The cruising industry has been gradually moving away from traditional buffet dining for a variety of reasons; not least due to cost and changing consumer attitudes. Paul Ludlow, P&O Cruises president, is quick to point out “guests are increasingly looking for choice”, adding, “our newest ship, Arvia, features more than 30 places to eat and drink with new restaurants created exclusively for the ship”.

Green & Co feat. Mizuhana, for example, offers guests crafted fish and plant-based dishes reflecting new tastes and preferences, while 6th Street Diner is a relaxed, all-American-styled diner serving breakfast, brunch, dinner and sweet treats, accompanied with music and ice-cold cocktails.

With its selected ambassadors (or ‘food heroes’ as the company refer to them) headlining food and beverage offerings, P&O is setting a new mark for dining. What this means in practical terms is that, in addition to the variety of food and dining options available, the company endeavours to provide guests with “an authentic experience both on board and onshore, which is why our menus increasingly reflect the many destinations we visit”, as Ludlow describes it.

“For example, in The Beach House on Arvia, local food hero Shivi Ramoutar celebrates her passion for Caribbean cuisine with a range of dishes including her jerk chicken supreme with rice and peas, coleslaw, shallow-fried plantain and a Jamaican cornmeal speciality known as ‘festivals’,” explains Ludlow.

“On Iona, there are menus inspired by Spain and Norway, the countries Iona visits, including a tapas menu in The Glass House by Spanish chef José Pizarro and a six-course tasting menu by Norwegian chef Kjartan Skjelde, exclusively for The Epicurean [restaurant],” he adds.

More generally, it has long been said that the cruise line industry is moving away from traditional buffets – something that is currently being seen elsewhere in hospitality, like at some resorts along the Las Vegas Strip, for example.

Linken D’Souza, vice-president of food and beverage at Royal Caribbean International, is quick to push back at this suggestion, though. “You cannot compare our Windjammer Marketplace [Royal Caribbean’s buffet eatery] to buffets at resorts in Las Vegas, as it is a key element of the experience on board our ships,” he argues. “The Windjammer Marketplace provides an extensive selection of global flavours and continues to be a hit with our guests. In fact, on our newest ship, Wonder of the Seas, we built the world’s largest buffet at sea.”

D’Souza adds: “When we designed Wonder, we also incorporated a new element, ‘Kidsjammer’, which features dishes specially designed for our younger cruisers offered at a lower height. We will continue to innovate and enhance our Windjammer Marketplace experience as it remains a key staple in our on-board offering.”

In addition to Windjammer Marketplace, there are more than 165 different restaurant and bar experiences holidaymakers can enjoy throughout the Royal Caribbean fleet and its private destinations.

“They have all been thoughtfully designed, and by that, I mean we are continuously reviewing our guests’ feedback, market research and consumer trends to ensure they are at the heart of each and every concept,” says D’Souza. This means creating various experiences; ranging from a quick, casual bite, to fine dining. And with ample variety across all its menus – including those for kids – guests of any age and background now have an abundance of options and will never need to compromise on their dining experience.

Back in November 2022, Symphony of the Seas was the first ship in Royal Caribbean’s fleet to test its next-generation dining menu. The updated selection of dishes invites guests to explore their palates, with each night’s cuisine inspired by theme nights from areas across the globe.

“During our test, we partnered with our consumer insights team to get real-time guest feedback, which we continue to incorporate into the new menu. Our updates will enhance guests’ dining experiences by introducing flavourful new dishes and enhancing the pace of service,” says D’Souza.

 Finding favourites

Meanwhile, at Carnival Cruise Lines, Richard Morse, senior vice-president of food and beverage, highlights the obvious point that good food is an important part of any vacation – whether on land or at sea.

“For us, as the experiences on our ships have grown, our food offerings have expanded. You can see [that] on board our new Excel-class ships, [we] don’t just have more food options than ever before, but also offer unique concepts creating experiences that provide a richer vacation overall.” This includes Emeril’s Bistro 1397, now found on two ships, with its menu of Creole dishes straight from the heart of New Orleans.

