Cruise ships have begun fighting their longstanding reputation as floating islands of weight-gain temptation. They've shut down the midnight buffets, opened "spa cuisine" restaurants and proudly labeled dishes that are low calorie or heart healthy. Yes, you think, "I will eat healthily and well on my next vacation."
And then you walk into the buffet.
Burgers, pizza, self-serve soft-serve ice cream, endless bacon -- who can pass that up for a carrot or two? For sit-down dining, alternative restaurants talk up the romance of tables for two and fine food and set the mood with humongous steaks, entrees dripping with cheese and decadent desserts. Plus, cruise lines have been adding additional fast-food options with pub fare, burrito joints, BBQ stations and fried fish. You need to loosen your belt just reading a cruise review today.
We don't mean to make you feel bad about your onboard eating. Heck, you're on vacation -- and we're not ones to judge. Go for the ice cream sundae or the bacon macaroni cheese. But if you're going to indulge, you should at least go in with your eyes open, so the scale won't shock you too much when you go home.
Below, we've listed some of the more calorific cruise ship dining experiences we could find. (Trust us, there are others not listed here.) Consume at your own peril … or try our alternative suggestions.
Burgers and Fries
A sunny day in the Caribbean just screams for a poolside lunch of burgers and fries, washed down with a cold beer or maybe an ice cream cone. The typical poolside grill fare isn't the healthiest, but go for a Guy Fieri Pig Patty (that's a cheeseburger with a "secret" mayo sauce and a patty made out of crispy bacon) on Carnival or a Smoke House burger (cheeseburger with smoke house dressing, bacon and onion rings) at a Johnny Rockets outlet on Royal Caribbean, and you're setting yourself up for a coronary. The Smoke House weighs in at 1,100 calories; fries add another 480, a milkshake 920. (Nutritional info found on the Johnny Rockets Web site. We couldn't find nutritional info on Guy Fieri, but you can see what goes into a pig patty and learn to make one here.)
Try This Instead: A grilled chicken breast or veggie burger have fewer calories than a beef patty, and you can skip the mayo and cheese to lower your calorie count. Or go Atkins-style and skip half or all of the bun.
Gym Time: If you ice skate for two hours (aren't you glad Royal Caribbean has rinks onboard?), you will rid yourself of those 1,100 calories of burger. Carnival cruisers can opt for two hours of running at about 5 m.p.h. along the ship's track to burn off the same. (Calories burned based on the chart found here.
Fine French Dining
They say French women don't get fat, but fine French restaurants onboard cruise ships sure do serve up some calorie-heavy dishes. Take Murano and Celebrity's other ocean liner-themed restaurants, bastions of delectable continental cuisine. You can order creamy lobster bisque, goat cheese soufflé, Chateaubriand in béarnaise and cabernet sauce, and -- of course -- a whole course of cheese. So yummy, yet so fattening.
Try This Instead: Tone down the cheese-fest with a spinach salad, spice-crusted venison loin and some caviar.
Gym Time: A cup of typical lobster bisque is about 250 calories. You'll need about an hour of kayaking on your next port stop to work off just your appetizer.
Meat on a Stick
The latest onboard food craze is the Brazilian-style churrascaria, found on select Norwegian ships and Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas. Here, diners fill up on an enormous salad bar (healthy, right?) and then waiters stop by your table, offering a nonstop selection of grilled meats presented on skewers (uh oh…). These "passadors" will bring by the beef, lamb, pork, chicken and sausage until you hold up a sign telling them to leave you alone. Bacon-wrapped chicken? Check. Steak in a garlic butter sauce? You got it. You need serious willpower to wave away yummy bites presented just under your nose, wafting out delicious smells.
Try This Instead: It's definitely less fun, but you could eat mostly veggies from the salad bar (hold the cheese) and try just a few pieces of meat (avoiding anything wrapped in bacon or lathered in sauce).
Gym Time: To give some context, popular land-based restaurant Fogo de Chao serves a steak called picanha that is listed at 260 calories for a 100g serving. You'll need to walk an hour at about 3 m.p.h. to burn off every similarly sized portion of meat you consume at the churrascaria onboard.
