We've all seen the envy-making instagrams and tweets of glorious produce in foreign food markets and cafe tables perched on some impossibly pretty beach. So the idea of getting to do all of that round the Med, whilst someone else sorts out the travel, sounded pretty good to us. And that's the reality of a modern cruise. All we had to do was tip up at the P&O's cruise ship Ventura in Venice and for the next seven days, we were carried through the Adriatic, Mediterranean and Ligurian seas.
Day 1 - Venice and the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal
When you start the cruise in Venice you'll have a few hours to see round this amazing city. But we wanted more time to take it in, so we organised our flights to arrive here the day before the ship set sail.
Our home for the night was the Monaco and Grand Canal hotel. Owned by the Benetton family, this luxury hotel on the lagoon, barely two minutes walk from St Mark's Square, is perfectly situated for such a short stay in Venice. We lucked in with an upgrade to a suite with a terrace overlooking the lagoon - a real boon for this city, especially in the heart of the summer season.
The hotel itself has had a multi-million pound renovation, managing somehow to make minimalist furniture fit in a baroque palace. Such is the history of this building they even have steps named after Casanova who used them to high tail it out of Venice's first casino in the upstairs ballroom and head off with another conquest into the night.
When you're in Venice there are two things it can be hard to find - your way home at night and a restaurant that's not designed for one purpose only - to separate foolish tourists from their money. If you're staying longer, work your way through any list compiled by Polpo's Russell Norman who knows the city like the back of his hand.
But if you're strapped for time, you can't do better than Enoteca Mascareta which is where we ended up after a tip from Rita's Dining's Jackson Boxer. This charmingly shabby wine shop come dining room is known for its sabrage-performing owner. It was also on an episode of Jamie Oliver's Italian TV series which we only twigged when we saw a picture of Mr Oliver outside on the wall.
Starting with a glass of their own label Prosecco the waiter talked us through the wine list - basically everything in the bar is natural or organic and there's a particular focus on champagnes. Just choose a bottle, and you'll be charged for how many glasses you go through. We ended up with two glasses of the locally produced Colli Berici Cabernet 2008 which was just the right match for a really good plate of beef tartare with artichokes, an equally well executed slow cooked beef cheek and the kind of plate of burrata and tomatoes you're just never going to find outside Italy.
From here we could have just slowly meandered our way back to our hotel, but with just 24 hours in Venice instead we dashed back to the lagoon and hopped on to the free boat over to the Cipriani where a meeting with a George Clooney-inspired cocktail awaited us.
Created the night Clooney was staying at the hotel for the Venice Film Festival, the Buena Notte is a creation of the hotel's bartender Walter Bolzonella and consists of lime, ginger, angostura bitter, vodka and cranberries. We sat out in the garden sipping it, looking back towards Venice in the summer heat while a pianist tinkled the ivories in the background, thinking life doesn't get much better than this.
Day 2 - Venice and boarding the Ventura
Breakfast at the Monaco and Grand Canal has to be taken on their terrace overlooking the lagoon. Our consisted of good strong coffee, buttery pastries and the sound of O Sole Mio from the gondoliers ferrying tourist in the water beside us. Yes, kind of corny, but in a good way.
After a brief look inside St Marks (top tip - use this link to prebook your slot and jump the queue) it was time to pack up and head off of to our home for the next week. As we took the water bus out to the Cruise Terminal we were struck by the hulking size of Ventura. This was the last season that the huge cruise ships are going to be allowed to sail into Venice itself, so our cruise out past the city - watching it with a glass of wine in hand from the bar on the top deck of the ship - made us among the last to be able to view Venice from this height.
As for Ventura, well there are a LOT of places to eat on board.
When you book your trip you choose between freedom dining - dine whenever you want, but be prepared to have to wait for a table - or choose a particular sitting. We went for the latter so we knew we had a table reserved for us every evening should we want to use it. Every night there's a four course a la carte meal available - or options from the grill.
We had a tour of the kitchens later in the week and to feed 3000 people a night it's run like a military operation. But we were surprised by the quality of the food. Our starter one night was poached egg - something that even small cafes in London fail to get right. Here, every egg was perfectly poached - pretty impressive on this scale.
Day 3 - At sea - cooking with Atul
One of the key attractions of this particular cruise was the presence of Benares' chef Atul Kochhar on board. Kochhar is responsible for one of the ships three speciality restaurants - East. Inspired by Asian and Pacific Rim food, the menu here takes in Malaysian, Philippine, Japanese and Indonesian influences among others. There are always plenty of extra activities to do on board, some of which cost extra, like this workshop.
As we sat in front of the pass, sipping champagne, Atul took us through several of the restaurant's dishes - garlic and ginger chicken wrapped in pandanus leaf, grilled asparagus with noodle salad and fried quails egg and (our favourite) warm roast duck and lychee salad with a Chinese black vinegar and plumdressing, served with heirloom tomatoes.
As he cooked, he talked about the benefits of the ship's route through the Med where they use their contacts to get hold of excellent produce over the course of the summer cruises.
After the workshop there was time for a lunch - and everyone got to take away the recipes with them.
Day 4 - Kotor
This Unesco World Heritage walled town on the coast of Montenegro is really attractive, but for us foodies the real pleasure came in roaming round the farmer's market here with Atul.
We picked up fantastic olive oil and some sharp sheep's cheese for eating back on the ship - but we could have spent a fortune adding dried ceps and more to the shopping list.
