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Ahoy foodies! Oceania is the cream of the crop

Oceania Cruises prides itself on its outstanding cuisine. Sally Macmillan taste-tested Insignia’s restaurants and cafes on a Mediterranean cruise to check how it measures up.

It’s always reassuring to meet a chef who looks as though he enjoys sampling his own work. Oceania Insignia’s executive chef, Farid Oudir, is comfortably large and like Oceania’s acclaimed executive culinary director, Jacques Pépin, Farid hails from France.

A galley crew of 65 reports to Farid, and together they create all the meals served in the Grand Dining Room and Terrace Café (breakfast, lunch and dinner); Waves Grill (breakfast and lunch); Polo Grill and Toscana (dinner); and the Horizons lounge, which does a lovely traditional afternoon tea. There’s also Baristas, where you can drink decent coffee for no extra charge, and treat yourself to pastries, sandwiches and biscotti.

Farid says that these days he has to spend more time on admin than he’d like – cue eye roll and Gallic shrug, but he enjoys cooking special regional dinners and barbecues out on deck and presenting culinary demonstrations for passengers.

On our 10-day cruise from Rome to Lisbon, a segment of Insignia’s world cruise, Farid goes ashore to buy ingredients for the Spanish and Portuguese dinners. “I like to bring local flavours on board,” he says.

Menu planning for a world cruise is challenging; dishes change daily, the overall menu cycle is redesigned after 14 days and to some extent dishes depend on the availability of seasonal local products. However, the passengers I met who were on the ship for the full 180 days said they never got bored with the choices on offer.

Oceania Cruises claims to serve the finest cuisine at sea; a big call in today’s masterchef-laden market. Acclaimed chef Jacques Pépin has been working with the line since 2003.

If you want to sail with the man himself, book soon for the September 2018 cruise Jacques will host on Oceania’s Riviera, from Lisbon to Rome; there will be specially designed signature menus, lectures and culinary demonstrations.

Jacques’ direction is apparent in all the ships’ dining venues. My cruise companion and I sampled meals at each of Insignia’s restaurants and cafes several times (luckily Oceania has started free fitness classes).

In the Grand Dining Room white linen-clad tables are set with Versace china and Reidel glassware, and the menus are extensive. There are always healthy choices from the Canyon Ranch spa and Jacques Pépin signature dishes as well as sample dishes from the line’s Red Ginger and Jacques restaurants.

Maybe we hit a bad evening as our choices were disappointing – the signature salmon was dry and the chicken stringy. However, the staff bent over backwards to apologise and offer replacement dishes.

Toscana serves high-end Italian cuisine and it’s taken seriously – before you even get to the antipasti there are 10 Italian olive oils and three balsamic vinegars for dipping your bread. Crab risotto was a standout for me and my companion raved about the penne with porcini mushrooms. Somehow we squeezed in tiramisu and panna cotta as well.

Reservations are required for Toscana and the Polo Grill next door, which serves classic surf and turf dishes. The lobster bisque was divinely rich, steaks done to perfection and the gentlemen’s-club ambience very conducive to lingering over a glass of wine.

Overall, our favourite and most-visited venue was the buffet-style Terrace Café; dining al fresco is particularly pleasurable in the sunny Mediterranean and the selection of salads, seafood, freshly cooked dishes, delectable desserts and cheeses was seriously impressive.

Between all this restaurant grazing, we spent time in several lovely ports – the ship spent for about 10 hours in each one and stayed overnight in Seville and Lisbon. After a busy day in Barcelona, Alicante’s attractions were comparatively restful.

We took a lift up to Santa Barbara castle, an imposing edifice built between the 11th and 18th centuries and walked back through the winding streets of the old quarter. The cool, airy Modern Art Museum in an elegant 17th-century casa, has an excellent collection of 20th-century Spanish art.

A local saint’s day fiesta was in full swing when we arrived in Almeria. Fireworks were popping, bands playing and locals in traditional costume thronged the square in front of Almeria’s cathedral.

Sailing to Seville, Spain’s only inland port, turned the ocean cruise into a river cruise. About 80 kilometres of the Guadalquivr River from the Gulf of Cadiz is navigable only by small vessels. Insignia fitted through Seville’s Puente de las Delicias with centimetres to spare.

Seville is a fascinating city. We took an e-bike tour, wandered around 18th-century university buildings that had a previous life as a tobacco factory, rode through the lovely, shaded Maria Luisa park and soaked up snippets of the city’s colourful history with our excellent guide, Marie.

We farewelled Insignia in Lisbon. Like Seville, this is a destination I have added to my must-revisit list.

THE VERDICT

HIGHS: Apart from the onboard dining, great service and fresh look of the ship.

LOWS: Drinks packages are available, but why not include wine and beer at lunch and dinner, if not all alcoholic drinks, like many comparable lines?

BEST FOR: 40-plus couples and singles.