Adventures in Gluten (and Sugar) Freedom from a southern blogger chick!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A gluten-free cruise

with Alina, my new BBGFFF (best gluten-free friend forever)

Two weeks ago today, our extended family got back from a five-night Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Inspiration.

And everyone knows what you do on cruises, right? EAT EAT EAT!

I was worried about this, frankly. Our July 21 departure was only two months into my elimination diet, and I didn't want to regress. I also didn't want to find myself in dire straits on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean! But Randy reminded me of the woman at our table two years ago with a gluten allergy, and they had fresh bread for her, special recommendations for entrees, and yummy deserts every night.

And thanks to a lovely young woman named Alina, I had six days of outstanding gluten-free cruise! I highly recommend it to everyone, even though it takes a little work.

Here's what it required of me: First, about three weeks in advance, I called Carnival and told them I had a food allergy. I reported I was on a gluten-free diet. I even mentioned the C word --- Celiac -- to make sure they got the point.

The reservation agent took this down, and sent me a form to fill out asking if I'd be bringing my own wheelchair and oxygen.

I called once more t to be sure. Yes, they knew I was on a sugar and wheat-free diet and would be ready for me.

At dinner, I told our head waiter, Pronoy, and with great efficiency, he brought me some gluten-free bread. It was the first I'd ever tasted AND was the first I'd had all summer. Warm and toasted, it was delicious with butter. Yummm. He told me to tell my server at breakfast and he or she would also bring me bread. But the only dessert available was ice cream or fruit -- while my tablemates ate molten chocolate cake, I sulked.

I was a little disgruntled after breakfast. I was hungry, and I wanted that bread with my poached eggs and yogurt. The bread arrived long after I ate the eggs, but I happily ate the bread. I decided to discuss it with the purser's desk to be sure.

That was whenI learned lesson, and I share this with anyone on a cruise with a food allergy: When you arrive in the main dining room, find the maitre d or hostess, and check in. They're the "keepers of the list" -- the list of passengers on board with a food allergy. In fact, don't wait -- speak to them immediately upon arriving at dinner the first night. The purser assured me they wanted to serve me correctly, and told me it would be corrected. It was -- immediately. Within a half hour after this conversation, the dining room maitre d, Babu ('re a very very bad man, Jerry. He said that all the time) had called and left a message. Sadly, my Dad didn't catch who called, so at lunch, I checked in with the maitre d on duty.

That's when I met Alina. From that second on, she took such good care of me. For the next 15 meals, I had an assortment of bread and lucious desserts. She made sure I didn't order anything with the wrong sauce on it (once I forgot about soy sauce in teriyaki sauce...oops). And for dessert, I had sugar free chocolate mousse in a candy cup, warm coconut creme brulee, creme anglaise with fresh berries, and a lovely black and white mousse. For breakfast, I had a gracious plenty of homemade French toast; for lunch, a special hamburger on the GF bread. I ate so much, I had to start adding Joy Peterson's favorite fruit (not) to my diet.

By the second day, Alina and I were buddies. She asked lots of questions about my diet, saying it helped her help other customers. She was kind to my son Jeffrey, always remember his name (and mine). I gave her an enormous tip and our phone number in Tampa when she's in port.

I was sad to leave her on Thursday. She came by our table and said she wished she could send me home with some extra bread, but customs considered it a forbidden agriculture product (since it's not wrapped and made in a plant, I guess).

But I was really impressed. This kitchen served 2,700 people every day, and I felt special, not singled out. In fact, some days I felt a little guilty -- at breakfast, Alina would arrive at the table with a plate piled high with GF French toast, warm sugar free syrup, and a pile of turkey bacon. At dinner, I always had beautiful steamed vegetables on my plate.

I gave you one tip, which was check in early. The second tip is to bring a small supply of snacks. While the dining room really caters to someone with a food allergy, it's really hard to partake in the buffets and other dining venues. There are lots of casseroles, enhanced with cream sauce and pasta, so one has to be careful. They don't have much on the room service menu, either. These snacks are especially important when you're in smaller ports. Just to be safe. I had nuts, Larabars, and some dried fruit. Of course, if I'd told Alina, I'm sure I'd have whatever i wanted at my disposal.

A third tip is to make sure you register you food allergy in advance. That "food allergy" list I mentioned -- it's long. There are kids with peanut allergies, vegetarians, vegans, even, and LOTS of diabetcs.

Finally, realize that their food may cause something of a reaction because it's simply not your food. You might have some discomfort. To be safe, I brought along my usually remedies.

Consider it, and don't worry -- have fun. With proper precautions, you can have a safe and very delicious gluten-free cruise!

Much love and bon voyage!


petersonj said...

That is awesome that they went out of their way for you...I hope you are going to write a letter to Carnival thanking them and commending Alina...she sounds like a great lady!

Doris said...

I am glad you had such a good experience. Our experience was not so good. My daughter is the one with Celiac disease. We went on the Carnival Triumph in March of 2007. We did just as you suggested, but my daughter never received any bread she could eat, her only dessert choice was fresh fruit except for the last night, after we complained about her lack of choices, they made her a crustless cheesecake. Even meeting with the food rep daily, she still was given food containing gluten at three dinners. She was sick the entire trip. The most memorable meal was when the only main dish choice open to her was Turkey and mashed potatoes. It was supposed to be served without the stuffing, but after she had eaten some of the turkey and mashed potatoes, she found the stuffing hidden under the turkey and mashed potatoes! My advice is to go with the ship where she had such a great experience, dig through all your food before you eat it looking for gluten, and if they do not provide you with anything special, show them a copy of this blog and ask for these things. After all, you are paying as much for your cruise as all the wheat-eating customers!

Weber said...

I hear Disney cruises are great for celiacs.
Kelly (Mommy to 3 celiac little boys and wife to a celiac as well)

Alexis said...

It does seem that so much depends on who you meet on the ship. Our first cruise was just after my wife was diagnosed as being celiac. We were still new to the whole thing ourselves. We were on RCCL Splendour of the Seas/Mexico and Belize. Things were somewhat limited, but they were very attentive and helpful in assuring that everything was safe to eat.

Second cruise NCL Majesty/Bermuda. Fantastic, the assistant maitre d' really went above and beyond and had every option available, gluten free waffles, sandwich rolls, pizza crust, flourless chocolate cake (even when it wasn't on the menu). It made the trip perfect.

Third cruise Holland America Statendam/Alaska. Back to the limitations, mostly supportive a few errors here and there. We've learned to double check and question anything that looks suspisious. As you become more experiences with this, you just know when a hamburger bun is not gluten-free. I've become the taster if in doubt. Even a good product has its differences. Luckily, HAL had salmon many of the nights which was a favorite. Not that my wife went hungry, but the options we had seen on NCL just weren't there.

This past summer we decided to repeat the NCL cruise to Bermuda, but the company had reassigned the Majesty and this year we were on the Dream. Totally different experience. We made prior notification in advance for all the cruises. Spoke with guest relations and dining room reps upon boarding and the maitre d' before our first meal. This last trip we were asked to complete a list of foods that would be desired before we boarded. When we got on the ship, we were told my wife could order anything on the menu and it would be created just for her. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Lets say rather than the ideal this trip was more a nightmare with mixups and delays at nearly every meal. Some staff get it and some don't.

Even with the mixups it seems that cruising gives you one group to deal with rather than attempting different restaurants each night on a land vacation.

And yes, don't forget your snack bag. We usually come back with extra but my wife is always ready when some gluten filled item is served to the rest of the guests and she can pull out some prezels or crackers and not feel totally deprived. Paul