To appreciate how cruise-ship dining has utterly transformed, you need only consult Cunard menus from the 1950s. Guests then could choose from marvels such as chilled grapefruit or creamed mushrooms on toast for their entree, before tucking into ham slice with glazed pineapple and finishing with rice custard pudding.
These days on an upmarket cruise ship, you're more likely to enjoy pancetta-wrapped scallops or mushroom vol-au-vent with truffle cream, followed by grilled swordfish in Cajun spices. Dessert might marry chocolate torte with ginger-marinated strawberries and balsamic marscapone. Unless you're dining in the Asian, French or even Brazilian speciality restaurant, of course. Or the grill, sushi bar, jazz club or tapas lounge.
The range and quality of dining on contemporary cruise ships is dazzling, and keeps getting better as cruise companies consult celebrity chefs and increasingly strive to keep up with land-based food trends, offering the likes of vegetarian and vegan options, farm-to-table dining, wellness menus and more locally sourced ingredients.
The focus has also shifted from the traditional main dining room to small, alternative venues that are either increasingly unpretentious (pizzerias, burger joints, barbecue restaurants) or increasingly upmarket. Many are actually both, such as the once staid speciality grill, which is now more likely to be informal or even outdoors, and yet has ever-more impressive menus of dry-aged beef, milk-fed veal and fancy seafood.
In short, top-range cruise ships are satisfying the taste buds of their guests as never before, with new restaurants, ever-expanding menus and more sophisticated international fare. Here are some of the best food experiences at sea.
THE MAIN RESTAURANT
Celebrity Silhouette's Grand Cuvee for consistent quality; Windstar's Amphora for signature dishes from award-winning chefs; Ponant ships for superior French-influenced fare.
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The elegant Compass Rose. Photo: Steve Beaudet
Compass Rose on Regent Seven Seas' fleet, not just for elegant decor, Versace dinnerware and excellent service but for the quality of the food and complimentary house wines, which surpasses that in some other ships' speciality restaurants.
Peking duck salad with watermelon pearls, lobster bisque with cognac cream, and pan-seared foie gras might be among openers. Put together your own main by choosing from meat, fish or seafood with sides and sauces. Cheese plates and tarts are routinely sensational.
A seven-night "Barcelona to Lisbon" cruise with several food-oriented shore excursions departs April 27, 2020. From $6760 a person, see rssc.com
THE BUFFET RESTAURANT
Agreeable World Cafe on Viking ships; The Colonnade on Seabourn for seafood and desserts; Azamara's Windows Cafe for themed international cuisines.
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Oceania Cruises. It claims the finest cuisine at sea and proves it in buffet venue Terrace Cafe (above). It doesn't just have upmarket choices such as scallops, lobster tails and sushi, but produces fine food in small batches, or cooked to order.
Salmon tartare and oysters Rockefeller, delicate mushroom tarts, duck soup, Dover sole, grilled swordfish and more. Leave room for seriously scrumptious homemade ice-cream and desserts such as citrus tart with pistachio cream.
A 10-day "Baltic Legacies" cruise from Stockholm to Copenhagen departs June 16, 2020, and offers tours with a ship's chef in Helsinki and St Petersburg. From $4650 a person, see oceaniacruises.com
Silversea's The Grill for hot-rocks cooking at the table; Oceania's Polo Grill for dry-aged beef and truffle fries; Cunard's The Verandah for prime steaks.
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Evening venue Churrascaria on Crystal Cruises' ocean ships for its lack of stuffiness (shipboard grills can be rather pretentious) and its novel focus on Brazilian barbecue. Even better, there is no cover charge for this speciality venue.
Top-quality chicken, sirloin steak, sausages, prawns, pork and lamb are barbecued on skewers the size of swords and brought to the table. Pick accompaniments from a buffet of sides, salads and Brazilian tapas.
A 15-night "Stars of South-East Asia" cruise between Hong Kong and Singapore departs February 15, 2020, and visits three Vietnamese ports, Sihanoukville and Koh Samui. From $US3749 ($5495) a person, see crystalcruises.com.au
Paul Gauguin, where fish is often catch-of-the-day; Oceania Cruises for featuring seafood even on its buffet; Crystal Cruises for sushi and sashimi.
