Thursday, May 19 we had an early breakfast again and were met by Slava who drove us to Peterhof, as Marina told us stories of Soviet era daily life.

Peterhof is another one of those tourist destinations that can get unbearably packed, so I truly appreciated that my wife and Marina arranged for a special visit before they officially opened their doors.

It is amazing the excruciatingly detailed job the Soviets did to document, preserve, and restore the palace, including using original equipment to weave the tapestries and silk.

Although it was raining, at 11 o’clock the daily fountain show in the gardens was full of tourists with umbrellas and selfie-sticks. After the water show, which is particularly amazing considering all those fountains operate without pumps, we took a long and very pleasant walk through the gardens towards the embarkment. So many picture-perfect postcard settings!

We took the Hydrofoil back, which dropped us off in front of the Hermitage. From there we walked to the Four Seasons Hotel (in the former Ministry of Interior building, perfectly restored), and Marina gave us a last art lesson in St. Isaac’s catholic Cathedral. I still can’t get over the mosaics, the size and weight of elements such as the doors, the engineering behind the acoustics (inserting hollow clay vases inside the domes) or the mechanisms that allowed just four men to erect columns that weighted dozens of tonnes each.

We thanked Marina for all she taught us, and went back on board, since Captain Sigurd Darbakk had invited us to an exclusive tour of the Bridge, led by Tony, one of his officers. It was exciting, since I had never been on the Bridge of a large vessel, and it is really interesting to learn about all the technology that powers the ship and enables its amazing maneuverability.

Before we departed Saint Petersburg, we attended a lecture on the end of the Romanov dynasty, the Japo-Russian War and WWI, and the Russian Revolution.

We sailed away at 6pm from the Blagoveshchenskiy bridge through the Neva along the city, past the shipyards, onto the Gulf of Finland, in one of the most beautiful sail-aways (along with others like Venice).

To end the day in an amazing note, we were invited to have dinner at The Grill, led by world-renowned Chef Thomas Keller, the culinary genius behind The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se.

Chef Keller, named Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and the only American-born chef to hold multiple Michelin three-star ratings, has put together the impeccable, albeit (as was to be expected) conservative menu for The Grill based on his signature selection of suppliers (“purveyors” as he calls them).

For example, he has been purchasing Ingrid Bengi’s lobsters since his early days as a chef in New York, and his restaurants consume the entire annual production of Diane St. Claire’s butter. The gluten-free flour they use was invented by Lena Kwak when she was a chef at The French Laundry (going on to found Cup4Cup to commercialize it worldwide), and the lambs the use come from Elysian Farms, founded and headed by former investment banker Keith Martin, who monitors each individual lamb throughout their lives, and gets direct feedback from the chefs at The French Laundry and Per Se to continuously improve the quality of the lambs. And sometimes those purveyors are deep connoisseurs and even “ambassadors” of the produce they trade, like Céline Labaune and her truffles from Gourmet Attitude.

The chef in the kitchen this time was Michel Sandoval, previously chef at Bouchon, one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants.

Michel came out to have a chat with us and to explain some of the things that go on behind the scenes, like the fact that he has been on board the ship for months, getting the restaurant ready, which should have been opened weeks ago, but not everything was to his liking, so they delayed the opening of the restaurant until… this week! So we were lucky to be amongst the first ones to try it.

The dinner menu itself is self explanatory from looking at the pictures. Everything was “classical”, from the pisco sour cocktail to the double-consommé to the T-bone steak or the coconut cake. But the magic is in the details. Everything was absolutely perfect, and it tasted the way everything should always taste but never does.

One very nice surprise was to find out that they had brought on board a unique Goat Gouda cheese from the Netherlands. They did not have it in the menu, but they offered to us and it was a true revelation. It had the consistency, and almost the flavor, of parmiggiano regiano, but it was gouda made out of goat milk!

The cheese sommelier, who was from the Netherlands, told us she had received training directly from the owner of the cheese purveyor, and that they put a lot of passion into their cheeses. It was, indeed, quite a unique one.