CRUISE Part 1: Eating My Way Through the Caribbean

January 4, 2012

Let the cruise recapping commence! As I type this, it feels like my building is gently rocking under my feet, like I’m still onboard, and I wonder when that feeling will go away. The last 36 hours on the cruise were in the midst of pretty sizable waves that never let me forget I was on an ocean-going vessel (it wasn’t bad enough that things were flying off shelves), but now that I’m on dry, stable land, I’d like it to feel that way. Is that too much to ask?

I have no right complaining. I just spent a week on a fantastic cruise, and I enjoyed every minute of it. At the beginning of December, My uncle Philip invited me to join him, my aunt Mary, and their daughters Olivia, Camille, and Isabel, for a week in the Caribbean. Yes, Please! On the day after Christmas, I flew from Michigan to Puerto Rico, met up with them at the pier, and we boarded Adventure of the Seas, a ship in the Royal Caribbean International fleet. The Adventure of the Seas is big (3,700 passengers, 1,300 crew) and I couldn’t fit it all in one photograph, so I had to stitch together two:

Our ship is the middle one in this picture, taken in St. Thomas:

The ship had some great features. Ten pools and hot tubs…

…a four-story promenade that ran down the middle of the ship, lined with stores and bars…

…and a three-story main dining room:

Other cool features included a gym, a rock climbing wall (!) and an ice rink (!!), and believe me, I have plenty to say about all three of those places in an upcoming post!

It was a seven-day cruise, and it departed from San Juan, Puerto Rico with stops in St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Aruba, Curacao, and 2 days at sea before heading back to San Juan. It was an extraordinarily active week for me, but I’ll get to that tomorrow. Today, I thought I’d focus on the one thing that weighed most on my mind before the cruise even began:


Chances are that if you’ve only heard one thing about cruising, it’s that there’s no shortage of food – an endless array of meals, buffets, snacks, more meals, more buffets – a conveyor belt that doesn’t stop depositing coconut shrimp and cheesecake directly in your mouth. Moments after I accepted my uncle’s cruise invitation, the questions arose: How am I going to handle this? How will I eat well on a cruise ship?

There’s truth to the notion that you can eat nonstop on a cruise, and I decided that I wouldn’t do that. I needed a strategy. I talked about it with a few people, including my friend Kristy, who honeymooned a few years back on a Mediterranean cruise. She made a valid point: “People go on cruises and eat like they’ve just gotten out of prison and have never seen real food in their entire lives. Just don’t eat like that.”

Sounded like a plan to me. I knew we’d be dining every night in the main dining room (table #443 on the Mozart level of the three-story dining room pictured above), and those meals would be fancy ones that I would want to enjoy, so I established a rough plan: eat sensible breakfasts and lunches, and then enjoy dinner.

Royal Caribbean ended up helping me with dinner decisions more than I was anticipating, too. They have a Vitality menu, which has, every night, options for a three-course meal that add up to under 800 calories.

I didn’t order exclusively off this menu, but I used it as a foundation. The rest of the menu didn’t have calories counts, so it was nice to see a few items that did. Most nights I skipped dessert, and ordered two starters (a soup and a salad, for example), and if the Vitality entree was something that didn’t interest me, than I ordered another one, and made sure the other components of my meal were light. I ate well: lobster tail, pork tenderloin, caviar. My family was happy to let me sample things that they ordered, so I tried bites of a lot of other items: escargot, duck, and a bunch of desserts: passion fruit cheesecake (not very good), chocolate-orange parfait (not bad at all), and a chocolate mousse brownie sandwich (amazingly delicious).

The two desserts I did order were both off the Vitality menu: one was a berry mousse, and the other was angel food cake, and both were under 200 calories. On New Year’s Eve, our waiter came by with a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, so I enjoyed one of those, too.

