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There is irony at the heart of any cruise: The ports you visit may well be glorious, but at the end of the day, as they drift into the distance, the ship remains your destination and you are its captive audience.

With 14 new ships being launched in 2003, cruise lines are looking for new ways to appeal to the eight million passengers expected to cruise this year. They’ve already done everything they can to entice your body (installing comfortable accommodations and lavish spas) and your spirit (with lectures and rock-climbing walls), so it’s no surprise that the next frontier is your palate.

The past decade has seen a sea change in the quality and type of cruise-ship cuisine. Gone are the days when buffets lacked fresh fruits and vegetables, or dinner meant a choice of brown meat and gravy or a selection of undistinguishable fish. Today, cruise lines are more likely to tout gourmet foods, lighter options and alternative restaurants.


Most ships now boast at least one gourmet restaurant, the best of them inspired by a chef of renown. And price, apparently, is no barrier. Except for the luxurious all-inclusive lines (Seabourn, Silversea, Radisson Seven Seas, Crystal), these new gourmet restaurants usually carry a cover charge of about $40 a person. Holland America recently doubled the size of its Odyssey restaurant aboard the Zuiderdam in response to demand for the reservations-only establishment.

There is no cruise-ship threshold for style yet, but Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium houses one of the most striking restaurants afloat. Its Olympic Restaurant is lined with original wood panels and memorabilia from the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, and it serves delicious meals (including table-side flambes) inspired by the Michelin-starred chef Michel Roux. Its clubby cigar-and-cognac salon would have been de rigueur on the Titanic.

Even Carnival Cruise Lines’ new Conquest — at 2,974 passengers, the largest “fun” ship — offers a reservations-required supper club. Called The Point, it features crab claws from Miami Beach’s Joe’s Stone Crab eatery.

Of course, “gourmet” is relative, and catering to a well-travelled, discriminating clientele that has dined in legendary restaurants around the world requires a degree of deferential finesse.

It is not enough for luxury ships to merely supplement freezers brimming with North American prime meats and poultry with a few exotic delectables (tins of Russian caviar, French cheeses ripening in the fridge) or regional specialties culled from markets en route. Successfully feeding temptation on board demands preparation and presentation that rivals the superb meals available ashore.

Hence the newest trend afloat: The most luxurious ships have forged alliances with acclaimed chefs, culinary institutes and hotel establishments.

Radisson Seven Seas has aligned the Seven Seas Mariner and the new Seven Seas Voyager (set to make its debut in April, 2003) with the Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute of Paris. Meals served in the ships’ Signature’s restaurants are created by celebrated chef Frederic Filliodeau, who heads Ottawa’s branch of the venerable institute. Both the Mariner and Voyager offer a series of Cordon Bleu workshop cruises conducted by Cordon Bleu chefs.

Each of Radisson’s other ships boasts its own style. The Paul Gauguin is overseen by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Pierre Vigato, though its guests typically forgo indoor demonstrations to splash in French Polynesian waters.

Meanwhile, as the Navigator loops from New York to Bermuda this summer, guests can acquire skills from no fewer than three New York chefs: John Mooney of Heartbeat at the W Hotel, Stephen Lewandowski of the Tribeca Grill, and Brian Wieler of Icon who will each create signature dishes for the ship.

Silversea’s union with the Relais & Chateaux (Relais Gourmand’s network of hotels and restaurants) offers dual treats. Besides meeting some of the international, Michelin-starred chefs who collaborate with Silversea’s chefs on signature dishes, passengers can indulge in shore-side dining programs at their establishments around the world. Silversea’s roster of culinary and wine cruises includes chefs from Villa la Massa, renowned for Tuscan cuisine, and the exalted L’Arpege of Paris. This summer, Silver Cloud’s Voyage from Paris (Rouen) to Lisbon features chef Richard Reddington of Napa Valley’s Auberge du Soleil, along with vintners from Robert Mondavi and Opus One wineries.

“Progressive American cuisine” is the style of choice on Seabourn’s Pride, Spirit and Legend. Created by chef/restaurateur Charlie Palmer, famed for Aureole in New York and Charlie Palmer Steak at The Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, Seabourn’s menu remains “a guide for personal ordering.”

Crystal’s long-cultivated relationships with chefs who have hosted culinary cruises aboard the Harmony and Symphony is yielding tasty dividends aboard the new Serenity, set to make its debut in July, 2003. Guests can expect to find Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main dishes in the Jade Garden and Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino dishes in the Prego restaurant. Chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa will oversee the menu for the Serenity’s new Sushi Bar and Silk Road Restaurant.

Incidentally, Crystal recently added a new dimension fleetwide by offering kosher cuisine. Passengers previously resigned to vegetarian dishes can enjoy kosher rack of lamb and Beef Wellington.

There is no question that a culinary theme will enhance any cruise. My most memorable experiences include a Crystal Symphony sojourn around the Iberian Peninsula. While exploring ports along the way, we visited markets filled with fat strawberries and glistening oysters fresh from the sea. When we arrived in France, chef Andre Soltner of New York’s Lutece, who had conducted classes en route, led us to the vineyards of Bordeaux for a private visit to Maison Lafitte Rothschild.


Last spring, on a Silver Whisper Mediterranean cruise that took in Mallorca’s Cartuja de Valdemossa, Malta’s St. John Cathedral and ancient city of Mdina, Corsica’s mountainous Les Calanques and a cluster of joyous Greek islands, we tasted local specialties in charming Relais & Chateaux properties, each tucked into picturesque landscapes.

And this past August, aboard Radisson’s Seven Seas Mariner’s Baltic voyage from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg to Stockholm, Cordon Bleu cuisine every night suited us and our friends just fine.

After all, by choosing to celebrate our mutual 35th-wedding anniversaries afloat, we never had to worry about reservations.

If you go


For reliable information on every ship, visit http://www.cruising.org. For cruise values in Canadian dollars, consult Encore Cruises’ and Tiffany Collection brochures. Contact a travel agent for early booking rates.

Carnival Cruise: Phone: (800) 438-6744; Web: http://www.carnival.com.

Celebrity Cruises: Phone: (800) 646-1456; Web: http://www.celebritycruises.com.

Crystal Cruises: Phone: (310) 785-9300; Web: http://www.crystalcruises.com.

Holland America Line: Phone: (206) 281-3535; Web: http://www.hollandamerica.com.

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: Phone: (800) 285-1835; Web: http://www.rssc.com

Royal Caribbean International: Phone: (800) 659-7225; Web: http://www.royalcaribbean.com.

Seabourn Cruise Line: Phone: (800) 929-9391; Web: http://www.seabourn.com.

Silversea Cruises: Phone: (800) 722-6655; Web: http://www.silversea.com.

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