A Gluten-Free Journey
Aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas
Ever since we took our first cruise as a family almost nine years ago, we’d been talking about going on another. I get many cruise reviews submitted to my website, and over the years I’ve been impressed by what I’ve heard about the Royal Caribbean cruise line. Back in 2012, they formalized their gluten-free (and dairy-free) program by notating those choices clearly on breakfast and dinner menus in the main dining room.
Upon contacting Royal Caribbean, I was put in touch with Ron Pettit in ADA and Access Compliance. He was proud to say that gluten-free meals are one of their top requests, which helps explain why our own experience aboard the Oasis of the Seas , currently the largest cruise ship in the world, was so good – and why I would highly recommend considering a Royal Caribbean cruise.
The Best Place to Dine
To keep things simple and ensure the best dining experience, I recommend eating in the main dining room, at least for breakfast and dinner. First off, if you put a gluten-free request on your cruise reservation, it will automatically get communicated to the main dining room. In addition, you’ll find that the gluten-free notations on the main dining room’s menus help you navigate your choices. Finally, when dining here, gluten-free orders are prepared in a special area of the kitchen. A variety of gluten-free breads are available at dinner, as are gluten-free buns for burgers. Fries can even be prepared in a separate pot of oil to avoid cross contamination.
Mr. Pettit also suggested that cruisers with special dietary needs opt for the Traditional Dining format (early or late seating). Having the same team of assigned servers each evening ensures they will get to know your dietary restrictions and preferences. We also found it convenient to have a conversation with our server each evening regarding the following night’s menu. That way, if our son ever wanted the chef to tailor a specific menu item to be gluten-free, the kitchen had some advance notice.
The other option for taking your meals in the main dining room is “My Time” Dining, which allows you to vary your dining time each night. However, since you’ll end up with different servers, it will require you to reiterate your dietary restrictions to each new team.
A third option – and one that is becoming more popular – is dining at specialty restaurants. This could be an Italian restaurant, Japanese teppanyaki-style steakhouse, French bistro, or Spanish tapas venue. (These restaurants often involve a per-person “upcharge,” whereas dining in the main dining room is included in the price of your cruise.) Just note that gluten-free selections are not identified on the menus as they are in the main dining room, so you will need to talk to the chef or manager in advance.
One night, my husband and I enjoyed a “date night” at the beautiful 150 Central Park for an upcharge of $45 per person. We were told that everything on the 6-course fixed menu was gluten-free, with the exception of the pasta (but the chef could substitute gluten-free pasta). It was one of the best meals we ever had, with attentive and friendly service.
Because of the risk of cross-contamination, cruise staff typically steer diners with dietary restrictions away from the Windjammer Café , which offers casual buffet dining for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. However, you can always have a chef walk you through the buffet or prepare a fresh item for you in the kitchen (just be flexible on timing).
We preferred having breakfast in the main dining room, since gluten-free items are noted on the menu. Gluten-free pancakes and waffles are also available by special request. However, I recommend sticking with eggs or omelets, breakfast meats, yogurt, fruit, and French toast. We found their pancakes (and muffins) to be pretty tasteless, probably due to the fact that they are using new flour that is free of all the major allergens. They do stock some well-known brands of other baked goods, however. Udi’s bagels and individually wrapped chocolate chip and snickerdoodle cookies are available upon request.
What I Learned Touring the Galley
Food preparation on a ship this size is a major operation (there are 26 galleys on the Oasis of the Seas!). I was fortunate enough to be granted a special tour of the main galley by the Executive Sous-Chef Johann “Hans” Pirker. He showed me the special areas where gluten-free meals and bakery items are made each day.
Training is the same across all Royal Caribbean ships, with both the kitchen staff and servers trained on special dietary needs. Chef Hans told me that they have an average of 50-60 gluten-free passengers per week. They treat all gluten-free orders as if they were medically necessary, even if a guest is following a gluten-free diet by choice. They always prepare a gluten-free version of all sauces (without flour as a thickener) so guests don’t have to settle for “plain” versions of everything.
