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The Captain's Dinner

by Linda Coffman

Norwegian Cruise Line Menu Cover

Menu Cover--NCL Captain's Dinner

Rooted in tradition, born of necessity
The Captain's Dinner wasn't always an exercise in gastronomic gluttony. It's a dining experience modern cruisers anticipate... shall it be the shrimp cocktail or escargot, the filet mignon or the lobster? Often, the choices are dazzling, but this wasn't always the case.

At the turn of the century...
Immigrant passengers were required to provide their own food for early nineteenth century passages. Adverse weather frequently delayed crossings on the North Atlantic and these humble passengers sometimes ran out of food. Not wishing their most profitable "cargo" to arrive starving on foreign shores, steamship owners gave the masters of their vessels the discretion of offering company rations to steerage passengers toward the end of their voyages.  

From that gesture of compassion, the ritual became known as "the captain's dinner" and continues to the present. Although it's called the "Welcome Aboard" or "Farewell Dinner" on some cruise lines, it's usually scheduled on "formal" nights.

Dining with the Master
Receiving an invitation to dine with the Captain during a round-the-world cruise, legend has it that a nouveau riche passenger's response was, "I didn't shell out all those bucks to eat with the help!" While I know a few cruisers who've declined an invitation to dine with the Captain, there are far more who covet such a unique experience.

Captain's Dinner Invitation

Captain's Dinner Invitation

You'll know you've been included in that exclusive coterie when an embossed invitation arrives in your stateroom on the day of a formal dinner. RSVP as soon as possible—if you are unable to attend, someone else will be invited in your place. 

The evening begins with cocktails, either in a reserved area of a public lounge or the Captain's quarters, where the Social Hostess greets you and makes introductions to the Captain and other high-ranking officers. After getting acquainted, you are escorted to the Captain's table and take your place  according to pre-arranged seating.

Then sit back and enjoy a sumptuous dinner with exquisite service and fine wines. A photographer will appear to preserve the memories and the picture will be delivered to you the next day, perhaps with a copy of the menu or a note of thanks.

Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas

Captain's Dinner Vision of the Seas

How do I...
Receive an invitation? If I knew the precise answer, I'd be happy to share it. Unfortunately, while there are hundreds of passengers on every cruise who would no doubt enjoy dining with him, there is just one Captain. However, some factors can work in your favor when guest lists are drawn up. For instance, if you are a frequent repeater of the cruise line, you may be invited—and I'm not talking 2, 4, or even a dozen cruises. On the Zenith, one of the ladies at the Captain's table was a repeater with 50-plus Celebrity cruises under her belt! Occupants of an Owner's Suite, or other top category digs, are considered, but (speaking from personal experience) you can't count on an invitation. If you're from the Captain's hometown or speak his native language, you may be a top candidate.

Truthfully, the criteria for being invited to dine with the captain is tricky. Lists of recommended onboard VIPs whiz through FAX machines from cruise line headquarters to ships. Honeymoon couples are sometimes selected at random, as are couples celebrating a golden wedding anniversary. Attractive unattached female passengers often round out an uneven number of guests. I've heard that requests made by travel agents on behalf of their clients sometimes do the trick. 

Celebrity Cruises

While some cruise lines dictate guest lists from home port, on other lines the matter of selecting lively dinner partners for the captain is left up to the discretion of Hotel Managers and Social Hostesses. With economy of scale ruling today's seas, the ratio of passengers to captain makes it an increasingly difficult task. The practice of dining with passengers at an "official" Captain's Dinner differs among cruise lines as well. Some lines assign passengers for the duration of the voyage to tables presided over by the vessel's master or other officers. If your "cruise" happens to be a "crossing" you may not see much of senior officers at dinner, though—their necessary presence on the bridge supercedes social obligations.

Quite innocently...
My husband and I received our first invitation when the captain of the ship embarrassed me. Sort of.

"I remember you... but was this your wife then, too?"
-- Captain Charming

Sometimes my memory gets me in trouble. While I usually can't remember what I had for lunch, I remember cruise details. I can tell you when we sailed on a particular ship, what I wore, things that were said, and—most particularly—special invitations we were accorded. While this is a very vivid memory (even though it happened quite a few years ago), I've changed the names to protect the "guilty."  

As we waited to enter the "Welcome Aboard" party on the newest ship of my favorite cruise line, I told Mel that I recognized the captain. We once booked an owner's suite on the cruise line's oldest vessel and were invited to a cocktail party in his quarters. In fact, that was the second time we sailed with him and this was the third. Captain Charming posed for the obligatory photo op and shook our hands. I mentioned that it was nice to be sailing with him again. He looked at me, looked at Mel, and back at me.  Staring inquisitively at me, he addressed Mel in his most serious man-to-man manner, "I remember you... but was this your wife then, too?" 

Crushed? Humiliated? Embarrassed? No, not really. Call me surprised... caught off guard and not nearly as amused as the two of them apparently were. Mel and I hadn't proceeded a dozen steps when a staff member stopped us to ask our names. A lovely bottle of wine appeared at our table later, compliments of the captain.

Wait! There's more
The story doesn't end there, though. At the repeaters party, the captain gave a welcoming talk and mentioned how gratifying it was to see so many returning guests in attendance. To illustrate the difficulty of remembering all the passengers it had been his pleasure to greet, he recounted meeting Mel and me. Yes, he told an entire room of past passengers that he remembered my husband and not me. By this time, Mel had gleefully told the tale to our friends and, as I laughed with everyone else, the master of our vessel turned my humiliation on himself.

The next day we were invited to dinner with Captain Charming and I had a seat of honor at his side. I can honestly say, I had the time of my life!

Bon Voyage!  Linda

Illustrations courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and the Author's Collection©

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