The Boardwalks on Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure of the Seas are full of diet-busting temptations as you cross the ship on these indoor/outdoor decks. Both ships offer the Boardwalk Donut Shop, an ice cream parlor and the aforementioned Johnny Rockets. Oasis features a Seafood Shack (think fried calamari and popcorn shrimp), while Allure sports Rita's Cantina (nachos and guacamole, margaritas) and the Boardwalk Dog House (hot dogs, brats and sausages). Your constitutional stroll down the 'Walk might end up sidetracked by sugary treats and fried food. A detour to the Promenade will land you at the Cupcake Cupboard, where jumbo-sized, frosting-topped mini-cakes await.
Try This Instead: Wear blinders on your walk? Try splitting the cupcake or doughnut with a friend (break it in half and all the calories fall out), order your seafood grilled not fried or simply avoid all the for-fee establishments (saves you money, too).
Gym Time: Doughnuts range from 200 to 400 calories. That's equivalent to an hour of leisurely bike riding, so hit the stationary bike or sign up for that cycling tour in port.
Picture yourself leaning against the ship's rail, as the sun sets, pina colada in hand. Everyone loves a good daiquiri or chocolate martini on a cruise -- they just scream "beach vacation"! Spoiler alert: Did you know that a pina colada contains about 645 calories? According to this enlightening slideshow by Forbes, Long Island Iced Teas have 780 calories, margaritas have 740 and White Russians have 425. They make a Cosmo look positively slimming at 150 calories (though drink three in a row and you'll quickly catch up).
Try This Instead: Stick to wine (90 calories for 4 ounces) or beer (109 - 150 calories for 12 ounces, depending if you order a light beer or not) and avoid drinks made with sugary juices or heavy creams. And if you must splurge on a fruity cocktail, have it instead of dessert, rather than having both.
Gym Time: Burn off that 645-calorie pina colada with an hour on the stair treadmill.
Many cruise lines have introduced the Chef's Table concept -- an exclusive meal, paired with wine and combined with a galley tour and access to the head chef. One Cruise Critic editor tried it out on Crown Princess and declared it was "the most food I've ever consumed in one sitting." He pressed the chef for calorie counts: canapés (750 calories), goat cheese soufflé (500 calories), asparagus and lobster risotto (500 calories), raspberry sorbet with Grey Goose (100 calories), and a dinner plate of lobster, veal and vegetables in butter (2,000+ calories). Add in wine, Champagne and bread, and he estimated a meal of 6,000 calories. You might never need (or want?) to eat again.
Try This Instead: At around $95 a head for this mondo dinner, you might not find it too difficult to turn down the Chef's Table option. If you're a foodie on an expansive budget, perhaps consider not eating for two days to prepare …
Gym Time: Your only option might be to run a marathon in port. Time to check out those running theme cruises.
Breakfast features plates of bacon, eggy pancakes and French toast, sugar-topped muffins and glazed pastries. Lunch is a smorgasbord of pizza, oily ethnic stirfries and deli sandwiches. Dinner offers all-you-can-eat meat, fish and chicken, not to mention a large array of dinner rolls, cheeses, cakes, cookies and ice cream. And you can refill your plate again … and again … and again. Without willpower -- or a coherent dinner theme -- buffet eating can quickly get out of control.
Try This Instead: Resist the urge to pile your plate high. Fill it half full with fruits and vegetables (all buffets have salad bars and fresh fruit), skip the bread and look for entrees without a ton of sauce or oil. Take one small piece of dessert, not 12. Drink lots of water and give yourself a few minutes to rest before going back for more … you might find you're not actually hungry anymore.
Gym Time: Your penance in the gym will depend on how much you gorge yourself at the buffet. Our vote: Book a lower-deck cabin and always take the stairs to the poolside (e.g., upper deck) buffet … and everywhere else onboard. You'll burn off some of those calories and improve your cardiovascular health by the end of your vacation.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor