Twenty years ago the modern river cruise industry didn’t exist. True, there were a few paddle wheelers floating down the Mississippi and privately owned vessels here and there, but nothing like what we have now: hotel-style ships with modern comforts and amenities spread over the globe—enough to draw 500,000 people merrily down the river every year. Overall, river and ocean cruise goers are expected to exceed 24 million by 2018.
It’s virtually impossible to avoid a hyperlocal cultural immersion experience on a river cruise—and the culinary rewards therein. Take Viking Cruise’s Undiscovered China program, which whisks groups down the Yangtze River where ancient temples, the hanging coffins of the Ba people and countless artifacts jut from limestone ridges to the chimes of bronze bells. A major stop occurs in the UNESCO Old Town of Lijiang for tea and dinner along the Tea Horse Road, an ancient 1,400-mile passageway that once facilitated tea and horse trade between China and Tibet. Here, groups learn the custom of drinking tea and the art of mahjong in a bustling atmosphere of canal-lined warrens and enclaves.
Back onboard, a partnership with PBS enables Viking Cruises to leverage recipes from the hit UK reality show “The Great British Baking Show” directly into their culinary offerings. To this, Richard Marnell, senior VP of marketing, says it was only natural given Viking’s demographic. “Our guests are often interested in the intrinsic connection between food and travel, which makes ‘The Great British Baking Show’ a particularly good fit for our brand.” Onboard dining also includes a selection of regional wines and dishes.
Farm-to-table dining isn’t always an easy feat when at sea—Royal Caribbean International obviously didn’t get this memo. Locavore dining spans its fleet. Aboard the Oasis of the Seas and sister ship Allure, James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz’s mostly Florida-sourced menu wow’s guests. Schwartz says the fare is not only delish but helps local farmers get through the slow season. Quantum of the Seas’ dynamic dining program features the know-how of Schwartz and other celebrity chefs such as Devin Alexander from NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”
Everything that comes out of Alexander’s savory and sweet kitchen is less than 500 calories; house craft beers and small bites—think homemade organic ricotta crostini and apricot-thyme jam—are up for grabs at Schwartz’s gourmet gastropub. At Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant, antipasti dishes are the rave from crab and avocado bruschetta to Italian crunchy and oozy arancini margherita with spicy arrabbiata sauce.
The restaurant also serves freshly made pasta every day. Just to rub it in, we’ve eaten at all three. Quantum also sports the sea’s first robotic bartender, which allows groups to mix and match their favorite flavors till their heart’s content.
Experiential food-focused shore excursions are also an increasingly popular option, especially in the Caribbean, where food and culture are still quite inseparable. Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Oceania Cruises offer hands-on foodie experiences—from creole cooking in the Dominican Republic to chocolate making in Nassau and salsa and salsa (food and dance) demonstrations in Cozumel. For Celebrity Cruises, the excursions sync up with “Signature Event Sailings,” launched late last year, which immerse groups into the thick of popular global events such as the Cannes Festival—with port excursions and French music, speakers, cocktails and iconic views. Other sought-after sailings include the Redentore Festival in Venice and the Chinese New Year celebrations in Hong Kong.