My husband, my mother and I recently spent an amazing week in Alaska. Neither Chris nor I had been there. It was an incredible experience. You really don't grasp the vastness and natural beauty of the state until you're there. Its lack of "connectedness" with the rest of the country is quite striking. For example, Juneau, the state's capital and second largest city, cannot be reached by car from anywhere else in North America (including the rest of Alaska). That's a weird thing to think about: everything in Juneau comes in by boat or plane. During the trip, we explored a variety of towns, saw an assortment of wildlife and even took a helicopter ride up to and short hike on a glacier.
To get around these various places, we opted for a cruise--also a first for Chris and me. Because I wanted to see as much of Alaska as possible, we chose a one-way cruise that departed from Vancouver, Canada, took us up the Northwest Passage to Alaska, and visited various ports before concluding in Seward, a very small coastal town not far from Anchorage. I'll tell you about our port food later, but first, here's what we ate and drank on the cruise itself.
Having never cruised before I didn't quite know what to expect. From what I'd heard, cruise food is plentiful, which turned out to be true. We certainly were never hungry. In fact, we had to make a conscious effort to not to stuff ourselves at every turn. For the most part, the food is available at no extra charge, so it's tempting and very easy to load up.
|Royal Caribbean Radiance of the Seas cruise ship
Our ship was the Radiance of the Seas, which was built in 2001 (and subsequently renovated) and carries about 2,100 passengers, making it one of the smaller cruise ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet, which has ships that carry as many as 5,400 people.
There are two main dining options on the ship: Cascades, the two-level main dining room with table service offering breakfast daily, lunch on cruising days (i.e. days where the ship is not in port) and a daily multi-course dinner. The other option is the Windjammer, a cafeteria-style buffet open for every meal. Dining in either location is included in the price of the cruise. Additionally, the Park Cafe offers lighter fare and snacks throughout the day (it's a great place to snag a cookie) and there's also a hot dog stand. Room service is also available as part of the included cost.
For an additional cost, there are a number of other dinner (and sometimes lunch) options throughout the ship: Izumi (Japanese), Chops Grille (steak and seafood), Samba Grill (Brazilian steakhouse), Giovanni's Table (Italian), Rita's Crab Shack and Chef's Table (a pricy multi-course dinner with wine pairing). There's also Latte-tudes, a coffee shop with espresso drinks and snacks. You can find more information on the Royal Caribbean website (although going through the site again to write this article reminded me of how poorly their website is designed--using it to find specific information is really quite a headache).
|Cascades, the ship's two-level main dining room.
Main Dining Room
Dinner at Cascades was a generally enjoyable experience, although more so because of the setting and excellent service than the food, which was usually good but could be hit-and-miss. There are two ways to experience Cascades: get assigned a set dining time and group table (I believe 5:30 and 8 are the two seatings) or choose "My Time Dining" and eat whenever you like. I reserved our times in advance, which I would recommend, as the unreserved line could be rather long at peak times. Dress is usually "smart casual," with a couple of "formal" nights (suit and dress shirt are fine).
Dinner is provided as a three-course meal, with the menu featuring some of the same starters, entrees and desserts each day but also rotating selections. Entrees are fairly old-fashioned: most were dominated by large pieces of meat served with a paltry side of vegetables (like two asparagus spears against a giant steak, for example). There was little apparent effort to source food locally (I recall one night where we were offered Alaskan salmon) or seasonally (autumn-like turkey dinners were common). The local thing was particularly surprising to me. Here we are cruising through territory known for its amazing salmon, halibut and crab, and Cascades is featuring decidedly un-Alaskan fare like lobster and prime rib. All the more reason to grab a really good lunch while in port.
|Perfectly medium-rare beef tenderloin.
A foray into something a little more international--a breaded Thai-style chicken breast with red curry, edamame (which, I think may have been lima beans) and shiitake mushrooms--was decent but not as different from the standard American fare (the red curry seemed more like gravy than the spicy sauce you usually get in Thai restaurants). All of the aforementioned selections were from the rotating entrees portion of the menu. The daily "classics" entrees just didn't interest me much; they included linguini with red sauce, grilled chicken breast, cod, sirloin steak and beef sliders.
