Are you hungering for more in your cruising? We're talking local market tours, celebrity chefs, onboard cooking schools, chef's tables, partnerships with culinary leaders, amazing wine lists and innovative cuisine that leaves unimaginative cruise chow in its wake. You can get all that and more -- if you choose the right cruise. That's what we're all about, so let's dig in for a look at the best foodie cruises.
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Best Market Tours
There's nothing like a local market for getting close to the soul of a city's food scene. Here are the cruises that offer them on a regular basis.
The Dish: At least once on every cruise (with rare exceptions when there are no markets to be found on an itinerary), Windstar's chefs lead interested passengers on a market expedition. The chefs actually shop for the ship, so you'll have the added fun of seeing vendors boggled by the big purchases. If you're a die-hard foodie, you can even ask to go along at any port, since the chefs hit markets as often as possible. Chefs hand out tastes as they shop, so you might sample pate, cheese, an unusual tomato variety you've never seen before or a red-ripe strawberry.
Why Foodies Love It: The tours are totally free, and you'll have the satisfaction of looking at your plate back onboard and knowing exactly where an ingredient came from.
Viking Ocean Cruises
The Dish: Viking's Kitchen Table program takes you to a market, then follows up with dinner onboard using the local ingredients -- and you get to help cook. You'll dine in a special area with the rest of your Kitchen Table group. Viking offers this extra-fee shore excursion and dinner one or more times per cruise, depending on the itinerary.
Why Foodies Love It: You get to follow the ingredients from market all the way to table.
The Dish: Seabourn invites passengers to roam the markets on its Shopping with the Chef days. Chefs shop for the ship, and stop to share how various ingredients might be used -- even talking through a recipe. After the tour, the chef writes up recipe cards for some of those dishes. Sign up early because only 30 passengers are allowed to come along.
Why Foodies Love It: This is another instance where you'll see the market ingredients on your plate. You usually get to taste in the market, too.
Best Onboard Cooking Schools
Used to be, we went on cruises to escape the kitchen. These days, onboard cooking schools are one of the hottest trends at sea. Here, we tip foodies to the best of the bunch.
The Dish: Partnering with Bon Appetit magazine, Oceania created hands-on culinary studios with 12 cooking stations aboard two of its cruise ships: Marina and Riviera. You can sign up for such themed classes as Magical Morocco, Turkish Arabesque, Mexican Fiesta and Modern Nordic, or hone your skills by studying French techniques, fish cookery and curing, pasta-making and desserts.
Why Foodies Love It: Sleek, professional cooking stations add wow factor, plus in some ports, a market trip is part of the class.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
The Dish: The dazzling Culinary Arts Kitchen (only on Seven Seas Explorer) offers 18 culinary workstations and a broad variety of classes, including courses matched to your itinerary. Learn about French, Mediterranean, Mexican, Italian and Greek cooking, as well as wine pairing, healthy cuisine and high-heat cooking. You can even get a lesson on how to put together a proper British tea.
Why Foodies Love It: You can't beat top-of-the-line facilities and a broad range of classes.
Holland America Line
The Dish: Holland America has long partnered with Food & Wine magazine to offer cooking demos and classes in its onboard Culinary Arts Centers. Currently, Koningsdam has the line's most tricked-out Culinary Arts Center, fitted with a show kitchen and individual cooking stations. Classes include regionally inspired workshops, as well as classes for kids and teens; on some cruises, they'll be taught by visiting celebrity chefs.
In September 2016, the line announced a new partnership with popular PBS TV series "America's Test Kitchen," which will be rolled out to the entire fleet by June 2017. (Westerdam and Nieuw Amsterdam will be first to participate, starting in October and November 2016, respectively.) The Culinary Arts Centers will get a makeover to resemble the America's Test Kitchen TV set (sans the army of recipe-testing minions, we assume), where there'll be free, 45-minute, demo-style courses, with a mix of video content, live instruction, taste tests and recipe samples. Topics include Asian Dumplings, We Love Chocolate, Getting to Know Chilies and New Italian Favorites. Also in the works are more intimate, 90-minute workshops, with titles ranging from Perfect Pies to Handmade Pasta.
Why Foodies Love It: What foodie doesn't love to geek out with America's Test Kitchen and their obsessive ("We tried this recipe 73 different ways before coming up with the perfect solution") methods?
The Dish: Created by British celebrity chef James Martin, The Cookery Club (only on Britannia) has 12 cooking stations (including one for wheelchair cooks) that are each shared by two students. Classes vary by cruise, taking inspiration from the itinerary, but standbys include Best of British, Chocolate Lovers and family classes.
