I mean "ship". And I'm not a "passenger", I'm a "guest". (The driver is the captain).
• Facials are better on boats. At the Lotus Spa, I snored like a baby on a gently rocking cradle while a therapist administered an ultrasonic peel. Many breakfasts later, I wish I'd signed up for the inch-loss detox treatment. Or at least gone to one free Zumba class.
• The sound, light and cooking shows. By night, the Princess Theatre is an all-singing, all-dancing exclusively choreographed high-octane musical extravaganza. Come morning, however, you may catch Michelin chefs pleating dumplings, or the resident Italian culinary maestro cracking open a 40kg wheel of cheese with a tiny knife. Surprisingly entertaining.
• Sunrise from the Lido deck. It's possible that when the Majestic comes Downunder, passengers might be more inclined to sink a beer at the Wake View Bar, but in the East China Sea, I had several moments where it was just me and the bar staff at the back of the boat.
• A good night's sleep. More than 80 per cent of the ship's staterooms have private balconies. My view was part ocean, part lifeboat, but the bed was unbelievably comfortable and the wardrobe was almost as big as the bathroom.
• Peace and quiet. Okay, so the line dancing classes were quite busy, but what surprised me most about this ship that can carry 3560 guests was how easy it was to find a quiet space. I watched a Star Wars instalment under the stars, wandered the art gallery and gazed at the ocean from a cabana inside the Hollywood Pool Club — and could have sworn I was the only person in residence.
NEED TO KNOW:
During its inaugural New Zealand and Australian season, Majestic Princess will undertake 16 cruises. Destinations include Fiji, Tasmania, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Fares for an 11-night cruise to Sydney on Majestic Princess departing Auckland on Saturday, March 2, 2019 start from NZ$2189 per person twin share. Guests who book in August will receive $100 On Board Credit per person as part of Princess' Twice as Nice campaign.