Morse adds: “You will still find your favourite burger on board, but you’ll also be able to discover a new favourite on any given day of your sailing – like a Chinese and Mexican fusion dish at our Chibang restaurant, for example.”

However, increasing passenger demand for more choices means there’s an added importance to flag products when it comes to allergens and other potential issues.

As P&O’s Paul Ludlow puts it: “For those guests with special dietary requirements, our maître d’ can provide menus 24 hours in advance and is available for daily consultations to ensure guests enjoy their dining experience on board. Any allergens are clearly labelled on the menus in all restaurants, as well as on dishes at the buffet.”

P&O Cruises also offers a special section in the buffet for those with food intolerances or allergens, including providing a selection of dairy alternatives such as oat or goat milk. At Royal Caribbean, the health and safety of guests is also, unsurprisingly, top priority.

Every effort is made to accommodate for allergies or dietary restrictions – whether that is vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and sugar-free – there are plenty of items available on menus across its fleet. If passengers have any dietary needs or special requests, they are asked to reach out to the cruise line through its dedicated channels ahead of their sailing. For those guests with any questions on board, the ship’s food and beverage team will be available to listen and respond accordingly.

All aboard for Menu Mate

Meanwhile, Carnival’s Morse references the company’s ‘Menu Mate’ initiative. As he describes it, “We’ve introduced a new food ingredient programme called Menu Mate, which utilises the Certistar software system on a tablet computer to help sort through any dietary restrictions at every food venue on all of our ships. […] We’re the first major cruise line to implement this kind of technology fleet wide and it’s been a game-changer and very well received by our guests.”

Yet, it isn’t just about food; beverages are also important. “We have a drinks menu [that] offers guests incredible choice, but also reflects the destinations we visit,” says P&O’s Ludlow. “For example, P&O Cruises has formed an exclusive partnership with awardwinning pioneer of British coastal rum, The Tidal Rum, which will create a unique rum blend especially for Arvia’s Caribbean sailings.”

The rum is a careful blend of Caribbean cask-aged rums from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and the Dominican Republic, while an infusion of lightly oaksmoked Pepper Dulse – a little-known wild seaweed known as ‘the truffle of the sea’ found on Jersey’s coastline – gives an ocean-salted caramel flavour, according to Ludlow. The rum’s maiden production is set to take place on board Arvia in the first rum distillery-at-sea in Anderson’s Bar. It will then be ready for guests to enjoy neat or in an array of specially crafted cocktails on board.

Meanwhile on P&O’s Iona, a partnership has been forged with Salcombe Gin to develop limited-edition gins that celebrate and take inspiration from the ports of call, created in Iona’s on-board distillery. “Equally, in The Glass House and Cellar Door guests are able to enjoy delicious Spanish tapas created by José Pizarro, paired with wines specially selected by PO’s food hero, Olly Smith,” says Ludlow.

A taste of the last frontier

Royal Caribbean, on the other hand, recently reinvented its fleet-wide bar menus to include a selection of traditional and zero-proof cocktails with a twist, according to D’Souza. Several menus were revised to match the destinations Royal Caribbean visits – a case in point being Alaska where a curated beverage menu named ‘Taste of the Last Frontier’ now features hot cocktails such as a hot toddy and vanilla-spiked hot chocolate.

“We are proud these redesigned menus have earned Royal Caribbean several awards, including Cheers Magazine’s 2022 Beverage Excellence Award,” says D’Souza. “We are consistently monitoring guest feedback and updating menus based off trends and research to ensure we continue providing our guests with a truly remarkable beverage experience.”

At Carnival, Morse notes, “as far as beverages are concerned, we have one of the most robust offerings in the industry. We revise our drink menus annually and our beverage team works year-round to develop and implement new drinks to join our guests’ favourites.”

Key to enhancing the food and beverage experience for guests ultimately comes down to a degree of nimble footedness and being able to revise menus and bar lists quickly, as and when needs dictate.

In a fiercely competitive industry, individual operators can’t afford to be left behind if competitors elsewhere are seizing the initiative. It goes without saying that collectively, cruise lines are more than aware and are responding accordingly for the benefit of passengers.