I’ve always thought going on a cruise together would be akin to going on a vacation and eating all your meals in the hotel. Sure, there are hotels with superb food – Café Adelaide in Lowe’s, John Besh’s Domenica in The Roosevelt. The difference between hotels with mediocre food and cruises is that cruises know that you have no choice but to eat all your meals on board and that your happiness is dependent on finding something to suit your tastes.
With a growing number of cruises leaving from Southern ports, OKRA boarded a week long Princess Cruise on the Crown Princess* this past February through the Western Caribbean to find out how to push off from shore and get the most out of dining on a secluded, floating vessel in the middle of the sea. These suggestions are in no particular order.
*If you are considering a cruise on Princess, the Caribbean Princess will cruise seven-day roundtrip sailings from Houston, stopping at the same ports we visited (Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico). It sails November through April. For the 2014/2015 season, the Emerald Princess (identical to the Crown, which we sailed) will take over the sailings. If you are planning a Mardi Gras vacation for the family, this is a great option.
- If you can, spring for a room with a balcony. Sipping champagne on the balcony as you pushed away from shore is the perfect way to ease into a stateroom. At some time during a seven-day cruise, you are going to want to stay in for dinner. Princess offers complimentary room service that features white tablecloth dining in the comfort of your private balcony. Start dinner around dusk, watch the sun go down, and finish dessert under the stars.
- Bring with you the maximum amount of wine and water allowed. Both of those items can be pricey on board and bringing some of your own will save money that can be spent elsewhere. Not all cruise lines allow you to BYO, but Princess allows a maximum of one 750 mL bottle of wine per passenger of legal drinking age. If you drink it in your stateroom, there is no corkage fee. You are welcome to bring more wine, but a $15 corkage fee applies regardless of where you consume it.
- Purchase a coffee card. If you like espresso-based beverages like cappuccinos and lattes, the 15 drink coffee punch card is the way to go. The cappuccinos are thick with foam, graced with a little design, and can be made with regular milk or soy milk. These beverages are available in the International Cafe, which looks out into the atrium. You’ll enjoy watching people scurrying to their port excursions or strolling to dinner. What sets the International Cafe apart from any other coffee shop you’ve been to is that no one is on computers or cell phones – they are talking to each other. Also available – gelato, small snacks, and other treats.
- Embrace the kitsch. Cruising has a culture of its own. You dress for dinner. You leave your New York Times at the shore and devote your mornings to Princess Patter, a daily “paper” published by Princess that includes a full list of the days activities and no actual news at all, as if to say that the most important thing going on in the world is you and what you feel like doing. Embrace that. The kitsch clearly extends to food, drink and its surrounding culture on the boat. At first site, you may want to laugh at events like the Champagne Wonderfall. Champagne in strange hues is clumsily poured over a Christmas tree-like tower of champagne glasses by guests as they have their pictures made. It is totally bizarre and strangely enjoyable. If you are going to have on a cruise, you have to embrace all of this. If you do, you might just find that they are fun. Other trademark kitsch – being offered pepper on everything and Baked Alaska and turkey on the final nights menu. So, maybe don’t laugh at it…laugh with it.
- Clearly, cruises have a culture of there own. But is there any actual culture to be had on this type of vacation? The port stops are short, but if you plan them right, you can grab great meals that are representative of the country you are visiting. Just plan ahead or keep your eyes open for local spots. That said, if you go to Cozumel, Mexico, you must swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery. The dolphin experience is in a gated part of the natural water outside. It’ll make you realize that all dolphin/human stunt work is really all the work of the dolphins. You can do it too! I realize that this is not a food note, but it was the highlight of our trip. They did have a fantastic lunch buffet there.
- You know what makes a good dining experience? A staff that acts as if it is happy you are there. If Ted Lange’s character Isaac Washington was the heart of the Princess ship depicted on Love Boat, then Princess Cruise Maitre D Georgio Pisano and his crew are at the heart of the actual Princess cruise. George Pisano has been with Princess since 1976, when there were only two boats in the fleet and it shows in his perfect execution of service. He is in charge of all passenger dining options, the three staff restaurants on board, and room service. He also is in charge of the kitschy champagne wonderfall. You’ll get the feeling that they all truly enjoy working on the boat and that they are also very happy to see you. If you pay attention, you’ll also see how tirelessly they work to make your experience great.
- As with everything on board, the dining program caters to a multi-generational clientele. There are casual, fast dining options, as well as upscale options perfect for adults. The Horizon Court features an area just for kids. You’ll find items like Jell-o and prunes at the lunch buffet next to lox and bagels. All this makes it easy for everyone to find something they can eat.
