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Eating. We can't live without it (though lordy knows many of us try . . . have you seen pictures of Lindsay Lohan lately?)

Food deprivation certainly isn't an issue on a cruise. As you may have heard, it's quite the opposite. In fact, there are literally tons of food cruising right along with you. Allow me to illustrate.

Here's some of the grub Royal Caribbean carries aboard the Voyager of the Seas on a typical 7-night cruise and believe me, there ain't much left over by the end.

  • Bacon: 2,000 lbs
  • Ribs: 1,600 lbs
  • Smoked Ham: 600 lbs
  • Rack of Lamb: 700 lbs
  • Chicken: 1,500 tons:
  • Turkey: 761 lbs
  • Lobster: 3000 pieces:
  • Shrimp: 1,500 lbs
  • Fresh Salmon: 500 lbs
  • Cheese: 500 lbs
  • Ice Cream: 700 gallons
  • Fresh Vegetables: 5,000 lbs
  • Fresh fruit: 3,000 lbs
  • Bread:: 35,000 rolls & 21,000 loaves

And this is all washed down by 20,000 cans of beer, 5,000 bottles of wine, 9,000 cans of soda and 21,000 pints of milk.

(Burp)

The point is, eating is a big part of the cruise experience.

It's evolved though. Gone are the days of midnight buffets piled high on long tables stretched across the dining room, as the entire ship (it would seem) shuffled past ice sculptures, vegetable carvings and heaps of chocolate éclairs. Likewise, heading for the history books are regimented dinner set-ups where the only choice is an either early or late seating at a fixed table in the main restaurant.

Today's big new ships offer 5 to 10 dining outlets, and that's not including 24-hour room service, specialty coffee bars, pizza and ice-cream bars, and children's menus. Choice is now the norm.

While most ships still offer the option of doing the traditional early or late seating at assigned tables in the main dining rooms, they also offer smaller, more intimate restaurants featuring specific cuisines like Asian, Italian or steaks and seafood. Service is typically more attentive and you can always get a table for two, something that's nearly impossible in main dining rooms that accommodate 500 or more passengers at a time. Reservations are recommended in these venues, and most charge a cover of anywhere from $10 to $30 a person (and no, this doesn't include drinks).

Casual walk-in buffet restaurants that used to only serve breakfast and lunch, now operate nearly round the clock. They stay open for dinner each evening and offer late-night snacks and even meals.

Another trend is the availability of healthier food. So, while you can easily gain 5 pounds on a cruise if you stick to pizza, ice cream and desserts every night, for those who actually crave apples and salads more than cheese and crackers, you're in luck.

In fact, to be precise, on a 7-night Carnival Liberty cruise, for instance, the galleys are stocked with exactly 17,250 tomatoes, 19,500 potatoes, 1,950 bell peppers, 1,200 cucumbers, 6,950 bananas, 3,850 apples, 1,550 melons and 1,675 fresh pineapples.

Many ships also have sushi bars and juice bars and frozen yogurt, not to mention vegetarian and light, even low-carb entrée choices on restaurant menus.

All and all, the big ships of the mainstream lines offer a similar quality of cuisine. With the exception of Celebrity Cruises' ocean-liner-themed alternative restaurants, it's really splitting hairs to say whose food tastes better. Afterall, the galleys are all preparing meals for thousands of guests and in that regard, it can only be so good. There's no comparison, for example, to what the chefs can do on ultra-luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn, Radisson and SeaDream Yacht Club, when there are just a few hundred passengers to feed and one would imagine also a better grade of ingredients. Crystal, another luxry line with somewhat larger ships, also excels way beyond the mainstreams with its Asian restaruants, partnering with celebrity chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa to run two of its venues.

That said, the masses like good food too, and there's little question that the average person's palate has grown more sophisticated over the years as curries, satays and kababs have given pot roast and potatoes a run for their money. The cruise lines have responded and quality is forever improving. Here's a quick taste of what the major mainstream are serving up.

What the Mainstream Lines are Dishing:

Norwegian Cruise Line

NCL is the king of dining choice. The line's newest ships have ten different restaurants onboard, including Italian, Asian, sushi, French, steakhouse, and Tex-Mex options, plus snack and sandwich options, ice cream parlors, and an occasional chocoholic buffets. The French/Continental food at the Le Bistro specialty restaurant is totally yum. Those Indian spreads they sometimes put out in the buffet? Double-yum.

