Aromatic roundels of chalky, ripe goat’s cheese adorned with lavender petals and spiky herbs, and arranged by size so they look like a tiny drum kit, catch my eye at the farmers’ market in Place Richelme, a plane-tree covered square in the impossibly pretty town of Aix-en-Provence. .Against a backdrop of faded ochre buildings, two sturdy matrons do a brisk trade selling red peppers, aubergines and asparagus tied in neat bundles. Temptation gets the better of me when I spy the straw’ baskets full of Calissons d’Aix candies. That we are on a food-focused excursion is no surprise: Oceania is the self-billed foodie cruise line (and claims to spend more on dining per guest than any other cruise company) and a real magnet for gourmets.
During the 12-day voyage on board Sirena, the 684-passenger ship which launched this year, there are plenty of other spots that are ripe for sampling the best of local produce. In Monte Carlo, one of a clutch of ports we call at along the Cote d’Azur, I savour a menu formule lunch at the Quai des Artistes bistro, which overlooks the mega-yachts jostling for space in the harbour (salade nigoise, sirloin steak with shallots and Parisian flan is a snip at €22). The following day, bathed in sunshine, we drop anchor off Saint Tropez and, charmed by the sand-strewn floor at L’Escale; I splash out on snowy-white burrata and a superb asparagus and prawn risotto, washed down by a couple of glasses of chilled kir. There’s a very real French connection with Oceania, thanks to executive culinary director Jacques Pepin, a former personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.
Sirena’s formal Grand Dining Room transforms into the Jacques Bistro at lunch where traditional French fare includes snails in garlic butter, herb-crusted free-range chicken and tarte tatin. Should taste buds be craving something less buttery, more spicy, there is also Asian restaurant Red Ginger and, on this ship only, the new Tuscan Steak (inspired by the much-loved Toscana and Polo Grill restaurants on board sister vessels) where guests can tuck into Italian favourites such as hand-rolled potato gnocchi with langoustines; as well as lobster fra diavolo with chilli peppers and tomatoes.
To atone for the excesses of too many button-bursting meals, you can book in for a detoxifying ritual at the Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Evenings are spent at Martinis bar, an effortlessly welcoming spot with winged-back chairs and a grand piano which comes into its own at cocktail hour as ‘Sirena Blue’ cocktails (Absolut vodka, blue curagao, elderflower syrup, pineapple juice and lemon) are shaken to the swinging sounds of the Rat Pack. “That’s Amore’ might have been an Italian smash hit but I couldn’t have loved this taste of France more.