WHEN THE OASIS of the Seas sailed into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2009, it did so under the spotlight of the world media, which ogled and, yes, even fawned over the largest ship at sea.
After its sister ship, the Allure of the Seas, arrived in the same port last month, it was mentioned as one of TV talk host Oprah Winfrey's favorite things, but it hardly created the fuss that the Oasis did.
Yet Allure closely resembles the Oasis. Royal Caribbean's newest Oasis-class ships offer seven distinct neighborhoods, 16 decks, 2,700 staterooms in a variety of classes and unique technological innovations.
Because they are so large, Oasis and Allure travel to select islands in the Eastern and Western Caribbean.
Both ships have a Central Park - a romantic expanse of live trees, plants and flowers that soars upward to the open sky. With bricked walkways framed with restaurants and retail stores, it's akin to strolling though a European piazza.
It's said that cruisers gain five pounds during their trip, and honestly, it can happen. Who wants to eat bad food, especially during vacation? The menus aboard Allure of the Seas are inspired by some of the world's greatest chefs. As foodie trends change, Royal Caribbean reacts with new menus and restaurants.
"A restaurant concept which was developed a decade ago and was very successful back then may no longer be relevant today," said Frank Weber, vice president of food and beverage operations. "We continuously have to reinvent ourselves."
A good example is Allure's Samba Grill, among the first Brazilian churrascarias (barbecue houses) on a cruise ship. Food is prepared according to the traditions of South American cowboy culture, with meat carved from skewers at tableside.
Other specialty restaurants include Chops Grille, the signature steakhouse, and Portofino, which serves Northern Italian cuisine in an elegant atmosphere of soft lighting and violin music. Not to mention with an outstanding wait staff that attends to every whim.
An additional fee of $15-$35 per person is required to dine at the ship's specialty restaurants, which aren't included in the price of a cruise. But when you consider that a comparable dinner at home could cost twice as much, it's worth it.
The chef de cuisine at 150 Central Park restaurant is Molly Brandt Bryant, who won a contest co-hosted by Royal Caribbean and the Culinary Institute of America. Bryant, who looks much younger than her 30 years, oversees the upscale menu and customized wine pairings at the restaurant.
Giovanni's Table, a trattoria serving Italian classics family style, and Vintages, a wine bar serving select cheeses and tapas, came to Allure after achieving success on Oasis.
Besides the gourmet restaurants along Central Park, other areas of the ship are home to Izumi Asian Cuisine, which features a sushi bar, the Mexican-influenced Rita's Cantina, and Park Cafe, with gourmet sandwiches, soups and pastries.
Even the desserts at the Cupcake Cupboard cost extra. That also goes for the seven kinds of hot dogs served at the Dog House on the ship's Boardwalk.
And for those who just gotta have a latte, Starbucks makes an appearance.
Extra charges for all these treats don't seem to deter anyone. Reservations are made online long before cruisers leave home, since many eateries sell out on certain days at sea. All this reflects the new consciousness about good food - its sources, preparation and presentation - that's made this the era of the celebrity chef. TV shows, classes, glossy magazines and the many great restaurants that have sprung up across the country have created a new class of foodies.
And cruise lines have responded.
Royal Caribbean has just launched the Lafite Wine Experience, a fleetwide wine-tasting program, and cooking demonstrations are typically offered on each cruise, Weber said. The Freedom and Liberty of the Seas ships even have a culinary-arts school, hands-on programs taught in the ships' galleys.
"Fifty to 60 percent of our guests will eat in the main dining room, but others will try one of the specialty restaurants at least once during a six-night voyage," Weber said.
Which reminds us - there are a host of inclusive, all-day dining options on Allure, as well.
And that's where the pounds are added.
Unless you take matters into your own hands by eating heath-conscious menu options at the popular Solarium Bistro or Vitality Cafe. We're not talking starvation spa menus, either. These chefs honed their culinary skills in places such as India, Asia countries around the Mediterranean Sea.
You'll find Basa fish fillets - a type of catfish found in Southeast Asia - vegetarian masalas, bouillabaisse overflowing with seafood, sushi and spicy ratatouille on eggplant. Event the ubiquitous chicken, the dish prepared at home a hundred different ways, is served with a flourish.
Though others may deny it, I'll tell you frankly: Good food during a cruise is critical. As author Virginia Woolf said, "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
P.J. Thomas is editor and copublisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997. Contact her at