These days, we don't just want to experience our holidays, we want to taste them, too. Australian cruise lines have not only caught on to this trend, some are leading the charge. Restaurants with degustation menus designed by celebrity chefs, cooking classes led by culinary schools and visits to food markets are becoming commonplace in cruising.
So, if you turn your nose up at an all-you-can-eat buffet and swoon at the sight of Curtis Stone, chances are you'll be looking for cruise ships that go the extra mile with their food and beverage offerings. Let's take a look at the most exciting cruises for foodies.
Why: Curtis Stone has opened his first restaurants at sea, with special ovens installed to achieve the perfect result on two local ships: Sun Princess, which departs from Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Fremantle, and Emerald Princess, which arrives in Sydney in November 2016 for its first Australian season.
Contrary to its name, Share is not all about sharing your food at communal tables (although you can do that, too); it's about sharing the memory of a standout meal at sea (at tables for two, four or more). We recently sampled a few dishes on Sun Princess and, sure enough, two months later we can still remember the baked turbot with gruyere crumb, the lightly poached prawns, and the warm bread and butter pudding. Curtis’ favourite is the roasted king crab leg with crispy pig skin crumble, lemongrass and fermented soybean aioli.
Passengers on other Princess ships won't miss out completely, as a small selection of 'Crafted by Curtis' items are offered, free of charge, in the main dining room on all of Princess' ships.
Another new, more casual option on Emerald Princess is The Salty Dog Gastropub, set within the Wheelhouse Bar. The menu, by Argentinian celebrity chef Ernesto Uchimura, modernises pub classics such as the beef short ribs with a stout-orange blossom honey glaze, the lobster mac and cheese, or 'The Ernesto' burger, stacking a ground rib eye patty, grilled pork belly, cave-aged gruyere, caramelised kimchi and beer-battered jalapeno.
Chef's Table: A special Chef’s Table by Curtis Stone experience, paired with wines, is also available at an extra cost. Bookings essential.
Specialty Restaurants: Princess knows that Aussies love their seafood -- more than sushi -- so Kai Sushi has been replaced with Kai Seafood Bar on Sun Princess. Freshly shucked Australian oysters, prawns, sashimi and shellfish are sure to be popular when dining in the middle of the ocean, especially as it's surprisingly rare to get local fresh seafood on big cruise ships. Princess Cruises also has some of the best steaks at sea. Whether it's the Sterling Steakhouse or Crown Grill, the surcharge is well worth the quality cuts and American-style sides.
Fee or Free: At Share, dishes are priced separately so you can drop in just for a charcuterie plate or a very reasonably priced dessert after a show (AU$3.50 to AU$4.50). A three-course 'prix fixe menu' (choose your own items) costs AU$39 per person. The Salty Dog also has a cover charge (US$19, but we're not sure of the exact amount when Emerald Princess comes to Australia) which includes one "chef's pick", three small dishes plus hot chips. Kai Seafood is a la carte pricing, and steakhouses are AU$25. The main dining room, Horizon Court and Amuleto Cafe are free.
Why: Celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, who co-owns Sydney's Red Lantern restaurants and hosts cooking programs on SBS, has been APT's Asia ambassador for several years. On every Lower Mekong cruise, passengers enjoy a Vietnamese welcome dinner, designed by Nguyen, and cooking classes on selected journeys.
From 1 August 2016, on the refurbished AmaLotus, passengers can also indulge in a six-course degustation at the new 16-seat ‘Indochine by Luke Nguyen’ (at no extra cost) or have morning or afternoon tea in the new French-inspired Le Viet Nam Café.
Each year Nguyen escorts two APT Mekong River cruises on the AmaLotus and takes passengers on city tours and gastronomic excursions, including meals at his favourite local restaurants.
Nguyen's role as the line's culinary advisor will extend to voyages aboard the 30-suite Samatha, which sets sail on Myanmar's Irrawaddy River in the 2016/17 season. There is also the chance for APT passengers to sample a degustation menu, designed by Nguyen, in Samatha's eight-seat private dining room.
Cooking Classes: In Vietnam's Hoi An, passengers can take a tour and class with the Red Bridge Cooking School where they'll learn how to create authentic Vietnamese dishes before tucking in to their efforts.
Meanwhile, passengers travelling on APT's Vietnam land tours can also visit Nguyen's Grain cooking studio in Ho Chi Minh City where they can try their hand at making Nguyen's favourite dishes in classes hosted by the chef's team. The man himself puts in a personal appearance on a quarterly basis.
Foodie Excursions: Ho Chi Minh City's Xu Restaurant provides the venue for a Luke Nguyen-inspired degustation dinner with matching wines.
Other foodie excursions include an evening of Vietnamese fine dining at Hoi An's Dao Tien, a 1930s' French colonial house with a riverside location, and a traditional feast in the former imperial capital of Hue at restaurant La Residence. There's also a farewell dinner in Siem Reap.
Fee or Free: All meals, tours and classes are included in APT's fares.
