Surviving the Cruise Ship Buffet

Surviving the Cruise Ship Buffet

Anchors aweigh! 

Food, glorious food — it’s one of the top reasons people go on cruises. In one week, the cruise ship the Queen Mary 2 serves 16,000 meals a day, including 50 tons of fruit and vegetables, eight tons of poultry, 13 tons of fish and seafood, two tons of cheese and dairy, two tons of sugar, 5,000 gallons of milk, 32,400 eggs, and more, using 610 miles of plastic wrap and 87,000 pieces of glassware and china.

Though many people love the experience of fine dining in the so-called dress-up dining room, the 24-hour buffet is a great quick, casual option — if you know how to navigate it. When it comes to cruise buffets, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do them. Here are some of my best buffet tips, culled from decades of cruising.

Breakfast

scrambled egg cruise buffet

Get your scrambled eggs from the omelet station. 

One of the most important things to know about eating at a cruise buffet is what to stay away from. At breakfast, it’s the static, chafing-dish scrambled eggs. It may seem quick and easy to just scoop some up — after all, they’re already prepared, and really, how bad could they be on a fancy cruise, right? Wrong. They’re made hours before they are put out and are still almost raw even when they hit the buffet. The eggs are scrambled lightly and then left to cook via the heat from the hot station. On the other hand, omelets are one of the things you’ll find made to order at the buffet, so ask the omelet cook to make you a quick scramble instead — he’s already got the eggs. That way you know you’re eating fresh, fully cooked eggs. (Incidentally, eggs Benedict is always done as you order and usually excellent.)

If you’re not an egg person, you can also get fresh pancakes and waffles — again, forget those nasty ones that are somehow simultaneously crusty and soggy from sitting in the serving dish. Butter won’t even melt on them. If you walk over to the cafeteria and nicely ask the cook to give you some pancakes off the griddle, you’ll be much happier with the result.

Lunch

cruise buffet stir-fry

Don’t let them overly season your stir-fry with soy sauce. 

Salads and stir-fry are big at the cruise buffet lunch. Though the stir-fries are made to order, the cooks tend to overuse soy sauce, so ask them to go easy. As for the salads, watch out for the raw onions — the self-serve lettuce always seem to be overloaded with them.

cruise buffet salad bar

Beware of onions on the salad bar.

Another lunch option to be careful of is the smoked salmon. (It’s on all salad and breakfast buffets.) If the edges are beginning to curl or are slightly brown, stay away. Believe me, I know. There was that time cruising to Turks and Caicos … ew.

Dinner

cruise buffet pasta station

Don’t be afraid to speak up at the pasta station. 

Important fact: They have the same dinner entrées on the Lido-deck buffet as they do in the dress-up dining room. Same food, supereasy. If you’re not into the chafing-dish options, you can also have a steak cooked to order. But beware: The quality of the meat used at the buffet is not as good as the meat used for the main dining room.

Other important dinner tips? If you’re a fan of fish, stick to whatever fish they’re cooking to order.

And who doesn’t love an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner? You at the cruise buffet if you order correctly. Though the pasta dish is put together in front of you, the pasta itself is precooked. When you order your noodles, the cook will put them in a strainer and submerge them in hot water to warm them while finishing the sauces. The problem is the straining of the noodles: The cook will lift them out, give them a shake, and throw them in the pan with the sauce — and you will end up with a watery mess. If you’re willing to speak up and ask for a better strain or for the sauce to be thickened, then pasta is a good option. If you do choose pasta, do it the day after the sit-down dining room serves meat — they take the leftover high-quality meat and throw it into sauces. And ask the cook to add some marinated veggies from the pizza station rather than the raw ones they use, since they never seem to cook properly.

Dessert

cruise buffet desert bar


Go wild at the dessert bar. Just avoid the cake.

Sweets are one of the best parts of the buffet (just make sure the plates holding the desserts are on ice). Puff pastries, petits fours, crème brûlée, and the like all hold up better than cake, which dries out quickly. So pile on the goodies — don’t forget the whipped cream! — and you can even take your dessert to your cabin if you like.

Royal Princess a subtle entry in ship size war

Royal Princess a subtle entry in ship size war

By Tom Stieghorst
Bellini is the larger of two bars in the Royal Princess Piazza.SOUTHAMPTON, England — When cruise lines get the chance to grow these days, they don’t take the opportunity for granted. With each new class of ships, the stack of decks lined with balcony cabins seems to multiply. Not willing to cede anything to rivals, lines must compete in the size war or get left behind.

Princess Cruises has delivered its first new ship design in 10 years with the Royal Princess, and it is chock-full of spaces that Princess describes as the largest ever for its brand.

But the Royal Princess doesn’t reach for spectacle as readily as some competitors. For example, although the atrium area, the Piazza, is bigger than on the class that began with the Caribbean Princess in 2004, it is still only three decks high.

The buffet restaurant, Horizon Court, has been expanded to seat more than 1,100, and some of its space is given to a pastry shop that turns out baked goods morning, noon and night.

The Royal Princess’ theater is the largest in the fleet, seating 925, but it looks smaller than theaters on similar-size ships.

The Royal Princess offers an adults-only Sanctuary area.The adults-only Sanctuary space is also 20% larger than on other Princess ships, and the Lotus Spa has more treatment rooms than its predecessors, but neither feels gargantuan.

