There’s been lots on the message boards about HAL’s new “As You Wish” dining. People have grumbled that they are unable to get their preferred fixed traditional dining unless they book a year or more in advance, and sometimes not even then.
Since this subject has generated so much discussion, I thought I’d make it the subject of today’s blog entry – since this is an area where I, too, made some surprising discoveries.
First of all, what is “As You Wish” dining – ala HAL style?
As You Wish or AYW dining is simply a program which allows people to decide how they prefer to dine each day. You can select either traditional dining on the upper level of the dining room (main seating or late seating at 5:45 or 8:00 p.m.) or flexible dining on the lower level anytime between 5:15 and 9:00 p.m. You can either call ahead for reservations anytime during the day between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. or you can just show up when you are hungry – the choice is yours.
I have always in the past been a diehard traditionalist – preferring to eat with a set group of tablemates at a certain table, and at a certain time. However, over my past several cruises, I have become a bit less enamored of this form of dining. Maybe I’m just getting older and more impatient, but over the past several years eating has become less of a priority for me. Sure, I still enjoy a good meal, but just not the way I used to. I don’t necessarily want to make that meal my evening highlight, especially when on a cruise. I’d rather still have time to enjoy a show, or maybe listen to some good music, or maybe even do some shopping, or at least browsing in the stores. It seems more and more that traditional dining is taking an inordinately long time to get through. On my last cruise on the Veendam, for example, we never got out of the dining room in less than 2.5 hours – and often that time was only achieved by skipping dessert and coffee! Some people may like that, but for me it was becoming intolerable. For that reason, I wasn’t too upset when on this cruise I had to opt for flexible dining simply because fixed seating was full. I decided to go into it with an open mind and see what developed.
When I got onboard the Statendam, a good friend I was sailing with (Trisha) informed me that she had managed to snag a coveted spot in early seating, traditional dining. Since her husband never goes to the dining room, preferring to eat in the Lido, she suggested that I just join her in traditional dining. When we wanted flexible, we’d just go to the Lido. I agreed and we went to the dining room once. Never again.
We were seated at a table for ten. Everyone at the table was far older than either of us, and we could readily see that while we could enjoy conversations with them, we could barely maintain them for the length of time this meal was taking.
Of course, when you are at a large table, everyone eats at different speeds. They also eat a varied number of courses. Some folks may only order soup and an entrée, while others may order something from every course available. Some people also may choose to order two appetizers, etc. Needless to say, this means that if you haven’t ordered from one of the courses, you will just sit there waiting for others to finish that course. The wait staff will not serve you your main entrée until everyone else is up to their main entrée. This meant that we spent a lot of time just sitting around, smiles pasted to our faces, waiting for the slower eaters to finish so that we could get our main course served to us. Same with dessert. If someone else ordered two entrees, and were slow eating them, we had to sit there just waiting before we could even see the dessert menus. Since we were at real risk of missing the early show, we wound up wolfing down our desserts and then excusing ourselves to get to the theater in time to snag a couple of seats.
This was unacceptable and after one dinner in the traditional dining room we decided to make the move to flexible dining and try our luck there.
The next time we went to the dining room we found almost the same situation in flexible dining. We found out that you could not get a table for two by just walking in. The tables for two apparently are only available for reservation at certain times. If you just walk into the dining room, you join a larger table. The experience we had on this night was that we were the second two folks seated at a table for six. We were all immediately handed menus. We ordered our meals and a short time later we received our appetizers. So far, so good. We were about ready to receive our main course when another couple was seated at the remaining two seats at the table, and now the trouble started. Of course, this couple had to get through their preliminary courses as well. We were then made to sit there waiting for our entrees until they caught up. This wasn’t going to do. When finally everyone had their entrees, we realized that we were probably going to be spending as much time in the dining room under the flexible format as we did with traditional – and, in fact, that did pretty much turn out to be the case.
An informal talk with Theo, our friend the Hotel Manager, was going to be in order. And later on, in the Ocean Bar, we asked him about this. Should people in flexible dining have to wait for others seated later to “catch up?” He agreed that there were a lot of problems with As You Wish Dining, and HAL was trying to address them. He promised to make some inquiries and see what he could do.
A few days later Trisha and I decided to try the flexible dining room again. This time we were in a hurry because there was a show we wanted to see and it was starting early – at 7:00 p.m. Neither of us was willing to wait for the later show. We were far too tired for that. We were the second two people seated, with a third couple seated shortly thereafter. We only ordered soup and appetizers, while the others ordered entrees as well. We both looked at each other. “Are we gonna have to wait until all of these people get through their entrees before being allowed to order dessert?”
When we completed our appetizers, we asked to see the dessert menu, and it was immediately brought to us. We ordered our desserts and were served them in rapid order, along with our tea. Now this is what flexible dining is supposed to be like. Diners should have the option of taking as long or as little time as they wish with their dinner under a flexible format. I can well understand everyone having to stay together on the same courses in traditional dining. There tables of people are supposed to be dining together, and I can understand the wait staff wanting to keep everyone on the same course at the same time. But flexible dining should be – well – flexible.
Trisha and I got out of the dining room in plenty of time to get to the show lounge and snag some good seats. We have finally hit upon the perfect combination of dining that suits our cruising style:
The Pinnacle Grill is a great dining option for those evenings when the evening meal WILL BE the highlight of our evening. Nothing else will take precedence. At the Pinnacle we will enjoy each course in a leisurely fashion, without any particular desire to be anywhere else around the ship at any given time. If we want to see a show that evening – well, we’ll have to go to the later show if necessary, or just pass it up.
