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Cruise food?

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My grandmother is taking the entire family --- all 25 of us -- on a cruise starting in Florida, circling the Caribbean, and coming back a week later. I've never been on a cruise, but I have visions of long-suffering hotel pans full of overcooked food in cream sauce. What have your experiences been with cruise food? Are there tips for eating better (or just well -- how scared should I be?) onboard? Things to avoid? Alcholic bevs are not included and it's a Princess Cruise ship, in case that helps.

(If anyone has tips for places to hit in St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Princess Cays, Bahamas, send 'em this way. We get off the boat at 9 a.m. and have to be back by 4, so unfortunatelty this excludes dinner. I'll be dragging my sisters to find lunch or street food. Thanks!)

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  1. I would try and manage your expectations. My father in law used to take the whole family on an annual cruise and cruise food seems to be more about volume. They feed you all the time. In order to feed that many people every meal, every day, It doesn't seems possible for the cruise line to produce memorable meals.

    1. For tips on places to eat in the Caribbean, you may want to post on the Caribbean board, as such recommendations would be off topic here. Here's a link to that board:

      http://www.chowhound.com/boards/54

      1. Most ships have a higher level - pay extra restaurant. The add on fee is usually not bad, and the service and food improve greatly. Check out your specific ship and reserve asap. This goes for other activities, like spa treatments. Review what they have to offer and make that your first mission when you board. Oh, and hit the gym........

        1. We went on a cruise similar to the one you describe a couple of years ago. The "upscale" dinners tended to be a dissapointment for us. Things just weren't executed in terms of the food the way you'd expect given the pomp and circumstance of the whole thing, not to mention the tie and jacket thing. (If I'm wearing a tie, I want some pretty good food.) What we did discover a couple of days in, though, was that the next level down options were actually quite good.

          There were several levels on the boat...the upscale dinner every night, the pizza stand and hot dog stand and the like and then a part buffet/part serve to order restaurant that was operating almost 24 hours a day. They had a terrific salad bar, amazing fresh fruit and did a good job with pastas and other entrees. We were much happier with it. We felt like it was food that was more in line with the ability of the kitchen and the demands of serving so many people. So, my advice is to try out all of the available options as soon as you can.

          Also, we found that buying the all you can drink soft drink option was great. But, the boat we were on had coffee, tea, iced tea and water available free all the time. I like sparkling water and coke, so it was worth it to me.

          1. We went on one of these once. Dinner was at the same table with the same people and same servers for the entire week. The people were fine and having the same server assured that he would, in short order, find out about "his" diners' little quirks. Like ice cream with every dessert! I thought the food was pretty good, plentiful, and they bent over backwards to satisfy. Now that they have added extra cost elite dinning rooms, it may be that they have started "cutting back" on the quality in the regular dining room. Other meals were served at appointed times in the dinning rooms and almost round the clock at the buffet at another location. We were well satisfied.

            Look over their web site for your particular trip and plan any extra cost excursions ahead so that you can reserve them as soon as you board. The good ones fill up quickly.

            Also, If you get there well before sailing time, they may have a tour of the kitchen. If that end of chowhounding interests you.

            You could probably get more up-to-date info than mine if you say what line and even which ship.

            3 Replies
            1. re: yayadave

              I don't think there is a extra cost elite dining room on board, and even if there was, I can't really do it as a grad student, but also because the idea is for there to be some whole family dinners together.

              Touring the kitchen is a great idea. I'll look into it.

              There are mentions of dress code... This is also something I forgot about. Is this common? I guess I need to get a cocktail dress.

              1. re: slowfoodgrrl

                I think that cocktail dress is probably unnecessary. I thought even younger women knew to have at least one "basic black" that could be dressed up or dressed down to fit a variety of occasions. It's the accessories. The boat we were on had only 2 dress nights during a week cruise. Maybe they expected a tux or dinner jacket, but I felt fine in a tie and jacket.

                I hope you get some responses from people who have done more of this than I have - and more recently.

                1. re: slowfoodgrrl

                  The galley tour is interesting and you'll be surprised how they're able to get out the number of meals they do and how clean it is.

                  Only dress code is at dinner if you eat in the dining rooms ..no shorts, swim suits, t-shirts or tank tops. At the Horizon Court Buffet for dinner I think its just no swim suits allowed.

