Food fit for fitness buffs awaits nouvelle cruisers

October 30, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

Suggest a cruise vacation to a fitness buff, and you're apt to get a negative response. Sure, most lines have added aerobics classes and exercise equipment to their ships, and shore excursions now include active options such as white-water rafting, diving and mountain biking.

But what about the food? A dozen feedings a day, a parade of killer desserts, and that ominous midnight buffet . . . As one quipster put it: "Afloat you bloat."

Not in the '90s.

Responding to demand from health-conscious repeat passengers, and trying to attract a new clientele among younger vacationers, the cruise industry has lightened up its menus while beefing up athletic activities. Salad bars have become standard luncheon fare on the buffet deck. Vegetarian entrees and simply broiled chicken and fish dishes have joined the mix of red meats in the main dining room. Menus proliferate with asterisks denoting appetizers, entrees and desserts that are low in calories, sodium and cholesterol.

Even the dreaded midnight buffet has shaped up, with fresh fruits, light pasta dishes and other guilt-free items sharing space with lobster Newburg, beef stroganoff and crepes suzette.

"In the last few years, I'd say nearly 100 percent of cruise ships have changed their meals and menus to accommodate passengers who want lighter, healthier fare," says Jim Godsman, president of Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group representing 32 cruise lines that account for 120 ships -- 97 percent of the business sold in the United State and Canada.

Jennifer De La Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival Cruises, one of the largest fleets, with eight ships, says a recent study by her company's food and beverage department found a 300 percent increase in consumption of vegetarian entrees over the past few years, a 20 percent increase in seafood and poultry orders, and a 20 percent decrease in interest in red meat.

Julie Benson, of Princess Cruises, says drinking habits have followed eating patterns onto the health bandwagon. "Sales of mineral waters have zoomed on our ships," she says.

Those who want to eat and drink to the hilt can still do so on most ships -- and many passengers still see huge amounts of rich goodies throughout the day as an essential part of the cruise experience. But cruise lines report that a growing number of passengers are after quality rather than quantity and don't want to be confronted with food-laden tables -- heralded continuously over the ship's loudspeaker system -- every time they turn a corner.

"We actually had people thank us for not having a midnight buffet, saying it's one more temptation they don't need," says Robin Lindsay, a vice president with 2-year-old Diamond Cruises, which operates the Radisson Diamond. He added that the Diamond's dinner menu always included a selection of healthful choices, including vegetarian entrees, grilled fish and chicken dishes, and low-calorie pastas.

Ann Burguieres of Regency Cruises says ordering of diet-conscious items soared when her company created a separate Lean and Light dinner menu, with each course labeled with counts for calories, sodium and cholesterol. The line also has a Lean and Light buffet at lunch, with salads, fresh fruits and high-fiber granola and breads. People appreciate not having to navigate past all the fattening temptations to find something healthful, she says.

The degree of food consciousness-raising on board varies from one cruise line to another, ranging from a few low-fat items flagged on the dinner menu to dining rooms devoted exclusively to healthful eating.

The most ambitious program -- at a price -- debuted in May aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth II. Passengers on trans-Atlantic crossings can book a $599 Spa World Health and Fitness Package, that not only entitles them to the run of the ship's 6,000 square feet of exercise facilities, abundant spa treatments and lectures on nutrition and stress reduction, but also gets them a seat in a dining room where only food low in calories, sodium and fat is served.

The package can be bought only by passengers booking first-class "Columbia-grade" cabins, and once you commit to the Spa World dining room, you can't switch back and forth to the regular restaurant. Traveling companions who want to dine with package participants in the Spa World restaurant but don't want spa food can order off the menu of the adjacent Columbia Restaurant.

Passengers who don't book the Spa World package can still refer to specially marked menu items in the ship's other dining rooms.

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