It was, as it always is, a warm night in Tahiti, and our handsome 320-passenger ship, the Paul Gauguin, was leaving the busy port of Pape'ete for a weeklong, five-stop cruise in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. In the main dining room, a waiter was pouring a white Bordeaux. "It has some character, but it's not really a full-bodied wine," he said. "On the first night, the passengers are tired, and since they don't want to concentrate, we serve our lightest wines."
Without even considering its color or bouquet, I took a sip. Then I took another sip and another and another. I guess it was a light wine, but I couldn't really tell, not because I was tired, but because I had never taken the time to understand wine. In fact, faced with most wine and food--French food, in particular--I had always thought of myself as a kind of noble savage, blissfully ignorant of the corrupting, civilizing influence of too much knowledge.
This cruise, then, with a pair of French chefs aboard to re-create the best dishes from their two-Michelin-star restaurants and a wine expert to give seminars, was going to be an intensive education for me. But French Polynesia has always been good at making Westerners examine the way they live. Inspirational to writers and artists--Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Somerset Maugham, James Michener and, of course, Gauguin himself--these volcanic islands are places of such constant natural beauty that it becomes impossible for visitors not to pay a little more attention than usual to their surroundings. "This region is a festival of the senses," says Jean-Claude Potier, who helped create the Gauguin's culinary program for the ship's operator, Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, "so why not have an especially nice gastronomic experience while you're here?"