              2. Princess should have really good food. I went on a Celebrity cruise to Alaska and we all thought the food was great. I never was able to make it to the midnight buffet, not even the really special one, because I was too tired and too full from dinner. If you can, sign up NOW for 2nd seating, gives you more time to return from excursions.

                1 Reply
                1. re: walker

                  I've been on six cruises via Princess. The food is pretty good, and I've done that Carribbean cruise twice actually. Definitely go for the AYCD soda option. You can also special order items at dinner, if you opt for the regular seating option that puts you at a regular table. Personally, I love my veggies, so I start at the begginning of the cruise by requesting a *regular* dish of broccoli and cauliflower with dinners. Just my thing, given that I won't always *treat* myself at home (read: am too damn lazy). I think one of the best thing Princess offers is the souffles... A couple every night, and always really really good. The midnight buffets are also excellent. Overall, I think one of my favorite things about Princess has been their willingness to accommodate, and willingness to meet every whim. Just my experience.

                  Side note: On a few of the cruises, I've opted to eat in the fancy Italian restaurant and it was definitely good and worth the extra $$.

                  Happy Cruising! When traveling to a location in which there's little real touristing (i.e. not a place like Italy where there's more to see than can be *crammed* into one day), I love that I can wake up day-to-day in different ports, and each time I have to leave a port, I never have to pack up my clothes or lug my suitcase to the next destination. What's more, I can play Bingo every day... twice on the days at sea :-D

                2. We did a Mexican Riviera cruise last year (Carnival Pride). I went into the trip with very low expectations foodwise. We chose that line because of price and the fact that the Carnival line is very kid friendly...we have 3. I was very pleasantly surprised. The food was quite good in the main dining room. We had the late seating and had our own table. The service was excellent and the food was a million times better than I thought it would be.

                  The food for breakfast and lunch was plentiful, varied and of good quality. My kids loved the pizza station as well as the 24 hour room service. Not sure the room service staff was excited as the kids.

                  My husband and I did ditch the kids one night and headed to the high end restaurant for which you do pay extra. We loved it! Great food, service and wine list!

                  We did have 2 formal nights and people really dress up. I was surprised thinking that this cruise line might not be so formal. I would have felt out of place had I not had a cocktail dress.

                  Bottom line is that the cruise is so much fun that even if it's not the best food you have ever eaten, when you look back that will be the last thing you think about. We are doing the same itinerary that you are this August but on Carnival again.

                  Smooth sailing!

                  1. Having been in the travel industry, I sailed on several cruise ships. Cruise companies ARE very intuned to the needs of their passengers. They have to be. No longer are the meals as you assume. AND, no longer are the days of only one place and one sitting for meals. Your itinerary is the Eastern Carribean. I looked at the Princess website and it looks like you're on the Carribean Princess -huge ship 3100 passengers! Huge ship = many activities and many food options. So, needn't worry. Besides the standard dining rooms, there's a poolside pizzeria for lunch and dinner, a casual cafe, hot dog/hamburger shop for lunch...well, here's the website: http://www.princess.com/onboard/dinin...
                    Additionally, when you eat together as a family, let the table clerk know that you want such and such...(I don't eat meat. Always had beautiful meals without. No cream fat anything, sometimes just fruits and a salad. Very Nouveux, and, this was many years ago). Princess is quality and has a young energetic philosophy. Use the gym, walk the decks, take advantage of the excercise programs and DON'T deny yourself the fun of food. Cruise ship eating is sooo much fun. esp outside on deck! Now for the Carribean. Yeah, try a few things here and there. Snacks or a lunch. Remember when you dock, the area is specifically for tourists and in Princess Cays - That's a private island owned by Princess! I never had much luck with food that way anyway. But, look for local markets open air or not. When I was in Tahiti a couple of years ago, I went to the local market and NOT the open stalls for the tourists -had much better luck with snacks, chocolates, soaps, etc. Also when in Jamaica, I did the same thing, and brought back some of the best jerk sauces and licqours ever! Buy pearls and other duty free things on the islands instead. St. Maarten is 1/2 dutch - take advantage of the dutch things. St. Thomas, very commercial, however, I had the best hush puppies ever at some shack on the pier but that was oh -13 -14 years ago! For fun try this place: http://www.duffysloveshack.com and, Jimmy Buffet used to have a shack downtown by the docks. Maybe gone now but, he can be found lerking about the islands.

