Category Archives: Dining

I Am So Sorry

As I bounced up to a motorcoach yesterday on the pier at Greenock that would take us on a tour where we’d spend the day riding bicycles and paddling in canoes at Scotland’s Loch Lomond, my proffered shore excursion ticket was met by Westerdam’s shore manager with a stern “where’s your sticker?” I don’t have a sticker, I said, puzzled. I have a ticket.

What followed was a mini lecture in which, not having followed the rules (indeed the ticket did instruct me to check in to my tour by going to the Queens Lounge but I had missed that bit of detail), I would now delay our group while I returned to the ship to pick up that dratted sticker. The sticker is important, she said, because it’s is the only way we’ll know you’re here (though my name was actually on the ticket). I eyed the walkie talkie that the shore excursion manager wore on her hip and asked: You can’t just call them and let them know?

Ultimately, she capitulated to reason and allowed me to board the bus. And let’s be clear here: I was absolutely at fault for not following directions. But the exchange, and the staffer’s manner, which I’d charitably describe as rather too abrupt, reminded me for the first time in a week that I was part of a mass travel experience, a cog in a wheel of more than 2,000 passengers.

And it reminded me too of one downside of big ship cruising: When cruise staff treat their systems and procedures as more important than the customers they serve – with the obvious exception of situations related to health and safety – they unnecessarily denigrate the experience.

Come to think of it, a too-rigid passion for rules is not limited to large cruise ships with thousands of passengers. Cruise Critic’s Dan Askin, sailing on a Rhine River cruise on AMAWATERWAY’s Amacello last summer, tells in his review of an incident in which his traveling companion arrived for breakfast five minutes before the dining room was open for business. Instead of graciously offering to fetch her a cup of coffee and make her comfortable until the restaurant was open, they told her to go away and come back later.

On the other hand, I’ll never forget another incident when I unknowingly didn’t follow the rules and never even knew it. On a cruise on Hapag-Lloyd’s Europa from Muscat to Athens, our itinerary featured quite a few “turn your clock forward one hour” and “turn it back!” evenings. It got a little confusing. One morning I showed up for breakfast promptly at 7 a.m. and was a bit surprised to see that the superb buffet crew didn’t have it quite together (also perplexing: where were the other passengers? Perhaps they were sleeping in?). Only half the buffet was laid out, the grill wasn’t staffed. No matter, there was enough on the buffet to suffice, and a waiter promptly took an omelet order and brought me fresh-squeezed orange juice.

It wasn’t until I got back to my cabin that I realized that, due to a time change, I’d arrived at the dining room an hour before it opened. The crew could’ve sent me away. Instead they didn’t even let me know that I posed an inconvenience.  Their gracious attitude was incredibly heartwarming.

For passengers, one of the challenges of cruising is that you’re on vacation. As with any getaway, your brain slows down a bit (that’s a good thing!); as well, cruising is a unique kind of holiday. You are visiting different ports every day, adapting not just to one foreign land but in most cases to numerous countries.  As on this trip on Westerdam, as well, the crew has been so wonderful that you can be excused for feeling as if you were lulled into pampered euphoria. So you let your guard down a little bit. And maybe we’ve all inadvertently caused a bit of chaos or inconvenience at some point because we didn’t follow the rules.

Which made me wonder: Have you ever experienced a situation on a cruise when you’ve “messed up” and the cruise line staffers not only handled the situation but rose above the proverbial call of duty? I’m thinking just now of two different recent incidents (one on Disney Magic in Civitavecchia and one on Westerdam in Holyhead) in which passengers on independent shore tours arrived back at the ship as it was pulling away and the captain reversed course to capture them even though the rules said – be on time or get yourself to the next port.

I’m sure you’ve got others. Please share your story with us.

CSB

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Filed under Advice, Cruise Lines, Dining, Opinion, Round-Britain Cruise

The Eggs Benedict Test

Eggs Benedict

The “eggs benedict test” is my ritual go-to quality indicator when onboard a cruise ship. Let me explain: On every cruise I take that’s longer than a few days, I head down to the ship’s main restaurant and order the dish – poached eggs, slightly runny, served with Canadian bacon or ham, and with a dollop of hollandaise. It’s a treat (I only order it once a cruise) that I never make at home because the dish is a bit too fussy to get right.

