Do Cruise Ships Accommodate Gluten Free Diets?
With two sisters on gluten free diets, cooking gluten free has become somewhat of a hobby for me so I have things I can serve them when the need arises. One of my sisters came on the Westerdam Alaskan cruise with me, so I got the chance to see first hand how well the ship handled her special diet.
One thing the ship asks is for people on special diets like gluten free to let them know ahead of time to make sure the proper food is available on the ship that cruise. Her travel agent initially only included lactose free in her booking information, so the ship did not know she needed gluten free as well until after their actual deadline. When checking your cruise documents, make sure all your dietary needs are listed. It’s a good idea to contact the cruise line directly to confirm, or if anything is not included that should be, to insure that they know.
Because of the missing information she was not sure whether or not they would have any gluten free food available for her so she packed herself a suitcase full of snacks and things to insure she had enough food if the ship could not find food to meet her needs. She says this probably would not be necessary because she could always find rice or potatoes to provide starch.
On boarding day the ship has a buffet available to all guests. There are normally some safe foods at buffets – things like salad, rice, and fruit. For other items she asked the server which things she could eat. Some understood quite well and others did not so getting a straight answer could be hit or miss from buffet servers.
At diner the first night she had to order off the regular menu, which meant not eating anything with bread or dairy in it. She did return to the room ready to dip into her snacks that night, as her meals had lacked in enough carbs all day. Asking for extra rice at dinner would have given her enough, but on the first day she had not yet started to ask for things.
She did not have that problem again because while we were in the dining room the waiter gave her the menu for the following day. He did this each day from then on and she chose her next night’s dinner which they would then make gluten free. After that first day where she’d had nothing pre-planned, dinners in the dining room worked out quite well for her as she always had something specially prepared. For desserts she stuck with the sorbet for the most part. Safe for her to eat and always handmade fresh in a different flavor each day. One night the regular dessert menu included a flourless chocolate cake which she enjoyed.
We never ordered breakfast off the room menu as is my usual habit on days with early shore times. The breakfast menu had nothing much for her to choose from, though they would have substituted gluten free for her if we’d asked. It really just didn’t work out for us to use room service because with three people in the cabin we had nowhere to eat. At night when the stateroom steward made up the couch bed he put the little table out on the balcony.
Our first breakfast on board came on a sea day, so we ate in the dining room. They had gluten free muffins available for her there, both in English muffin style and regular muffins. They also had gluten free bread if she wanted toast. Breakfast in the dining room can take a lot of time though, and our port stops tended to start quite early making the quicker buffet our preferred choice.
One of the waiters said they could send some gluten free muffins up to the buffet to have available for her. Thankful for that tidbit of advice, we ate at the buffet most mornings. She preferred the omlette station, where I preferred anywhere without a line. In looking for the absence of lines one day I found an eggs Benedict station, and it often had no line. If someone were to arrange it in advance they could probably get one of those English muffins the dining room had and make the eggs Benedict gluten free.
One day I came at the right time to find the normally crowded waffle station line-free. Sometimes the line there got long as they made waffles fresh and hot on the grill right there. Regular ones anyway. Gluten free waffles came in the frozen variety, which we never would have known they had available if my sister had not asked if they had them.
The first morning that we had breakfast at the buffet they had the gluten free muffins at the waffle station, and set one near a waffle iron to thaw for her since they came in a frozen package. Subsequent days finding them became a bit hit or miss. Sometimes the waffle station had them and knew what was up, sometimes they hadn’t a clue and someone in a higher position had to hunt them down. A couple times they set out a whole box of gluten free muffins somewhere, making them quite easy to get if you happened to find them. I did overhear another gluten-free passenger quite excitedly pointing out the box of gluten free muffins on the buffet one day as that person had not previously asked for them or even known the ship had them available.
We ate at the Pinnacle Grill one night, and they did not do advance ordering, but rather adjusted to her needs by leaving the sauces off her meal. They did let her know which sauces had no gluten, but as those had dairy she opted to go sauce free. She said her lamb kebobs tasted great without sauce and she did not miss it at all.
After going to afternoon tea a couple times and having really nothing she could eat other than picking toppings off sandwiches, she decided to try calling ahead one day. She only called about a couple hours or so ahead so the person on the phone said tea sandwiches would probably be about all they could do.
When we got there instead of sending us to the next spot according our position in line, they re-routed us to a table they had previously chosen to serve her special food. They brought her more sandwiches than she needed on gluten free bread. She was pleasantly surprised to see a special custard dish of some sort and a plate of very rich chocolate filled meringue style cookies in varying colors. They served a lot more of those than she could ever eat, so I tried one and it tasted quite good. For once she left the tea fuller than me, having eaten more than she really wanted because they had gone to the trouble of making it all just for her on such short notice. She said all tasted delicious.
We learned a valuable lesson on the Westerdam. The crew can accommodate a gluten free diet quite well for the most part if they have advance notice, but without it you won’t have much to choose from. I imagine people with other special diets would probably have a similar experience. Once on board she found out that if you want something ask because specialty items are not normally set out where anyone can take them, but are often available upon request.
So many people have special needs diets these days that most major cruise lines can accommodate their passengers. The key is definitely in advance notice. Once the ship sets sail they can’t exactly run down to the corner grocery and buy what you need. If booking through a travel agent, make sure to tell them about all your dietary needs right away. That way any forms that your chosen cruiseline needs to accommodate your diet get filled out and turned in on time so they can purchase in advance any special food they would not normally serve as part of their regular menu. Onboard you may need to ask where and how to acquire the specialty foods.
If you book online and do not find anywhere to make note of your needs make sure to call one of that cruiseline’s cruise consultants to find out what you need to do to insure your dietary needs will be met onboard. Even if you have filled out forms it’s still a good idea to call and double check that they have the correct information.
Booking through a company such as Cruiseabout that has cruises available on a variety of different ships on varying cruiselines gives you access to cruise consultants who can recommend which ships best cater to special diets and to help make sure the requirements for the line you choose are fulfilled. The amount of time for prior notice before the ship sails differs depending upon which cruiseline you choose, so it’s nice to have help from someone who understands what needs to be done when.