Bringing culinary excellence back to cruises

Epernay, the main dining room on Celebrity Solstice. The cruise line aims to rival experiences at top eateries on land.

One of this year's sleekest new cruise ships stakes its reputation on style and food. Celebrity Equinox, second of five new ships planned by Celebrity Cruises, poses the question: Can a big ship provide service and dining that is equal to a vacation on land?

So far, the answer is yes. Reviews have been solidly positive for the Celebrity Solstice, which debuted last year, and its twin sister, Celebrity Equinox, which began cruising in late July. The ships sport a sophisticated contemporary design, fine art collections, and a group of specialty restaurants that have drawn raves from critics and passengers.

When vacationers cite reasons for taking a cruise, they list the easy lifestyle aboard ship, gambling, lots of food, fresh salty air, good value for the dollar, and exciting port excursions. Fine dining has not been near the top of the list, partly because serving 1,000 people at the same time seldom leads to culinary triumphs.

As the average age of cruisers gets younger - and European travelers join the mix at sea - mealtime expectations are rising. Cruisers who want fine dining tend to book the small, more expensive luxury vessels.

Celebrity is the cruise line that brought fine dining to mass-marketed ships in the mid-1990s, revolutionizing meal preparation at sea with the help of famed chef Michel Roux of Bray, England. Roux redesigned Celebrity ship kitchens away from the typical steam-table approach. He used a stopwatch to time each plate from cook to passenger.

But after Celebrity was bought by Royal Caribbean, the cruise line began to slip in its food operation, and ratings fell from "special" to "good."

Now, with new ships and a plan to rival dining experiences at top restaurants on land, Celebrity is back.

Celebrity is considered a "premium" cruise line, which is a step above the large first wave of mainstream cruise ships - Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian (NCL), Costa, Disney, and MSC - and a step below the luxury ships operated by Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Sea Dream. Celebrity's premium competitors are Holland America, Princess, Oceania, and Celebrity's own Azamara.

Evidence of the difference is in the price. Mainstream ships usually charge $100 per person per day - or less - for two people in the least-expensive cabins. Premium ships usually charge about $150 per person per day. Luxury can be $500 or more. But this is not a typical year - the scary economy has brought lower prices throughout the cruise industry - so bargains can be found on all ships. Celebrity, for instance, was advertising in August on its Web site a seven-night January Caribbean cruise on the Solstice starting at $649 per person for two people.

When budgeting, keep in mind that meals in the main dining rooms of most ships are included in cruise rates, but some specialty restaurants charge an additional fee. On Celebrity, consider that passengers tend to eat several meals at specialty restaurants aboard ship. These restaurants charge about $50 per night, on average, per couple.

Celebrity Solstice and Equinox, both of which will be cruising out of South Florida into the Caribbean this winter, are large ships - with 2,850 passengers, about 900 more than other Celebrity ships. Some cruisers feared longer lines, poorer service, and battles for deck chairs on the new ships. Celebrity countered with more staff, a sparkling casual restaurant designed around a mass of efficient serving stations, and a promise of a "concierge" to help passengers find available deck chairs.

Celebrity says the cruise line needed the larger ships, with more paying passengers offering economies of scale, to afford upgrades in the quality of style, meals, and services.

"Solstice separated us from other ships," says Jacques Van Staden, Celebrity's vice president of culinary operations. He was aboard the Equinox during a two-night cruise out of Southampton, England, in late July.

"We offer more variety," Van Staden says. "Some ships have six items on their menu in the main dining room. We have 12. There is no land-based operation in the world that does what we do on this ship. We have 31 new menu items every day for 14 days. And everything is from scratch every day.

"You don't even feel you are on a ship," Van Staden adds.

Each of the Equinox's three open-to-all specialty restaurants - from Asian to steak house to Continental - has its own sense of place.

"When you walk into Silk Harvest, you are not expecting to order a steak," Van Staden says. "And no one else has the clean cuisine of Blu," a fourth specialty restaurant available to passengers who book spa cabins. (Among amenities in a spa cabin is a nifty shower with multiple nozzles.)

Celebrity passengers bring aboard different needs, Van Staden says. Some eat in specialty restaurants every night; others order meat-and-potatoes regularly in the main dining room. Either way, he says, the meal "had better be good."

When you think about how much money people spend to eat well on land, Van Staden says, they can eat on Celebrity for the same price - and get a cruise as well.

Solstice and Equinox

For information about Celebrity Cruise's newest ships, go

to the line's Web site,, or call 1-800-647-2251.

Also, contact a travel agent who specializes

in cruises.

- David G. Molyneaux