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Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best and Worst of the Buffets

I have to admit, I love cruise ship buffets. But, I also hate them.
 
Or rather, I hate what they do to my self-control. But my spouse reassures me that anything I gain will come off in no time when we get home. So, we both leave the buffet stuffed and happy, and I always know he’s right.

Horizon Court
Whether you love or hate the buffets, they come in handy when you don’t want to dedicate up to two hours to the main dining room, get out of your shorts or rush back from port. So, here’s my take on the best and worst of some of them and why:
 
Food. Maybe not always the hottest and maybe not always the most appealing, but you can’t beat the variety. Overall, the buffet food isn’t hugely different from one cruise line to another. But there are the occasional surprises.
 
Often at dinner, you’ll see the same dishes as what’s in the main dining room. And while the presentation leaves much to be desired (think stainless steel steam tables vs. parsley garnishes and sauce swirls), you do get to see what the food looks like before getting it. Which is something you can’t do in the dining room.  

Windjammer's shrimp crackers
There are also many additional choices, and some of these can be damn good. In the Emerald and Caribbean Princess’ Horizon Court, for example, on Bavarian night, we feasted on Black Forest ham and landjaeger sausage, which is hard to find even on land. And other treats kept cropping up, like dried apricots and pine nuts. Or fresh papaya and smoked mackerel. One night, a crew member manned a table with an array of wonderful cheeses.

We’ve also had some dynamite Asian dishes in the Windjammer on Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas that rival any neighborhood Chinese or Indian restaurant. Some of the desserts are terrific (and even better enhanced with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream), and brie makes a nightly appearance.

Celebrity’s Oceanview CafĂ© has a treat no one else has—hard ice cream in several flavors that change every day, complete with a choice of candy toppings.
Windjammer's carrot cake--before
the whipped cream
 
If with all the choices you still can’t find something to eat, there’s always the bread. From Princess’ chocolate croissants to RCI’s pumpkin seed rolls and sugar-sprinkled breakfast loaf to Celebrity’s multigrains, the breads on the mass market ships are more than adequate—they’re outstanding.  

Layout. While some of you might not agree, I think Celebrity’s Solstice Class ships have the best layout. Their food station kiosks are nicely spaced, reducing the gridlock you see on other ships, say, around the bacon. RCI’s Windjammer in the Oasis Class ships has a similar layout. 

Oceanview's ice cream bar
Probably the worst I’ve seen is on the Caribbean and Emerald Princess. The food is dished out from one very small area, and there’s only one way in and one way out, with a crew member monitoring the flow at both ends.
 
Recently on the Allure, during the peak lunchtime, we experienced a new concept in buffet crowd control. A line had formed just to get into the Windjammer. A crew member stood in front of the line and seated people as tables became available. This actually worked quite well. Few things are likely to spark spats between cruisers more than vying for a seat in the buffet.
 
Service. Princess is best when it comes to buffet service. It’s well staffed and the crew regularly brings drinks to the tables, as well as coffee refills. Contrast this with RCI’s Windjammer, where drinks are pre-filled and laid out cafeteria-style at the beverage counter. Want one without ice? You’ll have to ask for it.
 
Musing’s Top Tip: Like to late-night nosh? Princess keeps the buffet going on the Emerald and Caribbean until midnight. To know what theme night it is, check the Princess Patter.

Your Chance to Weigh In
Celebrity’s experimenting with some already-plated options in the buffet on one of its ships. Good idea or not—what do you think?
 
And, what’s the best food you’ve found in a buffet?