If the phrase “cruise food” calls to mind midnight chocolate buffets, ho-hum all-you-can-eat Continental fare, and towering ice sculptures, you’re in for a treat. Those ice sculptures are still around, but these days, any ship worth its salt has a celebrity toque at the kitchen’s helm. Here’s the lowdown on today’s top culinary journeys.

*note that prices of cruises are subject to change.

6. Constellation, Celebrity Cruises

Overview:
Stylish and upmarket, Celebrity Cruise Lines has raised its “fabulous” quotient with its new series of Millennium ships. Although the 2,032 passenger Constellation, the company’s latest, has plenty of bells and whistles (a multimillion-dollar art collection, impressive glass elevators, and a soaring conservatory decorated by famed floral designer Emilio Robba), the ship’s designers were also inspired by the traditional stylistic elements of cruising and used dark woods, gleaming accents, and historic memorabilia in some of the public spaces. The ship sails to Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean.

The Eats:
The Ocean Liners restaurant evokes the “make-an-entrance” dining rooms of a bygone era, with wall panels from the famed 1920s luxury liner Ile de France, a recessed dome ceiling, a mosaic floor, and a baby grand piano. Michel Roux, the highly touted French master chef behind England’s Waterside Inn restaurant, consults on all menu and wine decisions onboard Constellation, as well as the rest of the Celebrity fleet. (His eatery on terra firma, located outside London, has received three-star Michelin ratings for the past 20 years.) Though he updates the menu every six months, certain dishes always appear by popular request. These include sole poached in Sauternes, coq au vin, and upside-down apple tan.

The Crowd:
Celebrity attracts a younger crowd than comparably priced lines such as Crystal. Constellation is also popular with extended families and groups of friends.

The Digs:
The staterooms are comfortable, though somewhat small. Celebrity recently introduced a “Concierge Class,” with slightly larger cabins than the ocean-view veranda suites. They offer amenities such as welcome Champagne, daily fruit and hors d’oeuvres, fresh flowers, a pillow menu, personalized stationery, VIP invitations, and preference for embarking, disembarking, luggage delivery, dining, and shore excursions.

Standout Port:
Dublin, with its cozy pubs and charming, cobbled streets, is one of the highlights of the British Isles cruise. Guests can opt to tour the Guinness factory or divide their time between Trinity College, home to the ninth-century Book of Kells (one of Ireland’s most renowned handwritten medieval manuscripts), and the lavish castle.

Good to Know:
Constellation has a Cirque du Soleil troupe in residence; though there is no staged show, guests are invited to mingle each night with playful Cirque characters at the “Bar at the Edge of the Earth” (known during the day as Reflections Lounge).

To book, call 888-751-7804 or go to www.celebritycruises.com.
Seven-night sailings from $1,070 per person.

5. Queen Mary II, Cunard

Overview:
When you see the QM2 in port, you wonder how anything can be that big. She’s more than twice as long as the Washington Monument, and her 17 decks hover 200 feet above the waterline (that’s roughly one 23-story building). To sail on one of her transatlantic crossings—she’s the first ocean liner to be constructed for this purpose in 35 years—is to be swept back into a bygone era of cruising when luxury came standard. In addition to the New York/Southampton route, the QM2 also sails to the Caribbean, Europe, New England, and Canada.

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The Eats:
Even if you can’t eat at “the grills” (see below), you don’t have to miss out on the celeb chef experience. Todd English, the wunderkind of Mediterranean cuisine who runs the stunningly popular Olives restaurants, has an eponymous restaurant on the ship. Diners can choose the ornate dining room, with its red table linens and gold curtains, or opt to dine on deck. This new outpost is just as beloved as his others, so if you can’t get in for dinner, try lunch, as the menu is nearly identical. You’ll enjoy polished service and sample dishes such as the savory signature flatbread (set off perfectly with sweet-and-sour fig jam, Gorgonzola, and prosciutto), as well as a creamy ham hock risotto with crispy sweetbreads.

The Crowd:
At capacity, the ship can carry 3,000 people. The crowd runs the gamut from veteran crossers to lots of transatlantic “newbies,” drawn by buzz about the ship. You’ll hear plenty of passengers speaking French and German, and there are many families (especially during school holidays).

The Digs:
The ship houses a dizzying array of accommodations, all the way up to a ginormous suite totaling 9,000 square feet (created by joining five duplex apartments). But even mere mortals should avoid claustrophobic interior staterooms, especially since nearly 75 percent of cabins have generously sized balconies.

Standout Port:
In 2006, Cunard will introduce a 38-day “South America Odyssey” that rounds Cape Horn via the Drake Passage, Beagle Channel, and the Straits of Magellan. She will be the largest passenger ship to ever trawl these waters.