Ships: Celebrity Solstice
Why: As part of its commitment to food, Celebrity Cruises partners with the James Beard Organisation -- a New York-based not-for-profit that aims to educate and inspire people about culinary culture. A James Beard-featured chef is in charge of the menus across Celebrity's wide range of restaurants -- Sydney-based Solstice has no less than 10.
The cruise line also collaborates with US television show 'Top Chef' to create the Top Chef at Sea experience, offering a program of interactive culinary activities.
Celebrity also boasts one of the largest teams of sommeliers in the world, and takes great pride in its wine selection. It recently added more than 100 new wines by the bottle, taking its wine collection to over 500 choices. On offer are a number of programs for wine enthusiasts, including a private worldwide wine tour conducted by a sommelier.
The new Sushi on Five will be introduced to Australian passengers on Celebrity Solstice this summer. Hot pots are priced around US$11; sushi, sashimi and nigiri range from US$4 to US$12.
Best for French: The Five Senses six-course tasting menu at Murano is a challenge that every passenger aboard Solstice should attempt. Dishes such as lobster bisque and salmon and crab parfait are paired with a carefully selected wine. Think classic French cuisine with a contemporary twist.
Fee or Free: There's a US$50 surcharge to dine here, which rises to US$89 if you opt for the Five Senses Menu.
Best for Wow Factor: The food in the Main Restaurant is cause enough for excitement -- think dishes such as Celebrity's signature beef tournedos and roasted quail with wild rice and black truffle stuffing. The wine tower at the restaurant's heart is also a showstopper: the striking glass and steel structure holds 1800 bottles of wine, all at the perfect serving temperature.
Fee or Free: The cost of eating in the Main Restaurant is included.
Best for "Clean Cuisine": If healthy eating is your thing, but you're not willing to compromise on flavour, then head for Aqua. Although it calls itself a spa restaurant, the focus here is simply on offering passengers popular dishes "without fussiness or pretence".
Fee or Free: This restaurant is exclusively for Celebrity's AquaClass guests, serving up breakfast and dinner.
Cooking Classes: As part of the Top Chef at Sea experience, Celebrity offers interactive Quickfire Challenges and the chance to compete against your fellow passengers. A Celebrity chef will guide you through the process of cooking an entree, testing and developing your culinary skills.
Foodie Excursions: The cruise line offers a range of visits to Australia's wine regions as part of its shore excursion program. Then there's the opportunity to take a cooking class in Bali in the open-air kitchen of an expert chef, an exploration of the historic pubs of Port Chalmers during a visit to Dunedin as well as an oyster discovery in Tasmania.
Why: The cruise line says it strives to cater to Australians' desire for gourmet food both on land and at sea with an emphasis on fresh, local produce on local sailings, and by providing many shore excursions that will appeal to foodies.
"We have seen culinary shore excursions grow in popularity as people's interest in the origins of their food grows," RCI commercial director told Cruise Critic. "Our culinary tours regularly feature in the top five shore excursions for Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International."
Many of the cruise line's most foodie-focused dining options won't be seen in Australia and New Zealand until the December 2016 arrival of Ovation of the Seas. This new ship will introduce the Dynamic Dining system, which does away with set dining times, formal nights and assigned seats.
Best for Italian: Ovation of the Seas will include a Jamie's Italian eatery, designed by everyone's favourite TV chef Jamie Oliver. There’s a surcharge but it’s cheaper than his restaurants on land.
Fee or Free: US$15 lunch and US$30 for dinner.
Best for Fun: Wonderland is in the Heston Blumenthal vein of theatre and experimentation. Expect to be wowed by the inventive dishes that are created using the most innovative cooking techniques.
Fee or Free: US$45.
Best for Pub Grub: Don't expect your average pub nosh. Michael's Genuine Pub is more gastropub than old boy's boozer. In fact, this is the first American gastropub at sea, with the James Beard Award-winning Michael Schwartz at the helm.
Fee or Free: Pricing is a la carte.
Cooking Classes: Classes are available as part of Royal's onboard Learn and Create program as well as its shore excursion program. For example, in Hoi An's Old Town in Vietnam, participants will learn about the spice trade before learning some of the techniques of the local cuisine and sampling a range of delicacies.
Foodie Excursions: The cruise line offers a range of food-themed shore excursions. In Australia, it offers visits to the vineyards of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills where gourmet produce is served fresh in the winery restaurants. In Tasmania, the Historic Hobart, Countryside and Winery tour is a popular option, while in Newcastle, the gateway to wine country, passengers regularly rate the Hunter Valley cheese and vineyard tours within their top three picks. Fremantle's Swan Valley Food & Wine Trail features in the top five, while Melbourne's Wallabies & Wine provides the chance to sample Victorian wines paired with the best local produce.
Why: P&O has undergone a 'food revolution' aboard its vessels. The former buffet has been turned into The Pantry -- a new dining concept designed as an international food market with eight outlets. And on the line’s latest ships, Pacific Aria and Pacific Eden, dining at the two new specialty restaurants, Dragon Lady and Angelo’s, is free of charge.
