Let's face it: Cruise ships love meat-eaters. Restaurants so often are meat-themed, from celebrity-chef-helmed burger and BBQ joints to steakhouses of all nationalities, from American to Brazilian and Italian. Amid the plates of bacon piled high and formal nights showcasing lobster tail and surf-n-turf, what's a vegetarian or vegan cruiser to do?
The good news is that pretty much every line offers vegetarian cruise food without special request. Main dining room menus have at least one meat-free starter and entree per night. Pasta and pizza bars are omnipresent. Vegans can also be accommodated on cruises, but with a bit more advance planning.
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Here are a few important things to know before your first vegetarian cruise:
Be forewarned: Not all cruise lines understand the concept of vegetarian proteins. Often, meat-free dishes are heavy on the cheese and the pasta.
While vegetarians can generally get by with the regular offerings on the ship, vegans will be disappointed if they don't plan ahead. Be sure to contact your cruise line's special needs department to alert the ship to your dietary needs and to see if you can request special foods (like almond or rice milk). As soon as you board your ship, be sure to meet with the maitre d' or head chef to discuss your dining options. Likely, you will need to pre-order the next day's meals the night before in order to give the chefs time to prepare alternative dishes for you.
Packing your own snacks and dairy-free milk is a good way for vegans to hedge against unknown food options on a cruise. However, cruise lines have different rules about bringing your own food and beverages onboard, though they might make an exception for special diets. If you want to BYO, it's best to check with the cruise line's special needs department or your travel agent to find out what's allowed.
For the most choice -- and fewest questions or critiques of your chosen diet -- consider a theme cruise. Examples we found include Holistic Holiday at Sea and Vegan Vacation at Sea, both of which tout vegan dining from special chefs brought onboard for the occasion.
So which lines offer the best cruises for vegetarians and vegans? Here, we list our favorite ocean cruise lines.
1. Norwegian Cruise Line
Why It's Best: Norwegian Cruise Line is a big fan of choice, and its ships offer a large number of dining venues. (Note: You will have to pay extra for many of them.) The line offers vegetarian items on most menus, and if you're dining with omnivores in a meat-focused venue, like the steakhouse or churrascaria, chefs can either make you something special or bring in a dish from a neighboring restaurant. The main dining rooms, included in your cruise fare, always offer one vegetarian dish and a couple of meat-free starters; these are typically marked with a "V." We even noticed some entrees featuring tofu, so vegetarians won't be starved for protein on their cruise. Vegans can be accommodated but must speak to the maitre d' upon boarding.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Vegetable Pad Thai (glass noodles, egg and tofu), roasted butternut squash salad (with mango, arugula and pumpkin seed vinaigrette) and portobello mushrooms layered with goat cheese and red bell pepper over sweet potato beurre blanc.
2. Carnival Cruise Line
Why It's Best: Carnival puts a premium on offering a variety of onboard dining venues and keeping the majority of them free. The main dining room always has one or two vegetarian entrees, as well as starters. Indian food-lovers will adore the Indian vegetarian dish that is consistently offered on Carnival's American Table menu (typically in addition to another meat-free option); the main dish changes nightly, but the meal always comes with papadam, raita and basmati rice.
Casual venues can be surprisingly veggie-friendly. Guy's Burger Joint makes a mean veggie burger and you can top it with delicious sauteed onions and mushrooms. BlueIguana Cantina will serve you a bean burrito, or you can hit the buffet for pizza, pasta, salad and other options. The for-fee Steakhouse will make off-menu vegetarian entrees, as well.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Portobello mushrooms (with spinach, butternut squash and pepper confit), zucchini and eggplant parmigiana, and chickpea biscuits (with roasted squash and peppers).
3. Celebrity Cruises
Why It's Best: Celebrity gets points for offering separate vegetarian menus in its main dining room (and in all four main dining rooms on Celebrity Egde), with 14 days of variations, as well as marking vegetarian and lactose-free dishes with colorful icons on its regular menus. Servers should ask about dietary issues the first night of the cruise and offer the vegetarian menu; otherwise, you can simply request it. Our only gripe is the main entrees focus on pasta and cheese, with a decided lack of beans and tofu.
Specialty venues can accommodate vegetarians, though the choices might be limited. (The exception is Le Petit Chef, an experience found on select ships, which offers a separate vegetarian menu.) The buffet offers a pasta bar, pizza and made-to-order stir-fry.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Spinach and ricotta ravioli, roasted carrot cumin salad, vegetable korma with seasonal vegetables, and vegetable cassoulet with beans.
4. Costa Cruises
Why It's Best: Costa revamped its vegetarian offerings in fall 2015 to create new vegetarian and vegan menus, available as an addition to the regular main dining room menu. It also made sure that all regional menus include vegan and vegetarian options -- a nice touch, considering that most cruise line regional sections tend to be meat-heavy. All restaurants onboard are friendly to vegetarian cruisers.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Braised lentil stew, vegetable strudel with grilled vegetables, vegan frittata with artichokes, and arancino stuffed with rice and vegetables and served with stewed lentils.
5. Oceania Cruises
Why It's Best: In 2017, Oceania unveiled an expanded vegan menu, featuring a total of more than 250 dishes to be served in the Grand Dining Room aboard all ships at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its newest ships, Marina and Riviera, also feature a vegan juice bar on the pool deck that's open in the morning. It serves raw, cold-pressed juices and smoothies made with homemade cashew milk, as well as "energy" bowls with ingredients like acai berries and chia seeds. Vegetarian dishes are always included on Grand Dining Room menus, as well. While some of the specialty restaurants, like French Jacques and the Polo Grill steakhouse, might not have obvious main dishes for vegetarians, the dining team will make sure you get a delicious dinner. The pastas at Toscana are also out of this world.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Vegan tortilla espanola, creamy truffle flavored parsnip soup with chopped tarragon, Thai red vegan curry with steamed jasmine rice, Italian chocolate vegan-ricotta pie with vanilla and raspberry sauce
6. SeaDream Yacht Club
Why It's Best: SeaDream makes a point to pamper everyone, vegetarians and vegans included. You will dine well on this ship, and crew will go above and beyond to cater to your dietary needs. At breakfast, you'll find expected offerings like fruit and egg dishes, but also jars of chia seeds and quinoa clusters. The lunch buffet includes a DIY salad area with fresh and organic veggies, plus shipmade pepper spreads and tapenades, and the daily soup is often meat-free. Dinner features a complete raw, organic and vegan meal option, with a starter, vegetable-and-fruit juice, main dish and dessert. Plus, there's always a vegetarian entree on the regular menu. Want something specific? Ask the dining team -- either before your cruise or on the first day -- and they'll do their best to make your dream meal a reality.
Sample Vegetarian Dishes: Truffle tagliatelle pasta; chanterelle, shitake and pink grapefruit ceviche; raw vegetable lasagna; Lapsang Souchong smoky portobellos