Why Foodies Love It: We like the itinerary-inspired classes, and it's nice that there's a wheelchair accessible cooking station, too.
The Dish: Silversea hosts the only Relais & Chateaux L'Ecole des Chefs cooking school at sea (on select cruises, usually around 10 per year). Passengers can receive instruction in such topics as knife skills, sauces and baking. Other events include demonstrations onboard and at Relais & Chateaux properties onshore, market visits, cooking competitions and talks over lunch.
Why Foodies Love It: Unlike the classes on other lines, the program is complimentary -- nice!
Best Celebrity Chef Cruises
Want a chance to rub elbows (or touch toques) with some celebrity chefs? Several cruise lines give foodies that opportunity on culinary theme cruises. You might even be able to cook with some.
The Dish: Through a partnership with Bravo TV's "Top Chef," Celebrity brings several "cheftestants" onboard for cooking demonstrations, Quickfire Challenges where chefs compete against each other and the clock, meet-and-greets and Top Chef Night in the main restaurant, with menus featuring chefs' creations.
Why Foodies Love It: Drama! Plus, even if you're not on the themed cruise, there's a Top Chef Night on every Celebrity cruise, with dishes from the show's chefs.
The Dish: Holland America partners with the Fox TV show "MasterChef" on a theme cruise that brings winners from several seasons onboard, along with "MasterChef Junior" all-stars. There are demos, meet-and-greets, a Mystery Box Challenge and an All-Stars Finale Cook-Off. For a fee, you can also book more intimate events, including demos, meals with the chefs and kitchen takeovers.
Why Foodies Love It: If you're truly star-struck, the premium events offer a much more personal experience.
The Dish: For several cruises per season, Windstar partners with the James Beard Foundation to bring aboard chefs who have received coveted awards or nominations from the organization. The chefs do cooking demos, workshops, participate in market tours and contribute dishes to the ship's menus. There's also a wine-pairing dinner one night where the galley pulls out all the stops. Past James Beard cruises have also included sommeliers that give complimentary wine tastings.
Why Foodies Love It: While they may not be TV stars, James Beard Award recipients are some of the best chefs cooking in the U.S. today.
The Dish: On its Food Hero cruises, P&O brings aboard celebrity U.K. chefs and wine experts, who offer meet-and-greets, lectures, book signings, wine-tastings, hosted dinners and other events. Celebs have included chefs Eric Lanlard and James Martin and wine guru Olly Smith.
Why Foodies Love It: Some chefs offer master classes or opportunities to watch them cook your meal and then dine together.
Best Chef's Tables
On land, "chef's tables" are usually intimate dining experiences located in or near a restaurant's kitchen, with special menus and attention from the chef. It's a bit different at sea since, in most cases, you won't be dining in the galley -- but you'll still have an intimate, gourmet experience, usually with paired wines, hosted by the chef and a sommelier. These dinners all carry an extra fee, but are definitely worth the splurge.
The Dish: Sixteen people can participate in this five-course meal, with an upgraded steakhouse menu accompanied by wine pairings. The dinner starts with a Champagne toast, then the ship's Chef de Cuisine presents each course, explaining the cooking techniques, ingredients and flavors. The sommelier presents and discusses the paired wines.
Why Foodies Love It: Wines are freely poured by the sommelier. Opt for this dinner on the Quantum-class ships, where it's located in a special enclave within Chops Grille.
Carnival Cruise Line
The Dish: This experience starts with a Champagne reception and a chef's tour of the galley for the 12 to 16 diners. The multicourse meal follows, accompanied by house red and white wines. While on some ships, the dinner takes place in nontraditional locations (the galley, library or conference center, for example), Carnival Vista has a dedicated dining room for the Chef's Table, with windows looking onto the galley.
Why Foodies Love It: You might see it as a plus or a minus, but this program welcomes children, ages 12 and up.
The Dish: On Nieuw Amsterdam only, seven-course dinners are designed by the line's Master Chef Rudi Sodamin and hosted by the Pinnacle Grill's chef and cellar master. Service is on custom china and premium wines are paired with each course. Expect lavish ingredients, like lobster, caviar and truffles.
For a different experience, opt for the Culinary Arts Center dinner on Koningsdam. You'll get to watch your seven-course dinner being prepared, with an introduction to each dish by the head chef. Unlimited carafes of organic red and white wines are available on each table.
Why Foodies Love It: Sodamin has a mountain of accolades, including Three Toques from the Gault-Millau Guide. On Koningsdam, the head chef is available to provide tips -- and to answer any questions you might have during the meal prep.