All the restaurants on all NCL ships follow an open-seating policy each and every evening, allowing you to dine whenever you like within the 5:30 to 10pm window, dressed however you like (within limits) and sitting with whoever you want rather than having a table preassigned. Bye-bye assigned seating and night-after-night dinner companions -- unless you choose to dine with the same folks tomorrow night, of course.

The night of the captain's cocktail party is officially an "optional formal" night, giving folks who like to dress up a chance to shine. If you prefer, you can just don the slacks and polo, of course. Your choice.

As aboard most lines, the smaller, finer restaurants carry a cover charge that ranges from $12.50 to $20 per person. Dining service is about what you find on the other mainstream lines - generally good, with occasional lapses. Things tend to run more consistently smooth in the cabin-service, room service, and bar departments -- speedy and efficient. The U.S.-flagged ships in Hawaii have all-American crews -- such a rarity in the big-ship business that longtime cruisers won't know what hit 'em.

Princess Cruises

The line's Personal Choice Dining program allows passengers two options: dining at a set time, with set dining companions, in one of the ship's two or three main restaurants, or just wandering in anytime during a 4[bf]1/2-hour window to be seated by the maitre d' like a shoreside restaurant. No matter how you choose to dine, you'll always find healthy choices, vegetarian options and a kids menu.

The new Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess, which debuted in March and June 2004, offer an even more flexible set up than the rest of the ships: there's one main 500-seat dining room for traditional-seating guests and four smaller, 230-seat restaurants for anytime dining that serve a different themed cuisine.

Fleetwide you'll also find a buffet restaurant operating around the clock (including full sit-down meals until 4am), including for dinner daily. There are also smaller, more intimate alternative restaurants fleetwide. There's an Italian trattoria and steakhouse restaurant on the Grand-class ships, trattoria and New Orleans-style restaurants on Coral and Island Princess, and a steakhouse and free sit-down pizzeria on the Sun-class ships. Diamond and Sapphire Princess also feature the Italian trattoria, with its eight-course meals, in addition to their Italian-themed dining rooms. Regal offers a sit-down pizzeria only. Prices are $20 per person at the trattoria and $15 at the steakhouse. Reservations are recommended for all of them.

Celebrity Cruises

Michel Roux, Celebrity's famous culinary consultant and one of the top French chefs in Britain, guides all Celebrity cuisine. His talents and legacy shine most in the intimate alternative dining venues on the Millennium-class ships, where you can have just about the best dining experience available at sea. The Millennium's Olympic restaurant, for example, features hand-carved wood panels that were created for the Olympic (sister ship to the Titanic) and graced that vessel's A La Carte restaurant from 1911 to 1935. For $30 per peson, feast on appetizers such as goat cheese soufflé with tomato coulis, followed by entrees such as a rack of lamb coated with mushroom duxelles and wrapped in a puff pastry.

On all but the Zenith, the ship's main dining rooms are lovely two-deck-high affairs with a dramatic staircase at the center sharing the attention with a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows facing out to the ships' wake -- quite a sight on a moonlit night. Each ship also has a buffet restaurant operating for all meals, but unlike other big ships, waiters are on hand to carry your tray to a table to make the experience just a bit more refined. Dinner is served here most nights (when a sushi bar is offered along with other entrees), but reservations are requested.

Each Millennium-class ship also has a Spa Cafe in a corner of the thalassotherapy pool area serving light and healthy breakfast (like fresh fruit and bagels and lox) and lunch (from raw veggie platters to vegetarian sushi, and pretty salads with tuna or chicken). At least once per cruise fleetwide, the line offers what it calls Elegant Tea, an impressive little event in which white-gloved waiters serve tea, finger sandwiches, scones, and desserts from rolling trolleys -- a real treat, few lines offer this anymore.