Here I am with my cousins during dinner on New Year’s Eve – Olivia (20) is on the right, Camille (18) is on the left, and Isabel (13) is next to me in the middle:

Another good thing about the fancy dinners was that the portion sizes were appropriate, which is to say, in a world of super-sized everything, that they were small. One night I ordered a non-Vitality entree: a salmon dish that came with potato croquettes (a fancy term for deep-fried potatoes). My plate arrived with two croquettes that, combined, were about the size of four tater tots. I ate one of them, and after realizing that they also tasted just like tater tots, I set the other one aside. Not worth it. Sometimes the portion size provided a good laugh: this is the butternut squash and white bean salad from the Vitality menu (keep in mind that’s a salad plate, not a dinner plate):

It was delicious, all five bites of it! And you know what? I didn’t need more.

The biggest challenge for me during the week was breakfast. We ate breakfast every morning in the Windjammer, the big dining room that serves a buffet, non-stop, from 6am to 4pm. I love breakfast food, and their buffet had it all: waffles, pancakes, three types of eggs, five types of breakfast meats… the former version of me would have gone batshit crazy and eaten it all – plate after plate after plate. But I’m not the former version of me anymore!

The first morning, I took a few minutes to survey the entire buffet before I even picked up a plate. I wanted to know every option before making a decision. I ended up piecing together a healthy breakfast that became my template for every breakfast that week:

  • Fruit. Cruises have lots of fruit, and I took advantage. I ate melon and pineapple with my breakfast, and would take whole apples and bananas in case I needed a snack later in the day.
  • Eggs. They had hard-boiled eggs every morning, so I took three, and either ate no yolks or just 1 yolk.
  • Toast. An english muffin or a piece of wheat toast, always dry.
  • Protein. They always had smoked salmon, so I often got a little of that. Sometimes I switched it up and got 2 turkey sausage links or a small piece of ham.
  • Veggies. The smoked salmon area always had cucumber, tomato, and onion slices, and I always loaded up on these items, even if I didn’t have any salmon that day.

There were other items that I occasionally included in the mix, like yogurt or cottage cheese, but, for the most part, my breakfast remained pretty consistent.

Half the time, I returned to the Windjammer for lunch. The lunch buffet was expansive: a grill with hot dogs and hamburgers, all sorts of hot entrees including a carving station, and platter after platter of desserts, but I focused on the salad bar. It wasn’t a great salad bar, but it sufficed, and I supplemented my veggies with fruit, a roll, and protein: a small slice of something from the carving station, or some turkey from the cold cuts platter. The first two days I didn’t eat lunch at all, because we were so busy running around St. Thomas and St. Maarten, but that left me more hungry for dinner than I preferred, so I made a point after that to never skip lunch again.

Some other elements of my food strategy:

  • Alcohol. I stayed alcohol-free. That was easy, because I’m already a non-drinker, except for very special occasions, like weddings or New Year’s Eve. I permitted myself a drink on New Year’s Eve, but didn’t end up ordering one – I had a sip of my aunt’s champagne, which wasn’t very good, and decided I didn’t need to drink. Plus, that was the night that the ship was rocking the most due to the waves, so I didn’t even need alcohol to stagger down the hall and feel a little out of it!
  • Beverages. So what did I drink? Water. Lots of water. Philip, Mary and the girls are big iced tea drinkers, so I drank a lot of that, too.
  • Snacks. The apples and bananas I grabbed every morning at breakfast served as my snacks, which I mostly ate during the day. I didn’t eat at all after dinner, except one night, around 10pm, when I was feeling hungry – so I ate a banana.

There you have it – my guidelines to healthy eating on a cruise ship! The most difficult days were the first couple, but after I settled into a rhythm, it got a lot easier. It helped that the buffet items I ate were always in the same spot every day, so most of the time, I didn’t even have to see all the food that I was passing up.

One of the things I thought, throughout the week, was how special this week was. I can’t think of another situation where I would be exposed to so much food for so long, and I stayed motivated by reminding myself that if I can stay healthy on this cruise ship, than I can stay healthy in any situation. And I did. Now, whenever I’m feeling especially tempted or in a setting full of unhealthy options, I know I’ll be able to look back with pride and think, I did it on a cruise ship, so I KNOW I can do it here. What a good feeling that will be!

