River ships are never going to be able to offer the plethora of dining choices available on ocean-going megaships; they're simply too limited by space. But, slowly, the onboard dining experience on European river cruises is progressing.
Viking River Cruises spent $48,000 to bring its European food and beverage team to Southern California last month for nine days of wining and dining through Los Angeles and Santa Barbara wine country, so that they could get a better sense of the evolving American culinary experience.
Viking wanted the Europeans to understand that food and wine is "more than just what goes into my stomach," said Joost Ouendag, vice president of product marketing for Viking. "It's an understanding of where it comes from, the culture that it comes from ... to make sure that people understand more about what they eat, why they eat it and why they eat it where they eat it."
For 2010, Viking is integrating into its port lectures an explanation of regional culinary traditions.
"During a port talk, we'll talk about what you're going to find on your plate and why this is significant," said Ouendag.
But eventually the goal is a much larger one: to have the onboard dining experience meet the expectations of the evolving American palette, from satisfying Americans' more sophisticated understanding of wines to trends in locally-grown, fresh produce. And, in general, just to include greater variety on the menu.
In the past few years, river cruise operators have been trying to do just that: Provide greater variety in dining options, albeit within the ships' relatively limited amount of space. The results have been smaller, alternative dining venues to the traditional restaurant, such as a casual lunch or dinner option in the bar and lounge area, or, increasingly, in aft lounge areas that have been built on some of the newer river cruise ships in the past two years. Others have introduced grilling on the roof deck when weather permits.
Ama Waterways is planning on introducing another dining model on its two newbuilds, the Amabella and Amaverde, slated for 2010 and 2011 delivery, respectively. Both ships are devoted entirely to the Australian market, so Ama isn't marketing the developments in the U.S. But since Australians come a longer way to visit Europe and consequently tend to book longer river cruises, the two new ships will be a good testing ground for the new dining options, according to Ama President Rudi Schreiner.
On the Amabella and Amaverde, Schreiner said, Ama plans on dividing the restaurant into two sides. A regular restaurant will be housed on one side, an Italian themed restaurant on the other.
And the aft alternative restaurant "is going to be a special-experience restaurant," Schreiner said. "It's something that people might do once or twice doing the cruise. It's not like in the front, where you have a choice of three or four entrees. The chef will be cooking something different [every night]."
So while its not the nine specialty restaurants on Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas, river cruise ships in the last few years have evolved from one main restaurant to offering two, three and even four different dining options.