                    Have a wonderful time and don't fret about the food. Don't forget about the midnight buffet at least 1 night you're on the ship -way too much fun! :)KQ

                    1. I'm cruising on RCCL in a few weeks, and will post when I get back. I've gotten a lot of good info from this board: http://boards.cruisecritic.com/forumd...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Chris VR

                        www.cruisecritic.com and go to their boards. Each ship is different. You can say that all Princess cruise ships are good or bad but it just isn't so. We went on a RCL that had the very worst food but some of their other ships are quite good. It has to do with "the restaurant manager" (according to a golf friend who has been on 22, yes 22 cruises!!!). I had started by asking him which line had the best food and that was his response. I would go to the above website and click on the Princess board. Then I'd search for your ship or simply ask them how the food is and some tips for the best entrees, etc. JMHO, Linda

                      2. It depends a lot on which cruise line. Some of the higher end cruise line do feed you really well. Others not so much.

                        1. I have been on a cruise, and found the food pretty bad. I agree with other posters I think it can vary by cruise line, and even by ship.

                          I enjoyed the food I had in the Cayman Islands, and Jamaica more than any meal on the ship. Luckily I didnt go on the cruise with very high expectations regarding the food.

                          With the above said, food was not the reason I went on a cruise, it was to see a couple of different islands, and go snorkling, and I sure got to do that.

                          Enjoy your cruise.

                          1. My parents are frequent cruisers (at least once a year, sometimes more) and won't go on any line but Princess. I've been on the Star Princess a couple of times myself, and although some of the meals in the dining room weren't all that great (you do have to set expectations for the fact that they don't really have the capacity to restock the ship except in port at Fort Lauderdale) the steakhouse on board is excellent, and worth doing at least once (there's an extra fee for it, and you will probably want to make a reservation for it when you board.) The pizza from Sabatini's (near the Neptune pool) is also good, although the choices at any given time are limited. The buffet is about what you'd expect, although if there was something you enjoyed in the dining room, later in the evening you'll usually find it there.

                            In short, if you're used to $200 meals in Manhattan you'll probably be disappointed by the food on a Princess ship, but as long as you set your expectations and realize the limitations they have to work with, they do a prettty good job.

                            And one more thing: Don't bother with the galley tour. There's really not much to see.

                            1. Jfood has been on three cruise lines, Seaborne, Celebrity and Princess. Princess food is pretty good if you know what to do. First things first is figure out which resto you like and a good time to go. Remember Princess has "Anytime" dining but do not think you can show up anytime and get seated. It means you are not the lady in the commerical thanking evryone for joining her. With four Jfoods we chose a time and a resto and booked it for the cruise. When they tell you that each resto has a specialty, it really means that you can get the regular menu and the resto will have one special for that resto. As far as tons of cream sauces, not Princess, other low-enders may have that every night.

                              Breakfast and lunch it's show up and eat. The jfoods only did full service for the meals. We met lots of people and shared a lot of stories with them. It was really fun. If you are allowed to split up this could be fun or you can meet subsets of your family.

                              Wrt the buffet, it has one notable feature. Others will go there and free up tables in the other restos for us. Walking through it one time only reinforced the fact that if Jfood had to eat that for seven days, the scale would show a smaller number at the end of the cruise. I can not fathom how people can eat that stuff. With one exception, the boxed cereal was the same as the local grocer. At the sit down if you want both eggs and pancakes, order both, you can have as much as you want. If you decide halfway through you want a plate of strawberries, call the server over and ask.

                              With 25 people someone should definitely check with the cruise line WELL in advance of departure. They may not have the capacity for anything other than the traditional early/late seating. Depending on the age of the youngest traveler, the early may work, usually more families, or if its a more mature (in age) then the later may work.

                              1. I just got back from a Princess Cruse, it was the Island Princess. We did early dining which worked out pretty well for us. We would skip lunch a few times though. Breakfast and lunch are on your own, either sit-down in the restaurant or off to the buffet (it was the same food for the most part just no plating). I have a food allergy and they were very kind and worked with me to make sure there were no problems. The food quality was pretty good, it was my first cruise and everyone told me you just eat the whole time. Which I guess some people did, but that was not the case for us. They did have 2 of the restaurants on ship where you pay aa cover charge, the one that we did was a 12 course meal. It was way too much food but really tasty. overall it was a good experience though.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: zadradra

                                  If one is so inclined, that option is definitely there, but I don't think I really eat more on a cruise ship than I would normally (although I will admit to a couple of late-night visits to the buffet...). The food does frequently tend to be rather rich though, which does make it hard to eat a ton of it. After a week or so of eating on a cruise ship, for some reason I also have an odd inclination to seek out the nearest fast food joint when I get off the boat... I have to imagine the Wendy's in Havensight (on St. Thomas) probably does a pretty brisk business with the "sick of cruise ship food" crowd.

