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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dining on the High Seas

When we think about a cruise, most of us envision lavish buffets, with ice sculptures and scrumptious food. But that image is out of date. Cruise lines are changing their approach to food service. If you’re thinking about a cruise soon, you’ll want to read this advice from guest blogger Claire Jenkins first about food questions to ask before you book
There is no argument that food is an integral part of the cruise holiday experience, but reports on the quality of food served aboard the ships vary immensely. For some, the fine dining experience while enjoying the ever-changing view from the restaurant window is something that can’t be topped. Others report on the mayhem experienced in cramped buffet style restaurants offering food that most fast food outlets would be ashamed of. For many of us quality food is a key aspect of a holiday, and something to look forward to, so reports of poor food are troublesome. What is the reality, and what can you expect when dining aboard?

The truth is that the cruise industry is going through a period of dramatic change when it comes to dining. The days of the formal traditional dining rooms are coming to an end. Most cruise lines are diversifying and offering a wide range of dining options, as well as choices in eating times, which is a far cry from the formality of the original dining rooms with their set meal times.

 “Anytime dining” is a new buzz word in the cruising world. Diners can book a particular meal time at a specific table or can opt to go for the flexible option where they can turn up at anytime during serving hours. Princess and Holland America were two of the first lines to offer this. Other lines, such as Norwegian Cruise Line, have gone for the 24-hour restaurant option, offering comfort food throughout the night. The once-per-cruise midnight buffet option is being replaced with a once-per-cruise brunch . Disney Cruises offer champagne brunch on sea days in their adults-only restaurant, Palo.

Changes are also taking place in the types of eateries available as well. Cruise ships traditionally offered one dining room, meaning guests had no choice in where they ate. These days guests can choose from a number of smaller onboard specialty restaurants. These generally have a cover charge of about $18, which, compared to the cost of eating ashore, is a good value. These specialty restaurants offer a range of culinary themes and a more intimate and personal dining experience away from the crowds of the main dining room. These food cruise specialty restaurants offer more allowances for individual tastes and preferences. For example, you can request steak cooked the way you like it, ask for a certain element of a dish to be excluded, or added. They also give guests the option to avoid the sometimes forced entertainment often found in the main dining rooms.

Check what food is included in your fare before you book your cruise, and ask about the cover charges for the specialty restaurants. Make sure there is some variety in dining options offered on the boat as in some cases you will be on board for a few weeks and you could quickly tire of limited options.

For connoisseurs

Fans of the celebrity chef craze may be pleasantly surprised by the dining options on board. A host of famous chefs have endorsed food and restaurants on cruise ships. Jacques Pepin is Oceania’s Executive Culinary Director, Marco Pierre White has restaurants on P&O’s Ventura and Oriana, Boston-born Todd English has a restaurant on the Queen Victoria, and Nobuyuki ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa has a sushi bar on Crystal Serenity. The chefs not only create the menus but also have a hand in designing the restaurants and regularly dine aboard to check on the quality of the food being served.

Some cruise companies are making the extra effort, and often the extra cost, to ensure that the food served aboard is locally sourced. Hebridean Island Cruises support the small business communities that they sail around by sourcing the food from local suppliers. This ensures that the food is fresh and seasonal for the guests. The fish is all sourced from Scottish waters, the meat is from a local butcher based in Argyll, and even the cheeses are Scottish. For those wanting to really experience the true food of the area they are visiting this is an ideal solution. Other liners offer specific food and wine-based shore tours. Oceania has joined with Food and Wine Trails to offer guests the chance to taste local life as well as local food and wines. Azamara Club Cruises offer tours to the source of local foods, such as Slovenian salt plant tours, visits to olive farms and wine cellars.

If you want to brush up on your culinary skills while on holiday then choose one of the ever increasing numbers of cruise lines offering cooking lessons on board. Holland America is leading the way in this revolution with their Culinary Arts Center. In a specialized demo kitchen they offer small groups the chance to watch demonstrations and have hands-on lessons. Regent Seven Seas Cruises have Le Cordon Blue chefs on hand to teach guests their tricks of the trade through their lectures and demos.

For some people the choice of wine is just as, or even more, important than the food choice. The majority of cruise companies have recognized this and now have wine bars. Norwegian Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Princess all have impressive wine bars. Celebrity Cruises even put on a special wine lovers cruise once a year as part of a repositioning trip between Vancouver and San Diego, with vineyard visits and seminars by wine experts.

Dining on board with magnificent views from the windows in undeniably a special experience, but Windstar Cruises have taken it one step further and offer the guests an al fresco dining option when the weather allows. Guests can choose to dine under the stars in the fresh air on all three of their ships.

 A lasting impression

The reputation of the food served on cruise ships has taken a bit of a battering over the past few decades, but it is clear to see that the cruise industry is revolutionizing itself. By doing some careful research before booking you may find that the food served on board is one of the most memorable parts of the holiday, and for all the right reasons.




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