Cruise food and drink: Jennifer CampbellBy Jennifer Campbell
Director, Agency Services

When you conjure up great food and drink experiences, you might think of a fabulous meal by a celebrity chef, or a sommelier-led wine tasting, or local cuisine prepared with fresh ingredients.

You probably don’t think of having all these on a cruise.

Cruise lines have realized the enormous appetite of travelers for fine cuisine, wine and spirits. The World Food Travel Association says more than 39 million people are culinary travelers, seeking out food and beverage experiences around the world. Dining is consistently one of the top three favorite travel activities, and all demographics love food equally.

For me, a self-professed lover of all things food, wine and spirits, the more than 10 cruises that I’ve been on have provided amazing opportunities to enjoy all of these loves while exploring the world. Here are my eight ways to make the most of the myriad ways to indulge in great cruise food and drink experiences.

1. Open your mind to new experiences.

Gone are the stereotypical days of extravagant buffets and cruisers filling their pockets with crab legs before the seemingly endless piles vanish. Not to say that there aren’t still buffets on cruise ships. But the buffets of today cater to a more discerning and well-traveled client.

cruise food and drink: international offerings
Cruise passengers can find a variety of international cuisine represented on board

Because of the international nature of cruising, the breakfast buffet might include congee and dumplings. Or maybe kippered herring, muesli or sliced meats and cheeses alongside traditional American staples of cereal, yogurt, eggs and pastries. The lunch buffet might be like visiting Japan, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Germany in one 50-foot stretch.

For my friends and dining companions last year on Silversea Cruises, the amount of sushi that I consumed every day from the lunch buffet became embarrassing. We got to the point where our waiter would see me coming and prepare a plate of sushi to be sent to the table. I can still taste that salmon sashimi.

Remember that the buffet isn’t like the Thanksgiving table; you don’t have to get it all at once. Eat in courses, try things and enjoy!

2. Master the main dining room.

This can enhance your cruise immensely. Most cruise lines now offer open seating – meaning that you can eat at any time you like rather than at a set time.

The great thing about the main dining room is its flexibility. The menu might offer appetizers, entrees and dessert, but guess what? You can order any or all of them in whatever configuration suits your mood.

If you want three appetizers and no dessert, then fine, that is what you’ll have. If you order the wiener schnitzel and then notice that someone at an adjacent table has the shrimp scampi and you want it too, it is yours. Don’t see shrimp cocktail on the menu but it’s your favorite? Just ask and chances are they’ll make it just for you. My mom enjoyed it every night on our last cruise in October.

3. Discover the specialty restaurants.

Specialty restaurants on many ships offer five-star dining experiences, comparable to some of the world’s great restaurants. Celebrity chefs are now as common on cruise ships as the swimming pool. Nobu Matsushisa, Todd English, Jacques Pepin, and Jamie Oliver (to name a few) all work with cruise lines in menu design, chef restaurants and cooking demonstrations. They’re elevating cruise food to new levels.

cruise food and drink: master the dining room
The great thing about today’s cruise dining is its flexibility

Steakhouses, sushi bars, Italian trattorias, French dining – all of these can be found on cruise ships. Craving escargot or maybe a Pittsburgh-style steak? You can get these in the middle of the ocean.

I had one of the best goat cheese soufflés of my life recently on board Azamara Club Cruises. Yes, there is typically a surcharge at the specialty dining restaurants. But many cruise lines now offer packages that discount that rate. So whether you want to buy a package and enjoy the specialty restaurants multiple times, or pay the one-time upcharge for one splurge evening, take advantage of them and their over-the-top menus.

Depending on the cruise line and the category of cabin in which you’ll be staying, sometimes reservations are included and can be made well in advance. Other lines require you to book onboard. When booking onboard, don’t be dismayed if the time and date you want is not available. Many times there are cancellations, so spots open up daily. Befriend the maitre d’ and you’ll be surprised what can happen for you.

4. Buy bar and wine packages.

Is there a particular sprit that you enjoy each evening? Maybe a dry Belvedere martini with a lemon twist or a Glenlivet scotch neat? The premium bar packages on many lines allow you to have these same comforts onboard the ship at a price not much more than you pay at home.

Rather than paying $20 each evening for your martini like in a fine restaurant, your daily rate pays for itself in one drink. On my last cruise on Azamara, the premium bar package was less per day than one cocktail with my favorite spirit. Great deal for me and no guilt if I decided to splurge and have a second one.

Cruise food and drink: buy bar packages
Bar and wine packages on board can provide great value

Love wine? Consider a wine package where you can pick premium bottles of wine from around the world and enjoy them at any restaurant on the ship.

Can’t finish the bottle? The sommelier will cork if for you and it will be waiting the next night, just like you are at home.

5. Opt for a cozy dinner in.

If you had a busy day of exploring on shore and just want to cocoon in your room that night, order room service. Unlike a hotel on land, it’s included in the price of your cruise. And it’s generally available 24/7 for any late-night cravings.

On certain lines, waiters will set up a table in your room and – just like at a restaurant – return with each new course as you’ve finished the last one.

6. Take advantage of all your cruise food options.

Your dining isn’t confined just to the buffet or the main dining room. Get to know all the ship’s venues and sample their wares.

Have a casual meal on deck at the barbecue grill. Enjoy a snack or dessert at the ice cream shop. Indulge in special late-night culinary offerings after a show or nightcap. Savor a morning beverage and pastry at a coffee bar.

Cruise food and drink: visit all your options
Enjoy all the food and beverage options on board, like the on-deck grill

7. Pick your shore excursions with food and drink in mind.

With so much traveler interest in local food and beverages, most lines offer culinary experiences while in port. You might taste wine in one of the world’s most acclaimed wine regions, tour a distillery, explore local farmers markets with one of the ship’s chefs or try a local specialty like olive oil in Italy or rice vinegar in Japan. You may be able to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant or in a private home.

8. Take a specialty food or wine cruise.

There’s an array of cruises just for the foodie traveler:

  • Oceania Cruises offers Culinary Discovery Tours, which take small groups to a market, farm or vineyard and then to a cooking school to prepare the local ingredients. The line also features a culinary studio on board, where passengers can try their hand at a variety of cuisines including Greek and Moroccan.
  • Silversea offers Culinary and Wine Voyages featuring menus by world-renowned chefs, chef demonstrations, vintner lectures, private tastings in famed wine regions, and cooking classes and competitions.
  • Holland America Line has Culinary Arts Centers on each ship that offer classes and wine tastings.
  • Crystal Cruises’ Experiences of Discovery voyages include hands-on cooking classes, demonstrations, wine tastings, mixology lessons, and a guest chef dinner.
  • River cruises offer an array of culinary temptations. AmaWaterways has sailings devoted to wine and chocolate. Its Limited Edition Tours visit cooking schools, culinary specialty shops and farms, as well as provide cooking lessons. Ponant offers gourmet cuisine sailings, and Avalon Waterways has sailings focusing on food and wine.

Do you have a memorable cruise food or drink experience to share?