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It’s a one of the old classic cruising jokes, but until recent years midnight buffets were quite the norm on many cruise ships. My first encounter with one was on my first cruise, now nearly 21 years ago. I can remember on the first night having cocktails, going to the second sitting for dinner, going to the show, and some new friends suggesting we go to the midnight buffet “for a snack”.

At the time I was aghast. I mean, a four course meal for dinner isn’t my usual nightly fare as it is, but to back it up with even more food before hitting the hay seemed over the top. But to my astonishment the buffet was well patronised….particularly the dessert table!

Thinking back to that first voyage, it got me thinking how much cruise food has changed over the years. Fast forward to 2008, and another cruise, this time aboard the Crystal Serenity. It’s 9.45 am, we’re cruising off the coast of Turkey, and even though it’s a stunning day outside many guest have given up the opportunity of working off their breakfast on deck in favour of a different food-related activity.

What we were packing the Stardust Lounge for was an up-close-and-personal cooking demonstration by one of the world’s great chef’s, Anton Mosimann, who runs a self-named private dining club in London’s Belgravia, and travels the world masterminding culinary events. He’s also a ‘regular’ with Crystal as a guest chef, and a member of an elite and rapidly expanding seagoing roster spanning the cruise industry, which reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in the world of high class cuisine.

Even in those early days of midnight buffets, food has always been an integral and important part of the cruise-ship experience. After all, unlike a shore-based resort, passengers on a cruise are eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in the one place, and if you’re lucky enough to be cruising for more than a week, that’s a lot of meals.

In recent years, however, many cruise lines have felt the need to up the ante and redefine onboard cuisine. Where cruise ships used to be dubbed “floating smorgasbords”, largely because of the seven or eight meal opportunities presented to passengers each day on board, today the drive for many lines is more towards quality rather than quantity.

So what’s the latest on the culinary front? Food and wine themed cruises are big business among passengers, with luxury lines such as Silversea Cruises leading the way with guest chefs and exclusive wine tasting events.

Cooking school is also a growing trend; these days you can high the high seas with lines including Royal Caribbean and Holland America and brush up on your kitchen skills as well as deepen your tan.

And if you’re only in it for the food, not the participation, many ships are now boasting alternative dining venues and restaurants such as the Seabourn Odyssey’s Restaurant 2, which serves a different degustation menu every night (without a surcharge).

Some are headed up by high profile chefs, such as local favourite, Luke Mangan, with P&O, and the Japanese Legend, Nobu on Crystal. The latest to join this growing club is the highly acclaimed German chef, Dieter Muller, who’s at the helm of a restaurant on board Hapag-Lloyd’s ms Europa.

What does this all mean for cruise fans? More options, better quality food, and less risk of your taste buds getting bored. The downside? Well quality may be overtaking quality, but over-indulge and your waistline may still be at risk. Happy cruising!