THE WINNER IS …
There's no shortage of seafood on Silversea's cruises. Photo: Roger Paperno
Silversea's Silver Muse for its impressive seafood options across nearly all restaurants, allowing you to sample French, Japanese, various Asian and international fish and seafood dishes. Elegant Atlantide might provide the best-quality seafood at sea.
Watch fish and snow crab being prepared at Kaiseki restaurant, tuck into sweet-and-sour fish or Thai yellow curry with squid at Indochine, and indulge in Baltic salmon, blue lobster, seabass and king scallops at Atlantide, all at no extra charge.
A seven-day "Vancouver to Seward" cruise departs May 20, 2020, and explores Alaska, with several fishing excursion options. From $4950pp, see silversea.com
THE FRENCH RESTAURANT
Oceania Cruises' Jacques for classic bistro favourites; Silversea's La Dame for elegance; Ponant ships, where the main restaurants emphasise French cuisine.
THE WINNER IS …
Celebrity Silhouette's Murano restaurant. Photo: Celebrity Cruises
Murano on several Celebrity Cruises ships. Though its name sounds confusingly Italian, the nosh is upmarket French and the atmosphere intimate, glamorous and candlelit. Sommeliers are knowledgeable, service attentive, and cloches removed with a flourish.
Enjoy the retro drama of lobster flambéed in cognac at your table and served with a flavour-packed bisque and cognac cream. Mains include seabass, duck breast and Chateaubriand in cabernet sauce. The Grand Marnier soufflé is divine, but so is the Valrhona chocolate cake with coffee ice-cream.
An eight-night "Spain & France Cruise" round-trip from Southampton departs May 1, 2020. From $US1279pp, see celebritycruises.com.au
THE FLAVOURS OF ASIA
Kaiseki on Silver Muse for teppanyaki; Oceania's Red Ginger for the miso-glazed seabass alone; aptly named Sushi on Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Ovation.
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Aqua Expeditions' Aqua Mekong, where menus are overseen by Aussie chef and Thai cuisine expert David Thompson, whose Bangkok restaurant Nahm was once named Asia's best. The chef travels on some departures.
Dine on Thompson's classic dishes such as laksa with hot mint, neem salad with smoked fish, and grouper with yellow beans and ginger, and finish with mango sticky rice in coconut cream. The bar has great Asian-inspired cocktails, such as a Mekong margarita with kampot pepper and star anise.
A seven-night Mekong cruise from Ho Chi Minh City to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap has year-round departures. From $US5592pp, see aquaexpeditions.com
THE DEGUSTATION MENU
Themed menus at Viking Cruises' Chef's Table; Crystal Cruises' extravagant Vintage Room; Scenic's Table La Rive on some river ships.
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La Reserve on Oceania Cruises' Marina and Riviera. The seven-course menu by French celebrity chef Jacques Pépin, matched with wines curated by Wine Spectator magazine, is splurge-worthy.
Classical French cuisine at its best provides a succession of rich, flavoursome dishes from chicken velouté and lobster soufflé to fillet of sole and roast beef in madeira sauce. The finale breathes new life into that cruise staple, baked Alaska, which incorporates pears and chestnut ice cream.
A 12-day "Radiant Rhythms" cruise from Rio to Buenos Aires departs February 12, 2020, exploring ports in Brazil and Uruguay. From $4420pp, see oceaniacruises.com
THE RIVER CRUISE
Crystal River Cruises for extensive and local wine selections; Avalon Waterways for culinary-themed cruises; APT for regional food on Mekong cruises.
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U by Uniworld has river cruise ships aimed at younger travellers.
Uniworld delivers a top-notch dining experience across its ships, and strives to present local wine and cuisine and regional specialities. Most ships also have a more informal dining alternative. Service is nearly always outstanding.
