Following my latest cruise vacation, I'm pleased to have another gluten-free travel success story to share. Last month, my wife and I embarked on a multinational journey across much of Europe, utilizing once again our preferred method of travel -- a cruise ship. Following fabulous experiences in the past with both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, we decided once again to avail ourselves of the luxury and convenience that is cruising the high seas.
We managed to cram a lot into two weeks, taking two seven day cruises, back to back, with Royal Caribbean. The first saw us in Northern Europe, with the cruise leaving from Sweden and visiting Finland, Russia, Latvia, Poland and then back to Visby, Sweden before finishing in Stockholm. We then flew down to Rome for the second leg, visiting Sicily (Italy), Athens and Crete in Greece, and Kusadasi, Turkey.
I was eager to see whether I would experience the same fine dining I had come to expect from Royal Caribbean. Upon boarding the first ship, Vision of the Seas, I headed for the casual dining Windjammer Cafe.
Unfortunately, I found that the gluten-free labelling of foods that I had counted upon during my previous voyage with Rhapsody of the Seas was no more. The initiative had obviously been discontinued by Royal Caribbean. I asked two different times about whether the salad dressings were gluten-free -- the first chef said that all of them were, and the second warned that none of them were, by virtue of a "may contain" statement. Nice.
Being on vacation, I may have been prone to be less careful that I would otherwise be. I did use the salad dressings on several occasions, despite the "may contain" statements. Eating in the Windjammer, which served food cafeteria-style, always involved a certain degree of cross-contamination risk as well.
For breakfast, I largely stuck to scrambled eggs, fruit and lots of smoked salmon. Lunch would largely be limited to a salad. However, it was probably for the best as the dinners are the major culinary experience of the day.
I found that the drawbacks in the Windjammer were matched by improvements in the more formal dining area. The menus that we received at the sit-down restaurant, to my complete surprise, contained "wheat-esque" logos after those items that could be made to be gluten-free.
With Royal Caribbean, you can go to dinner whenever you wish, or you can pre-book a time and table for the same time each evening. I believe in booking a table because you have the benefit of the same waiter every day, meaning they will become familiar with your needs. In the past, I had been given the next day's menu and pre-ordered each day so that my food would be gluten-free. However, the gluten-free icon meant that this was no longer crucial.
I passed my positive commentary on to the waiter, and indicated that I'd still prefer to see the next day's menu in advance, since having my foods pre-prepared would minimize the risk of cross-contamination. Should there be one item in particular that I wanted, but officially was not able to be gluten-free, I could request it and they'd see what they could do.
The gluten-free icon was especially handy whenever I frequented the dining room, rather than the Windjammer Cafe, for breakfast or lunch, as it indicated to me which choices I could make. I found the waiters in general to be much more aware of the gluten-free issue than during past cruises. When I double-checked that my gluten-free pasta would be cooked in separate water, the reply was: "Of course! We know how serious this is. We don't mess with gluten-free."
Aboard Vision of the Seas, the head waiter came to me each dinner to make sure that there were no gluten issues, and to provide the next day's menu. When I found one evening a piece of fusili in my gluten-free macaroni dish, he along with my main waiter and assistant waiter stampeded back to the kitchen for an explanation. Apparently the box of gluten-free pasta simply had a foreign piece of pasta sneak into the box, but it was still gluten-free as it came from a dedicated facility. No fusili had been prepared in the kitchen that day. Whew!
I enjoyed such appetizers and scallop risotto, caeser salad, and a number of soups including duck consommÃ© and strawberry bisque. Some of the entrees I enjoyed were duck breast, roasted turkey, jumbo shrimp, sirloin steak, Atlantic salmon and grilled chicken. They even prepared some desserts special for me including flan, pancetta, and mousse.
A question that you're no doubt thinking of is whether I got sick, whether there was any cross-contamination. I suspect there may have been one or two "poisonings," likely due to eating at the casual dining restaurant, but I cannot say for sure as I'm also very lactose intolerant and yet indulged in their soft ice cream pretty much every day. As they induce similar symptoms to gluten for me, it will remain a mystery.
Only once did I take the risk of dining off the ship, during a six-hour excursion in Turkey. I came armed with my Turkish-language celiac travel card. The restaurant was cafeteria-style, with about twelve vats of foods simmering away and a cook ready to serve. I handed him the card, he read through a couple of times, and happily told me that all of the options were safe for me. I looked at the one pasta dish, pointed to it, and asked whether he was certain there was no wheat or gluten in that dish. He didn't understand, but pointed at the card and said, "It's okay!" Needless to say, I stuck to the other options, but enjoyed a couple of excellent chicken and bean dishes. We were also taken to a Turkish bath session, which was also quite relaxing!
As for the flights, there were some ups and downs. I took Icelandair on the way over, and hadn't realized there would be no meals during the travel. I stuck to the gluten-free granola I had brought along with me. However, I was extremely pleased with Air Canada on the way home. In contrast to the dry and tasteless chicken curry I was expecting, my gluten-free meal featured a big juicy steak as well as a large bun made by Dr. Schar. There was also a second meal -- a turkey and tomato sandwich using the same type of bun. Kudos to Air Canada!
All told, I was once again a very happy and well-fed cruiser this summer. While the menus in the sit-down restaurant were largely the same between the first cruise and the second (Navigator of the Seas), the fact that there were around ten entree choices each evening meant that I could still enjoy a variety of delectable dishes.
Some people prefer backpacking, and others prefer a cheap Caribbean all-inclusive, but for a celiac looking to eat well, I would highly recommend taking a cruise. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean have both performed with distinction, and they have some very interesting itineraries. It's a great way to visit multiple cities and countries in a single trip without having to worry about having to explain gluten-free in umpteen different languages. The larger cruise ships, such as the Navigator, include such activities as mini-putt, inline skating, rock climbing, basketball, volleyball, and extensive programs for the kids. The evening entertainment was top-notch, with such spectacles as adagio, acrobatics, comedians, magicians, ballets, Broadway-inspired shows and even "ice dancing" on the skating rink. They keep you busy! We also picked up some bargains at the art auctions they hold on board.
If you have any questions about cruise vacations or about the dining on board, I'd be happy to assist. Enjoy the rest of your summer!