Alaska Cruise Ship Cuisine

Until last week I was probably the last adult in the U.S. never to have spent time on a cruise ship, so I will keep this part short.*  There are four basic food groups on a cruise: buffet, dining room, fancy dining room, and a category I will cleverly call “other” that consists of pizzas, burgers, soft serve ice cream, that kind of thing. Quality may vary across cruise lines or even ships on the same line, but as I understand it, the categories don’t really change.  I should probably mention we were on the Coral Princess.

* in retrospect, I will not.

On our ship, the buffet was fine, better than the average terrestrial buffet for sure.  Some items are the same every day, and some change.  On this Alaska cruise, they were catering to an Asian clientele (or maybe just to the plurality-Filipino staff); my favorite unusual breakfast item was the “curry egg,” hard boiled eggs in spicy-savory curry sauce that was delicious ladled over each morning’s variation on fried or curried rice.  Otherwise, the expected array of meats, eggs, toasts and pancakes (breakfast), sandwiches and hot entrees (lunch and dinner), always a variety of fruits.  The cantaloupe seemed especially popular, though not with me, I am a no-melon zone.  The buffet staff:passenger ratio was approximately 1:1 and so service was excellent, except on Mongolian Grill night when the line got somewhat backed up.  The buffet also encourages a depressing degree of excess: one breakfast we sat by a guy wearing a shirt that said “Sportsman” and whose plate contained three hash brown patties, four sausages, a big stack of bacon, three buttermilk biscuits, a huge mass of scrambled eggs, and FIVE OUNCES OF BUTTER (five one-ounce patties).  He was perfectly friendly, and only ate about half his food, so he ended up more wasteful than slovenly, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth, if not his.   Cruise ships are not healthy environments.

In the regular dining rooms — one for scheduled seatings, one for “anytime dining” — there is a menu, and it’s all kind of faux-fancy, and the food is higher quality than the buffet.  But despite a similar 1:1 or so ratio, the service is spottier: dishes get mixed up or delayed or delivered to a table 20 feet away and just left there, in front of someone who didn’t order it and who didn’t eat it but also apparently didn’t suggest to the server that it wasn’t his, until we finally asked where our fourth entree was…just for example.  Also you’re supposed to dress up, at least “smart casual” let alone formal nights, and that’s not my thing, on a cruise. So I’m a buffet guy.  I have to admit the shrimp cocktail (available only in the dining rooms) was really good, though.

The fancy dining rooms are better still.  On the Coral Princess, we loved Sabatini’s, an Italian joint, featuring a parade of genuinely gourmet dishes from calamari to cioppino to “lobster three ways” (cheating a bit, with lobster tail, lobster risotto, and lobster reduction sauce, which I guess is technically a “way” but c’mon) to a huge and tasty veal chop to over-the-top desserts (despite odd lack of tiramisu).  Service was phenomenal (thanks Silvio, an honorary-Italian Romanian).  The other upscale option, the Bayou Cafe and Steakhouse, was also good but not great and the service was too intrusive and weird.  And of course in both cases there is a $20-25 upcharge per person, not ridiculous given the quality but just another way the man can stick you.

Finally, you have your “other” pizza/grill/ice cream situation. The Princess pizza is surprisingly good, almost Neapolitan style, crisp blistered yeasty crust and decent enough toppings (though we did not try the peanut butter — apparently popular with the Asians, again).  Didn’t eat at the grill or ice cream stations, but the soft serve was extremely popular despite our icy climate, so they must be doing it well enough.

So it was all fine, really, except for one area of abject deficiency: the coffee stunk. Our party included two serious-but-not-snooty coffee drinkers, and they were both appalled at the poor quality of the coffee.  Lattes were better, but those are really just milk with some coffee in it.  And Princess’ idea of iced coffee is to take some (bad) hot-brewed coffee and pour it over a cup of ice, and charge you an additional $1.44 for it, even though once you figure out what they’re up to, you can go to the buffet and get your own cup of ice and fill it with (bad) hot-brewed coffee and make your own (bad) iced coffee at no additional charge.  Princess needs to find a way to partner with Starbucks, or some other coffee beverage professionals.

One might also complain about the seafood, or lack thereof.  I mentioned the standard overcooked salmon in a previous post, but at least they served salmon regularly; despite floating through Alaskan crab-rich waters, we were offered crab only once that I can recall, crab legs at dinner one night; overbready, flavorless crab cakes showed up at the buffet a couple of times but that hardly counts.  I can understand not putting (expensive) crab legs out at the buffet, but I would expect crab to show up more regularly in the nicer ship restaurants on an Alaskan cruise.  But if they would just fix the coffee situation, we would all be better emotionally equipped (less crabby, haha) to deal with the crab situation.  First things first.

That wasn’t short, was it. Next: surprisingly good eatin’ in Skagway.

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