We were very impressed with the gluten-free choices on the dinner menu. Each night there were at least three interesting entrees that were marked gluten-free (along with daily offerings of strip steak, marinated chicken breast, and Angus beef sliders on gluten-free buns). Maine lobster and filet mignon were also available in the main dining room each night for an upcharge.
Gluten-free highlights for us included Horseradish-Crusted Filet of Atlantic Salmon, Mojo Marinated Grilled Pork Chop, Carved Filet of Beef Tenderloin, Roasted Rack of Lamb, Garlic Tiger Shrimp, Broiled Lobster Tail, Roasted Turkey, and Rosemary Lamb Shank. While on my tour of the galley with Chef Hans, I learned that they could make many other items gluten-free upon request, like Crab Cakes and Eggplant Parmesan. However, the typical gluten-free cruiser would have no way of knowing this, as these items were not noted as being available gluten-free. The lesson learned here is that when you are reviewing the following night’s menu, be sure to ask if something can be prepared gluten-free, even if it’s not marked as such.
It’s worth mentioning that you can get gluten-free pizza any time of day (with no upcharge) at Sorrento’s pizzeria. Since it’s made to order, you’ll have a bit of a wait, but they’re careful in the preparation and the pizza is quite tasty.
You can also order gluten-free cupcakes for a few dollars each from Cups & Scoops , the cupcake and ice cream store along the “Boardwalk.” You typically need to order these a day in advance.
Bringing Your Own Food
We weren’t sure what brand of pasta would be offered aboard the Oasis of the Seas, so we packed our son’s favorite brand (they do allow you to bring nonperishable food items on board). However, Ryan was very happy with the Barilla brand of pasta they use. In fact, we didn’t really need any of the few “back up” foods we brought, with the exception of some high-protein snack bars. These came in handy on excursions when either no snack was provided or when the items in the boxed snacks weren’t gluten-free.
Meals off the ship need to be handled with a bit of advance preparation. Before stopping at the private beach on Haiti , where an outdoor barbecue lunch was to be served, our wonderful head server, Nuthoo Pramodsingh, arranged to have a burger on a gluten-free bun ready for Ryan when we arrived.
Aside from the food, I was very pleased with our overall cruising experience. The Oasis of the Seas is a very large ship. There were 6,300 passengers and 2,500 crew members the week we sailed, so it’s not for those who want a more intimate experience. But for families who want a high-energy and quality cruise for a fair value, you can’t go wrong with Royal Caribbean ships. There’s something for everyone: a kids’ program, teen program, and numerous lounges and bars that cater to any mood you’re in. If you’re a shopaholic, you’ll love the shops along the main promenade, along with daily deals on all types of merchandise from watches to handbags. I was especially impressed with the entertainment on board. Each night we saw some sort of show: a Broadway musical, a very talented a cappella group, a great adult comedy routine, an ice skating show, a mesmerizing acrobatic show, and an incredible diving show in the AquaTheatre.
Just remember, if you’re not having a good gluten-free dining experience, don’t hesitate to speak up. The sooner you say something, the sooner you’ll be able to start relaxing and enjoying your vacation!
Tips for booking any cruise:
-Use a travel agent like Lesley-Hayden Hock at Travel Leaders (800-487-6110). She’s a gluten-free specialist, saved us money, and found us a great stateroom.
-Make sure your dietary needs get noted on your reservation. (We have contact information for all the major cruise lines on our Cruise page within the Resources section of GlutenFreeTravelSite.com.)
-Talk with the maître d’ in the main dining room soon after boarding the ship.
-Investigate any specialty restaurants where you may want to dine. Find out what gluten-free options they offer and make reservations before your cruise. Then confirm everything by talking with the restaurant manager once on board.
-Opt for a fixed seating in the main dining room for dinner, so your same team of servers will get to know your needs and preferences. After dinner, ask to preview the next evening’s menu.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.