Which is why eggs benedict is a great way to test a restaurant kitchen. Are chefs paying attention? It only takes a few seconds for the eggs to go from undercooked to overcooked.  Are waiters responsive enough to get the dish from kitchen to table before the hollandaise congeals? And, if the dish is not quite right, if for instance, the egg yolks are cooked too hard, does staff respond quickly and pleasantly?

On Westerdam, my eggs benedict test (the only score is pass or fail) took place yesterday in Vista, its main dining room. The dish was a huge pass (a new inspiration occurred to me: add one triangle of fried hash brown potatoes – hey nobody ever said this was a healthy endeavor —  and mix the potato up with the runny yolk and the hollandaise). Delicious!

The test actually was born out of a disastrous cruise dining experience  and has served me well in the years since. Traveling on Silversea’s Silver Wind, I’d ordered the dish. That it came so badly overcooked on a luxury line was a manageable disappointment, but what turned this into a lasting memory was the fact that the waiter balked when I asked for another try – and later engaged in a rather unpleasant argument, within ear-shot, with his maitre ‘d over who would tell the chef that his dish didn’t please.

I was appalled and embarrassed and the experience reflected the mediocre level of food and service experienced elsewhere on that journey.

Having reviewed some 150-plus cruise ships over the past 13 years, there are certainly other symbolic indicators that tell me more about the quality of that voyage than a particular incident would normally suggest. Do the majority of crew members say hello and look you in the eye when they pass by in corridors or bring you a cocktail? (On Westerdam, so far, check, check, it’s been a pass all around). If so, they’ll be personable all around. Does the cabin steward clean the balcony as well as your stateroom? It shows an attention to detail (so far, so good on Westerdam) as far as cleaning standards are concerned. On another recent cruise, my balcony never felt clean (cigarette ashes from other smokers on other verandahs were omnipresent, and dirty water pooled there every day;  frankly the lack of attention to detail was also reflected in other parts of the stateroom).

Do security officers smile and greet you when you return to the ship from a day in port? Actually this one’s mostly in jest – no one really expects security staffers to offer a smile or a sense of humor but on Azamara Journey a few weeks ago, I was startled when the men and women who man the screening machine would say “welcome home” when I came back aboard. It was a nice touch.

Before I leave for my cruise, I also look at Cruise Critic member reviews, particularly the most recent ones, to see what to expect. Ships do change personalities, often depending on which hotel director, who oversees everything from cuisine and housekeeping to entertainment and services like casinos, art auctions, and photography, is onboard at the time. Hotel directors typically serve four month contracts. Those who deftly manage their huge staffs typically run excellent ships.

What’s your go-to indicator for cruise quality? Share it with us.

CSB

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Filed under Cruise Lines, Dining, Luxury Cruises, Opinion, Round-Britain Cruise

Welcome onboard. Please have a fresh grilled lobster tail.

On cruise holidays, the first day is usually the most fraught. Leaving home, heading to the ship (whether it’s via an overnight flight or a few-hours drive, still…stressful), queuing up to board, adjusting to new digs, unpacking when your suitcase finally arrives, and finding your way to the safety drill.

For a lot of us, pretty much the last thing in the world we want after all that is to sit down to a formal dinner. Right?

While all of the usual Rotterdam venues were open last night, from the main restaurant to its Pinnacle Grill alternative eatery, this option – an open-deck BBQ – was a fantastic alternative. It’s a terrific choice for anyone who wanted a quick meal (including salads and desserts) and there was no compromise on quality. Over charcoal grills, smells were heavenly. Beyond steaks and fish, notice the lobster tails? That’s pretty nice….

CSB

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A whine about wine

Visit the home page of Cruise Critic today and you’ll see a section called Things To Know Before You Go, packed with information on all those cruising mysteries – tipping, dress code, staying in touch… and one of the most contentious subjects of all: bringing your own alcohol on board.

Cruise lines’ attitudes to BYO alcohol range from perfectly reasonable to nannying to apparently illogical. I’m not campaigning for the idea of bringing truckloads of your own booze on board and depriving the cruise line of bar revenue. Just a couple of innocent bottles of wine.

