There was a time when cruise passengers expected to simply ‘enjoy’ their holiday – and not do much else. “Really relax” is how a 1954 advert for the defunct Grace Line put it, and a similar sentiment seems to have survived for many decades since. Even today, many operators still put a premium on kicking back and sipping a cocktail or three. Carnival Cruises, for example, states on its website that “there are tons of ways to find tranquillity” at sea, from sunbathing on the balcony to reading in the library, to simply taking a nap.

Yet, even as many passengers seem happy to use their time on the water to escape from the world, others are eager for more active experiences. If nothing else, this is clear in the statistics. According to work by the Mastercard Economics Institute, for instance, spending on so-called experiential trips is up 34% since 2019, while another recent report from cultural intelligence company Collage Group found Gen Z travellers are especially keen to leave their comfort zones.

It’s a similar tale in cruises, with operators increasingly catering to sports fanatics, culture vultures and everyone in between. Foodies, too, are appreciating their moment in the sun. With customers increasingly conscious of the world’s culinary bounties – and many more passionate chefs themselves – operators are starting to offer more than just meals aboard their ships. Encompassing everything from market tours to cooking lessons, curious passengers can now spend their entire trips surrounded by food.

Not that crafting experiential food and beverage (F&B) is easy. On the contrary, providing guests with memorable cultural experiences requires careful planning and deep partnerships with local experts. Get it right, though, and operators have the chance to fundamentally change cruise F&B.

“After spending so much time at home, guests are eager to make the most of every second of their holiday.”

Dom Gamba

Food for thought

Few people are better placed to reflect on the growth of experiential F&B than Dom Gamba. He began his career in cruise F&B over 20 years ago, cutting his teeth at Celebrity and Viking, among other operators. The director of fleet restaurant operations at Royal Caribbean since 2017, Gamba is eager to stress that his employer is taking the culinary aspect of cruising seriously.

“After spending so much time at home, guests are eager to make the most of every second of their holiday,” he says, adding that Royal Caribbean will soon be reintroducing a range of culinary classes and other food-based activities for punters to explore.

There are many reasons for this trend. As Gamba implies, one is the pandemic. With cruisers cooped up at home for the best part of two years, many are desperate to literally taste more of what the world has to offer.

Silversea’s Adam Sachs argues that changing cultural attitudes towards food matters too. From its headquarters in Monaco, the cruise line recently announced a “new immersive culinary programme” for travellers. Known as ‘S.A.L.T.’ – an acronym for ‘Sea & Land Taste’ – the scheme will offer guests a range of food-based activities.

“I think it’s everything from the macro trends in travel to the way that food has become more intimate, more personal, less about checking off places from a bucket list and more about the experience of being there,” explains Sachs, director of the S.A.L.T. programme. “That’s a result of all kinds of things, including the personal narratives of food TV created by the late great Anthony Bourdain and the ways we follow chefs and culinary travellers on Instagram and other social media.”

Certainly, you get the sense that many prospective travellers are becoming more sophisticated, wanting to actively and purposefully experience different cuisines. That’s doubly true when it comes to younger people. In 2018, Better Homes & Gardens found that 93% of millennials try a new recipe every month, while nearly four in five say they have an interest in trying new foods.

“I think modern, informed travellers are looking for experiences that feel real and that truly connect them to a place,” notes Sachs. And, as he stresses, eating a delicious meal is all well and good – and something his team certainly caters too. But taste, Sachs argues, is “ephemeral” – unlike “where you tasted something, what you learned about a place, who you were with, the stories of the people you met along the way”.

A culinary adventure at sea

To understand how seriously Sachs and his colleagues are taking this philosophy in practice, you could do worse than book a trip on Silver Dawn. Over a few days cruising around southern Italy, you’ll be exposed to more fascinating culinary adventures than most people get in a year.

That begins with a foraging trip to the Murge plateau, an austerely beautiful landscape near the Puglian port of Bari. A day in Naples spent in a similar way, with travellers savouring pizza from one of the best restaurants in town and watching how fresh mozzarella is made nearby. That’s shadowed by time with Peppe Guida, a Michelin-starred chef who owns a garden and agriturismo in the hills above Sorrento.

The idea, in any case, is to deeply link the food being eaten to the places and people that spawn it – as Sachs says, some of “the best connected, most knowledgeable sources on Italian cuisine”. Not that S.A.L.T. is alone here. On the contrary, other operators are moving in a similar direction.

Back at Royal Caribbean, Gamba describes how on-board chefs are increasingly taking a proactive approach to dinner, offering tips and techniques for curious punters. Viking, for its part, is promoting what it calls ‘destination-focused’ dining, with the operator’s European river cruises stopping everywhere from Strasbourg brasseries to a Cologne mustard museum.

It goes without saying that organising such ambitious portfolios of activities is far from easy. Sachs compares it to putting together a magazine – an apt choice for a former journalist who’s won numerous awards for his travel writing. The point, at any rate, is to ask the same questions as any good editor: what’s the story and who’s best placed to tell it?

From there, Sachs explains, he and his team delve into the specifics. For Silversea’s S.A.L.T. Bar offering, the operator is working with a wine importer and cocktail experts. For S.A.L.T. Lab – Silversea’s take on interactive cooking – it means hiring a cast of guest lecturers and regional authors and experts.

Beyond the internal planning, meanwhile, Sachs describes how much work goes into cultivating partnerships with outsiders. Given how many specialists those lucky Silver Dawn passengers get to meet in Campania and Puglia, that’s probably unsurprising – but the extent of these relationships is still striking.

“We’re constantly reaching out to local chefs and authors to work on menus and programming; we’re travelling to try new restaurants and meet the people who know these regions the best; and we’re always on the lookout for great storytellers, compelling producers and new voices,” is how Sachs puts it.

“It takes a wide range of expertise and talents – chefs, authors, culinary historians, producers, winemakers [and] guides with a focus on the food and culture of a particular place – to make a programme as varied as this work, so we’re really focused on always widening our scope of contacts and making sure we are finding the best ways to tell the culinary story of a place.”

Compliments to the chef

There’s evidence, certainly, that Silversea is eager to expand S.A.L.T. beyond places like Italy. On-board dining is one focus, with S.A.L.T. Kitchen promising to tug tastebuds to South America and the Caribbean. Shore excursions are enjoying similar treatment.

Depending on where passengers are going, Silversea promises they can expect to try fashionable street food markets (Ecuador) or visits to remote farms (Greece). And whatever guests get up to, there’s evidence that this new culinary world, spurred on by trends like social media, is here to stay. In 2021, to give one example, 40% of people admitted they uploaded pictures of food and drink they didn’t themselves consume.

Not that this push towards intense, experiential culinary tourism necessarily means more traditional dining will fully disappear. It’s telling that amid all the outside excursions, S.A.L.T. Kitchen is still a part of Silversea operations, with other operators taking a similar stance.

“We’re constantly reaching out to local chefs and authors to work on menus and programming; we’re travelling to try new restaurants and meet the people who know these regions the best.”

Adam Sachs

“On a Royal Caribbean cruise,” stresses Gamba, “you’re guaranteed to be greeted by a whole host of cultures, flavours and tastes.” To hammer home his point, Gamba mentions a bevy of restaurants, from Giovanni’s (Italian) to Izumi (Japanese) that passengers will still be able to taste. Cruise F&B is changing fast, in short, but ‘really relax’ will still be the watchword for many.