Wine Bars have become a trendDining aboard cruise ships will continue to be one of the highlights of a cruise, despite all the choices of activities now offered by the new, large ships, and the range of more exotic itineraries featured by the smaller luxury- and expedition-style ships.

This spring, for instance, Princess Cruises unveiled what Vice President of Food and Beverage Peter Tobler called “sweeping culinary enhancements” aboard its ships. Starting in April, the line's newest ships, the Emerald Princess and the Royal Princess, feature all new dining room fare with modern presentations, enhanced buffet service, redesigned cuisine in the alternative restaurants, and special touches such as an afternoon "cookies and milk break" featuring fresh-from-the-oven soft-baked cookies, and in-cabin delivery of homemade pizza.

Chef's Table

In addition, the Emerald features a unique treat: the Chef's Table. Groups of up to 10 passengers will join the executive chef on select nights for pre-dinner cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a visit to the galley at its most busy time – during dinner – and a specially prepared multi-course tasting dinner in the dining room.  The multi-course menu will be specially created and will not be offered anywhere else on the ship. Each course will be accompanied by a detailed explanation of its special features, preparation, and tasting suggestions. Red and white wines are included in the evening. The chef will rejoin the group during dessert and answer any questions the guests may have. The Chef's Table will gradually be introduced on all Princess ships. Passengers pay $75 each to participate.

Aboard Crystal Cruises, guests can spend $1,000 to participate in the Ultimate Vintage Room Dinner. Scheduled only a few times a year, the first dinner debuted on May 17 with an eight-course dinner prepared by Master Chef Andre Soltner, paired with a 1959 Chateau Lafite – Rotschild and a 1996 Screaming Eagle, among other rare wines. The dinner is available for up to 12 guests and must be booked onboard through the dining room maitre d'.

Since 2003 and 2005, the Crystal Serenity and the Symphony have been offering wine-making dinners in their specially designed Vintage Rooms. These dinners are offered several times each cruise for approximately $180 per person, depending on the wines chosen.

Spa Fare to Chocolate Bars

Carnival Cruise Lines has revamped its Spa Carnival Fare, starting aboard the Carnival Freedom, and is rolling it out fleet-wide. The new selections are offered on all dining room menus and include nearly 50 different salads, appetizers, soups, entrees and desserts, all lower in calories, fat, cholesterol and sodium content, and free of trans fat.

"We had spa fare on our menus before," said Cyrus Marfatia, vice president of food and beverage, "but we are now offering a broader selection and have made an effort to make it sound and look more appetizing.

"We give people want they want. Most people go for steak, lobster and shrimp. But after a few days, they may want to try something new.

"Typically, 3 percent to 4 percent of the passengers order from the spa selections.

"People like classic food – a combination of what they recognize plus what they might like to try. If they are not in the mood to be adventurous, they have their safe haven. Every menu offers alternative selections every day such as steak, grilled salmon, chicken and hamburgers," Marfatia added.

Costa Crociere has taken the spa concept one step further, and for passengers who stay in the Samsara Spa staterooms on its two newest ships, the Costa Serena and the Concordia, there is a special Samsara Restaurant, featuring a Samsara Spa menu, according to Hans Hesselberg, vice president of hotel operations.

Royal Caribbean International has its Vitality program, which offers guests more dining choices to reinvigorate the body and recharge the soul, according to Alice Norsworthy, senior vice president of marketing. Energy bars, protein and green tea drinks, and Tazo iced and hot teas have been added to menus in locations like the Squeeze juice bar. Without sacrificing flavor and taste, healthier menu options, including trans-fat-free meals, all-natural ingredients and freshly prepared breads and meals, are offered ship- and fleet-wide, alongside staple favorites, she said.

Aboard Princess, Lotus Spa fare is offered, with a wider selection of lighter fare than before.

Perhaps opposite from spa fares are the chocolate bars. The new Costa Serena has one with a chocolate fountain, as does the MSC Orchestra, which promises "heavenly delights."  Carnival also offers a "chocolate extravaganza" once a week.

Technology, Crew and Ideas

"We are always looking for new technology, but many new ideas do not hold up too well in the galley," said Marfatia.

"We are also very proactive with our crew; we always look after them and offer retirement plans and flexible contracts. In order for crew to do a good job, they must be happy, which also means that their personal life must be in order."

Carnival has 12,000 employees working in food and beverage.

"We follow trends and are open to new ideas. This morning I got input from one of our hotel directors. This happens when we encourage people to speak their mind. When we introduce something new, we always involve the shipboard staff and solicit their opinion," Marfatia added.

At Princess, the effort led by Master Chef Alfredo Marzi has translated into 1,350 new lunch and dinner dishes, which will be rolled out fleetwide during the rest of this year and next year.

Excerpt from Cruise Industry News Quarterly: Summer 2007