When I was young, many decades ago, going sailing on a sailboat was an outing that involved lots of drinking. Now that I'm older and sail instead on large cruise ships, the primary focus is instead on eating. What better way to close out the decade than by going on a cruise? So, on the day after Christmas, I went aboard the Holland America Oosterdam for a relaxing jaunt to Puerto Vallarta and back, with stops in Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
San Diego has become an important cruise terminus. I loved the idea of being able to cab downtown in a few minutes and leisurely get on board, without the hassles of flying or driving long distances.
Despite the recession, the cruise industry has been building fleets of larger and larger vessels. Some are so big, in fact, that sections of some vessels are called "neighborhoods." The Oosterdam, with almost 3,000-passenger capacity, was the largest vessel I've ever sailed on.
Competition between cruise lines along services and facilities is fierce. Years ago, many voyagers were older and often retired. Now, in order to fill these large vessels, marketing has expanded to encompass more categories of consumers. Today, younger families with children, single people and gays are the target advertising. Conventions, corporate events and professional meetings are promoted to be held aboard.
But, facing the double pressures of increased capacity and tottering economy, many cruise lines are competing, especially on price. While lower prices are a boon to consumers, reduced revenue has forced many cruise lines to cut back on services and even on food.
In addition, they often look for alternate ways to increase revenue, mostly by charging for such items as drinks, classes and even bingo cards. Tips are now added to one's stateroom bill automatically, eliminating the incentive for staff to perform well.
There are luxury cruise lines such as Silversea, Crystal and Seabourne, which seemingly have escaped the need to cut at the margins, but they are often expensive. You get what you pay for.
Bottom line, the food was perhaps the best part of the trip. Dinner is served in the main dining room or in one of two specialty restaurants. Breakfast and lunch are served in the main dining room, as well, or in a buffet on the "lido" deck.
It always amazes me how the galley crew can provision the vessel in a few short hours between cruises with all the food, alcohol and beverages that will be consumed during the following week. It is even more amazing that they can turn out over 10,000 meals per day, plus snacks.
The menus in the dining room were changed daily but always featured a selection of appetizers, second courses and entrees. One could, if one had desire and capacity, order several of each item. A dessert menu followed the entrees. Flavors, freshness and presentation were quite good. The variety of food was impressive. Portions were small, but there was so much food available that one never went hungry. The daily calendar listed the times and locations where sections of the vessel would be serving meals or snacks. Room service was available around the clock.
That was the good part. There were also negatives. The scheduling of shows in the live theater was changed so "second seating" diners had to dress earlier to go to an earlier show. "First seating" diners faced pressure to leave the dining room so that it could be cleaned and reset.
Diners in the buffet lines were offered an amazing variety of choices, but the plates were small and no trays were available. That forced diners to carry plates individually to their tables, often a far walk on the large deck.
Room service took a half hour or more to arrive -- if it arrived -- and if it got the order correct. I've experienced orders that were never delivered, an order that came a day late, and an order that was clearly delivered incomplete. The specialty restaurants required reservations, but somehow my reservation got lost and I could not be accommodated.
Thus, while larger vessels and other changes in cruising have expanded the opportunities to more customers, it has become a mixed blessing. If my experiences are indicative, the standards of service have fallen. There's no free lunch.
San Diego Restaurant Week is coming, Jan. 17-22. Over 180 restaurants will be offering three-course meals at prices ranging from $20-$40, depending on which restaurant is selected. Restaurants hope that new diners will be attracted by the lower prices and, after the experience, will become regular customers. Lists of participating restaurants and prices can be found at sandiegorestaurantweek.com. Make selections and reserve immediately, because the popular venues sell out quickly.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a member of the California Restaurant Writers Association and the restaurant critic for sdgodowntown.com.