Over the past couple of years, river cruise companies have begun to put greater emphasis on their culinary programs, introducing new dining areas, hiring new chefs and even creating entire itineraries around food and wine.
"Food is an absolutely integral part of the entire river cruise experience," said Joost Ouendag, vice president of product marketing for Viking River Cruises. "We don't see it as detached from the rest of the cruise. It is connected with the landscape, the traditions and the people along the rivers."
At the end of January, Viking spent $48,000 to bring its European food and beverage team to Southern California for nine days of wining and dining to get a better sense of the evolving American culinary landscape.
"The most important thing we came away with is that the American palate is not a monolithic thing; there are many American palates," said Ouendag. "It was a good refresher to see just how diverse the offerings are in a city like Los Angeles. It offers a great opportunity to introduce people to Europe's diverse cuisine in a playful, educational way."
For instance, Ouendag noted Americans' evolving taste and knowledge of wines in recent years as well as the growing emphasis on fresh and locally grown produce.
As a result of the trip, Viking will roll out several enhancements to its existing culinary program for 2010, such as the introduction of organic breakfast options and organic wine.
It will also be increasing the number of cooking demonstrations onboard. Depending on where guests are sailing, they can learn how to make Alsatian flammkuchen "a flat bread resembling a pizza and topped with ham and onions", French fondant au chocolat, or Austrian apple strudel.
And something Viking started in 2009 that it will increase in 2010 is chef visits to local markets with passengers in tow.
This past fall, Uniworld River Cruises hired a new culinary director, Bernhard Zorn, who has worked on Crystal Cruises and Silversea Cruises and has been tasked with enhancing Uniworld's food and beverage program.
Last year, Uniworld introduced its Epicurean Adventurer program, which is available on 11 of its Europe itineraries, and includes wine pairings with dinner and cooking demonstrations. And this year it added a Travelling Lite program, food options for calorie-conscious guests.
Uniworld also hosts an annual cooking summit for senior kitchen and restaurant staff from Europe, which includes visiting local markets, cooking demonstrations and workshops, menu engineering and planning, baking and pastry classes.
At this point, many new or refurbished river cruise ships have at least one, if not two, alternative dining areas to the main restaurant, including dining in the bar and lounge area or in a smaller aft lounge that many new ships are having built in. There is also a trend toward offering and marketing a more casual lunch grill on the outdoor sun deck when weather permits.
Avalon Waterways was one of the companies to embrace the sky deck grill, which is available on four of its ships -- the Avalon Scenery, Creativity, Affinity and Luminary -- and will be available on the Avalon Felicity when it launches next month. In the grill area, up to 40 diners can enjoy an open-air lunch.
Another new development is that Avalon's Royal Deck passengers can order a continental breakfast for their room (room service is not something traditionally offered on river cruises).
Italian restaurant alternative
Yet another dining alternative is being introduced on at least two river cruise lines: an additional Italian-theme restaurant.
Already, all four of Australia-based Scenic Tours' river cruise ships -- the Scenic Emerald, Sapphire, Diamond and Ruby -- have an alternative Italian-theme restaurant called Portobello's, which can seat up to 28 passengers on a reservation basis. That's in addition to the ships' main dining rooms, with capacities of as many as 184 passengers.
About 20% of Scenic's customer base is from North America, and the company is hoping to grow its presence here.
Ama Waterways, too, is planning on introducing an Italian-theme restaurant on its two newbuilds, the Amabella and Amaverde, slated for 2010 and 2011 delivery, respectively.
Both ships are devoted entirely to the Australian market.
Ama President Rudi Schreiner said the restaurants on the Amabella and Amaverde will be divided into two sides: on one side will be a regular restaurant, and on the other an Italian-theme restaurant.
And the alternative dining restaurant at the aft of the ships "is going to be a special experience restaurant," said Schreiner. "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]."