I wrapped up the last week of Celiac Disease Awareness Month (#CDAM16) aboard Royal Caribbean International's Empress of the Seas, and believe me, I raised a lot of awareness about celiac disease and gluten intolerance. In fact, many of my fellow passengers would probably say that I raised more than awareness! I got "glutened" at some point on the third day and experienced terrible effects--in a stateroom with a non-flushing toilet. That was fun.
So, would I go on another cruise? Of course. I've sailed with Royal Caribbean 15 times and this sailing is the first time I've ever had a problem. Last year's family vacation on Freedom of the Seas was a wonderful experience filled with gluten-free goodness and a fabulous chef that we have kept in touch with and consider part of the family. The whole dining room staff was terrific on Freedom of the Seas! Our head waiter even gave my son pre-wrapped Udi's cookies to take back to the stateroom for a snack each evening. I can't say enough about how wonderful that cruise was for my 10-year-old son and I who both have dietary restrictions.
Would I sail again on Empress of the Seas? Probably not. The Empress of the Seas is an older ship that RCI revamped and put back into service last week after a two-month delay. We were on the first sailing and there was a lot to be learned by the crew about EVERYTHING--especially gluten-free dining. The only option for breakfast, lunch and snacks was the Windjammer buffet. Anyone with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or food allergies would probably tell you that buffets are their worst nightmare. If there were other non-buffet dining options for meals and snacks, I would reconsider Empress after the crew has a chance to get things together. Right now, they are not prepared to meet the needs of gluten free guests--with food or plumbing.
I met two passengers with celiac disease who experienced many issues dining on this ship. Vegetables were cooked in pasta water, no gluten free desserts most nights, and cross contamination risk at every meal. I assured them that our experience on Empress of the Seas was unlike any other cruise that I had been on and hoped they will give cruising another chance. The crew was wonderful on Empress of the Seas, but in my opinion Royal Caribbean didn't give them much to work with. The ship still needed a lot of work and after I returned home and starting reading comments on social media, it appears that a freezer stopped working early in the cruise and a lot of food and ice cream was ruined. That information, if that is what really happened, was never shared publicly with guests, and I feel like if the cruise line had been up front with guests, there would've been less anger and bad publicity.
Tips to keep you from drowning in a sea of gluten
If you are gluten intolerant and are considering a cruise vacation, you may find the following tips helpful:
1. Be sure to ask what options are available for guests with dietary restrictions when you book. Travel agents can offer a lot of assistance with these questions. Most cruise lines require guests with special dietary requirements to send an email listing their needs at least 45 days before sailing so they can better prepare.
2. Pack extra snacks that you can keep in your stateroom for emergencies. Protein bars, pretzels, pre-packaged bread, etc. travel well. Please note that you cannot take fruit or vegetables on or off a ship. There is a hefty fine if you get caught doing this.
3. Take wet wipes. Cruise ship toilet paper isn't soft. You'll thank me for this tip if you get glutened.
4. Do some research and read reviews about restaurants that can accommodate your dietary restrictions at ports of call before you leave home. You may want to print directions from the airport or pier so you will know how to get there.
5. If you're sailing out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami, be sure to stop by Weezie's Kitchen in Fort Lauderdale for breakfast or lunch. Weezie's is a 100% dedicated gluten free restaurant that is wonderful! The owner also has takeaway options that you can reheat at the hotel if you're staying overnight since she isn't open for dinner. The lasagna is fabulous!
Stay tuned for a vlog post about Weezie's Kitchen next week and follow her on social media at Weezies GF Kitchen! We ate there twice because was so delicious--and ordered takeaway dinner so we didn't have to chance getting glutened at other restaurants. The owner, staff and customers were such a joy to be around.
Please comment to share your tips that may help cruisers with gluten intolerance avoid drowning in a sea of gluten.