Stereotypes are hard to shake, which is why so many people think "cruise ship" is a synonym for "big and tacky." As for cruise food, well, we won't even go there. The fact that neither image is even remotely true anymore doesn't matter. God is in his heaven and soggy green beans are in the steamer tray. Case closed.
Focus in, though, and you'll see a different picture. On the better big ships, some specialty restaurants are run by names like Nobu Matsuhisa, Jacques Pepin, Todd English, and Le Cordon Bleu. The smaller boutique ships, meanwhile, carry so few passengers that they can drop anchor off a deserted beach, pack their hampers, and bring everyone ashore for a picnic.
Small-ship luxury line Seabourn (www.seabourn.com) got the beach ball rolling in the early 1990s when it began offering "Champagne and Caviar in the Surf" beach barbecues in places like Prickly Pear Island (British Virgin Islands), Mayreau (Grenadines), Hunting Caye in Belize's barrier islands, and Koh Kood in the Gulf of Thailand. In the morning, crewmembers from the line's small 208- and 450-passenger luxury ships go ashore and set up a grill, shaded beach chairs, full bar, and tables with fine china and silver service. Guests step from the landing boats onto a red carpet laid across the sand, a sign of the treatment to come. On the beach, galley staff prepare steaks, jumbo shrimp, grilled local seafood, and other meats, plus a huge selection of antipasti, salads, soup, breads, and desserts. Pastas are prepared to order at a flambÃ© trolley, and even in the water you can't escape the luxe, with uniformed waiters wading waist-deep to serve iced champagne and caviar from custom surfboards and life-rings.
SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadreamyachtclub.com), whose twin 110-passenger yachts sailed for Seabourn back in the late '90s and early '00s, presents a similar beach party on all its Caribbean sailings, complete with wading (though more casually dressed) waiters, Sevruga caviar, champagne, and a cold Caribbean painkiller handed to each guest as they arrive on the beach. Guests dine at umbrella-shaded tables set with proper china and silver, starting with a selection of salads and breads and moving on to grilled king prawns on skewers, BBQ spare ribs with western-style sauce, whole roast prime rib, and marinated oriental chicken prepared either Indian- or Caribbean-style depending on the chef's mood. The party lasts nearly all day, exemplifying SeaDream's longtime meme: "Cruising is about what happens inside the vessel; yachting is about what happens outside."
At Windstar Cruises (www.windstarcruises.com), each of the casual-luxe line's motor-sail vessels puts on a beach barbecue on every Caribbean and Costa Rica sailing. Locations differ by itinerary: Virgin Gorda (BVIs) on the 148-passenger Wind Spirit's St. Martin round-trips; Curu/Tortuga Island on sister-ship Wind Star's Costa Rica cruises; Pigeon Island (off St. Lucia) on the 312-passenger Wind Surf's northbound cruises from Barbados; and Mayreau on Wind Surf's southbounds. Chefs cook up a casual beach feast on charcoal grills, with mains like grilled BBQ chicken, BBQ pork ribs, burgers and dogs, marinated flank steak, and grilled fish complemented by corn on the cob, baked beans, fried rice, and a slew of salads including minted tabbouleh, pasta salad, potato salad, and mixed greens. Desserts run to apple crisp, fruit salad, and ice cream. Eat it 'fore it melts, and enjoy some live music while you digest.
More sailing-oriented sailing-ship line Star Clippers (www.starclippers.com) also does a beach barbecue on its Caribbean and South Pacific itineraries. At destinations like the Grenadines or the French Polynesian atolls of Tuamotu, chefs from the line's 227-passenger Royal Clipper and 170-passenger Star Clipper and Star Flyer prepare fish, steaks, chicken, ribs, burgers, hot dogs, and sides right on the beach, sometimes with a local music and dance performance following.
More adventure-oriented lines tamp down the luxe in favor of communing with nature. At Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com), the 62-passenger twins National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion offer shoreside dinners in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, following a full day of hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling. Menus reflect the culture, which means grilled fish from local waters, handmade tortillas, tomatillo salsa, Caesar salad with queso cotija instead of Parmesan, and a selection of Baja wines such as Monte Xanic and Santo Tomas. Guests eat their fish tortillas by tiki torch light then sip their wine by a shoreside bonfire, soaking in some of that fabled "sense of place." For a "when in Rome" experience, the great Bering Sea itineraries that Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) has offered for years aboard the 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus (but which were bumped off this year's schedule by the ship's monumental world cruise) sometimes visit the reindeer-herding village of Yanrakynnot in Russian Siberia, where local Chukchi Eskimos offer their guests a taste of boiled walrus meat.
Heading to New England, the owner-operated schooners of the Maine Windjammer Association (www.sailmainecoast.com), Maine Adventure Sails (www.maineadventuresails.com), and other smaller operators stage traditional lobster bakes on every one of their summer sailings around Penobscot Bay. The setting: any one among dozens of uninhabited islands and islets, many near Stonington and the Deer Island Thorofare. The lobsters: up to 100 pounds for the 20 or 30 guests and crew, typically bought during the cruise from local lobstermen. Once ashore, everything's as rustic as the sail-powered ships themselves, with the captain and cook boiling water in a steel washtub before layering in the lobster, mussels, potatoes, onion, garlic, corn, and a heap of seaweed to give flavor and seal in the steam. Twenty minutes on the fire and it's tipped over onto the sun-bleached rocks, all-you-can eat and washed down with your BYOB of choice. If you're a vegetarian, your captain may commute your lobster's sentence and let you return it to the sea -- as I did when sailing aboard American Eagle three summers ago. Chalk it up to good karma.
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