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Cruise trends 2010: Say goodbye to the buffet

A sea bass dinner on a Radisson Seven seas cruise: Theme restaurants on ships are offering more variety and smaller plates.

iTOUCH YOUR MENU Sure, it's nice to banter with the waiter as he recites the daily dinner specials. But can you ever remember the ingredients in the special sauce? On Celebrity's new Eclipse, the QSine restaurant features menus on iPads that you scroll through and enter your order. The wine menu comes in a puzzle that's like a Rubik's cube. It's menutainment.

COZY CLUBS As ships grow, more intimate club spaces rule. The must-see shows on giant new ships are in supper-club-size rooms featuring stand-up comedians you've seen on TV. Or if you prefer, there are jazz clubs done right and country and western bars where the music is about being done wrong. A Second City troupe is the feature on Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Epic. Fortunately, the yuks aren't watered down at sea; late shows can get raunchy.

THRILL-SEEKING EXCURSIONS Spending a day lounging on a deck chair is so last-century. And you can't go anywhere in the Caribbean any more without being offered the chance to zip line through the jungle. So get ready for even more adrenalin-inducing experiences. Never learned to mush? Carnival Cruises will take you for lessons at a glacier-top dog camp high in the mountains in Alaska. Crystal Cruises is offering a visit to Star City, a Russian space centre where you can experience weightless training and the G-forces of blast-off.

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LEARN A SKILL Always wished you had paid attention to those piano lessons you had as a kid? Or taken a course in Italian so you don't feel like a total tourist in Tuscany? Crystal Cruises teamed with Yamaha to give piano instruction, and also offers daily intensive language courses with Berlitz International. Feel like a kid again - and this time around, enjoy it.

GRAZING MEZE STYLE Can't decide between the fish and the beef? Enjoy them both as theme restaurants offer a series of small plates rather than piled-high entrees. Called by its Spanish name, tapas, as the evening restaurant on Oceania Cruises does on its ships, or by its Greek name, meze, as Celebrity Cruises will, the menu includes appetizer-size small plates. Order more than two - but the portions still cater to American tastes, so they're ample.

COOKING THEATRES Holland America Cruises ships are installing show kitchens for chefs who double as entertainers, and Oceania Cruises' upcoming ship Marina will offer excursions in which aspiring Julia Childs go to the market with a chef to pick up the makings for a gourmet dinner and then get hands-on training to prepare a meal sure to amaze guests back home.

ORDER UP Prefer your stir fry with snow peas and extra water chestnut? Want your naan bread straight out of the oven? On big new ships from Carnival, Princess and RCL, endless lunch buffets have been replaced with small food stations scattered through the ship ranging from Chinese to deli to Indian where you choose your ingredients and have the food cooked to order. It's aided by the latest technology in high-speed induction cooking, so the wait times are less than they might be at a traditional salad bar.

EXTREMELY EXOTIC PORTS Crossword puzzle enthusiasts will get a kick out of the "where in the world?" places showing up in cruise brochures. There seems to be a competition this year to visit unique ports that are presumably unspoiled. Examples: Seabourn Cruises is offering stays in Palopo (on Indonesia's Sulawesi island) and Antsiranana (in Madagascar). Azamara Cruises is making maiden calls at Chania (on Crete), Korcula (an island in Croatia) and Katakolon (the gateway to Olympia in Greece). Silversea Cruises offers up Atuona Hiva Oa (in the Marquesas Islands) and Crystal Cruises has a maiden call at Mormugao (in Goa).


Potemkin villages Why explore the exotic villages of a Caribbean island when you can spend the day in a faux village that's as sterile as a suburban shopping mall? No matter whether the ship is docked in Cozumel, Grand Turk or Roatan, you'll step ashore into a "welcome centre" village with virtually identical watering holes and shops whose merchandise varies only in the name of the island printed on the T-shirts. All too many visitors fall to the allure of the shooters and sangria at the theme bar and never get beyond the gates to experience the real flavour of the islands they visit.

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Cover charges Virtually every ship now offers additional dining in small restaurants providing a steak house ambience or an Italian trattoria feel. But on an increasing number of ships, guests are dinged extra $20 to $30 for the privilege of being seated.

A la carte pricing An increasing number of ships have specialty restaurants that may be run by a shore-side chain and priced in addition to what you pay for the cruise. Royal Caribbean has Johnny Rockets restaurants, Norwegian Epic will have sushi and noodle bars where you pay per dish, and Holland America has coffee bars in its Internet cafés where the lattes run about $4.

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