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Food on cruises is all about more choice and better quality

If you think cruises are about mediocre banquet food served in gargantuan dining rooms, all-you-can-eat buffets and midnight desert extravaganzas, think again.

You’ll still find those buffets but people are buzzing a lot more about the quality of the food rather than quantity.  

You’ll find specialty  steakhouses, Japanese hibachi tables, freshly made pastas and restaurants serving up French food rivaling what you might get in Paris at Remy (no kids allowed!) aboard Disney Cruise Line’s Dream and Fantasy.  No worries if you are vegan, gluten-free, diabetic or just a finicky eater.  The culinary staff will do all they can to please you.  

They may also teach you a thing or two about food along the way. There is everything from the chance to accompany the chef to a local market to cooking lessons and demonstrations led by celebrity chefs  to specialty restaurants rivaling what you’d find in a major city to cruises focused on a region’s wine or craft beers.

Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there right now:

Sail with former chef contestants on "Top Chef" aboard Celebrity Cruises this August, taking part in Quickfire Challenges and special dinners.  Special "Top Chef"- inspired evenings will be available on nearly all Celebrity Cruises through next June.    

Go to a small European market, as I did in Croatia with a Windstar Cruises chef, who then will use what he buys aboard the ship.  He taught us to make crab cakes another day.   Windstar has the distinctive sailing yachts, which carry at most just over 300 passengers, with some boats having room for less than 150.

Focus on wine during the weeklong Ameritage! Four Rivers of Wine & History itinerary offered by Un-Cruise Adventures along the Columbia and Snake Rivers, highlighting the wine regions of Washington state and Oregon.  There are tastings included at nine wineries.

If craft beer is more your thing, Un-Cruise is offering four new craft beer theme cruises  in fall  and spring  in Washington state.  You’ll meet micro-brew experts and explore the Olympic Wilderness and San Juan Islands—two of my favorite destinations.   Think happy hour tastings of local beers and the chance to visit microbreweries as well as the chance to whale watch, see bald eagles and more.

Want to hone your cooking skills?  Oceania Cruises has a Bon Appetit Culinary Center aboard two of its ships with cooking classes ranging from 45 minutes to three hours focusing on the region where you are sailing. 

My nephew loved the cooking classes aboard Holland America . This year the line’s Culinary Arts Centers presented by Food & Wine Magazine – there’s one on each of the line’s 15 ships — are  hosting more than 50 chefs and experts , including Food Network Next Iron Chef competitors and Extreme Chef winners. There are classes for kids and teens on some sailings.

You’ll find a lot of focus on the food you are eating too.  Carnival Cruise Lines is launching American Table and American Feast  designed to evoke a restaurant experience complete with drink specialties,  dishes that can be served family style and “rare finds”—if you are ready to try alligator fritters or frogs legs

Ultra-luxe Crystal Cruises  has just unveiled an all-new nightly dinner experience at no extra charge aboard Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients when possible.

Norwegian Cruise Line is all about eating what and when you want at the specialty restaurants on board—as many as 27 on two of their ships. But until recently, the per-person surcharge could wreck your vacation budget.  NCL has heard your frustration and has instituted the Ultimate Dining Package for access to all of the restaurants for just  $59 on cruises less than a week (half for kids 12 and under).

Eileen Ogintz is a nationally syndicated columnist and creator of TakingtheKids.com. Her new  Kids Guide to Boston is available online and from major booksellers, along with the Kids Guides to NYC, Washington, DC, Orlando,  LA and Chicago. Coming  later this year: San Diego, San Francisco and Denver.