A pot of richly brewed java delivered to my cabin by a smiling steward makes the best wake-up call in the world. It's one of the little luxuries of cruising.
Not all seagoing coffees are created equal, though. And therein lies the distinction -- to coffee addicts, at least -- among cruise lines.
Some lines brew coffee so full-bodied it's like dessert. Others brew it so bitter it could substitute for solvent. And some don't seem to brew it at all; I've been served coffee so weak I thought the waiter mistakenly poured tea.
If empires have been built by coffee, it's conceivable that cruise ships float on it -- and could sink because of it.
Is it just me, I wondered, or are other cruisers fussy too? So I asked.
A while back, CruiseMates.com posted my call for opinions about which lines serve the best and worst brews. (On many ships, you can fork over big bucks for a Starbucks-style service at specialty coffee cafes. But we were interested in the stuff you get free.)
Our survey wasn't scientific, and not all ships in all fleets were sampled. Respondents mostly mentioned the well-traveled mainstream lines, leaving boutique lines underrepresented.
Nevertheless, when it comes to coffee, feelings sure can boil over. Here's what I learned from about 100 responses.
According to Yiggie44, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line serves the worst coffee: "Bar none. It's swill."
I guess, for some folks, there's no middle ground.
Vince Careatti, of Annandale, Va., called Princess' brew (derived mysteriously from a liquid mix with hot water added) "just short of the worst coffee I had when I was in the Army."
Nick Palmieri, a New Jersey veteran of 35 cruises, echoes the sentiment. He finds Princess' coffee so distasteful that "next cruise we bring a coffee maker."
Another Princess passenger, Doris Cocking, offers this distinction: "We have been on five ships, and have found that the coffee upstairs in the buffet line is uniformly terrible on each ship, but the dining room coffee is fine."
Perhaps the complaint of Florida's Jim Kelly summarizes the majority opinion: "My wife and I have been on a lot of cruises, and I have yet to find a good cup of coffee on a cruise ship. If anyone knows of a line that has good coffee, please let us know."
Only five lines of 14 mentioned by respondents got unqualified high marks: Radisson, Windstar, Crystal, Cunard's Queen Mary 2, and Costa (presumably benefiting from its distinctly Italian heritage). In fact, I've enjoyed some of the best espresso and cappuccino on Costa's ships.
Several other lines got mixed reviews, with various respondents judging the same line best and worst, as was the case with MSC and Oceania. (Go figure.)
In a similar permutation, seven respondents found Holland America's coffee the best, while two thought it "horrible" (one describing it as "basically colored water"). Surprisingly, upscale Celebrity got seven thumbs down and only two thumbs up. And mass-market mover Carnival, lately recognized more for fine food than for unbridled fun, took a beating in the brew department: five "against" and one "for."
As you may have gathered, it was no contest for the worst: Princess, hands down. (I agree, although I could sometimes finagle a decent cup of brewed coffee at the Deck 5 lobby bar on Golden Princess.) Venom positively poured from more than 26 respondents, who couldn't hide their distaste for the anemic substance served on the line's vessels.
Running a close second was Royal Caribbean, with 16 cruisers dubbing its coffee unpalatable; five thought highly of it. On this line's ships, I've been known to switch to iced tea altogether.
The survey also revealed an interesting sidelight. More than one cruiser noticed a connection between the poor quality of coffee available free from room service and in dining rooms vs. the high quality of pricey brews poured in ships' boutique coffee bars.
"It seems," writes Dave Bergmann of Connecticut, "as more and more ships are adding 'gourmet' coffee shops on board, the 'free' coffee gets worse." He's got a point: Whenever I seek out the better coffee served at the fee-based coffee bars, there's inevitably a long line.
"If cruise lines would be willing to change one thing to make cruising more attractive," notes one Web respondent, "I hope it's the coffee!"
Hey, I'll drink to that.