Good to Know:
You’ll be dining based on your accommodations: Those in the higher category suites and apartments have their own two intimate restaurants (Princess Grill and Queens’ Grill) with unhurried seating policies—not to mention fare devised by Daniel Boulud.

To book, call 800-7-CUNARD or go to www.cunard.com.
Seven-night sailings from $899 per person.

4. Wind Surf, Windstar Cruises

Overview:
Easy, breezy, and barefoot: That’s the vibe on the Wind Surf, a 535-foot motor-sail-yacht with seven computer-operated sails (they unfurl in two minutes at the push of a button, and can increase speed by about three knots). A few things you won’t find: formal dress, assigned seating at meals, or planned onboard activities—and the loyal, friendly clients like it that way. With a passenger capacity of 308, Wind Surf is three times as large as her sister ships within the fleet, Wind Spirit and Wind Star. Wind Surf calls on ports in Europe (including Spain, France, Italy, and the Greek Isles) and the Caribbean.

The Eats:
Joachim Splichal, known for Patina restaurant in Los Angeles, has developed nearly 400 recipes that are used on the Windstar ships. In the nautical-themed eatery known simply as The Restaurant, sample sautéed crab cake with brown butter and a “haystack” of fried leeks, and herbed gnocchi with braised oxtail and artichokes. Jeanne Jones, who has designed spa menus for Pritikin, the Four Seasons hotels, and Canyon Ranch, has created both low-calorie and vegetarian selections that appear daily, with nutritional information posted on the menu. Try her cannelloni (creamy vegetable-stuffed crèpes served with tomato coulis). You won’t even realize it has a measly three grams of fat per serving.

The Crowd:
The Windstar line is popular with the over-50 set, and guests tend to be repeat cruisers within the fleet. In Europe, you’ll see lots of Brits and Europeans.

The Digs:
Wind Surf‘s cabins tend to be fairly simple, though they recently added flat-screen televisions and DVD players. There are no balconies; guests choose between standard porthole accommodations and roomier suites, which include a sitting area and second bathroom.

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Standout Port:
Because of Wind Surf‘s small size, she can visit ports that many other vessels can’t. One unforgettable stop: Hvar, Croatia, a gorgeous island freckled with lavender fields, where guests can tour vineyards and admire the 17th- and 18th-century architecture.

Good to Know:
Wind Surf maintains an “open bridge” policy, which means that curious guests can drop by during the day to schmooze with the captain and crew.

To book, call 800-258-7245 or go to www.windstarcruises.com.

3. Seabourn Legend, The Yachts of Seabourn

Overview:
Imagine sailing on your own gleaming, oversize yacht—complete with a gracious cabin steward who thinks nothing of laying out your pajamas at turndown, top-notch cuisine designed by renowned American chef Charlie Palmer, and a bevy of well-planned shore excursions. The 208-passenger Legend cruises the Eastern Caribbean, Western Mediterranean, and Panama Canal; she also hosts an annual world cruise.

The Eats:
Charlie Palmer pioneered a type of cuisine that he calls “Progressive American”—he applies European cooking techniques to standout U.S.-produced ingredients. As the consulting chef for Seabourn, he developed more than 200 recipes that are used onboard, including main dishes such as pink-roasted rack of veal with potato tian and calvados cream, or the playfully named “lobster, lobster, lobster, and lobster sauce.” Options change daily, based on what the chefs find each day at the port’s local market. (In the Virgin Islands, they might pick up fresh mango and papaya to work into the desserts.)

The Crowd:
You’ll see mostly well-traveled, affluent couples. And if you’re looking to party, stop reading right now: Guests tend to be quiet, unobtrusive types.

The Digs:
Everyone gets an outside suite, and though the vessel was built during the late 1990s, she’s state-of-the-art. All of the accommodations were redone in 2000, and about a third of them now have “balconettes” (small balconies just big enough for standing and enjoying the ocean breeze, which makes the suite feel roomier). Molton Brown toiletries, silky Frette linens, and coffee tables that can be raised for a course-by-course room service meal all come standard.

Standout Port:
On Bequia, one of the smaller Grenadine islands, passengers come to shore for a private beach barbecue complete with lobster served on fine china, and a surfboard “bar” offering Champagne and caviar from the water. It’s not uncommon to see folks lolling in the waves with flutes of Champagne.

Good to Know:
In certain ports, Seabourn can arrange for a personal shopper to help you hunt down specialty items such as custom-made clothing, hand-milled soaps, and local antiques.

