Some 18 amateur cooks wearing crisp white aprons and caps stood behind granite-topped workstations aboard the Regent Seven Seas Explorer. All eyes were fixed on the woman at the front of the room.
"Everything we do in cooking has to do with our senses," chef Kathryn Kelly told her pupils as she scraped the seeds out of a vanilla bean before adding them to a mixture of flour and semolina, demonstrating an initial step in making limoncello tea cakes.
Each student chef followed her example. As my husband, Paul, scraped his bean, the fragrance of vanilla—sweet, intense, with slightly tart grace notes—filled the air.
This class in the ship's Culinary Arts Kitchen was among the highlights of a six-night cruise in the Mediterranean aboard 750-passenger Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Explorer when it started sailing in July 2016. We found a ship that—like that cooking class—stimulated many of our senses.
As we walked around on Explorer, Paul marveled that it "doesn't look like a cruise ship; it looks like a boutique hotel."
"Or the home of someone with great taste in art," I replied, indicating an abstract painting with splashes of bright colors. The ship's collection includes works by Picasso and modern Barcelona master Eduardo Arranz-Bravo.
In the Compass Rose dining room, we looked up to see a ceiling sculpture of Czech crystal in myriad shades of blue, each tiny droplet handblown. When we walked onto the pool deck, we smelled the unmistakable scent of teak, which covers the floor. In the lobby, velvet-backed, white leather settees invited us to run our hands over them. The artistic flair demonstrated throughout the ship even made its way to our plates in the restaurants.
In Pacific Rim, Explorer's Asian restaurant, we dined one night on yellowtail sashimi, which was light and delicate with ginger and jalapeño, and a rich spring roll filled with duck and cucumber in a smoked hoisin-miso sauce. As we left the restaurant, we paused at the bronze sculpture of a Tibetan prayer wheel that commands the entranceway.
"I see what he meant," Paul said, recalling that one of the ship's designers had told us earlier that Buddhist temples inspired him during a monthlong visit to Tibet. We spun a couple of the wheels—they whirred gently as they turned—then stopped them to see what was inscribed. There is no one luckier than he who thinks himself so, read one. You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it, read another.
On another night, we ate in Chartreuse, the ship's French restaurant. As we entered, I followed a narrow, meandering cream-and-chartreuse pattern in the brown carpet that seemed to lead us into the room.
"These people get around," said Paul, remembering that another designer had told us that a romantic stroll down a rainy cobblestone street in Paris inspired her as she planned this area.
Art nouveau motifs accented the walls, which glistened with handmade mosaic tiles in gold leaf and green. Chartreuse-and-silver silk brocade covered the chairs. The decor created a lovely setting for classic French dishes such as duck foie gras with Sauternes jelly and Dover sole with lemon and capers. Dessert, fittingly, was a parfait with Chartreuse liqueur.
No matter where we dined, we found the service to be formal without being stuffy. One morning at The Café, Paul confided: "I just ate the best chocolate-covered cream-filled doughnut on the seas. It was like mille-feuille, with overtones of butter between the flakes."
We asked Regent Seven Seas' culinary director Bernard Klotz about it as he made his rounds during dinner at Chartreuse. "It took us a long time to develop the recipe for that doughnut," he said. "We tried layer after layer—baked it, deep-fried it—until we made it perfect."
Unlike many larger ships, the Explorer is small enough to do some provisioning in the ports it visits. "We went to the market in Toulon [France] this morning," Klotz added, "and we got some remarkable vegetables."
We, too, had gone ashore at this French port and had marveled at the profusion of produce, including gorgeous heads of garlic, plump apricots, and radishes as long as a man's finger. Onboard chefs then turn raw materials such as these into dishes as beautiful as they are delicious. "First you eat with the eyes, then the taste," said Klotz.
To burn off the calories I was accumulating, I worked out on weight-training machines at the fitness center, part of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub. Other onboard activities included everything from indoor cycling to blackjack tournaments to a pet lovers' coffee chat.
In the evening, we attended shows in the Constellation Theater: one night, an homage to Paris, complete with a cancan; another night, a tap-dancing salute to old Hollywood. As we strolled through the ship, we'd hear Motown emanating from one lounge, Broadway piano tunes from another. At night, the Observation Lounge became a dance club. "This is so nice," I said to Paul, as we relaxed one evening in the Meridian Lounge, listening to the Explorer Show Band play jazz. As the rhythms rolled over us, I relished this time we took to just be together—something we too rarely do ashore.
Back in the Culinary Arts class, I watched Paul's creations take form. As the tea cakes baked, he and his fellow students carefully sautéed shallots and garlic in a small pan, then added white wine and crushed tomatoes under branzino fillets. They then poached the fish under tiny parchment-paper tents they made themselves.
Meanwhile, instructor Kelly demonstrated the correct way to make an emulsion of olive oil, vinegar, shallots, and mustard. Her fork made rhythmic, almost musical sounds as she gradually drizzled the vinegar into the oil. Then she poured the mixture onto fresh greens and tossed the salad with her hands. "It's the only way I can tell if it's properly dressed," she said. Paul, who's the chef in our family, concurred.
"She's right, you have to feel the texture of the greens," he said, noting that he'd learned a lot in the class. "It's very practical. And fun."
Once the fish became opaque and the students had poured a syrup of limoncello liqueur over the baked tea cakes, the pupils ate. "Mmmm," said a chorus of several participants. "Delicious," declared many more. Paul's smile told me that his dishes were—like this ship—sensational.
Size: 56,254 gross tons
Passenger Capacity: 750
Best Features: The cabins may be the best-designed staterooms at sea. Ours had a huge, comfortable bed, a sitting area, a marble bathroom with a tub and shower, and a walk-in closet.
Price: From about $1,000 per person, per night, including meals, beverages, gratuities, shore excursions, and business-class airfare on international flights.