The cruise ship industry is all about one-upmanship, and its new big thing is outdoor dining.
Most ships have had options for this in the past — often a dining terrace outside the casual buffet room and a grill and possibly a pizza bar by the pool. But when the sun went down, cruisers moved inside to the air-conditioned dining room or a specialty restaurant, both of which insulated them from the warm weather and salt air.
But now the cruise lines are weathering rain and wind and offering a variety of outdoor dining choices in the evening, too.
Norwegian Cruise Line became one of the first to create more outdoor dining and drinking spaces when it launched its Breakaway class of ships two years ago.
“If you go into a hotel or restaurant, waterfront is a premium,” says Frank Weber, Norwegian’s vice president of product development. “We are on a ship, and we have a unique situation where we’re always waterfront.
“With the Breakaway class, we had the revelation that we should embrace the sea and embrace the ocean. Most ships have been designed inwards, and we decided to take the ship design and take it outwards.”
The Norwegian Breakaway and its sister ship, the Norwegian Getaway, have a deck of restaurants and bars with indoor and outdoor seating options. Even the Ocean Blue restaurant, the line’s most upscale specialty dining choice, has an al fresco seating area. The restaurant, run by Food Network star and Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian, features fresh seafood dishes. It made headlines with its $49-per-person cover charge, but it tends to fill up nonetheless.
“It is very popular with our guests. In Miami, you have the choice on indoor or outdoor, so now you have that on the ship, too,” Weber says.
There’s also a “seafood shack” that serves lobster rolls and fried clams and outdoor seating for a couple of the ship’s bars. Other dining spaces with outdoor seating are Cagney’s, Moderno, Mojito’s, and La Cucina.
But it’s not just Norwegian. Other major lines, including Carnival, are creating more open-air dining spaces.
“It’s kind of a natural for us to want to do more outdoor space. People want to be outside, they want to enjoy the weather,” says Greg Poplewko, Carnival’s director of product development.
When the line introduced its Carnival 2.0 improvements across the fleet in 2011, it launched the Blue Iguana, an outdoor taco bar with house-made tortilla chips, and Guy’s Burger Joint, in partnership with Food Network personality Guy Fieri on some ships. Other ships have Fat Jimmy’s Seaside Barbecue and, on Carnival Sunshine, Gigi’s Asian Kitchen, a more upscale dinner restaurant. All have outdoor spaces, but Carnival’s newest ship, Carnival Vista, scheduled to launch in January 2016, will take outdoor dining even further, offering a variety of casual and more formal restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating.
“With Vista we’re able to go even further, so Seafood Shack is one of those, and the pizza area is being expanded,” Poplewko says. “The Havana Bar is an indoor and outdoor space. Alchemy Bar and Fahrenheit 555 are also going to have an outdoor seating area — which is going to be amazing on a night with a sunset. For Bonsai we’ve added outdoor seating as well, and it will be a little more lounge-y. It’s a la carte, so you can just get one roll, and it’s open late.”
Viking will launch its first oceangoing ship, the Viking Star, in May, and it, too, will have a variety of options for diners who want to eat outside.
“Torsten Hagen (the line’s chairman) is a fan of al fresco dining, so we knew for Viking Star we wanted to include as many al fresco dining options as we could,” says Richard Marnell, Viking’s senior vice president of marketing. He said Viking’s newest river vessels already have outdoor dining options.
Outdoor adding adds some concerns, of course. There’s rain, the need to open and close windows, and providing the right balance of seats in the shade and sun. But the desire to create “an absolutely spectacular environment that is al fresco with a view” trumped them all, Marnell said.
The World Café restaurant will run most of the length of the ship, and its doors will fold back to open up completely. Hagen is so excited about the Aquavit Terrace, located at the stern, that he has already claimed a designated “Chairman’s Table.”
Marnell said Viking had to deal with structural considerations and coast guard regulations when designing a ship with more of an outdoor focus, and in some places the kitchen and other staff areas had to be moved from the outside to an interior space.
“We are sailing; we are on a moving object,” Marnell said. “So that creates wind. We obviously have to consider that and build in windbreaks, some kind of glass partition strategically placed to manage the airflow so that when you sit out there you are in a comfortable environment.
“It’s like driving in a car and you stick your head out the window — obviously, you have airflow right there.”
But the issues faced in designing these spaces appear to be worth the effort in terms of customer satisfaction. And while not everyone likes to eat outside — Weber cites humidity’s effect on women wearing makeup and men wearing suits — the cruise lines have found that these spaces fill up.
“I do think there will be more of this in the future,” Weber says. “The cruise industry is a very competitive industry. We are all trying to create the most attractive ship, and the best ship design for our guests. We want to be the leader and the innovator.”
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