Then for those evenings when we don’t mind dressing up to at least a “Smart Casual” level, and we want to be served our dinner, we’ll opt for flexible dining in the lower level of the dining room. This is also a great option for when we either don’t want a full dinner, or when we have something else we want to do around the ship in the evening. We know we can somewhat control how long the meal will take, and we will still enjoy the luxury of having the waiters bring everything to us. Sweet.
Then for those nights when not even “Smart Casual” will do, or when, God Forbid, it is a formal night in the dining room and I cop an attitude about dressing up – even in my studded tee-shirt – we’ll go to the Lido where we can dine in shorts or running pants and enjoy pretty much the same food offerings that are being presented in the dining room that evening. The other nice thing about the Lido is that you can pick and choose. You don’t have to take everything that comes with the prime rib whether or not you like it. For example, I can’t stand most of the vegetables, so I simply get my prime rib only. Why should I have vegetables I have no intention of eating cluttering up my plate?
Another interesting thing is that Holland America must be running some sort of survey, trying to figure out where people are dining each evening, because whenever you appear at any dining venue, they ask for your cabin number and then input it into their computer system. This gives them good data on just how many people opting for traditional dining are actually spending most of their evenings dining in the Lido, and how many people are dining in the Pinnacle and how often, etc.
My personal hope is that Holland America’s data shows that a relatively large percentage of their passengers are opting for the Lido on formal nights – enough so that maybe HAL will one day eliminate their mandatory observance. But, of course, that will only happen if the majority wishes it to happen, and I have no idea what the majority truly prefers. Naturally, I have no access to HAL’s database.
Let’s take a moment here to talk about dress in the dining rooms as well. I went to the dining room on one formal night thus far. I wore my studded tee shirt, with a pair of velvet slacks and a black blazer over top. I can honestly say that I did not feel out of place at all. Sure, some people were dressed far more elaborately than me, but plenty were dressed no better, and in fact far less fancy, than I was. Many of the people I’ve spoken with around the ship expressed less than enthusiasm about dressing up on a Hawaii/South Pacific cruise, where casual would seem to be the natural order of things. Also, a few people I spoke with said that they didn’t even pack traditionally formal clothing due to airline baggage restrictions. Their plan was to eat in the Lido or via room service on all of the formal nights on our itinerary. I shared with them my personal opinion that I’ve often expressed on these boards. You don’t have to dress formal to “pass” and gain admission to the dining room. Just dress as though you took the time to care how you looked. Wear a nice blouse or a dress shirt and throw on a blazer or a jacket if you are a guy. A simple black dress or blouse and dark pants for a woman will do the trick quite nicely. Believe me, I cannot imagine (nor have I ever seen) anyone denied access to the dining room on a formal night dressed in such a manner. The only people I’ve ever seen directed to the Lido were the ones who made no effort whatsoever, choosing to come to the dining room in shorts or jeans, with a tee-shirt thrown over top – and even some of them make it in.
The face of cruising is changing, and a lot of people don’t want to see that. The traditionalists would prefer everything remain familiar – as they know it – with a fixed seating time in the dining room, set tablemates and regular waiters. They also want to see everyone dressed to the nines on formal nights, and dressed fancy on “smart casual” nights as well. Well, sadly folks, that is not going to happen – at least on the mass market and even premium lines, like Holland America. The median age range of today’s cruisers is coming down, and today’s cruisers are a more informal bunch. Sure there are some that will always like to dress up, and I had several folks also tell me that they love formal nights because they get a chance to wear clothes they don’t get to wear at home. Well, that’s fine. As I always say, if you want to dress up, why wait for the cruise line to tell you it’s okay? Declare your own formal nights and then everyone in your group dress to the nines on those nights regardless of how everyone else onboard the ship is dressed. It’s your vacation, right? But then respect those others who prefer a more casual ambience as well. Note, I’m not saying one should dress like a slob at dinner. Casual doesn’t mean that. But the person who prefers to slip on a nice pair of slacks, with perhaps a colorful “Aloha” shirt on a Hawaiian itinerary, should be able to do that – and it shouldn’t wreck anyone else’s cruise experience to be around them.
I for one like the options Holland America is offering today. Something for everybody. And the shocking thing is that I have made a complete 180 degree turn in my opinion of As You Wish Dining in the process. While I too was very much opposed to it initially, I now totally embrace it. I like to eat when I am ready to eat – not when the cruise line tells me it is time to eat. Also, getting to eat with a different group of people each night is nice too. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck with the same group of people every night, even though their company became “old” after the first week. On longer cruises, the variety of different tablemates can be an enriching experience. Also, I was originally concerned about how flexible dining would work with the solo cruiser. Would they get stuck dining alone most nights, while being shoved in with less than amicable tablemates on others? I needn’t have worried. A large table is always in the process of being formed, and the solo cruiser will actually have a hard time getting a table to themselves even if they wanted it. They would have to call to reserve it in advance if they were really determined to eat alone that evening.
So, from here on in, it’s flexible dining for me.
I’ll end this blog entry for now. It’s getting near dinnertime and I’m starting to get hungry. Bon Appetite!