                                2. First of all, as other people have said the quality of the food on cruiselines varies widely, from superb to mediocre. I think more cruiselines are heading toward at least a "pretty good" to "very good." My parents are very fond of Crystal which has specialty restaurants by Nobu and Valentino. (After one of their trips all my father could say was "Miso Cod... Miso Cod... Miso Cod..." for days. He sounded like Homer Simpson.)

                                  My experience has been that Princess actually serves some of the better quality food in the industry, with food varying from pretty good to excellent, so I wouldn't worry too much. Their service is also pretty good, so as I recall if you give them some some head's up, you usually have pretty wide latitude to request foods in the dining room as well. My brother is one of the pickiest eaters ever and between making requests and scoping out the specialty restaurants, he's never had any trouble perfect well on cruises.

                                  1. wow.. how awesome... i've been on about 8 different cruises, mexico, carribean, different lines, etc. i haven't gone on princess.... but from all the cruises i've been to, the follks aim to please. often times the menus will have some kind of designation on an dish that is supposed to be "spa healthy" or something like that... for folks who are watching their calories and who want to eat healthy... you can always order something, and if you don't like it, order something else. that's not a problem whatsoever. in fact, some folks i know will order BOTH the lobster and the steak entrees during the gala dinner... hahaha

                                    and if you truly don't like your choices (which i would doubt only because there are sooo many options), you can always find the lido deck grill (or whatever they call it on that particular ship) and get a pizza or a sandwich...

                                    since the more common areas of food don't tend to vary as much as the main dining room, i usually don't go crazy with eating everything the first 2 days i am there.. otherwise, i tend to get tired of my options... remember also room service is also included.. so that's another option as well...

                                    i think that you should aim for the late seating too.. keep in mind, you'll prolly be taking lots of showers, so make the most of your excursion days... an LBD (little black dress) is perfectly fine for the gala nights.. usually the first formal night is more formal of the 2 formal nights... if there are a bunch of you, i'm sure you'll want to take professional pictures, so i would figure out the consensus about attire. on other ngihts, jeans and a cute top is fine (if you are female)... fyi, these places have the AC on full blast, so if your female guests are wearing skinny straps/strapless dresses/shirts, then tell them to bring a light sweater =)

                                    and, if you see TORTUGA KEY LIME RUM CAKE in a golden yellow hexagon-shaped box, BUY IT..... IT'S DELISH!!!!!!! (but i don't think they sell it in the all the bahamas.. i think they might sell a different brand) you may want to check st. maarten & st. thomas (beautiful!)

                                    and if i'm not mistaken, the princess cays sounds like the company's private island... in that case, i dunno what they would have...

                                    HAPPY CRUISING!!! =) i'm so excited for you =)

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: kinipela

                                      Princess Cays is a small "islandf" (actually more of a peninsula) off of Eleuthera with beaches. When I was there, the food available on the beach was a buffet line, and tended to be picnic/grill style fare. You're probably not going to be too worried about eating there, there's no shortage of things to do (the snorkeling just off the beach is excellent.)

                                    2. Been on a few Princess Cruise's (and many other ships) and they are pretty good. Don't expect haute cuisine. The number of people they have to serve they do a pretty good job. Sure there are hotel pans of food, but its not sitting out all day and they replenish and cook most of it as needed. Order a steak in the dining room and they cook them to order these days, not like the old days when they were pre-cooked. You like several things on the dinner menu in the dining room and can't make up your mind...order more than one entree or appetizer. On lobster tail night I'll order two orders.

                                      On Princess you have two options of dining for dinner...the traditional set dining time and dining room or Personal Choice Dining (you eat where you want--when you want).

                                      25 of you? Will you be eating dinner together every night? If that's the case you'll probably have a set seating (early/late) in a set dining room. If not then there's Personal Choice dining which means you choose the restaurant and time you eat. If that's what you have make sure you make reservations at least a day or two ahead of time by phoning the dining concierge. They have 4 theme dining restaurants and the menus in all of them are exactly the same (same items served in the regular main dining rooms) except for maybe one or two dishes that are themed to that particular restaurant. For example if its the Southwestern style dining room then one of the signature dishes will be fajitas of some kind. Asian restaurant will have an Asian pasta type dish and so on. There are a couple specialty restaurants where there will be an additional cover charge to dine -- Sterling Steakhouse (nothing special) and Sabatinis (Italian-I haven't been).