It's another move away from the mediocre dining that many associate with cruising and follows the 2009 launch of the popular Salt Grill with acclaimed chef Luke Mangan. Salt Grill Bar is also found on Aria and Eden.
"We've been working on this part of our onboard food revolution for some time and to see the concept become reality is very exciting," P&O Cruises senior vice president Sture Myrmell said.
P&O also offers food and wine SeaBreaks, with demonstrations and seminars presented by experts in cheese, coffee, wine and cocktails.
Best for Fine Dining: Salt Grill by Luke Mangan holds onto its crown, but considering Angelo's (Italian) and Dragon Lady (Asian) are free, delicious and stylish in decor, these two new venues are catching up. Salt Grill can now be found aboard all P&O ships serving up dishes such as his signature crab omelette, enoki mushroom salad and miso broth, along with a popular liquorice parfait with lime syrup.
Fee or Free: AU$39 for lunch, AU$49 for dinner, AU$20 for high tea. Bookings are recommended.
Best for Fun: Dragon Lady is our pick for picking at shareable meals such as duck samosas and butterfish curry, followed by salted dark chocolate cake with sesame seed ice cream or a whisky and wasabi souffle. The room is dark and sexy, you can sit at booths or sunken tables, and the Asian waitresses in Oriental costumes are an authentic touch. You'll forget you're on a cruise.
Fee or Free: There is no surcharge for the unlimited food at Dragon Lady; alcohol costs extra.
Cooking Classes: Passengers aboard Pacific Eden and Pacific Aria can learn how to make some of the dishes served aboard the vessels at the Open Kitchen, which features a culinary school as well as a dedicated Chef's Table dining area. You can also take a lesson in the art of cocktail-making from the resident mixologists, or learn how to make the perfect coffee from the trained baristas.
Foodie Excursions: During calls to Kangaroo Island, passengers can sample its famed produce as part of a mini FEASTival, laid out especially for cruise passengers. There are also wine tours aplenty in regions such as the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Margaret River and New Zealand's Waiheke Island and Marlborough region. Then, there's a visit to a Bunbury brewery in Western Australia, a long table lunch in the Hunter Valley, a cheese fest in French-influenced Noumea and tours of chocolate factories.
Why: Seabourn, for the luxury traveller, has two ships regularly visiting Australia in summer and the new Seabourn Encore operating several local sailings in 2016, as well as other vessels around the world.
The line is a member of Chaine des Rotisseurs, one of the world's most prestigious gastronomic societies devoted to the art of fine dining. It's a commitment to fine dining that keeps strengthening, as evidenced by the cruise line's recent signing of a partnership with renowned American chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller -- the man behind Michelin-starred hot spots The French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon.
Keller's French and American influence was introduced to Seabourn menus last year, but in 2016, his magic touch has been extended to a new signature restaurant that was first unveiled on Seabourn Quest and later rolled out across the entire fleet.
Fee or Free: All dining options come at no extra charge.
Best for Romance: Book a table at the intimate Restaurant 2, which serves innovative small-plate tasting menus each evening. Dishes might include lobster and lemongrass presse with ravioli or smoked duck carpaccio with foie gras terrine and arugula.
Fee or Free: Reservations are required due to limited capacity, but there is no extra charge.
Cooking Classes: The cruise line offers occasional 'Culinary Conversations' with chefs, winemakers, producers, critics and other culinary experts.
Foodie Excursions: Learn how to prepare seafood fresh from the wharf with a cooking class at The Akaroa Cooking School in New Zealand or visit the wineries of Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula to sample the best drops on offer.
Carnival Cruise Line
Why: Not all foodies are fine diners. Burger connoisseurs should head to Guy’s Burger Joint, by U.S chef, restaurateur and Food Network personality Guy Fieri. Apart from the range of authentic American burgers, the new Boomerang Burger brings together the best of the Aussie version with beetroot (of course), tasty cheese, bacon, tomato and grilled onion. But rather than using good old tinned beetroot, Guy developed a special beetroot relish for a little gourmet touch.
Both Aussie ships also have fine dining restaurant Nouveau -- featuring aged prime beef cooked to order, surf and turf (beef and lobster), lamb chops, and grilled fish, plus 17 appetisers, entrees, soups, salads and desserts. Another addition is Bonsai Sushi, serving large portions of fresh Japanese cuisine at reasonable prices. Choose from starters such as Wagyu Kakuni, California rolls, Bento boxes, green tea cupcakes, Japanese beers, wines and sake.
Carnival Spirit also offers authentic Mexican at the Blue Iguana Cantina, among its 25 bars, lounges and dining options. The best spot for a drink is the Alchemy Bar, where mixologists handcraft cocktails to suit your taste, so you can essentially design your own. If you can't decide, there's a signature list which includes The Red Centre, a boozy concoction of lemon myrtle and strawberry gum tree essence.
Keep an eye out for special chef guests. Last summer saw Massimo Mele cooking on three Carnival cruises to Tasmania.
Fee or Free: Guy's burgers are free. Alchemy Bar cocktails are priced individually. Nouveau costs AU$40 per adult for four courses (AU$12 per child). Bonsai Sushi items start at AU$2.