(Recently posted in Escape)
Cruise companies offer such variety at mealtime you could spend a week at sea and never frequent the same eatery twice with vessels big and small now promising multiple place to graze.
“Dining on board varies as widely as the entertainment and, just like you can find a cruise ship with climbing walls and some with lectures about antique appreciation, you’ll find just a wide selection of dining options,’’ says Imagine Cruising’s managing director Elle Hudson.
Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas has 13 eateries — from formal at 150 Central Park, relaxed at Jamie’s Italian, and casual at Johnny Rockets — as well as Windjammer which is the traditional waterborne buffet and a main dining room so vast it sprawls across three decks.
At the other end of the spectrum Silversea’s recent addition Silver Muse, which carries 569 passengers, is setting a new standard with eight dining alternatives offering everything from the tasting dishes presented in Silver Note to the haute French cuisine that defines La Dame by Relais & Chateaux.
It’s essential to understand the vibe of a ship’s restaurants before boarding so you can pack the necessary wardrobe — some ships still go formal, and you don’t want to be caught without sparkles — then settle on an eatery that suits your mealtime mood as pizza night in the tavern won’t do it if you’re seeking quiet candlelight.
2017’S BIG CRUISE-FOOD TREND
Industry insiders report customers are ditching dining-room formalities for “premium experiences and specialty restaurants’’ with cruisers happy to pay extra for thoughtful lunches, afternoon teas, and dinners.
Cornelius Gallagher, head of Celebrity’s food and beverage operations, says the evolution is occurring because guests have “exactly the same high expectations of their culinary experiences at sea as they do on land’’ and appreciate smaller venues focusing on fresh food and regional fare.
“In response we’ve added even more unique dining options, source ingredients from the destinations we visit, and our chefs add their own personality as many have worked in the world’s top restaurant,’’ the Michelin-starred chef explains.
“The range of specialty restaurants is diverse and on Celebrity Solstice — the ship returning to Australian in October — Sushi on Five serves Japanese-inspired dishes, Tuscan Grille rustic Italian, Murano French cuisine with flair, and Silk Harvest Asian fusion.’’
2017’S OTHER BIG CRUISE-FOOD TREND
This year has seen cruise lines hosting more local gourmet encounters, both at sea and during port visits, with most operators now crafting destination-specific menus and shore excursions that explore sites where flavours are created and traded.
“The biggest trend we at Holland America Lines are noticing is increased interest in more local and authentic food experience, both on and off ships, and ‘port to plate’ is a philosophy we’re advocating right now,’’ the company’s Australian sales director Tony Archbold says.
“When guests sail Alaska they want to learn the best ways to cook salmon and halibut, so we offer classes at our American Test Kitchen demo show, and we know when on shore they look to be immersed so we added new food-focused excursions.’’
Celebrity’s Chef’s Market Discoveries, Seven Seas Explorer’s Gourmet Explorer Tours, and Azamara’s Chef Hosted Excursions are organised port outings that guests behind the scenes at gourmet addresses like local markets, artisan orchards, and private kitchens.
PRESENTING FOOD WITH A STORY
An extension of the port-to-plate approach is focusing on food with history and Oceania, Azamara, Celebrity and Viking offer cooking classes and kitchen-table meals hosted by chefs that share tales about ingredients and recipes.
Viking takes the storytelling a step further by serving high tea in the ship’s Wintergarden every afternoon, replicating ceremonies from around the world, and the brand’s Norwegian eatery is inspired by the founder’s mother.
“Mamsen — our Norwegian deli named in honour of Torstein Hagen’s mother — offers sweet and savoury dishes which come from her cookbook and her original crockery has also been reproduced to bring her story to life,’’ says Viking Cruises’ managing director Michelle Black.
“Our Kitchen Table interactive dining experience takes guests ashore to shop for ingredients in local markets with our chef that’s followed by a cooking class on board and dinner paired with matching wines to enjoy what’s been cooked.’’
SO, WHAT ARE THE SECRETS TO EATING ON A CRUISE SHIP?
Taking a strategic approach to cruise ship grazing might sound silly but TravelManagers’ Karryn Bartlett, a cruising devotee with domestic and international voyages under her belt, says a little forward planning and careful manoeuvring can make a difference.
“Take advantage of the deals offered on sailing day to book your specialty restaurants — especially the chef’s table — and while most ships have ‘anytime dining’, which is great for flexibility, set dining times mean you have the same waiters looking after you and they remember your likes and dislikes,’’ she says.
“Breakfast on sea days is the ideal time to eat on your balcony or around the pool and many cruise lines provide free snacks like pizzas and burgers during the day so check what’s available on each ship so you’re not paying for treats between meals.
“If you like controlling your own portions, or have teenagers with massive appetites, the buffet is perfect and by each going to the buffet separately you won’t lose your table.’’
Cocktail of the day is no longer the highlight of a ship’s beverage scene. P&O has teamed with Sydney’s Archie Rose Distilling Co to create customised concoctions in Pacific Explorer’s hidden bar The Bonded Store while Royal Caribbean’s newer ships boast a Bionic Bar staffed by robots Mix and Mingle that blend tailor-made drinks.
Celebrity stocks the largest wine collection at sea, with a team of expert sommeliers guiding guests through the extensive vino list, and the line’s Solstice-class ships feature a two storey wine tower holding 1800 bottles.
Some passengers invest in an on-board drinks package while others advise against the outlay and recommend paying for individual beverages.
“Depending on preferences, your drinks spend could be large on a longer cruise so estimate how much you will likely consume and consider purchasing a package prior to departure,’’ Cruise1st product manager Gareth Evison says.
“There are usually a range of packages available, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, which are usually priced per person and per day but you will be charged even if you have some days where you drink very little so think about the cruise experience you want.’’
While the quality of coffee served in the past was average, on-board baristas now ensure lattes and cappuccinos satisfy even the fussiest connoisseur.
P&O serves two million cups of “go juice” on board its Australian-based ships every year and assigns staff regular expert training to ensure the brew standard is always high.
Dedicated coffee venues now dot cruise ships. P & O’s Pacific Dawn and Pacific Explorer has The Café which is busy from early morning until late at night; Café al Bacio is the place to linger on nine vessels in the Celebrity fleet, and Starbucks kiosks bring a big name to Royal Caribbean.
Hoot Holidays’ cruise expert Jeff Leckey says travellers need not feel guilty about making return jaunts to the dessert bar with ships having traditional gyms, an outside running track, or exercise classes as well as some more innovative facilities.
“Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas has FlowRider surf simulators, an ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall, and basketball court,’’ he says.
“One-on-one sessions with personal trainers is an option, there’s boot camp for those that are really keen, and Carnival’s ambassador Shannan Ponton — a trainer of The Biggest Loser — is enhancing exercise activities on board as well as working with chefs to create healthy dishes.’’
Oceania offers Healthy Living Tours inspired by Canyon Ranch, as well as expanding vegetarian and gluten-free menus, while Silversea’s Silver Discoverer presents “wellness-themed programs’’ on four remaining 2017 voyages that include stretching sessions and healthy cooking classes.
SO, WHAT’S NEXT?
When Scenic Eclipse launches in August next year, the innovative vessel billed as “the world’s first discovery yacht’’ promises 10 dining venues inspired “by all four corners of the globe’’ but in-suite dining available 24 hours and chef-prepared picnics ready to take on shore excursions.
Technology is set to play a bigger role. Free smartphone apps used to message friends on board, research shore excursions, and check daily schedules will be tweaked to take restaurant reservations, display menus, advertise special ingredients, and remember individual order preferences.