Keep it up, David!

Coming Tomorrow: CRUISE: Part 2: Burning Calories


Lunch at Spago

February 21, 2011

Man, did I have a great meal the other day.  Delicious food, wonderful company – it was a really special time.

Way back last fall, I was able to do something really nice for my friend Felise, who I’ve met and become friends with because she’s also a regular at Slimmons, and ever since then she’s wanted to return the favor by taking me out to lunch.  Well, months and months went by, and no lunch, but we finally were both free a few days ago on Saturday, after one of Richard Simmons’ classes.  So Felise took me to Spago.  Spago, in Beverly Hills, is the flagship restaurant in the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group.  It won a James Beard award a few years back, and was one of three restaurants in Los Angeles to get 2 stars in the Michelin Guide in 2008.  It appears Felise doesn’t mess around when she wants to take someone to lunch!

Here’s me and Felise at our table.  It was a great table, tucked away in the corner, so we could see most of the main dining room:

Felise, who is also trying to eat healthily, had called ahead, and asked if they had reasonably healthy menu options, and the host told her that we could basically order any food that was on the menu, but have it cooked any way that we liked.  So we started looking over the menu, but had barely started when our server returned, removed the menus from our hands (politely) and said, “you’ll have time to look at these in a few minutes – we’re going to bring some things out from the kitchen.”

A few minutes later, the amuse-bouches started arriving.  An amuse-bouche is a one-bite appetizer, which literally means, in French, ‘mouth amuser’ – that much I knew from watching umpteen seasons of Top Chef.  The definition also includes (and I just read this online) that in fine dining situations, amuse-bouches are never ordered from menus, but instead sent out as a present from the chef to his patrons.  In total, they brought us 4 amuse-bouches, and, true to tradition, they were comped on our bill at the end of the meal.

First up, a tuna tartare in some sort of sesame cracker that was formed into a cone.  If you’ve never had tartare before, it’s raw meat (usually steak or fish) that’s blended with herbs and maybe a light sauce:

It was fantastic.  Then they brought out 2 more, in rapid succession:

On the left is smoked salmon, with a little salmon roe in the center, served on a blini (a little savory pancake) with creme fraiche.  On the right is ceviche, which is a cold soup made from raw fish or seafood that is cooked only in acid (typically, lime juice).  I forgot what kind of fish was in this ceviche, but it also had a little blood orange segment in it, too.

I can tell now that I’m going to run out of ways of saying how delicious everything was at Spago, so maybe I’ll just stop trying, and tell you now, and for the last time – it’s amazing.  Wonderfully attentive service, exquisite food – if you have the chance to go to Spago, don’t pass it up!

The last amuse-bouche was bacon confit with a bechemel sauce, wrapped in pastry:

Confit is a cooking technique (and a preservation technique) where meats are slowly cooked in salted fat, and bechemel is a white sauce.

Some of the items in these dishes were certainly things that I wouldn’t eat on a regular basis, but since everything was literally one bite, I didn’t worry about calories or fat.  Not at this meal!

We were finally picking up our menus and looking again, when Felise asked our server what she recommended that was lower in fat and calories, but still flavorful, and without skipping a beat, the server responded: “We have a fantastic red snapper with asian vegetables, and we can steam the fish, steam the vegetables, serve the miso/ginger/soy glaze on the side, and bring you some steamed brown rice.”  Sounds delicious to me!  We both ordered it.  And here it is (I forgot to photograph the rice, but you know what that looks like):

The vegetables included bok choy and lotus root, which I don’t think I’ve ever tried before, and I’m telling you, I could eat this every single day with no problems at all!  The fish was delicate and flaky, the vegetables tender.

Although our server suggested ordering a fresh berry plate for dessert, we were both full and decided to pass.

Thank you again, Felise, for a terrific lunch!

Keep it up, David!