To book, call 206‐626‐8351 or go to www.seabourn.com.
Seven-night sailings from $2,757 per person.

2. Paul Gauguin, Radisson Seven Seas

Overview:
Radisson Seven Seas’ posh Paul Gauguin lagoon-hops through French Polynesia’s waters. Setting out from her base in Papeete, Tahiti, she travels through the rest of the Society Islands (Moorea, Bora Bora, Tahaa, and Raiatea) as well as the less-explored chains of the Cooks, Marquesas, and Tuomotus. With room for only 320 guests per sailing, the ship’s diminutive size means it can trawl cerulean waters that would be off-limits to its larger sisters.

The Eats:
After a day of snorkeling with manta rays or hiking past waterfalls, guests savor meals conceived by Jean-Pierre Vigato. (His Parisian restaurant, Apicus, has two Michelin stars.) His cuisine is showcased in La Veranda restaurant, where curvy railings and art deco furnishings lend a retro feeling. Vigato believes that simple preparations best highlight exceptional ingredients; he uses traditional French cooking methods but draws on Asian influences, which complements the South Pacific’s tropical climate. A few highlights include shrimp-leek terrine, caviar atop a potato charlotte, and fresh mahimahi on bacalao mousseline.

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The Crowd:
Thanks to the South Pacific’s legendary status as a romantic mecca, you’ll spot plenty of honeymooners onboard, along with well-heeled 40-somethings and the over-50 set.

The Digs:
There are no interior cabins, and about 50 percent of the rooms have attached balconies. You could splurge on a suite with floor-to-ceiling windows, a massive deck, and butler service, but even the smaller rooms have picture windows, marble bathrooms, and crown moldings. Tip: Of the less expensive rooms, those in Class D are positioned highest, on Deck Six.

Standout Port:
When the ship anchors off Raiatea, ride a canoe down Polynesia’s only navigable river, the Faaroa. Don’t forget to wave at the local kids doing cannonballs off the embankment.

Good to Know:
Leave the tuxes and beaded gowns at home: In a nod to its relaxed, sultry surroundings, the Paul Gauguin has no formal dinner nights. You’ll still want to look your best among this crowd, but think khakis and stylish sundresses.

To book, call 877-505-5370 or go to www.rssc.com.
Seven-night sailings from $1,795 per person.

1. Crystal Serenity, Crystal Cruises

Overview:
Large and luxe, the 1,080-person Crystal Serenity blends classic cruising elements (requisite formal nights, bridge-playing classes, and daily afternoon tea) with spiffy new services (a posh spa courtesy of Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, in-cabin DVD players, and low-carb menus). Depending on the itinerary, there can be many sea days, but there are also plenty of activities to keep guests busy. (Crystal Serenity‘s world cruise goes from Los Angeles to Dover, England, via the South Pacific—over 100 days of sailing beginning in mid-January. The rest of the year, she bides her time in the Mediterranean, on the Mexican Riviera, and around the Panama Canal). The vessel, which is the line’s newest in eight years, boasts one of the highest space-per-guest ratios on the high seas.

The Eats:
Don’t miss Silk Road or the Sushi Bar, two onboard eateries conceived by Japanese raw fish guru Nobu Matsuhisa. Silk Road, with its Asian artwork, soft lighting, and sleek furnishings, offers an extensive array of appetizers such as broiled butterflied shrimp with sevruga caviar. For an entrée, don’t miss the buttery texture and rich flavor of Nobu’s renowned miso black cod. For those who prefer meat, grilled Wagyu beef rib-eye comes with a choice of piquant sauces—either anticucho (a Peruvian chili paste) or wasabi-pepper. (For the uninitiated, Wagyu is a breed of premium Japanese cattle that yields a rich, marbled meat—it’s the basis for Kobe beef.)

The Crowd:
Crystal’s passengers tend to be a little older. You’ll spot mostly Americans and Canadians, but about 15 percent of cruisers hail from other countries.

The Digs:
Cabins vary widely in size and layout (though they all come stocked with Aveda products), and you stand a good chance of snagging one with a veranda—85 percent have them. And no one is stuck “down below,” since the lowest floor with basic cabins is the respectable Deck Seven.

Standout Port:
Although it’s not technically a port, no one forgets crossing the Panama Canal. Nothing quite compares to gliding through the historic locks of this 51-mile waterway with inches to spare.

Good to Know:
Savvy cruisers log on to Crystal’s prereservations system 180 days before their sail date—the best way to score primo excursion times, spa appointments, and restaurant seatings.

To book, call 866-211-0120 or go to www.crystalcruises.com.
Seven-night sailings from $2,695 per person.

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