Over the past 22 years that my husband and I have lived in downtown Seattle, we've watched with a sense of wonder as the number of tall buildings, downtown residents and restaurants and nightlife opportunities has increased exponentially.
The number of cruise ships calling Seattle "homeport" has also grown at an amazing rate, from just six vessels and 6,615 passengers in 1999 to a Port of Seattle estimate of 202 cruise-ship visits by seven cruise lines serving an estimated 864,330 passengers this summer.
Our own recent cruise ship experience began on an Alaskan cruise on the Holland America Line (HAL), a division of Carnival Corporation. HAL began service in Seattle in 2002; now HAL and Carnival's super-luxury brand, Seabourn, have headquarters here.
HAL's Oosterdam and Westerdam, Vista-class ships accommodating more than 1,900 passengers and 800 staff each, sail seven-day cruises from Seattle to Alaska; the Amsterdam offers a 14-day Alaskan cruise.
Wining and dining make up a big and enjoyable part of the cruise experience. HAL is known for its bountiful cooked-to-order breakfasts, lunch buffets inspired by cuisines from around the world and made-to-order dinner entrees in the come-as-you-are Lido Restaurant.
Diners seeking a more elegant ambiance opt for the main dining room, which serves five-course dinners in a refined atmosphere replete with Rosenthal china, crisp table linens, fine art and antiques. Menus are designed by award-winning master chef Rudi Sodamin, everything from classic/Continental-leaning cuisine to regionally inspired and ethnic dishes to gluten-free and kosher. In early May, the company introduced a new alternative, vegetarian-only menu, and it claims to offer the largest selection of vegetarian food at sea.
But, veteran cruisers that we are, my husband and I find our best bets to be the specialty restaurants that require a reservation and an upcharge of anywhere from $10 to $25.
Aboard HAL's 15 cruise ships, you'll discover classic Italian dishes, Italian wine offerings and a casual ambience at Canaletto Restaurant -- and it's complimentary! Tamarind Restaurant (exclusive to the Eurodam and Nieuw Amsterdam) offers Pan-Asian dining, with unforgettable Penang Red Curry Coconut Chicken, perfectly prepared sushi and sashimi and a Mango Cloud dessert that almost levitates off the plate (free dim sum lunch; $15 dinner).
The Pinnacle Grill reaches new heights with its Pacific Northwest-inspired seafood dishes, Sterling Silver Beef offerings and Northwest-centric wine list. Many of the dishes are prepared tableside (Caesar salad, Steak Diane) and the Pinnacle Signature Skewers are flamed in front of your eyes ($10 lunch; $25 dinner).
One evening on each cruise, the Pinnacle Grill offers An Evening at Le Cirque, complete with signature dishes, wine selections, table decorations, and even china and silverware styled after the legendary New York City restaurant ($39/$69 with wine pairings).
The wine list at the Pinnacle includes well-respected bottles from the major wine regions of the world as well as a wide selection from the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' portfolio: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Northstar and Col Solare.
Long Shadows wines, made from Washington grapes by internationally known winemakers, also figure prominently on the list. A heavy-hitting red from Chester-Kidder, Saggi, Pirouette or Sequel will pair perfectly with your Filet Mignon with Green-Peppercorn Sauce.
While aboard, take advantage of the Culinary Arts Center presented by Food & Wine magazine, where guest chefs, cookbook authors and wine and cheese experts offer cooking demos, wine-tasting and food-and-wine pairing seminars.
And don't miss a galley tour for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the ship's kitchen and food-prep areas, the stainless steel and white tile all agleam, giant mixers and commercial ovens at the ready, just waiting for the next round of culinary magic to begin.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food-and-wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com.