You won't find any wow-factor features like a bowling alley on Holland America ships, but the line is betting that passengers will be wowed by its culinary program.

The $13 million HAL spent on installing Culinary Arts Centers on each of its 13 ships might not be much of a gamble. A recent study by the Travel Industry Association said that an increasing number of travelers are focusing their vacations on food and wine.

Twenty-seven million travelers, or 17% of U.S. leisure travelers, specifically sought culinary and wine-related activities while traveling.

Cruise lines jumped on the chuck wagon a while ago, but HAL has made it a centerpiece of its onboard experience.

Through a partnership with Food and Wine magazine, HAL designed its Culinary Arts Program, which will bring 52 "celebrated chefs, wine experts and cookbook authors" onto its ships to offer culinary demonstrations, cooking classes and programs.

The chefs will offer hour-long culinary demonstrations during sea days that will be broadcast in all staterooms throughout the cruise.

Cooking classes with a maximum of 12 people per class go for $29 per person. HAL said the classes sell out fast. Each chef crafts a different culinary experience. One might include a trip ashore to a regional market to buy ingredients for a recipe. One might include an excursion to a vineyard or restaurant. 

At a culinary demonstration last month in New York on the Noordam, it was clear where HAL spent the bulk of its investment. The million-dollar centers are made to look like television cooking show kitchens, and they do.

The kitchen is on a stage, equipped with a Wolf Range and Sub-Zero refrigerator. Two large, plasma screens show close-ups of the counter where guest chefs do their thing.

For this demonstration HAL brought mixologist Julie Reiner from New York's Flatiron Lounge, who got things going by making a Juniper Breeze, a concoction blending grapefruit juice, gin and some other splashes, including elderberry cordial.

Reiner will be on the Rotterdam's 16-day European Capitals cruise leaving May 14.

Next up was one of HAL's executive chefs, Raymond Southern, who put together some complicated appetizers with ingredients like sambal oelek, a spicy condiment used in Asian dishes, and five-spice powder, also used in Asian cuisine.

People embarking from New York might find these ingredients with ease, but elsewhere in the country, it may require some online savvy.

The crowd was intrigued by Southern's tea-smoked scallops napoleon with fiesta salsa and espresso jelly -- yes, a jelly flavored with espresso -- and a Japanese-Peruvian spiced tuna ceviche with hot sesame leche de tigre, or tiger's milk. 

At a lunch following the demo, guests were able to try his creations as part of a menu at the Pinnacle Grill, one of the Noordam's onboard restaurants. Southern said that it is common for the dishes from the cooking demos and classes to show up on menus at the Pinnacle Grill and the main dining rooms.

For a full lineup of chefs, wine connoisseurs and cookbook authors who will be sailing with HAL this season, go to www.hollandamerica.com/signatureofexcellence/culinaryartscenter.do.

To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].

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