From Kotor we took another of the ship's excursions up into the hills above the harbour to Catovica Mlini.
Run by a family which had converted their 200-year-old water mill into a restaurant, it's a stupidly pretty place to eat with natural springs bubbling around the tables. The restaurant is particularly well known for its homemade cheese and prsut which we enjoyed over a long lunch, paired with local wines.
Back on board, we took advantage of the beautiful sail away to eat at the Marco Pierre White restaurant. The White Room had the best situation on the ship - up on the 17th deck with a large outside terrace which as we sailed out through the bay made the most beautiful backdrop for dinner.
The menu here might be considered a little old-fashioned to a foodie London crowd - expect to see plenty of smoked salmon, lobster and foie gras on offer. But honestly, you're really dining here for the service and that amazing view, watching the sun plummet into the sea as you hit the main courses.
Day 5 - Corfu
Keep an eye out for Eatlikeagirl's account of eating out in Corfu town. We were travelling with a 11 year old, so spent this day dive bombing down slides on an excursion to a nearby water park rather than looking for the perfect Greek salad. Turned out to be a surprisingly effective way to burn off the calories we'd ingested to date.
Day 6 - At sea
Being at sea all day is oddly relaxing - no need to work up an exhausting itinerary of cultural sights or must-see restaurants. Instead we took ourselves off to Atul's restaurant East for what was to be our best meal on board.
Kicking off with a selection of starters, which included Thai fish cakes , Malaysian curry puffs and braised Chang Mai ribs marinated in candied ginger, garlic and chilli.
The highlights were a 24 hour slow-cooked lamb rendang and a (can't believe we were so full but polished this all off) creme caramel infused with coconut liqueur.
The wine list here was good too - we paired our meal with an American wine - the Kung Fu Girl Reisling. If we'd been on board longer, we'd definitely have come back here for a return visit.
Day 7 - Civitavecchia (Rome)
On this day pretty much the whole ship emptied out to head off on excursions to Rome. But put off by the two hour journey by coach from the port of Civitavecchia where we docked, so we decided to stay put and head into the town instead.
Plenty of websites warned us off, saying there was little to see, but actually there was a cracking food market here about a 10 minute walk from where the courtesy buses drop you off. We could have taken tonnes of food back with us, if we thought it would last as far as London. But instead we settled for an incredibly cheap punnet of datterini tomatoes from Sicily, some super-fresh mozzarella from a cheese truck and plenty of fresh bread. It all made for a great picnic lunch back on board.
For our evening meal we visited the Glasshouse on board - a wine bar with a list curated by Saturday Kitchen's Olly Smith. We appreciated being able to order smaller sharing plates for a change (think quail scotch eggs or salt and pepper tempura prawns).
Of the wines we tried here (and yes, there were quite a few) our standouts were a Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2009 from Santorini and a Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2007 from Sicily.
Day 8 - Ajaccio (Corsica)
Now this city really is a foodie's paradise. Ventura docked right into the harbour meaning that within a five minute walk off the ship you're in one of the prettiest looking food markets you're likely to find. Everywhere we looked were stalls selling amazing charcuterie, cheese, wine, fruit, herbs and baked goods.
We picked up loads of local saucisson (most stalls will vacuum pack them for you so they don't stink out your luggage on the trip home) as well as bottles of Corsican rose - this piece by the Guardian proved a really useful guide to knowing what to look for. You should also look out for Corsican honey. We found one stall selling three varieties - a chestnut honey and a Spring and Autumn honey where the flavour changes radically depending on the flowers in season.
A short walk from the market was another place of pilgrimage - U Stazzu is a treasure trove for Corsican food and is pricey to boot. Here we went for some of their own saucisson aged for 24 months and made from the meat of Black Corsican pigs that roam free, gorging on acorns and chestnuts. The shop stocks some very good olive oil, wines and cheese too and will make up hampers to order.
The next day, we arrive at Genoa. There's no time to look round Genoa when you disembark - our return trip was by scheduled BA from Nice airport which was a two hour coach journey from here. But the definite advantage was that it allowed us to stock up further on some decent bottles of Provencal rose from Duty Free.
Put aside any prejudices you might have about a cruise - and view this as pretty much the easiest way to go grocery shopping around the Mediterranean. With great restaurants, bars, food markets and delis to search out in pretty much every port we visited, pack light when you go, so you can stock up on the way home.
We really enjoyed the food and drink on board, particularly in the signature restaurants and bars. The ship's wine list has been created in conjunction with Bibendum and even in the normal restaurants is well thought out and really reasonably priced (£19.50 for that Kung Fu Reisling mentioned above which we've seen above £30 in London restuarants). We also liked a new feature that's just been introduced on board - an enomatic machine in the self-service restaurants which you can buy a card to so you can help yourself day or night to a drink when you fancy.
A similar 7 day Mediterranean cruise with P&O next summer would cost from around £1000 per person for full board - to book go to their website.
To find out when Atul, Olly or Marco are on board click here.
Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal, San Marco 1332 30124 - UK phone no 020 7380 3658.
Hotel Cipriani, Giudecca 10, 30133 Venice, Italy
Enoteca Mascareta, Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, 5183, 30122 Venezi
Konoba Catovica Mlini; 85338 Morinj. To book call 00 382 32 373 030
U Stazzo, 1 rue Bonaparte, 20000 Ajaccio
Hot Dinners were invited on to Ventura as guests of P&O Cruises and we also stayed at the Monaco & Grand Hotel as a guest of Great Hotels of the World.