With well-known brand names like Starbucks, Seattle's Best and Lavazza now at sea (though sometimes only at specialty cafes), cruise ship coffee has most definitely improved, thanks to trendsetting offerings from Holland America, Royal Caribbean and other caffeine-driven lines.
Finding top coffee spots isn't just about identifying a great cup of plain coffee or a creamy specialty coffee drink. Enjoying coffee is also about the specific joe joint's vibe. Whether it's the sound of beans grinding, milk frothing, fellow passengers chatting or simply the sea below, a top coffee spot is also atmospheric in one or more ways.
If you're a serious coffee connoisseur, you don't want to be stuck at sea with no cafe culture. To help you out, here are 12 top spots for coffee at sea, combining savory sips with a welcoming ambience.
1. Explorations Cafe, powered by the New York Times (Holland America)
This top spot for coffee seemingly has it all. Now included on all of Holland America's ships as part of the Signature of Excellence enhancement program, this seagoing bistro offers reasonably priced coffee drinks (try the caramel-flavored Carmello Latte), complimentary pastries and snacks, an extensive library, condensed international newspapers, Internet terminals (including some free sites) and Wi-Fi, desks, cool tables with reusable wipe-off NYT crossword puzzles and lots of plush chairs and sofas, many with great views. With so much going on, Explorations Cafe has set the standard for top coffee spots at sea.
2. Starbucks at Sea (Royal Caribbean)
First introduced on Allure of the Seas and now also onboard sister ship Oasis of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's Starbucks at Sea venues are the only Starbucks stores currently afloat on a major cruise line. The freestanding stores are located on the bustling Royal Promenade with plenty of people-watching tables and chairs nearby. Inside, trained baristas sell signature and seasonal beverages and food, as well as the complete line of Starbucks VIAReady Brew products. The company's loyal -- and wide-awake -- devotees will be grateful to see the green-and-white logo onboard, denoting the presence of familiar caffeinated offerings. (Coffee fans on other Royal Caribbean ships won't entirely miss out, as Seattle's Best Coffee, a feature brand in the Starbucks portfolio, has been a fleetwide Royal Caribbean selection for more than 10 years.)
3. The Bistro (Crystal Cruises)
Like a small French patisserie or Viennese cafe where the locals gather for hours, Crystal Cruises' The Bistro is the place to be for great coffee and good company. Large picture windows provide sea or port views, and there's plenty of cafe seating. Thoughtful touches include a stack of magazines to browse, the occasional string quartet, complimentary fresh European-style pastries and other snacks, and even special Bistro china designed by Guy Buffet. (Takeout cups are available, but The Bistro's setting, coffee and food are all hard to beat.)
4. Cafe Carinthia (Cunard)
Due to its popularity when it was introduced on Queen Victoria, Cunard's Cafe Corinthia concept was expanded on Queen Elizabeth, almost doubling the capacity of cafe seating and popular bar stools in the second helping. Overlooking the Grand Lobby on both ships, Cafe Carinthia has an elegant atmosphere that is light and open, thanks to a leaded glass ceiling, chandeliers, lush drapery, warm woods and lots of welcoming arm chairs and sofas. There are the typical hot and cold coffee options, along with chocolate drinks and oh-so-British Wedgewood teas. Food offerings include fresh-baked pastries, tasty blueberry muffins and brioche in the morning, plus gourmet sandwiches and quiches at lunchtime and deep-dish cheesecakes and varied tarts in the afternoon. Cafe Carinthia is transformed into a popular cocktail lounge at night. (Sir Samuel's Cafe serves a similar role onboard Queen Mary 2, transforming into a specialty wine bar at night.)
5. Yacht Club (Windstar Cruises)
Found aboard Windstar's Wind Surf, the Yacht Club brews tasty coffee and an array of specialty coffee drinks. Whether the ship is under sail, anchored or docked, Yacht Clubbers can enjoy their now-complimentary coffee beverage of choice while relaxing on leather chairs and sofas, watching movies, reading, or enjoying games of chess. And, of course, there's the favorite sailing pastime of simultaneously savoring the sea view and a nice brew.
