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.
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).
Vegans will want to meet with the maitre d' or head chef to discuss dining options on day one. Likely, you will need to preorder the next day's meals the night before in order to give the chefs time to prepare alternative dishes for you. Vegetarians don't necessarily need to do this, but they should inquire about vegetarian menus that might not be readily offered.
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, (in no particular order) we list our favorite ocean cruise lines.
Why it's best: In 2017, Oceania unveiled an expanded vegan menu, featuring more than 250 dishes to be served in the Grand Dining Room aboard all ships at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then in 2019, the line added more than 200 new plant-based menu items to its main dining room, buffet and specialty restaurants. (You can even order an entire plant-based meal at the steakhouse, Polo Grill!)
Oceania's biggest 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 and "energy" bowls with ingredients like acai berries and chia seeds.
Sample dishes: Vegan tortilla espanola, creamy mushroom soup, falafel power bowl, pad Thai, Impossible cheeseburger, Yucatan black bean burger with a charcoal bun, truffle mac 'n' cheese and coconut milk carrot cake.
Why it's best: Holland America ships carry special menus in the main dining room for both vegetarian and Indian (with meat-free options) diets, but you have to know to ask for them. Indian food does need to be specially ordered 24 hours in advance. Otherwise, the main dining room features regular vegetarian options in its lunch and dinner menus, as do specialty dining venues (though hefty cover charges might not be worth it if you can't enjoy the specialties).
The buffet has an impressive salad bar (better than on many mainstream lines), daily sushi and multiple made-to-order stations (eggs and crepes at breakfast, Asian stir-fry and pasta at lunch). The grill has portobello mushroom "burgers."
Sample dishes: Baked cheese polenta with mushrooms and artichoke hearts, tofu and vegetable stir-fry, curried cauliflower steak and asparagus, vegetable korma, grilled portobello mushroom with zucchini spaghetti.
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. 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.
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 plant-based, or ganic and vegan meal option, with a starter, vegetable-and-fruit juice, main dish and dessert. Many of these dishes are raw and not cooked, as well. Plus, there's always a vegetarian entree on the regular menu.
Sample dishes: Truffle tagliatelle pasta; chanterelle, shitake and pink grapefruit ceviche; lapsang souchong smoky portobellos.
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 and 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 papadum, raita and basmati rice.
Casual venues can be surprisingly veggie-friendly. Order a veggie burger at Guy's Burger Joint or the deli and you can top it with delicious sauteed onions and mushrooms. BlueIguana Cantina will serve you a bean burrito, the buffet will satisfy with salad and pasta, and Carnival's pizza is some of the best around. The for-fee Steakhouse will make off-menu vegetarian entrees, as well.
Sample dishes: Portobello mushrooms (with spinach, butternut squash and pepper confit), zucchini and eggplant parmigiana, and chickpea biscuits (with roasted squash and peppers).
Why it's best: The main dining room and Windjammer Cafe have long offered vegetarian meals along with meat dishes, but Royal Caribbean now offers a vegan menu in the main dining room. (Previously, vegan food was available only at the buffet or by special request.)
Sample dishes: Edamame-stuffed portobello mushrooms, vegan spaghetti "Bolognese," orzo pasta stew with green vegetables and toffee "cheesecake" with dark chocolate and a peanut butter crust.
Why it's best: Azamara has upped its dining game with a vegan menu that's available in the main dining room for lunch and dinner, as well as in the Prime C and Aqualina specialty restaurants. The menu offers 16 vegan main courses, six appetizers, four soups and eight side dishes. (However, all diners need to pay a cover charge to dine in the specialty restaurants even if they're eating off the vegan menu, available elsewhere for free.) Vegan and vegetarian menu items are marked as such.
Keep an eye out for vegetarian-friendly Indian dishes in the buffet and veggie burgers and vegetarian spring rolls at the poolside grill. Don't miss Azamara's famous White Night alfresco buffet dinner; there is so much to eat, you're bound to find something to tempt your taste buds.
Sample dishes: Tofu satay with nasi goreng, pesto pasta with olives and sun-dried tomatoes and Moroccan spiced kebab with almond couscous salad.
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 Edge), 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 dishes: Sun-dried tomato ricotta pasta, roasted carrot cumin salad, vegetable korma with seasonal vegetables and vegetable cassoulet with beans.