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Copyright © 2004-Jeffrey R. Stern

All Rights Reserved.

The food wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated, although I’m not sure what it was that actually expected. At it’s best, it was pretty good, and, at its worst it was still all-right. It was the sheer quantity, and variety, of food that that was astounding, and the presentation was absolutely astonishing. Every dish, every buffet, every meal was an edible work of art. The dramatization of the food gave new meaning to the old cliché, “It looks a lot better than it tastes….†The one thing that you could rely on was, with that sheer volume of food, you were going to find oodles of things you could enjoy and, for sure, you wouldn’t go hungry. Just the opposite, in fact; you were going to put a few pounds on, despite your best efforts. As they sya, you board the ship as a passenger, and disembark as cargo. Carnival, since then, to their credit, has made huge strides in the quality of their food. I’ll get to that later…

Before the days of the ‘cutbacks,’ there was a Midnight Buffet every night of the cruise. The array of food was breathtaking and the production was magnificent. Intermingled among the food, there were fruit and vegetable carvings that belonged in a food museum. At 1:30 a.m., they downsized the entire buffet, and made it into a mini-buffet, which stayed open for another hour. The Grand Buffets of today are barely a match to the every night buffets, of old, and the scaled downed, 1:30 am buffets, of those days, were as elaborate as the Grand Buffets of today.

The Captain’s Grand Midnight Buffet, was usually held on the next to the last night of the cruise. It was everything that the nightly midnight buffet was, except on an even larger scale. There were extraordinary ice carvings, spotlighted with colored light from all sides, above and below; trays of lobster; music playing….

Passengers began to line up at eleven o’clock, for the Grand Buffet. Not to partake, but to participate in the photo shoot that took place from eleven-thirty to midnight. They allowed the passengers to walk through the buffet and take photos, and videos. Classical music played through the speakers while, in the background, the maitre d’s voice droned, “….and in a single week’s cruise…,†as you passed tray after tray of ‘mystery meat’ and ‘some kinda stuff,’ “….we use approximately a gazillion eggs, 740 cows,…†past some more fruit carvings, and some salad things, “….enough wine to fill 1.45 swimming pools,…†and then to the chafing dishes of hot food(?). Finally, tables full of deserts. It was absolutely mind-boggling. Never mind that it all tasted pretty mediocre….the presentation is what counted. After all, when you showed those pictures, and videos, to friends, they could only see the food, not taste it.

It was also a way to check out the buffet, beforehand, so you could save room on your plate for something extraordinary towards the end of the line. Of course, if you were smart, you grabbed two plates.

At 1:30 am, they reduced the size of the buffet, brought our fresh dishes of food, and had a 1:30 “mini-buffet.†You had to make sure that you had enough to eat at this buffet, because they wouldn’t be serving food again until 6:00 am….and, room service can be such a pain!

Dinners were more than meals; Each and every evening was an amalgamation of food and entertainment.

After all of the entrees were served, and seconds (…thirds, fourths…) taken care of, the dining room lights would flash, once or twice; some sort of mysterious signal. The waiters and bus boys would inexplicably disappear. After a few minutes, lights would dim, and, suddenly, music would start playing and the performers, formerly the servers, would sing the song de jour.

On Italian Night, it was “O Sole Mio;†On U.S.A. Night, “God Bless America,†and so forth. With flaming Baked Alaska, to the tune of “Hot, Hot, Hot!†they’d march and dance across the dining room.

Carnival was the master of the “after-dinner show,†with a different theme, and production number for the wait staff, every night.

What a kick, when the lights were turned low and each waiter and bus boy held a lit Bic over his head, as he sang, “God Bless America.†Forgetting the somberness of the song, and its deep meaning to many of us, you just had to smile, knowing that a number of the members of the choral group did not speak very much English, and had no idea what they were singing about.

And, let’s not forget the little table shows. At dinner, one evening, one of the appetizer choices was Frog’s Legs. After serving the appetizers, the waiter folded a little Origami frog, and then assisted it across the table with a flick of his finger. Someone looking for a tip?

The dining room entertainment was a large component of the cruise experience, but the food was the main act. It still is.

Once again, an area that has undergone an extraordinary transformation.

While the midnight buffet may be a memory, it has been replaced by some awesome alternatives.

Princess keeps it’s buffet open twenty-four hours, changing with the time of day. From 11:00 pm to 6:oo am, half the buffet area is closed off and serves as a full-seRvice restaurant.

Carnival has a “late night buffet.†Same food as the old midnight buffet, with no ice carvings and fruit and veggie animals… Oh, they’ve added 24-hour pizza, Stromboli and Caesar salad.

In fact, all of the lines have added more food options than would have been imagined even five years ago.

The new wave looks like it will be more along the lines of the alternative dining, now offered on many lines, “Freestyle Cruising,†NCL’s entry and Princess’ “Personal Choice.†I have very mixed feelings about this particular revolution.