Disney Cruises

Disney does dining its own way, which is no surprise. Guests rotate among three different restaurants, each with a whimsical design theme that keeps the kids (and mom and dad) from getting bored. The Animator's Palette restaurant is the most entertaining given the whole room changes colors throughout the meal (it's all magic, of course). Parrot Cay has a bright jungle theme, while Lumiere's (Wonder) and Triton's (Magic) are more elegant venues. Of course they all have great kids menus and friendly servers are used to catering to the kids. If adults want a night out alone in a cozy, dimly lit venue, Palo's is the place ($10 per person). It serves tasty Northern Italian food and the place gets booked up fast, so make a reservation pronto when you first board. Other noshing opps include a buffet restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner. It's small and cramped though. The ships excel in the snack department, with the poolside Pluto's Dog House guaranteed to be a big hit. Who can argue with chicken tenders, fries, burgers, nachos, bratwurst and other quick snacks served from lunch through the dinner hour.

Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean offers a lot of options (though not as many as at NCL) and some pretty amazing venues. The Voyager ships' main dining rooms are probably the most impressive at sea, huge, three-level affairs with enormous chandeliers and the grand feel of a European opera house. In contrast to NCL, Princess, Oceania, Windstar, and other lines that have been loosening up their dining arrangements, RCI sticks to offering traditional early- and late-seating dinners, with guests dining at assigned tables. As with all the other mainstream lines, there are also many casual and specialty dining options. You can dine at Italian specialty restaurants on the Voyager- and Radiance-class ships and the recently refurbished Empress of the Seas (for a $20 surcharge) or at a streakhouse on the Radiance-class ships and the Voyager-class vessels Navigator and Mariner of the Seas (also $20 per person). The Voyager-class ships have 50s-style Johnny Rockets diners right out on deck, serving burgers and the like for a $3.95 per-person service charge (plus $3.60 a pop for milkshakes). Casual breakfast, lunch, and dinner is also available from the large buffet restaurant on each ship.

Carnival

Geared toward a middle-American audience, just like Royal Caribbean, Princess, Holland America and NCL, you'll find plenty of the basics -- steaks, fish and pasta -- but also some more exotic choices like sushi and Chinese food. Each ship has one or two main dining rooms that operate with the traditional early and late seating system (5:45 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. or 8 p.m. and 8:30), plus a casual buffet restaurant operating nearly round the clock (including dinner nightly), and an intimate reservations-only supper club/steakhouse that features live music and the ships' most expertly prepared meals. There's a $25 per person cover charge, and you'll find the venue on the line's newer ships: Carnival Spirit, Pride, Legend, Conquest, Glory, Valor, Miracle, and the new Liberty. For something more casual, who can argue with pizza, calzones and Caesar salads available 24 hours a day?

Holland America Line

A highlight of the dining options are the ship's formal restaurants, which are elegant two-story affairs featuring live music. Aside from standards like broiled lobster tail, grilled salmon, and filet mignon, you'll find light options on the menu as well as vegetarian (Matt, our resident vegetarian, went gaga recently over the tofu stroganoff). HAL recently expanded its dinner times to four seatings, so guests can request either 5:45 p.m., 6:15 p.m., 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. (these timings are 15 minutes earlier on Alaska cruises).

There's also an alternative restaurant called the Pinnacle Grill, which offers what the line calls Pacific-Northwest cuisine. Choices include crab cakes, salmon, wild mushroom ravioli, and premium beef cuts, all complemented with regional wines. The cover charge here is $20 per person. If you just want to go completely casual, the ships all have attractive and well stocked buffet restaurants that are open nearly round-the-clock, including dinner nightly. Pizza and ice-cream stations are open till late afternoon.

Once per cruise there's a fancy High Tea (a rarity these days), the other days there's a more casual high tea, and you'll find free hot canapés served in some of the bars/lounges during the cocktail hour (none of the other mainstream lines do this).

Costa Cruises

It shouldn't come as any surprise that an Italian line like Costa excels in the pasta and pizza department. On theme nights, staffers may dress as gondoliers and present red roses to all the women. Aside from the main restaurants, alternative dining venues include reservations-only alternative restaurants aboard most of the line's vessels, offering Mediterranean dishes such as rigatoni served with lobster and tomatoes, or grilled lamb chops (for a cover charge of $23 per person). A Tuscan steakhouse menu is also available. Other noshing includes pizza cafes and patisseries serving espresso, chocolates, and pastries.

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