Only the 34-by-20-foot screen for Movies Under the Stars calls attention to its size. It is 30% larger than on any other Princess vessel and is the largest such screen at sea.

Of all these areas, the standout is the Piazza, a beautifully executed forum surrounded by appealing restaurants, bars and other areas that will draw guests.

Notable are two semicircular bar areas nested one above the other. The larger one, Bellini, on Deck 6, takes its name from Venice’s signature peach-and-prosecco cocktail. The smaller, Ocean Terrace Seafood Bar, on Deck 7, serves sushi, oyster shooters and other “a la carte ocean treasures.”

Also bordering the Piazza is Crooners, a 1960s-style martini bar; Alfredo’s, the 121-seat Neapolitan pizza restaurant; and the ship’s photo gallery, updated with touch-screen face-recognition technology to make it easier for guests to find and manipulate photos.

All of these surround an elegantly crafted room fashioned in tan-and-brown marble and translucent onyx-like materials, pulled together with gold trim and illuminated with rose-colored lighting.

Part of the reason the Piazza works is that guest-service functions, such as the purser’s desk and shore excursion station, have been relocated to a mini-Piazza in an adjacent lobby.

The Royal Princess has its own take on several ideas that have worked on other ships for other lines.

The Royal Princess Seawalk bows out 28 feet from the side of the ship on Deck 16.Its acclaimed “over-the-edge-of-the-ship” feature is Seawalk, which bows out 28 feet from the side of the ship on the 16th Deck, affording passengers a look down through Plexiglas panels to the ocean below (and to a number of midship passenger balconies, as well).

The Seawalk’s port-side counterpart is the Seaview Bar, which also extends beyond the ship’s lip, but not so far as to make anyone on a bar stool nervous about the location.

The Royal Princess is catering to an upper premium clientele with the addition of its first-ever concierge lounge for suite guests and the expanded adults-only Sanctuary.

The Sanctuary has a number of cabanas for rent, an idea used by Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice-class ships. It costs $15 for a half day and $25 full day even to gain access to the Sanctuary.

Adjacent to the Sanctuary is the Retreat Pool, open for free to all adults but rimmed by cabanas, which rent for $50 per half day, with picnic lunches starting from $40.

Another revenue generator that has been expanded is the Lotus Spa, where the thermal suite has tripled in size and the number of treatment rooms has grown to 18, including two designed for couples.

The conference room in previous ships has been ditched for Princess Live, a 280-seat TV studio where some form of entertainment is scheduled throughout the day. It will be interesting to see if Princess Live can draw enough guests to make it a viable space.

One of the best ideas on the ship was to line its corridors with photos submitted in a contest by past passengers. Many are terrific. Putting bars next to related restaurants, such as Vines wine bar adjacent to Sabatini’s Italian restaurant, also makes good sense.

It was hard to judge the new dancing waters fountain and larger Music Under the Stars area on the Royal Princess because of several nights of dreary weather here.

Another new area that works is the shimmering Chef’s Table Lumiere, a 12-seat private table in the middle of the Allegro dining room, surrounded by a lighted curtain.

Less successful is the ship’s gelateria, another first, where the silky texture and vivid flavor of true Italian gelato is missing. Baked goods from the Pastry Shop were not bad, but less special than one might have hoped.

Of the 3,560 passengers Royal Princess can carry at double occupancy, nearly 2,800 will enjoy a balcony. There are 36 suites, 314 minisuites and 720 “deluxe balcony” rooms, a new category with more space and a smattering of suite-style amenities.

One nice improvement is electrical sockets spaced farther apart to accommodate multiple plugs. But the bathroom toilet paper dispenser is rather awkwardly placed and a metal cover makes it hard to use.

The Royal Princess will spend the summer cruising in the Mediterranean before relocating to Fort Lauderdale for a winter Caribbean season.

Channel surfing on the Royal Princess

By Tom Stieghorst

*InsightThe Royal Princess sailed all night to the Channel Islands, and I woke up to disappointment: Our day ashore in Guernsey had been cancelled. It was a fine, sunny morning, but the winds were over 30 knots. Tendering from the anchorage would be too dangerous.

Now I had unscheduled day at sea.

What to do?

I decided to check out something new to a Princess cruise that, until now, I didn’t think I’d have time for. It was the line’s in-cabin, on-demand TV system.*TomStieghorst

Princess executives are very excited about it. According to Rai Caluori, executive vice president of fleet operations at Princess, the line had been searching for a long time for a system that satisfied all its requirements.

The result is a simple-to-use library of TV shows and movies along with live television channels, music stations and information like local weather and a map of the ship’s position.

It also carries Princess’ own programming, such as “The Wake Show,” a rundown of ship and shore activities delivered by cruise director Ron Goodman in an entertaining talk-show format.

TV options include news, sports and dozens of comedies and dramas, but the real treasure is the movie channel. There are 26 entries in the “just added” category alone, and more in the comedy, action, romance, drama and family channels.

I brought up “The Three Stooges” at first, but I didn’t have the patience to get through the opening, so I exited and tried “Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary about a long-lost musician that hooked me immediately.

Halfway through I paused for lunch. When I came back, I simply hit resume and started watching again.

So for clients who worry about bad weather or unexpected itinerary changes, or simply have extra time on their hands, the Royal Princess has a new answer.

Add it to the list of positive things to say about taking a cruise.