The one concern you hear most often, about “traditional dining,†is the worry that you’ll be trapped, for seven days, with the tablemates from Hell. I’ve found that just the opposite is true. While I have not made too many lifelong friends over dinner, I have met, and enjoyed the company, of a great number of interesting people. Some were much younger, and some more elderly, but all very interesting. Only once did I have a real problem.

My cruising companion and I were seated at a table for six, with a woman and her two children, a son and a daughter. The children were not well behaved, at all, and spent the entire meal squabbling, arguing and fighting. Mother was not only no help, but actually added to the problem.

This behavior was already in full swing when we arrived at the table, and continued unabated. The children were baiting each other, and both were bickering with mom, who was as bad as the two children. At one point, mom rolled her eyes, huffed, or puffed, and sat silent for a few seconds. The daughter finally turned to her and asked what was wrong. The mother looked at her, paused for the proper amount of time, and, then, in that tone that only a mother is able to produce; the one that says that everything in the whole world has gone wrong and nothing can fix it, replied, “….nothing….â€Â

While this would all be annoying under almost any circumstances, the fact that the two children were in their mid-to-late twenties made it even more sufferable. Of course, there was no question in my mind, based upon their behavior (particularly, mom’s!), as to why two young, attractive, people of their age had to take a cruise with Mommy.

In my own “special†style (some would call it ‘obnoxious’) which surfaces, occasionally, in circumstances like this, I decided to play my “…don’t get angry, get even…†game.

Somewhere about half way through the soup, I turned to my companion and said, “Boy, this sure is some f***ing good soup. Them @#(*&%& in the kitchen can sure make some $#*% good food…†That shut “mom and the kids†up for no more than ten seconds. As they carried on their squabbling, I continued my potty mouthing. Each time, I could see mom cringe, just a bit.

At the end of the meal, we asked the maitre d’ to please find us another table. I explained that the waiter and bus boy were excellent, but we did not enjoy the company of our tablemates. The next morning, at breakfast, he advised us that he had reassigned us to another table, with the same waiter. More important, we were seated with six charming fellow passengers and had wonderful mealtimes for the remainder of the cruise.

As I looked over to the table where he had dinner the night before, with mom and the kids, I noticed it was empty. I guess we were not alone in our table-changing request.

I have always enjoyed “traditional dining,†at a large table. I feel that you get to know six, or eight, new people, intimately, during the course of the cruise; your waiter and bus boy (now Assistant Waiter) learn your preferences and meet them; and there is a general friendliness in the dining room. We never minded the “timetable,†and automatically adjusted our schedule accordingly.

It was just something that was a part of the cruise. In fact, I never even gave it a second thought. I figure most people eat dinner about the same time, every night, at home, so why should it be different?

Even more important, it was unheard of that you would have to pay for dinner! You took a cruise and knew that your meals were included. Now, they’re going to tell you that dinner in the dining room is only mediocre, but if you want a good dinner, try our “Twenty-Dollar-Extra Café.†Nonsense!!! It will never work.

The only exception was that I did love to have dinner in Le Bistro, aboard the NCL ships. I was not the least bit concerned over the “suggested five-dollar per person gratuity.†In fact, I never left the waiter less than fifteen dollars, for two of us. It wasn’t as if I was paying the cruise line for my dinner, I was recognizing the very special service that the waiter and bus boy provided. It was always superb. The fact that the food was excellent was an added bonus.

Our first, and only, experience with NCL’s “Freestyle†was a nightmare.

First of all, there were far too many “alternative†(spell that “extra chargeâ€Â) restaurants. Not only did you have to pay, but it was imperative that you made a reservation, far in advance. Well, if you have to commit to dinner at a certain time, the next day, what makes it “Freestyle?â€Â

The alternative bistros aside, there were problems with the “regular†dining rooms. If you didn’t have a reservation, the minimum wait was 20-30 minutes. It could be up to an hour! I’m sorry, but I don’t want to waste that type of time on my cruise. I’d rather be losing my money at the crap table. Then, once you were seated, they rushed you, due to all the people waiting.

On the other hand, if you have to make a reservation, in order to avoid the long wait, then you lose the entire concept.

I have heard, from fellow cruisers, that NCL has, in fact, made significant strides, in this area, and have overcome most of the problems. I’m considering giving them a second chance.

Princess, I must say, got their “Personal Choice Dining†right and, if other lines adopt a similar program, and run it as efficiently, I could get used to it.

Most of the time I was seated almost immediately, and never waited more than ten minutes. I always opted for a large table. Once seated, the service was excellent, and the food was admirable. The only food which I feel is better than Princess is that served on Celebrity. I enjoyed the freedom that PC allows; maybe staying in a port an extra hour, or grabbing a pre-dinner nap. All-in-all a positive experience.

Now matter how many transformations cruising goes through, some things will always remain a constant. A good cruise is measured not in stars, or points, in a guide to cruising, but pounds gained.

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Jeff...thanks for posting your memories. Your memories bring back a lot of memories for me, also. Thanks, again!

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