Notes on cruising, 3

Some personal notes on some “cruise topics”–some of the things you may have heard about cruising. Notes are based on our experiences, which include cruises on American Hawaii (defunct), Regency (defunct), Renaissance (defunct), Crown (defunct), and–lest you get too much of a pattern here–Crystal (our favorite line), Radisson Seven Seas, Windstar (these two probably tie for almost-favorites), Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and Holland America. In one or two cases I may include what I’ve read if it’s consistent. I’ll use an FAQ format, because that’s always fun.

What’s with the tuxedo evenings?

Traditionally, most 7-day and longer cruises include two formal evenings, which used to mean tux or dinner jacket for men, evening gown or similar for women. The first one’s almost always the day after you board, when there’s usually a Captain’s Party to welcome you aboard. The second one’s typically either the next-to-last night (never the last night, because people start packing early) or the last day at sea if it’s not the last night. On better lines, that formal night might feature the Captain’s Farewell Party. (On both occasions, if the ship’s not too big, you get portraits taken with the captain–but you’re never obliged to buy them.) Longer cruises may have more: Crystal cruises typically feature three formal nights (and usually run 10 to 14 days or longer). (“Secret”: The middle formal night on Crystal is the Crystal Society party, for repeat cruisers, which may be 50% to 80% of the ship.)

If this all sounds awful to you, don’t worry too much. Most mainstream lines don’t seem to care much about dress codes any more (although you’re expected not to wear t-shirts or shorts, or to go barefoot, in the dining room at dinner). Of the lines we’ve sailed, I always found that a sport coat was good enough on Regency and American Hawaii and Delta Queen (you see very few tuxes on Delta Queen!). Windstar never has formal nights (“resort casual” is the constant dress “code,” which for me means tropical shirts), and ships cruising in the South Seas (where we took Renaissance) almost never have formal nights.

When we took our first Crystal cruise, we knew from reputation that they meant formal. I’d never worn a tux. Turns out that a properly-fitting tux is fun to wear, particularly if (like me) you don’t normally wear a coat & tie at work: It’s a harmless form of dress-up, and most of the people look great on formal nights. I’d guess that 90% of Crystal passengers really do dress up on formal nights, and probably 80% of Radisson Seven Seas (RSS) passengers; Holland America was much more hit-and-miss.

By the way, there are two other typical dress codes: “Informal” and “Casual.” “Informal” used to mean coat & tie for men, dress or pantsuit for women; on Crystal and RSS, at least, the coat remains but the tie’s optional. “Casual”–always the first night, always the last night, and a fair number of other nights–is decently dressed but not dress-up. Of course, some men will wear a coat & tie every night, and some women will dress to the teeth every night. But not many.

What about dining all the time with people you don’t know, and at the same time every evening?

On our first two or three cruises, we tended to ask for two-person tables at dinner, and usually got them. We frequently shared tables at lunch, and finally concluded that we were missing a bet by not sharing a dinner table. We now ask for a six-up (always at the early seating–we don’t like to eat late) on those ships with traditional two-seating/assigned-table operations. (Crystal falls into this category; so does Delta Queen, I think, and so did Regency. So does Holland America.) We’ve had interesting and frequently delightful dinner companions on every Crystal cruise and on most Delta Queen cruises. We’ve had mixed luck on the two Holland America cruises: On one cruise, we considered asking for a table change (but didn’t), and on the second we did ask for (and get) a new table because we couldn’t see dining with one of the people for 10 nights. Generally, though, we’ve enjoyed getting to know people over the course of a cruise. The six-person table allows for more diverse interaction, while eight-person tables are hard to talk across.

We like the two-seating/assigned-table format on a line like Crystal, where the nature of the line and its pricing seems to offer a high probability that dinner companions will be reasonably well educated and not complete idiots. (Not a certainty, but a high probability.) But here too, times are changing. Most mainline cruise lines offer some variation on open seating in at least some dining rooms; some have loads of restaurant choices (some of them at extra fees). [Crystal ships have at least two first-rate alternative restaurants, by reservation, in addition to the usual Lido/buffet breakfast/lunch alternative that almost all but the very smallest cruise ships offer.] Some lines such as Windstar and Radisson Seven Seas, maintain open seating in the primary restaurant and may offer reservations in alternative restaurants (although two of Windstar’s ships don’t have alternatives, just as Delta Queen’s boats generally don’t). On those ships, we generally walk in and ask for a “shared table,” and we’ve generally found that good too (of course, if you make fast friends on board, you can get together and go in as a group).