It’s summer in the Mediterranean. Wine-tasting excursions abound. Ships are calling at ports where the shops are stocked with delicious, cheap French rosés from small Provencal growers, while passengers are enjoying tastings in exquisite Tuscan country estates. What’s wrong with loving a new wine so much that you buy a bottle to enjoy with dinner that night?

Yes, of course we’ll pay a corkage fee, just like we would in a restaurant at home. Yet some cruise lines are completely relaxed with this, while others forbid it completely.

Take P&O, for example: a blanket ban on BYO. Also, Fred. Olsen, MSC and Royal Caribbean. Any booze you buy on your travels is confiscated and handed back to you at the end of the cruise. Costa allows you to bring a bottle, in theory, but the procedure is so complicated (you have to write a letter two weeks in advance for approval and produce both the letter and the wine on embarkation for inspection) that it’s hardly worth bothering.

Cunard, though, along with Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises and Holland America Line will allow you to consume your own wine for a corkage fee of around $20. And hats off to foodie-friendly Oceania Cruises, which assumes that you may have enjoyed one of its shore excursions so much that you’d quite like to buy some regional wine ashore and crack it open at dinner to remind you of the day.

Less so Azamara, which insists you can only bring your own wine at the beginning of the cruise, thus removing all spontaneity.

I know there are plenty of logical arguments against letting guests supply their own wine: loss of revenue, diluting the cruise line’s own effort, storing everybody’s wine, chilling it, reuniting each bottle with the right owner.

But why do some cruise lines treat us like adults and others like irresponsible kids?

SJB

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Dine With Nick Stars!

This morning I had one of the most lively breakfasts of my life. The location: The colourful Spiegel Tent on Norwegian Epic. The event: A character breakfast with the stars of Nickelodeon.

Now, since this isn’t a revenue cruise – and  the ship is mostly full of weary travel agents who may have had one too many glasses of Champagne last night – the atmosphere was perhaps not quite as electric as it would be on a regular cruise when families will be flocking into this eatery.

However, we got into the spirit of things, and as our cooked breakfast came out (sausage, eggs, bacon, pancakes),  so did the stars of the kids TV programmes.

SpongeBob Squarepants, Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron (who posed for a picture with me!) and pals paraded on stage and sang their rendition of “Celebration” – that certainly woke us up!

There were a couple of children in the restaurant and when we were all given the chance to meet the characters, you could see the excitement on their faces. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of fully grown adults standing in line to have their photos taken with the stars!

It’s a great addition for NCL, and if you’re planning to sail with your kids, definitely try to check it out – it’s on three times a cruise and you can book in the Box Office. For children aged 4-12 the cost is $10 per child; ages 13 and upwards, the fee is $15 per person.

KR

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Norwegian Epic’s Ice Bar

Norwegian Epic’s Ice Bar is of course one of the ship’s most unique features. Inspired by the Ice Bar in Stockholm (and beyond), it’s the exact same concept: you queue up at a designated hour, don a quite attractive pewter-colored nylon parka-poncho with fake fur hoodie, slip on some wool gloves, and head inside. About 20 people at a time can participate (you’re asked to show up on the hour, put on the protective gear, and then enter at half past, from 5 – 11 p.m.). Cost is $20 per person, and you get two tickets each for pre-made vodka drinks (think vodka/peach schnapps or vodka/Curacao) that are ice-like looking. And warming…

This is a “chalk this up to an experience” experience. The oddity of it makes the group of 20 strangers come together as if at a very civilized cocktail party (albeit one that takes place in Lapland in January). You’re very social if only because you’re trying to distract yourself from the fear that you might be getting cold, even with the extra outerwear! And be forewarned: Those who wear flip-flops do so at their own peril (beyond worries of frostbite, you might also slip; the floor slides a bit here and there where touches of ice have melted).

Though reservations are generally suggested, I just stopped on by (slow night? 5 spaces were available). I was on Deck 7, wandering past the Ice Bar enroute to Bar Central, and I was intrigued by a gaggle of people donning grey coats as if to embark on an Arctic expedition. I paid my $20, got my drink tickets and my gloves, and headed on in.

The actual time you spend inside maxes out at 45 minutes; most can’t take it much longer than a half hour or so before the cold penetrates, says Romeo, the Filipino bartender on duty for this shift. He can handle two Ice Bar sessions in a row (with a 15 minute break in between to warm up — and he does dress in layers), and then he moves on to warmer climes in Bar Central or elsewhere.