The starters offered a more interesting array of choices. My favorite starter was the one that came every night: the dinner roll. They are baked fresh on the ship daily and they were really quite good. A server brings a basket around throughout the evening with a wonderful assortment of white, wheat, cheese, sun-dried tomato and poppy seed (my mom's favorite), and pumpkin seed (Chris's and my favorite) rolls.
The starter I had the first night was one of the more interesting choices: a cold watermelon and raspberry soup with chopped pistachios was tasty although a little too sweet. The royal seafood salad, served with lobster, shrimp, jicama and a citrus dressing was fresh and delicious. Green salads tended to be pretty small but satisfying: arugula or lettuce with few other ingredients and dressing.
|Chocolate Sensation, a signature dessert of the main dining room.
Desserts were generally good. If you want something simple, you can opt for just ice cream or sherbet, which we did sometimes, since we were so stuffed by the time dessert rolled around. Since we were in Alaska, I had to have the baked Alaska when it was offered. While it's meringue was nicely browned, I was disappointed it was missing its cake layer: it was just vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice creams with a torched meringue on top. The chocolate soufflé with espresso sauce was quite tasty, as was the "chocolate sensation," a thin layer of chocolate sponge cake topped with chocolate mousse and chocolate glaze. The best dessert we had in the main dining room was the honey-walnut tart, a wonderful confection filled with "roasted walnut toffee crumble" and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
On days the ship is cruising at sea and not in port, the main dining room is also open for lunch. Although service in the dining room was generally very good, our one midday meal generated a significant amount of confusion. Upon being seated, we were given a menu of lunch options and told we could also make use of the large salad station in the middle of the room. I decided to order one of the salads off the menu--the fattoush salad--then proceeded to sit and sit with no food arriving. Eventually, my server told me I had to go to the salad bar to get my salad, which he hadn't made clear earlier (nor was it stated on the menu). So I went to the salad station and asked the server there for the fattoush, but he had no idea what I was asking for. Frustrated, I returned empty-handed to my table. Eventually my server got the salad for me, but the whole thing was rather irritating. As for the salad itself, it wasn't particularly memorable.
|Giovanni's Table scallop starter.
After a few nights in the main dining room, we were ready to try something else, so we opted for an evening in Giovanni's Table, one of the premium dining choices. As I mentioned, there was an additional cost for this, but I felt like it was worth the money. The small dining room--much smaller than the grand main dining room--was only about half full the night we went, which meant we had excellent personal service.
Insalata caprese kicked the dinner off on a positive note. The traditional Italian salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil was beefed up with arugula large (like grape-size) and small capers. Although we hadn't ordered them, our server brought us a few of the seared scallops to try. The tender morsels arrived on scallop shells on a garlicky slick of butter.
It's hard to pass up gnocchi, since Chris and I both love it. It's a dish that's easy to get wrong. Thankfully, Royal Caribbean gets it right. The pillowy gnocchi were not too heavy and sauced with just enough lamb and root vegetable sugo.
Among our entrees, the star was the excellent grilled beef tenderloin, the best beef preparation we had on the ship. It was served with broccolini and fries. I also enjoyed my veal tenderloin stuffed with porcini mushrooms, provolone cheese and ham, and my mom's veal ossobuco was succulent and tender (I also really liked her creamy cheese polenta side). We finished this meal with classic tiramisu, and it didn't disappoint.
|Windjammer provided buffet-style dining at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We ate breakfast everyday in Windjammer, the ship's buffet-style dining space that's open for all meals. It's earlier hours made it more convenient for us, since we were up early every day to work out (gotta burn off some of these calories).
The nice thing about Windjammer is its options. There are many choices here, bound to satisfy just about anyone. You can eat a light meal of fresh fruit and whole-grain cereal or splurge with pancakes, french toast and a wide variety of baked goods. You can even almost fashion a traditional English breakfast--a nod to Royal Caribbean's international clientele--with poached eggs, banger sausages, baked beans, toast and broiled tomatoes (you'll have to settle for American-style bacon though). Wanting something satisfying but healthy, we stuck mostly to the omelet bar, where you could a made-to-order omelet from popular toppings (bacon, ham, cheese and a few vegetables). The mass-production of food does have some drawbacks. The scrambled eggs on the hot food bar aren't nearly appealing as the omelets and the toast, made in batches, will probably be cold when you get it. But I still found this a very appealing way to start the day.
|The Windjammer buffet lunch offers a surprising number of tasty Indian options.