6. Coffee Connection (Regent Seven Seas Cruises)
Specially trained baristas serve up an array of complimentary coffee and standard coffee drinks at this midship Regent Seven Seas loungelike spot, but there are also more exotic offerings like "Coffee Vanilla," made with Madagascar vanilla spiced with black tea, and refreshing choices like the "Iced Mocha Latte" for hot days. Complimentary cookies, pastries, breads, fresh fruit, and meats and cheeses are also on the menu.
7. Deck 6 (SeaDream Yacht Club)
Starting around sunrise, tasty Jacobs Kronung coffee from Germany is served out on the top deck of SeaDream I and SeaDream II under the moniker of "Early Risers Coffee." Deck 6 coffee service comes with the sights and sounds of the sea not far below. The twin mega-yachts carry just 112 passengers each, but only a few are awake for this special moment at sea most mornings. Cushioned chairs and couches make for a comfortable setting, and fresh breads and pastries make a tasty morning meal.
8. Cove Cafe (Disney Cruise Line)
Disney Cruise Line's Cove Cafe is a cozy and peaceful retreat where adults can sit back, sip gourmet coffee or refreshing alcoholic beverages, and indulge in a sweet snack. Located in the adults-only area up on Deck 11 of Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy -- and on Deck 9 of Disney Magic and Disney Wonder -- the cafe offers magazines and books for reading, a large flat-screen television showcasing the latest in news and sports, and Wi-Fi access for guests looking to surf the Internet and check e-mail while at sea. With a warm and welcoming design, this intimate haven provides both air-conditioned indoor seating and ocean-breeze outdoor seating.
9. Coffee and Chocolate Bar (Costa Cruises)
Leave it to an Italian line to combine the pleasure of coffee and chocolate into a tasty Italian bar/cafe experience. Costa uses the dark Lavazza Italian brand for its coffee and coffee drinks throughout much of ship, while the e tricaffe Italian brand is used in Costa Cruises' Coffee and Chocolate Bar. Indulge with hot and cold chocolate drinks, a sweet-smelling chocolate fountain and pastries (including lots of chocolate options, of course). It's all served in an oh-so-Italian corner cafe setting. When in (or cruising to) Rome, say "si" to that espresso.
10. Cafe al Bacio & Gelateria (Celebrity Cruises)
Introduced on Solstice-class ships to replace the Cova Cafe di Milano concept, Cafe de Bacio & Gelateria will soon be onboard every Celebrity ship as the older ones get refurbished and made over. (The popular spot has already been added on several Millennium-class ships.) Cafe patrons can enjoy a wide array of specialty coffees, teas, liqueurs and freshly baked pastries while lounging in an Italian-inspired space with ocean views. The adjacent gelateria provides gelatos and ices, so you can choose to go hot or cold.
11. Mosaic Cafe (Azamara Club Cruises)
Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey feature the Mosaic Cafe, where passengers enjoy complimentary specialty coffee and coffee drinks, liqueurs, biscotti, tea sandwiches, European pastries or scones. Centrally located on deck five, Mosaic's congenial service and atmosphere make it a favorite gathering spot for conversation, cards and trivia games.
12. Your Stateroom (Any Ship, Anywhere)
Cruise Critic message board posts reveal lots of tips from the obviously caffeine-fueled BYOB ("Be Your Own Barista") set. These coffee addicts recommended bringing your own electric coffee maker or French press, bean grinders and preferred coffees (anyone for Jamaican Blue Mountain?) onboard to set up a private coffee shop in your cabin. (Though do check with your cruise line, as small appliances like coffee makers are often frowned upon in cabins.) If you have a balcony for enjoying your own freshly made cup, it's all the better. Other reader tips include:
For the DIY set ... "I've brought my own coffee maker on the last four cruises. I always unplug it when I am not in the cabin and make sure I clean up after myself. I couldn't possibly go a whole week drinking brown sludge." -- sopo1
For instant coffee-drinkers ... "My preference: Folgers singles. You can get hot water anywhere at any time and make your own." -- coolestwife
For all java fiends, whether you're bringing coffee back or drinking it out ... "Remember that on any ship, if you go late, the coffee has probably been sitting on the warmer, and won't be as good. I go early in the morning, so maybe that's why I've had better luck." -- flashdog_1
--by Lynn Seldon, Cruise Critic Contributor