- Take a tour of the boat. The tour takes a lot of time, but it gives you a great idea of the meticulous workings in the bowels of a large ship. You’ll be surprised how clean they are. The kitchen, which is a 24 hour a day working kitchen, was so clean that if someone dropped the last delicious bite on the floor and it landed next to a line cook’s shoe, I’d probably eat it. All food is received, cleaned, and cut on the lower level of the ship before it is sent to the kitchen. You’ll get to see interesting posters aimed at maintaining cleanliness, like “Norovirus. Do you feel lucky?” You’ll hear interesting facts about the food, like that the boat brings 120 tons of food total (half of it fresh) to feed 4,300 people. Some of the facts will highlight interesting and alarming cultural differences. Because of demand, Princess uses twice the amount of salt for Americans versus Europeans. And the coolest part might be the laundry, where all those linen napkins and tablecloths get cleaned and folded using a Braun towel folding machine. The wet linens are fed into the machine where they are dried, pressed, folded, and spit out into a neat little pile in about a second for each one.
- If you don’t want to take the time for the full ship tour, sign up for the chef’s table and see the kitchen, where Chef’s Table starts with canapes. Known for creating the first-ever chef’s table experience at sea, Princess is now setting a new standard for this popular experience with the debut of the Chef’s Table Lumiere, located in the Allegro Dining Room. Offering a spectacular dining experience that takes the chef’s table to a new level, passengers move on to the main dinner while sitting at a custom-made glass table and are surrounded by a curtain of light – providing a soft wall of privacy that envelopes them as they enjoy the chef’s specially prepared meal. The charge is $115 and it is the only place in the dining room that you’ll see an open flame. You’ll also get a signed cookbook.
- It is worth it to pay the cover charge to dine at a signature restaurant. The buffet is fine for lunch, but by dinner it is just a sad, depressing mess of broken butter sauces and plastic cafeteria trays. The scheduled dining in the dining rooms is delightful. But, you can find excellent food in some of the restaurants. Our favorite was the Crown Grill (cover charge $25), where we ordered the lobster tail for dinner. We didn’t expect the number of lobster tails that were delivered, all perfectly grilled. Upon seeing our joy, the waiter offered to bring another plate (all you can eat). With its open kitchen, the Crown Grill offers a menu of chops, seafood and premium Sterling Silver steaks. Meanwhile the connected Wheelhouse Bar offers a comfortable place to sip a drink and enjoy live piano entertainment. The location also features a free daily pub lunch.
- While American dining culture becomes increasingly casual, cruise culture seems to be keeping a firm foot in the formalities. Enjoy wearing those clothes that you can’t wear everyday and being someone who dresses for dinner. It might seem like a lot of work, but civilization always is.
- Most people associate cruising with fruity boat drinks like pina coladas and daiquiris. Think wine on Princess. The sommeliers of this robust wine program, featuring the most Super Tuscans at sea, are trained in California and exhibit a healthy interest and knowledge of wine. Having been educated in wine in the past, we weren’t sure that we would gain much from a guided wine tasting on a cruise (except the wine and that, of course, is enough). We tried some of my favorites – Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and some that were more low-rent. However, the sommelier was able to guide us to try wines we’d had before in a different way. If you go home with a new love or a new understanding of a $12 bottle of wine available at the grocery, you’ve actually gotten a lot. You don’t have to do a guided wine tasting to brush paths with the sommelier though- you’ll find him buzzing around the dining rooms eager with a recommendation.
- Take a break from fine dining and small talk and enjoy pizza under the stars. Sure, dressing for dinner is fun, but so is leaving your swimsuit on and not dressing for dinner. Each night, Princess pulls down a full movie screen in the pool area for Movies under the Stars. Staff passes out blankets and guests enjoy movies like the classic and cruise-appropriate Overboard. Who wouldn’t want to watch that movie at sea? Nearby, you can grab drinks and pizza by the slice to take back to your lounge chair. This is clearly one of the least pretentious, least refined dining options on the boat, but it was our favorite. USA Today calls it “the best pizza at sea.”
- If you like exclusive perks and can afford it, you may want to spring for one of the rooms that offer these perks. Some rooms allow exclusive access to Sabatini’s for breakfast, a quiet place with fresh-squeezed juices, table service, and beautiful food. If you can’t swing it, don’t fret. It is pretty easy to approximate a less beautiful meal of the same items from the breakfast buffet.
- Check out the new offerings on the Royal Princess. We traveled on the Crown Princess for the Western Caribbean trip. That ship has been replaced with the Royal Princess. It features all the restaurants in this article, plus some new ones like a Crab Shack. We haven’t had a chance to try them, but a full list of restaurants on the Royal Princess and other ships in the fleet can be found on the Princess website.