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All I could eat: What it's like to dine at a cruise ship buffet during a pandemic

June 15, 2021
7 min read
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Remember all that talk about the demise of the cruise ship buffet? Forget about it. As Mark Twain would say, it's a death that was greatly exaggerated.

I should know. I've been gorging at one all week.

As I've been writing about since Saturday, I'm aboard the first Royal Caribbean sailing in North America since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I've had a first-hand view of the incredible survival power of what is surely the ultimate cruise food extravaganza at sea.

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Since the start of this seven-night voyage of Royal Caribbean's 3,114-passenger Adventure of the Seas, which kicked off on Saturday in Nassau, I've been heading to the ship's Windjammer buffet on the Lido Deck every morning for breakfast. I often head there for lunch, too. And what I've found is a classic buffet experience that's not only alive, but thriving.

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To wit, I still can load up my plate with four cheeseburgers and a double serving of fries should I want to -- and, who knows, maybe I have! I also have access to an endless supply of desserts.

At breakfast, there's a chef making omelets to order and an impressive array of croissants and bagels and cereals, plus all sorts of breakfast meats, precooked egg dishes and fruits.

Feasting at the all-you-can-eat buffet. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Indeed, the breadth of the offerings at the Windjammer is pretty much what it's always been at a Royal Caribbean buffet.

The only big difference that you'll find when visiting the Windjammer on Adventure of the Seas (and, presumably, other Royal Caribbean ships that'll return to service soon) is that you no longer can serve yourself when moving down the buffet line.

Instead, in a nod to COVID-19 safety, one of the many crew members standing behind the buffet will ladle whatever you want onto your plate for you.

The big change at the Windjammer buffet: The crew now serves you. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

This is the case for most -- but not all -- items on the buffet line. There still are a few items, such as muesli and desserts -- that are grab-and-go. In such cases, the items are put out in single servings that can be taken away without touching a serving utensil or a tray.

Condiments such as ketchup and mustard also are self-serve. So is milk for cereal, which is offered in small, single-use cartons that passengers can take as they please.

Still, for the most part, grabbing your food at the Windjammer buffet on Adventure of the Seas is now a touch-free experience designed to keep passengers from exchanging germs of any kind -- not just COVID-19.

A crew member works the drink machines in the Windjammer buffets so passengers don't touch the machinery themselves. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy).

In the early days of the pandemic, when people were in maximum fear mode about coming in close contact with each other, there was serious talk that the cruise ship buffet would disappear completely.

Some industry pundits speculated that buffets on ships would be converted into sit-down restaurants with table service, at least initially, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

But the development of vaccines for COVID-19 over the past year, along with the ability to rapidly test for the disease, has allowed cruise lines to pull back from some of the more extreme measures on ships that once seemed possible.

About 94% of passengers on this sailing have been vaccinated for COVID-19, according to Royal Caribbean. (The line is requiring passengers 16 and older to be vaccinated to sail on this ship and a number of other vessels in the midst of restarting departures). All passengers on this sailing also were tested for COVID-19 on the day of departure.

A socially distant buffet

While the Windjammer buffet on Adventure of the Seas is open and serving a relatively normal array of food items, its seating configuration has been adjusted a bit to allow for social distancing.

Passengers will find that every few tables have been blocked off with a sign saying they are '"reserved for physical distancing." As a result, the seating capacity of Windjammer is lower than it used to be.

Some tables in the Windjammer have been blocked off for social distancing. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

In addition, new floor signs along the buffet lines show passengers where to stand when requesting items so they remain socially distanced.

In another notable change related to the reduced seating capacity of the Windjammer buffet, passengers are encouraged to make reservations to visit it in advance of arriving. Reservations can be made from a phone with the Royal Caribbean app.

But reservations aren't mandatory. There now are two lines when entering the buffet: one for passengers with reservations and one for passengers without.

(Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

If you don't have a reservation, you still can enter if there's space available. If not, you'll have to wait.

So far this week, I have had no trouble entering the buffet without a reservation. But, for now, the ship remains unusually uncrowded. There only are 1,068 passengers on board this week -- about 28% of the ship's total capacity.

For many cruisers (myself included) the idea of making a reservation for breakfast at a cruise ship buffet will seem strange and maybe even frustrating. I, for one, am someone who usually decides at the last minute to head to a ship buffet. I like to keep things flexible.

Fruit at the Windjammer buffet. (By Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

I should say, too, that the Windjammer buffet on this sailing has not been open at dinnertime. For dinner, included-in-the-price meals only are served in the main dining rooms, which offer table service.

Passengers also can have dinner in one of several extra-charge specialty dining venues on the ship. These include one of Royal Caribbean's signature Chops Grill steakhouses and an Izumi sushi restaurant. For quick-serve items, including pizza and sandwiches, the ship's Cafe Promenade stays open late.

A taste of luxury

One way to look at the new buffet experience on Adventure of the Seas, with crew members serving passengers along the buffet line, is that it's an upgrade.

Anyone who has sailed regularly on luxury cruise lines such as Crystal Cruises and Seabourn know it's commonplace on luxury ships for crew members to place food onto passengers' plates along the buffet line. It's considered a classier way to run a buffet.

That's something to think about the next time you head to the Windjammer for a hot dog on a sea day.

But the bottom line is that, whatever the method that the food gets on your plate, via your own hands or the crew's, the cruise ship buffet is back.

TPG’s Gene Sloan is reporting live this week from the first Royal Caribbean cruise in North America since cruising shut down in early 2020. You can find all his dispatches at his author’s page.

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Featured image by Fruit at the Windjammer buffet. (By Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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