Windjammer is also a great option for lunch--better, I think than the main dining room. In addition to the expected fare of salad bar, sandwiches, soups, burgers and pizza, I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice assortment of Indian dishes on the lunch buffet that were quite good, including curry chicken and Indian-style rice.
A favorite diversion in Windjammer is the self-serve ice cream machines, which dispense vanilla, chocolate or strawberry soft-serve (or combinations) into your cone or bowl. The soft-serve was very satisfying and reminded me of my college dorm cafeteria days where we got pretty proficient at building towering soft-serve ice creams.
|Starquest Lounge, located at the top of the ship, was a relaxing space with the best views.
Drinks deserve their own section here, as they are treated as a separately category on the ship. Water and water-based drinks (like basic coffee and tea) were available free throughout the ship. Anything else--bottled water, soda, espresso drinks, beer, wine and cocktails--carried an additionally although not unreasonable charge. Glasses of wine and cocktails were $8 to $12, for example. I didn't feel the need to buy bottled water, as the onboard filtered water tasted fine. If you plan to buy a lot of drinks, consider a beverage package, but I felt like a pay-as-you-go approach was more fitting to our style.
There are lots of opportunities to buy alcohol on the ship: upon boarding, the first public space you enter is the Lobby Bar. There is also the Schooner Bar (a piano bar), the Champagne Bar (an atrium lounge with a great view), Pool Bar (next to the outdoor pool), Sky Bar (basically the upper level of the Pool Bar), Solarium Bar (the inside part of the Pool Bar), Quill & Compass (English Pub), Starquest (also known as the Viking Crown Lounge) and the Colony Club, a massive space at the rear of the ship with multiple separate bar spaces, including a billiards area. All of the restaurant areas also serve alcohol. Starquest ended up being our favorite place to cool our heels after dinner. This lounge, which converts to a dance club after our bedtime, was located at the top of the ship and had large windows with a stunning panoramic view of the scenery beyond the ship. It was surprised it was never very busy, as I found it a much more relaxing place than the comparatively popular bars in the lower decks.
The menu of drink options was fairly standard throughout the ship, but there were some variations. The "premium" domestic beer options found on most menus was disappointingly limited to big-names like Budweiser (is that really "premium"?) and imports like Beck's. The only venue I saw with a more extensive beer list was the English pub, where I found an IPA, albeit one that isn't particularly interesting. The wine list was not bad. There were a number of by-the-glass choices in all types of wine categories from American and foreign sources. Given the lack of interesting beers, we mostly stuck with wine while on the ship. The Oberon Napa cabernet sauvignon was our favorite, but I also enjoyed trying a variety of other wines.
The cocktails on the ship were a disappointment. Craft cocktail culture has drastically changed cocktail menus in recent years, but this trend toward fresher, better ingredients and less sugar has apparently skipped over the Royal Caribbean cocktail list. The menu featured drinks dominated by juices, sodas and "mixes," the kind of drinks that were popular maybe 15 years ago but have been replaced in many bars today by better choices. Think margaritas with "margarita mix," so-called "martinis" with all sorts of strange ingredients, and daily specials that struck me as having too many sweet ingredients. There were also head-scratchers like caipirinhas made with rum. After a poorly made Manhattan that arrived on-the-rocks despite my multiple attempts to order it "up," I decided I was done with the ship's cocktail program and stuck to the impossible-to-mess-up gin & tonic.
The food we had on the ship was never bad, there just wasn't much "wow" factor. This drinks, however, were a disappointment, but I suppose that ensured we were better behaved. I concluded this is a function of the customers: cruise-goers need to eat, and not a lot of people are that adventurous when it comes to eating and drinking. If the ship took more risks with its food and drinks, it would risk turning off its captive customers who have no other option for where to eat. Consequently, the real adventure--both for food and drink and the trip in general--wasn't on the ship, it was on the land. Tomorrow: eating and drinking in our Alaska cruise ports.