Tonight, we’re drinking our cocktails in plastic cups; Romeo says that the machine that makes the ice goblets is on the fritz. I frankly think the plastic’s easier to hang on to.

Beyond feverish chatting through clicking teeth, the big fun is to take silly photos of all and sundry. The furniture — yes there’s furniture — looks reasonably comfortable for a loveseat made out of ice, but, and I’m not sure you can see the terror in my face, some earlier patron has apparently warmed it up to the extent that it now slopes. Sit gingerly.

As the last of us headed out, having spent some 40 minutes in a glass-and-color-infused meat locker, Romeo endured one patron’s final question: “What did you do wrong to get assigned to this bar?” With a gentle smile and a ready quip he retorted, “Hey, we have the coolest job in town.”

I’m thinking that Paul (pictured first), a London-based cruise fan who’s onboard for this short sailing and then beyond, could help out if need be. Noting that he simply doesn’t feel the cold the way others do, he took off his parka shortly after entering — and stuck around for a good half hour in only his shirt sleeves (yes, his arms did have goose bumps!).

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All booked up on Norwegian Epic?

Norwegian Epic’s first two-night cruise ended this morning in Rotterdam, and I really don’t think we still know what’s going to be hot and what’s not. The ship is designed with enough options to keep things — dining and entertainment especially — fresh for seven full nights and days, and a mini-cruise like this one is by nature more compressed. Everybody’s trying to eat everywhere and see every show in a two-day period, which lends a frenetic nature that I trust won’t be felt on Epic’s regular schedule.

Tonight’s a one-nighter between Rotterdam and Southampton (we arrive there early in the morning), and with just half the time onboard, I suspect the atmosphere will be even more caffeinated.

Even if the rhythm is not what it will be, I was curious: If we’re really going to do the “freestyle” thing — which at NCL means do what you want when you want to — what restaurants and shows were available to me? At 4 p.m. I went to the restaurant reservations desk and inquired. You don’t need reservations for Tastes and the Manhattan Room as they are the fee-free eateries (and the Garden Cafe is one of the nicest buffets in cruising, no need to book there either). But I wanted to try one of the specialty restaurants.

Guess what? Basically I was out of luck. Of all the alternative restaurants, the only venue with pretty open opportunity was Shanghai (not a good sign?). Oh and yes, I could slip into LeBistro, the ship’s French restaurant, at 10:15 p.m. Every thing else, Teppanyaki, Charrascuria, Cagney’s, La Cucina, etc. was fully and completely booked. So be prepared to be a bit — un-freestyle — if you really have your heart set on a particular dining venue. Book ahead. Still, having dined in all three of the fee-free places, they’re quite lovely as well.

I was curious also about entertainment venues and their availability. Now mind you, some shows, like Blue Man Group, were extremely limited (it only played one night) on our abbreviated cruise. Cirque Dreams is small venue so by nature it’s tough to get into (though the fact that it does two shows a night alleviates some of the congestion). The Ice Bar was waitlist only. Space was available at Second City’s only show — a 7 p.m. performance, and not a bad time. In fact, going to Second City and then dinner afterwards, at LeBistro, would have been a great option (and if I were on my own schedule, I’d opt for that happily).

Other performances, like Howl at the Moon’s dueling pianos, Legends Unplugged in the Manhattan Room, and Fat Cats’ house band (again, second night in a row, seriously standing room only — do not miss this!), neither require nor accept a reservation.

By the way, there’s a desk on deck six, between the main theater and Cirque Dream’s Spiegel Tent, where passengers can make entertainment reservations for Blue Man Group, Cirque Dreams, Murder Mystery (not available on our short cruise, but I’d love to try it!), Nickelodeon’s character breakfast, Slime Time Live, and Legends in Concert (the Legends Unplugged folks in a longer, more theatrical format). The first day onboard the reservations desk was mobbed; since you can make advance bookings via the Internet before you leave home (and that goes for restaurants too), I’d suggest that you do so for anything for which your heart’s really set.

An interesting question at a press conference yesterday: Would the fact that passengers could pre-reserve restaurants and shows mean that those who waited until they got onboard be locked out? We were told that the advance reservations system will only offer so many spots for pre-reservations so that people can be flexible once on their cruise.

CSB

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