                                      You want special treatment ? Talk to the maitre d' and be friendly with him/her and they can do wonders for you with the kitchen. We had a party of 16 on a cruise to Alaska and every night he brought us appetizers like shrimp cocktail and crab claws that weren't on the
                                      menu...naturally we tipped him pretty good at the end of the cruise. The other tables were envious of the things we got. One night he had the ktichen make up a pot of jambalaya for our table for one of the couples in our party who were from LA celebrating their anniversary.

                                      Don't forget to check out the pizzeria out by the pool. I think they've got the best pizza in the world if you like thin crust pizza--its always made fresh. There's also a hamburger/hot dog stand by the pool and they have the best grilled sausages like bratwurst or knackwurst...burgers and fries aren't bad either. There will be a couple nights where they'll have poolside buffets, don't miss them...some really fantastic deserts and stuff. While you're at sea they'll have some kind of themed dining set up by the pool for lunch like a BBQ, sushi (nothing great) and maybe some kind of Caribbean buffet.

                                      There's always 24 hour dining on the lido deck at the Horizon Court Buffet, they have some of the same entrees they will have in the main dining rooms on the same day...like beef Wellington, prime rib, etc... They put out a very nice spread of deserts at night in the Horizon Court Buffet (they take the deserts down at 10pm).

                                      Normally we like to eat breakfast and lunch at the Horizon Court Buffet because its quick and there's a good selection. Some people like being waited on and eating in the dining room and its ok but takes longer.

                                      Don't think about eating off the ship when you're at port. Normally we'll get off the ship and walk around town and see what there is to see and hustle back to the ship by lunch and eat on the ship. Why pay for food off the ship when you don't have to--unless its something you really want. Unless you have an excursion you'll realize you can't spend more than a few hours shopping. Otherwise go back to the ship eat lunch and then go back out.
                                      A lot of people will do their drinking off the ship because its cheaper. Any drinks you buy on the ship will include a 15% gratuity.

                                      Free ice cream sundae bar between 3:30pm-4:30pm everyday at the Horizon Court Buffet. All the ice cream served is made on the ship. They have an ice cream stand at the pool where you have to pay.

                                      There's also room service 24 hours a day and you don't pay extra for that, you only have to tip the person who brings it to your cabin.

                                      Relax and as long as you're not expecting fine dining and realize they're feeding 3,000 people a day (think they said works out to 10,000 meals a day) you'll be pleasantly surprised and satisfied.

                                      You want to bring a cocktail dress and dress up you can. Lots of people like to go the whole nine yards and dress in tuxedos and dinner dresses on formal nights. Otherwise no shorts, swimsuits, tank tops or t-shirts in the dining rooms for dinner.

                                      TIPPING: Each day they'll debit your cabin $10/day/person to cover the room steward(they clean your room twice a day...after breakfast and while your'e eating dinner) and dining room waiter and assistant. You want to tip more you can. Typical cruise staff worker will work 16 hours a day and 7 days a week from anywhere from 6 months to a year depending on their contract.

                                      1. Thanks, folks, for the responses so far. We leave July 1. Anyone have any more advice?

                                        1. I cruised on 7/1, too, on Royal Caribbean's Freedom o/t Seas. Any Chowhound cruisers who plan an outing to Magen's Bay, please tell your Caribbean Cabbie you want a stopover at the St. Thomas Dairies as you exit the beach park. A walkup stand sells the ultimate in milkshakes, rum-laced if you like. And you will like. Udder Delite: less than $4. Hop back on the taxi and sip while you enjoy the view from the mountain on the way back to the pier.

                                          1. We started cruising 3 years ago on Radisson Seven Seas (now Regent). One of their selling points was the food. We have yet to be dissapointed. 4 dining choices, all open seating, it's all inclusive now but it had a as much wine as you want with dinner (and very nice wines, from a variety of places). The gastronomic aspects of this cruise line are a big seller for us, plus they will make special dishes upon request (24 hour lead time) and their room service is fabulous! We are going on the Paul Gaugin (their year round Tahiti ship) later this year and we can't wait!