Travel insights from Erin Zilis, contributor to The Compass
Travelers are often eager to experience new locales and cuisines – unique encounters and fare they can’t find at home. In years past, cruise lines were unlikely to be top-of-mind for such experiences, especially within the food and beverage scene. However, as cruise ships have expanded to include additional excursions and onboard activities, they have also expanded their culinary offerings. Let’s take a look back at the evolution of cuisine on cruise lines and the exciting excursions available to those clients who fawn over fine dining.
Fine Dining of the Past
One look at a cruise ship dining menu from the early 1900s gives a peek into the past: multiple courses with rich sauce-laden entrees and decadent desserts were the standard of the day for first-class passengers aboard luxury lines. These upscale dinners, with formal dress required and established times and seating arrangements, evoke visions of the Titanic.
Today, the majority of modern cruise ships allow guests to dine at will, with options ranging from 24-hour buffets, introduced by Princess in 1995, to specialty restaurants, along with an abundance of unique culinary experiences offered on board and onshore. The transition to more informal options with greater flexibility started in the mid-20th century, with offerings like all-you-can-eat buffets and serve-yourself smorgasbords with a quantity-over-quality mentality.
Trending Culinary Experiences Today
Immersive and International Dining
Back in the day, if you didn’t choose the main dining room for dinner, chances were that your only other options were an Italian café and a steakhouse.
“People are wanting to explore the world through tastes and flavors, and the cruise lines are promoting that,” observes Chris Gray Faust, managing editor at Cruise Critic. “From sushi to Korean, the diversity of flavors is a delight.”
Many cruise lines are taking this concept and making it their own, offering guests the ability to immerse themselves in the destination’s culinary scene. “One newer offering on a few lines is the ability to shop with a chef and have a genuine, Anthony Bourdain-style adventure on land with excursions that are unique to the destination,” notes Gray Faust. “That is then reflected on the ship, with cuisine or cocktails specific to that region, or a step further with the ability to shop on shore in a local market to bring back and cook an authentic local meal with the chef. Those are flavors you’re not going to get everywhere. It’s a fun cultural experience.”
A few examples of this trend in action:
- Silversea’s Sea and Land Taste (SALT) program immerses guests into local food culture with hands-on activities. Guests might have lunch with a vineyard owner in Sicily or meet with a native Ecuadorian chef at the food market in Guayaquil.
- In partnership with the James Beard Foundation, Windstar Cruises offers “Sail with a Chef” experiences, allowing guests to get to know celebrated chefs and sommeliers on a personal level, picking out ingredients at a local market and learning techniques to create perfectly seasoned dishes. Shore excursions include wine, brewery and distillery tours as well as hands-on cooking classes.
- Oceania Cruises offers Culinary Discovery Tours, which includes excursions such as touring traditional markets, cooking demonstrations at a master chef’s private villa or visiting tropical plantations on a French Polynesian Island.
- Norwegian’s Meet the Winemaker series provides exclusive opportunities to engage with world-renowned winemakers and distillers through intimate wine tastings and wine-paired dinners, interactive culinary demonstrations and meet-and-greets on board.
- Celebrity offers a number of wine experiences including mixology sessions, sampling a flight of miniature martinis or a Jack Daniel’s or Macallan whiskey tasting.
Making Dining a Quality Experience for All
Greater considerations are being made for those with food allergies and specific preferences. Vegans and vegetarians today can select from more than just primavera pasta.
- Oceania Cruises offer an array of plant-based options, as well as some of the only cold-pressed raw juice and vegan smoothie bars at sea.
- Regent Seven Seas Cruises offers entirely vegan menus, highlighting a range of cuisines including Greek, Middle Eastern, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Mexican, Italian and Malaysian dishes.
- Upon request, Royal Caribbean offers a separate vegan menu that’s different every night.
- Silversea encourages guests to meet with the ship’s executive chef after boarding to ensure a custom, culinary experience based on dietary preferences.
