Right now I’m on a ship at sea somewhere between Canada and Alaska. I say somewhere because we’re completely fogged in and I can’t see a thing past the deck rail of the ship.
When I got married just over ten years ago, my wife and I decided to take an Alaska cruise for our honeymoon. Some friends of my wife book specialty cruises and work with all the cruise lines. They suggested Holland America Line because they had a reputation for dealing with the special dietary needs of their passengers. It worked like a charm ten years ago, and things have only improved in the years since.
It makes sense – put thousands of people on a floating city, and try to serve them food from one kitchen, and you’re going to have to deal with allergies, picky eaters, and whatnot.
The good news is, they can accommodate you. The bad news is they aren’t all that good about letting you know this. And you have to do some of the work. But you should be use to that by now.
We’ve been on two more cruises since, both on Holland America. Here’s what I’ve learned about safe eating with a special diet while on a cruise. I’m going to focus on Holland America, but I’m sure the same generally applies to the other large cruise lines.
While we inform the cruise line ahead of time that I require a special diet (and filled out a form requesting specific gluten-free items), none of that information seems to make it to the ship’s crew. Which is frustrating, but it only really means you get to inform the crew yourself.
The most important thing is to talk to the crew. Let them know you’re there and what your issues are as early as possible. If you start telling your servers that you have special dietary needs (“allergies” is a good term to use, though they also seem to respond well to “gluten free”) they will usually go find a manager who will make sure the chef and crew know about you.
The most important thing is to talk to the crew. Really. Treat them like people. Learn their names. Ask them where they’re from (most of the Holland America crew are from Indonesia). Ask them how to pronounce their name (if it’s not obvious). Make notes on your smartphone if you have to. Say hi to them when you see them on the ship.
The thing is, the front line crew members are all friendly, helpful people and they take their work seriously. But no one likes being ignored or treated impersonally. If you treat the crew like you would treat your friends, they will look out for you and go above and beyond to help. This should be common sense, but I don’t see a lot of passengers acting this way.
(Of course, you should treat everyone like this, but it’s easy to get caught up in your daily stress and drama and forget that. But it is particularly helpful in this case.)
Other important things:
1) Ask questions. Are the french fries fried in a dedicated fryer? What is in the sour cream? What brand is the GF bread? You live with your diet every day and know potential pitfalls; they may not think that the fryer could be a source of cross-contamination. But they can find out if it is.
Also, asking if something is possible is usually the best way of requesting it.
2) Make suggestions. If there might be a way to prepare a dish to suit your needs, ask if it can be done. Again, asking if something is possible is usually the best way of requesting it.
3) Be flexible. If the dish is prepared ahead of time and they can’t make it work, don’t argue or get angry. It isn’t the fault of the person providing you the information, it won’t change the situation, and they will start to view you as a difficult person, not a friend (see “The Most Important Thing,” above).
Main dining Room
Despite the apparent chaos of meal service, the main dining room is probably your safest bet. The stewards are able to check with the chef on what can and cannot be modified to suit your needs. And each dish can be prepared to order.
Get fixed seating if you can – it assures you are interacting with the same crew members each day (see “The Most Important Thing,” above).
Each night at dinner, the steward has been bringing me the next day’s menus to our table so I can order and ask questions. This expands my options because dishes that are prepared ahead of time in a way that prevent me from eating them may be able to be prepared specially for me because they have advanced notice.
Holland America has an upscale restaurant on their ships called The Pinnacle Grill. This requires reservations and an additional charge, but they have a separate kitchen area and since there are many fewer people eating there, you get much more personal service. They make more items from scratch and are more aware of what goes into the food than in the main dining room or the buffet. All of this means they are more likely to be able to modify menu items for you.
We will be eating at The Pinnacle Grill at least twice during this cruise.
On the ship I’m on, they convert the Pinnacle Grill into Le Cirque for one night during the cruise and serve dishes from the famous New York eatery’s menu. On our last cruise, Le Cirque night was the best meal I’d had in months. This time, we booked our reservation for Le Cirque night before we boarded the ship.
The buffet can be a gamble. They have one kitchen preparing a bunch of self-service food at once. You have to trust the chefs and other passengers at the same time, which can be scary.
But you can probably find food to eat there at almost any time of the day. It will just take a little more work.
I like to find the head chef or buffet manager and talk with them once we get under way (the first day they are usually very busy) to talk about options. Do not do this during a peak meal time! And remember the points above (particularly the one about being flexible).
On Holland America ships, they have a station that serves gluten-free pancakes and waffles for breakfast. And the pasta/pizza station has gluten-free pasta and pizza.
OK, that sounds potentially dangerous. But they keep the gluten-free items back in the kitchen until someone asks for them.
The pizza shells they use are the old thick square Kinnikinnick ones. They are a little doughy even when fully cooked and don’t taste anything like real pizza dough, but they hold toppings just fine and – most importantly – they are pizza crusts. The chefs dress and cook them on demand, so it takes five minutes or so. Which can be a pain during the rush periods.
But remember what this means: free gluten-free pizza on demand during most hours of the day.
This cruise they are using Barilla pastas. Barilla’s gluten-free pasta is awesome. I found out about it a couple months ago and ordered some immediately. Their spaghetti is now my favorite gluten-free pasta (sorry, Tinkyada). The buffet on the ship has pre-cooked gluten free-penne, which they keep away from the line and can dress with a few different sauces. They heat the pasta and sauce in a dedicated frying pan on demand. Which is necessarily optimal for pasta texture and, again, can be a pain during the rush periods.
But, again, it means free gluten-free pasta on demand during most hours of the day.
There are also the usual naturally gluten-free stuff – whole fruit, salads, protein style burgers, etc.
Room service has the longest hours of all food service on the ship, and they have the smallest selection. Except for the obvious non-gluten items, we have been avoiding this as a meal option. Fortunately, there are plenty of other sources of food on the ship.
You have to do your own research on where to eat in any given port. Fortunately, you have a large kitchen that travels with you back on the ship. This may not be the most convenient thing ever, but it means that you can travel to places you don’t feel safe eating – because you can just go back to the ship.
So I Guess What I’m Saying Is…
Mid-way through our third cruise, I have yet to have a serious food incident. Which is better than I do in my day-to-day life sometimes. So I guess I’m saying I whole heartedly recommend a cruise as a great way to travel with special dietary needs – just be prepared to do a little bit of work.