French river cruises feature terrific pastries, cheeses and regional dishes such as Provencal stew and bouillabaisse, plus challenge with unusual offerings such as blue-cheese ice-cream. Elsewhere, Italian pasta dishes, German meatballs and Hungarian cream-topped desserts consistently satisfy.
A 10-day "Gems of Northern Italy" cruise has multiple departures between March and October 2020 and explores the Venetian Lagoon and surrounds. From $US6599 a person, see uniworld.com
THE AFTERNOON TEA
Cunard for old-fashioned British tradition; Crystal Cruises for out-of-the-ordinary tea choices; Seabourn for its impressive and irresistible spread.
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The Wintergarden on Viking Sky. Photo: Supplied
Viking Cruises for its contemporary, informal take on afternoon tea that dispenses with the forced elegance on many other ships. It's served in the Wintergarden, a light-flooded indoor-outdoor space with a striking ceiling of pale Nordic wood.
The choice isn't huge – everything fits on a three-tier tray – but there's no faulting the finger sandwiches, pastries, macaroons and warm scones served up by smiling waiters. The tea selection has interesting alternatives such as gunpowder teas and mango white.
A 15-day "Viking Homelands" cruise between Stockholm and Bergen visits eight countries, with departures between April and September 2020. From $8295 a person, see vikingcruises.com.au
Oceania's Marina for barista-made Illy coffee; The Bistro on Crystal Cruises for great takeaways; Seabourn Ovation for roasting its own coffee.
THE WINNER IS…
Mosaic Café on Azamara Pursuit, which always has a sociable buzz that sucks passers-by into its friendly orbit. The always-busy baristas are very helpful, and the coffee puts most shipboard, American-style brews to shame. The coffee is excellent ship-wide.
You can get all the varieties of speciality coffees with a muffin, pastry or biscotti on the side, including six varieties of iced coffee and eight spiked with alcohol. The ristretto uses Arabica beans from Central and South America and has pleasant cocoa-like notes.
A 13-night "Panama Canal Adventure Voyage" from Lima to Miami departs March 23, 2020, and offers a Colombian coffee shore excursion in Cartagena. From $US3429, see azamaraclubcruises.com
Not all cruise food experiences are found on board. Here are 10 top gourmet-oriented shore excursions to tingle the taste buds.
A Ponant excursion in Sakaiminato in Japan sees a sushi chef teach guests how to make two types of sushi during a hands-on workshop. It's followed by sake tasting and seafood matching at a brewery. See au.ponant.com
SeaDream Yacht Club's Champagne and Caviar Splash is a signature event on all its Caribbean sailings. The gourmet barbecue is served on the beach, with live music and a floating bar from which to serve the cocktails. See seadream.com
CHEF'S INSIDER TOUR
Savour the gourmet delights of Boston with a local chef on a five-hour tour with Oceania Cruises that takes in Boston Public Market, a restaurant lunch, culinary demonstration and a stop at a wine bar and oyster bar. See oceaniacruises.com
Sail Portugal's Douro River with Scenic and explore the tastes of the C?a Valley on a visit that takes in an almond workshop, with tastings of its almond and other fruit products, as well as fresh olives and tapenades. See scenic.com.au
A half-day in Hong Kong with Silversea visits the local wet market and is followed by a lesson in Chinese cuisine at a private kitchen where you're taken through ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques. See silversea.com
KING CRAB SAFARI
Head out in a deep-sea fishing boat from Honningsvag in Norway with Viking Cruises and discover how king crabs are farmed and harvested. Then have them cooked on an open fire afterwards. See vikingcruises.com.au
At Bridgetown in Barbados with Azamara Club Cruises, you can visit the world's longest-running rum producer, Mount Gay Rum, tour the distillery and get an interactive mixology lesson and rum tasting. See azamaraclubcruises.com
From Saint-Tropez in France with Regent Seven Seas Cruises, visit the 18th-century Chateau de Saint Martin for a wine tasting, wine-matching lunch and visit to underground cellars and winemaking facilities. See rssc.com.au
Set out on a fishing expedition from Ketchikan in Alaska with Celebrity Cruises for the chance to catch salmon, rockfish and halibut. Meet the chef back on board for a galley tour, and dine on the catch of the day. See celebritycruises.com.au
France's Bordeaux region provides several cellar-door visits. A shore excursion from Pauillac with APT brings you to a local cooperage and continues with a tasting of Grand Cru Classé wines at Chateau Giscours in the Margaux wine region. See aptouring.com.au
CELEBRITY CHEFS AFLOAT
Though they're seldom aboard, these celebrity chefs oversee the food experience, or put their names to speciality restaurants, on cruise ships.
