I am sitting on my balcony as the beautiful Alaska scenery glides by our cruise ship. Living in Colorado, I’m accustomed to our beautiful Rocky Mountains but the mountains and seascapes of Alaska are truly magnificent.
This trip was on our bucket list for a long time: sail the Inside Passage of Alaska (which in our case meant from Whittier, Alaska, to Vancouver, BC). Of course, my first thought when we booked the cruise was: What am I going to eat?
SPECIAL DIET PROGRAMS ON CRUISE SHIPS
Most cruise lines have special diet programs. My ship, the Sapphire Princess, offered kosher and vegetarian choices, plus menus without gluten and dairy. As directed when we booked the trip, I notified the cruise line of my needs in advance and then double-checked with them again once on board to make sure.
The crew was extremely customer service-oriented and most of them took great care to make sure I had something to eat. In fact, our ship employed 460 people in the kitchen/dining areas to serve 3800 passengers. Once on board, however, I learned that my gluten-free choices were somewhat limited, so these marvelous crew members had to do the best they could.
BREAKFAST ON SAPPHIRE PRINCESS
I can’t speak for other cruise ships, but ours offered cafeteria/buffet dining at all meals, so that’s where we headed on our first morning at sea. We still had to figure out where all the dining rooms were on this huge ship. While the cafeteria offerings are many, the gluten-free options are limited. When I asked an employee for gluten-free bread, he brought me a single slice of half-frozen white bread on a plate! Fortunately, I could eat the scrambled eggs, bacon, and fruit.
Later on that first day, we discovered a dining room that served breakfast and headed there every morning for the remainder of the 7-day cruise. Once the head-waiter knew I was gluten-free, I was offered bread
(see photo) and muffins which arrived toasted or at least warmed. This improved the taste somewhat, but the recipes were clearly based on a blend of high-starch flours (much like the breads we ate 20 years ago).
(See muffin in photo, left). Furthermore, they were made with milk which is most likely a problem for over half of gluten-free passengers (using American statistics on the percentage of gluten-free people who are also dairy-sensitive). As we all know, there are many non-dairy milks that they could have used in baking the bread and muffins.
LUNCH ON SAPPHIRE PRINCESS
Whenever we could, we ate lunch in the dining room because I had more control over my options. One day I ate delicious gluten-free pasta with red sauce (see photo)
Another day, I yearned for the fish tacos but instead got a deconstructed taco bowl (there were no corn tortillas on board) of layers of cabbage and lettuce, interspersed with grilled fish and pico de gallo, topped with Mexican salsa and ringed with gluten-free corn ships. It was clever of the chef and delicious.
Other days, we had shore excursions to see more of the fabulous Alaskan scenery, including majestic mountains, ice-age glaciers, and wildlife (such as humpback whales, dolphins, eagles, sea otters—but alas, no bear or moose, darn!). One day, in Skagway (population 900), we found a Thai restaurant (Starfire) with a gluten-free menu and I was delighted to eat Thai food (see photo), with gluten-free pear cider as a beverage. It was fabulous.
The dishes in the cafeteria/buffet were not labeled, so when we had to eat lunch there I had to ask a cafeteria worker the gluten-free status of every dish. A familiar pattern emerged. Wheat flour and/or soy sauce were used in the sauces, even when we all know that many other thickeners produce good results AND there are gluten-free brands of soy sauce.
One day in the cafeteria, I was told that the lamb chops were gluten-free so I built my plate around that entrée. As I was about to eat, an employee ran up to me to say that the lamb chops were NOT gluten-free because of the sauce. We tossed the whole plate of food and I had to go back through the cafeteria line all over again and re-build my plate, this time with salad (I wasn’t taking any more chances).
That said, unbeknownst to me, the kitchen immediately cooked two plain lamb chops (without the sauce) and a waiter tracked me down in the huge cafeteria to make sure I got it. That’s why I give the crew high marks; they really wanted to make me happy. However, the constraints of their system made it hard for them.
DINNER ON SAPPHIRE PRINCESS
Dinner was my favorite meal because there were several courses served in the dining rooms and if the entrée choices weren’t gluten-free, I could fill up on soup, salad, and appetizers instead. Wheat flour was used in many of the entrées, usually as a thickener for sauces. Even the lobster came with a wheat-thickened sauce, but I didn’t mind eating it with melted butter, the way I usually do.
In fact, that was the way the ship met gluten-free needs—by subtracting the offending ingredients, rather than trying to work with suitable substitutes. The end result was usually a very plain, unseasoned entrée—except for salt and pepper. That’s why it’s a good idea to carry your own seasoning mix that you can sprinkle on food that is bland, bland, bland.
Of course, I could pre-order my meal the night before so I always knew what I was eating the next night but that didn’t seem to open up any more options for me. It simply made my choices easier for the kitchen.
I also liked dinner because the gluten-free desserts were better (though far fewer gluten-free choices than those for gluten-diners). My favorite was the Flourless Chocolate Cake
(see photo), but the Pavlova with fruit and Zabaglione & Berries were delicious, as well. And, I can’t forget the Chocolate Mousse. But the Rhubarb Pie had a tough, rubbery crust. The Pineapple Fruitcake seemed more appropriate for the holidays than a cruise in July. Other nights, when no choices sounded good, I ate fruit or resorted to my stash of smuggled goodies (see How I Coped, below).
HOW I COPED
I have been gluten-free for nearly 25 years so I know how to travel with an arsenal of “back-up” foods. I brought gluten-free chocolate muffins (which doubled as dessert), sandwich bread, cookies, plus nuts, dried fruit, and crackers. So, I didn’t starve and there was a mini-fridge in our cabin to store perishables.
Also, I ate a lot of salads, fruits, and vegetables, which didn’t hurt me one bit since I try to eat about 5 cups total per day. The ship did offer soy milk, so (no Starbucks on board!!) I treated myself to frequent coffee lattes and used the soy milk on oatmeal (I brought along Love Grown Oats, which are sealed containers of gluten-free oats that can be reconstituted with boiling water).
All in all, the trip was fabulous and I wasn’t about to let my disappointment in the food dampen my spirits. After all, the most important thing we take with us when we travel is a positive attitude. Rather than bemoan the lack of gluten-free choices, I rejoiced that I was taking an incredible vacation with my husband. Besides, I knew there was delicious gluten-free food waiting at for me at home.