Locally and Responsibly Sourced Foods
If guests aren’t shopping on shore, quite often the food and beverage team is. Many culinary teams create unique menus that highlight regional specialties.
- In 2022, Princess launched its Wild for Alaska Seafood program promoting sustainable fisheries and launching new Alaska-inspired menu and cocktail selections. The program offers 30 distinctive Alaskan seafood dishes with featured items every night in all main dining rooms, and the ship’s specialty restaurants offer menu inserts featuring Alaskan seafood appetizers and entrees.
- Norwegian’s sustainably-focused Metropolitan Bar makes cocktails from food waste like banana peels, coffee grounds and pineapple skins. The bars’ zero-waste drinks use surplus ingredients and specialty alcohol to create delicious concoctions.
Future-Forward Cruise Cuisine
Utilizing trends from restaurateurs and businesses on land is creating a movement at sea. Only a few have turned to food trends now, but experiences like these are likely to spread industry-wide in the coming years.
- Well-known concepts from celebrity chefs are spreading. Ships are beginning to offer simple indulgences like Starbucks locations and Door Dash-type apps, which will deliver orders to guests wherever they are on the ship. “What we’ve really found over the last five years is that cruise ships are looking to trends on land and those trends are being implemented on ships much faster than they were in the past,” says Gray Faust.
- Food halls are one such example of expanding options Gray Faust says, “Virgin Voyages was the first to launch a food hall concept and now Norwegian, who pioneered the freestyle dining concept, has one as well. Both offer different styles of ethnic foods, which is what people are eating now overall.”
- Another trend she points to is alcohol-free beverages: “The cruise lines have been investing in cocktail programs overall, but also creating interesting mocktails so that people who don’t drink have more and tastier options.”
Technology Is Spicing Things Up
As with most industries, technology is playing a significant role in ramping up guest experiences. Cruise lines are no different as they work to create the perfect pairing: tech and cuisine.
- As one example, Celebrity Cruises offers Le Petit Chef. This dining experience transports guests on a journey around the world as 3D animated mini-chefs from Italy, Spain, France and Japan whip up dishes from their homeland and bring the table to life.
- For those who want to imbibe, mixology meets technology at Royal Caribbean’s Bionic Bar, where two robotic bartenders create an endless combination of cocktails and mocktails. While waiting for a drink, guests can check the electronic display boards for fun stats and a play-by-play of each drink that’s being made.
“The fun thing about the food and wine cruises, or any kind of themed cruise, is that you know you’re on board with other people who share the same interests,” says Gray Faust. “And so you get to geek out with somebody on the ship who cares about the topic the way that you do.”
Preparing the Perfect Culinary Experiences for Your Client
The culinary landscape aboard many ships has changed so much in recent times that there is a new target audience for cruising. Years ago, the joke was that travelers gained ten pounds on a cruise. Today, advisors can reach out to a health-conscious customer to promote some of the vegetarian dining options, as well as fitness and wellness activities, not previously available onboard. If a client has shown an interest in culinary adventures, cooking classes or wine trips in the past, they may now be interested in a cruise offering these immersive experiences.
Surveying clients about what is important to them and keeping a database of their passions can pay big dividends later. As new offerings become available on different cruise lines, a targeted email can stir up interest from a client who may not have considered cruising in the past. To reach new customers, advisors can search for special interest groups or clubs that match cruise line offerings.
“There’s a perception that ship food is just the same old, same old, but these days you really have the same variety at sea that you have on land,” concludes Gray Faust. “It’s well executed and it’s delicious. And the minds behind it often have Michelin stars!”
About the Author
Erin Zilis is a California-based editor and writer who has launched and managed consumer and B2B content marketing programs for a wide variety of brands in the travel, retail, hospitality, non-profit, real estate, gaming, healthcare and finance sectors. Her stories have appeared in print and digital magazines in the U.S. and abroad.
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