JACQUES PEPIN, OCEANIA CRUISES
A mouthwatering cheese trolley. Photo: Josh Lewis
The French-American celebrity TV chef and cookbook author – formerly personal chef to three French presidents – oversees menus for Oceania, which lives up to its claim to have the finest cuisine at sea. Bistro-style speciality venue Jacques features classic French fare and superb cheese trolleys. See oceaniacruises.com
NOBUYUKI MATSUSHITA, CRYSTAL CRUISES
The Japanese-born, Los Angeles-based chef simply known as Nobu, who runs a swathe of international restaurants, is behind Umi Uma and its Sushi Bar on Crystal's ocean ships. The food blends Japanese and Peruvian influences. The chef's signature black cod with miso is delectable. See crystalcruises.com
LUKE NGUYEN, APT
River cruises have mostly ignored the celebrity-chef trend, but APT makes an exception for its Mekong and Irrawaddy cruises, where Australian TV personality and restaurateur Luke Nguyen is in charge of menus and a special evening dining experience. He accompanies some sailings on the Mekong and in Bordeaux. See aptouring.com.au
THOMAS KELLER, SEABOURN CRUISE LINE
The US chef has bagged seven Michelin stars and helms a dozen restaurants including The French Laundry, considered one of the world's best. Signature dishes are provided in various shipboard venues, while The Grill by Thomas Keller focuses on classics such as Dover sole, lobster thermidor and New York strip steak. See seabourn.com
JEAN-PIERRE VIGATO, PAUL GAUGUIN CRUISES
The chef who made his name with the Michelin-starred Restaurant Apicius on the Champs-Elysees in Paris provides signature dishes in La Veranda restaurant. He sometimes travels aboard and provides cooking demonstrations. If you've never had lobster lasagne, here's your chance to indulge. See pgcruises.com
It isn't just the food experience that impresses on cruise ships these days. Wine quality and variety has improved immensely too. Here are five ways to indulge.
WINE BLENDING, CELEBRITY CRUISES
The new Blendtique Winemaking Experience presents guests with four single varietals which, guided by a sommelier, they can blend to produce a wine to their own taste. There's also a Riedel Wine Crystal Workshop with interesting insights into how different glassware subtly affects wine. See celebritycruises.com.au
WINE SEMINAR, CUNARD LINE
The Cunard Wine Academy offers a variety of seminars on wine, sake, spirits and liqueurs. One focuses on fine wines and allows a sampling of some of the world's best drops. The ambitious can complete a 10-day course and finish with an industry-recognised qualification. See cunard.com
WINE PAIRING, OCEANIA CRUISES
Degustation dining venue La Reserve on Riviera and Marina, in collaboration with Wine Spectator magazine, offers wine-pairing dinners, seminars and tastings. Enjoy Dover sole paired with a C?tes de Nuits from Burgundy, and roast beef with a Cru Classé Pauillac from the Bordeaux region. See oceaniacruises.com
WINE CELLAR, AZAMARA CLUB CRUISES
You'll find a stock of about 8000 bottles of wine in The Wine Cellar, many from interesting limited-production, small-label international wineries. Sommeliers are adept at assisting in a wine choice for dinner, and you can book your own private wine tasting. See azamaraclubcruises.com
WINE LESSONS, SILVERSEA
A Silversea sommelier decanting wine. Photo: Supplied
Wine Voyages provide lessons from sommeliers to deepen your understanding and appreciation of wine. On some, you disembark with an official introductory sommelier qualification. The classes are complemented by vineyard visits and wine tastings. See silversea.com
Brian Johnston has travelled as a guest of many cruise companies.