Breakfast and lunch are rarely assigned seating. It’s rare to share a table at breakfast; lunch is almost always your choice (and we usually do if we’re not in a hurry). Lots of people seem to prefer the buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch; we tend to prefer the dining room unless we’re in a hurry. In a buffet restaurant, you’re unlikely to share a table unless the tables all fill up or unless you spot someone you know and suggest it.

And, if you get sick of people, there’s always room service (on most ships)–and on the better ships, you can order anything from the dining room menu as room service during dinner, sometimes served course-by-course. Some folks always have breakfast on their verandas. (Not us…)

Again, it’s a case of your preferences. Two of our three favorite lines don’t have traditional seating and times; our very favorite one does. It doesn’t hurt that all three serve restaurant-quality food and attract interesting people.

What about those grotesque midnight buffets and all the absurd overeating?

More than anything else, this cliche about cruising depends on the line. Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas, and Windstar don’t do midnight buffets at all, although the first two might pass snacks around in the various bars and lounges as the midnight hour nears. (Crystal has finessed the traditional “Grand Buffet” with its food art by doing it as a lunch–and in their case the food is not only gloriously worth appreciating for the carving and other artistry, it’s also worth eating.) Holland America does evening buffets, but I don’t think they’re actually at midnight, and much as I like chocolate, I found the whole idea of the “Chocoholic Buffet” a little much. Regency did have midnight buffets, but we never went, so I have no comment. (I think the same was true of Crown and American Hawaii, but not Renaissance.)

As for absurd overeating–well, if you’re a pig, any cruise line I know of will keep bringing you food as long as you ask for it, and the buffets are of course eat-all-you-want. But nobody forces you to take double or triple portions, and good cruise lines are learning to make the portions more reasonable. (We still have trouble getting modest servings of entrees, but less trouble than we used to have.) You will get varied food on good cruise lines, with Crystal at the top of the heap. (On one Crystal cruise, when the maitre d’ seated us the first night, he announced to the table that they were very proud of their menus, but considered the menu to be a starting point: If there was anything else you wanted that they could prepare, they’d try to do it on one day’s notice. He wasn’t kidding; the headwaiters love preparing tableside specialties and flaming desserts, and they really will try to accommodate you. Most other cruise lines are nowhere near as accommodating; we were stunned when Holland America’s waiters were unwilling or unable to make starch or vegetable substitutions from within that night’s menu: The combination on the menu was the only one you could get. Windstar and Seven Seas are highly accommodating, if not quite so much as Crystal.)

Pigs will be pigs. The better cruise lines don’t go out of their way to encourage it. Yes, there are at least four or five “dining opportunities” per day and, usually, 24-hour room service (free, and frequently with fairly extensive menus). But it’s not difficult to eat as much as you want and no more.

One higlight for us, on both Radisson Seven Seas and Crystal: Afternoon teas, with lots of tea choices and the appetizers you’d expect–on Crystal, sometimes served fairly elaborately, including the Mozart Tea with waiters in costumes.

What about free wine on some cruises?

Radisson Seven Seas pours wine free with dinners (and, on the Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia, lunch as well). So does Seabourn and Silversea–and I think at least one of those lines has an “open bar” policy where all alcohol is free. Windstar’s experimenting with “inclusive” cruises that include wine and beer with dinner. (RSS also stocks your fridge with complimentary beer, soda and two bottles of your preferred booze, which for us means wine.)

The good news is that the wine isn’t rotgut; it’s been quite good on Radisson Seven Seas, at least when we learned that you can ask for any alternative from that cruise’s list.

The bad news is that the wine is poured freely–and without your asking. When people don’t pay attention, they wind up drinking a lot more wine than they’d planned. Nobody gets stupid drunk, but I think that’s one reason Radisson Seven Seas cruises have very little high-energy night life: Too many people are about half gone. We’ve learned to keep an eye on the glass…and, in some ways, we’d just as soon order wine explicitly and pay for it.

That’s enough for now. Shore excursions? We use them, but adventurous folks may save money by rolling their own. Tipping? Varies by line, included some times, mostly done as part of your incidentals bill these days, no big deal (but it’s a lot of money–and has to be, because that’s how most staff make most of their living other than on American-registry ships).

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