Saturday, August 28, 2010

Royal Caribbean Cruise

I love Royal Caribbean. Hands down.

My family and I took a last minute vacation on Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas - a four night cruise from Port Canavaral, Florida to the Bahamas (CocoCay - their private island, and Nassau.) Last summer, we road tripped to Colorado and Wyoming, but that vacation style was out since I am still learning to navigate gluten free at restaurants and did not want to deal with the stress of having fast food as my only roadside options. The price was right for Royal Caribbean's cruise and I fell in love as soon as I searched for "gluten" on their website:

We make every effort to accommodate our guests' dietary requirements whenever possible. We can accommodate dietary needs such as: Food allergies Gluten-free Kosher Low-fat Low-sodium

Lactose-free/soy milk, Ensure, and kosher meals are available no extra charge. All you have to do is notify us at least 45 days prior to sailing (90 days for European/South American Itineraries).

Immediately after my mom made our reservations, I e-mailed their Special Needs department and requested lactose and gluten free foods. I inquired about how I should navigate the buffets and was told to ask the matire d once on ship.

We flew out of Chicago first thing on Sunday morning so I brought my little bag of General Mills cereal to tide me over while the rest of the family searched for breakfast. Once in Florida, we ate lunch at a Thai restaurant near the hotel. This was my first time really dining out with my family without gluten...and my brother's first time eating Thai! Like most Asian restaurants, their soy sauce contains wheat, but I was able to order Sweet and Sour Chicken that was gluten free! My mom and I triple checked that the meat was not breaded - it never is there. It was very delicious and I much prefer the flavors of their take on Sweet and Sour Chicken compared to the Americanized heavily breaded option. For dinner, we went to an Italian restaurant. Upon arriving, I told the hostess that I was lactose and gluten intolerant and if there was anything I could eat there. She said that I could have the pizza without cheese. These seemed too good to be true, so I asked if their dough was made with wheat. It was. Luckily a waitress was nearby and said that she served someone gluten free before and that they could make me vegetables with chicken (one of their pasta dishes sans pasta). While my family ate pizza, I had my plate of veggies. The waitress was even kind enough to charge me for the vegetables and chicken as sides rather than the full price meal, saving me a few dollars. Our vacation was off to a fantastic start!
The next day around lunch time, we boarded the Monarch of the Seas and headed straight towards the buffet at Windjammer Cafe. I felt lost as soon as I entered the cafe. There was so much food and all of the labels were only one or two words in English, no ingredient disclosures that I have grown to love. I found a waitress and said I was gluten and lactose intolerant - could she help me choose food? She quickly came back with one of the chefs who pointed out to me all that I could eat - and I had plenty of options! I started off the cruise with some seafood paella (literally the first thing I ate on the ship was a baby octopus) and accepted (and failed) my brother's challenge to eat a mussel in one bite.

That night, we had our first dinner in the main dining room. I told my waiter that I was lactose and gluten intolerant and he was surprised by the gluten intolerance. It seems that they never received my e-mail about my diet and were instead going off of my mom's initial reservations - she wrote down that I was lactose and glucose intolerant. The head waiter, waiter, and assistant waiter all did a fantastic job accommodating me - I had gluten-free bread, salad, steak with a baked potato and roasted veggies, and a truly last minute dessert of blueberries and strawberries. After we were done with dessert, my waiter brought out the menu for the next night's dinner and I was able to choose my starter and main course ahead of time.

The next day, we had breakfast in the main dining room and they were able to make me fresh scrambled eggs (everyone else's scrambled eggs contained milk) and bacon! Yum! There was even a roasted tomato on the plate! For lunch, we spent our time on the island and ate their buffet. This time, the chef I spoke to was not as knowledgeable about the food, so after confirming that their ribs were gf, I had a few with watermelon on the side. For pre-dinner (we had an 8:30 seating and lunch was SO long ago at that point), I had Mediterranean chicken with rice. The rice was so delicious - I took two bites and had to stop eating since the flavor seemed a lot like buttered rice. I asked a waiter who asked the chef about their white rice - it was just plain white rice. The chef was from the Philippines so really knew how to cook rice well. Plain white rice never tasted so good! I wish I knew his secrets... For dinner, I had a cold mango soup, roasted duck and a poached pear for dessert.
I repeated my breakfast order again, it was simple and filling. I had chocolate soy milk (Silk), but could only drink half the glass since I'm not a big fan of non-traditional milk (even with my mom telling me to just drink it - I need the calcium.) For lunch, I had some more of their amazing flavor-filled plain white rice, meat, and veggies. Dinner was tortilla soup (sans tortilla) and salmon and lentils with rice pudding for dessert. That night was the midnight buffet. A few minutes before the buffet opened, my mom and I went to the poolside deck. I somehow managed to find the maitre d who had one of the sous chefs tell me yay or nay for all of their food. He obviously started with "You can have the fruit!" before showing me all of the yes's that were on the buffet. I had pig, plantains, fish, and grapes.
Our next day was spent at sea. I started breakfast with scrambled eggs and bacon and asked if it was possible to make hash browns with olive oil. The waiter came back with everything but the hash browns, so I dug into my food. Then he brought out the best hash browns ever. I've never had hash browns that were quite so tasty before! For lunch, I had fish with white rice and veggies. I had to wait about five to ten minutes longer for my food than everyone else. The head waiter came to apologize for the wait - the chef jumped out of the boat to catch my fish - he joked. My family and I pre-gamed our dinner as well. The rice noodles in a make-you-own-soup line caught my eye. It took me a little while to confirm that the broth was wheat free (it was freshly made) so I was able to order a bowl of soup. I requested the rice noodles, expecting the traditional Asian style ones I have been using (there were about four or five noodle options) but they came with a Ramen-style noodle. I confirmed that those were rice noodles - they said they were. I couldn't tell what type of flour was used to make the noodle, but I didn't get sick when I ate it so went off the assumption that they were right! The soup was very delicious and I was able to tell that the broth was homemade - it had such a rich flavor! For dinner, I had French Onion soup (minus the cheesy bread on top), steak and potatoes, and another poached pear.

This was such a relaxing and empowering vacation! There is so much food that I CAN eat; it was very exciting for me. I missed cooking, but the eating was so great. Plus I didn't have to do any dishes!!! Royal Caribbean did a wonderful job making sure that I never went hungry and that I always had options for my food. Whenever I told someone on the ship that I couldn't have gluten or lactose, they immediately offered me soy milk and gluten free bread. Their gluten free bread was a little on the dry side, but was much better than some of the other gf breads I have tried. I am no longer scared of seafood and realize that sometimes the simplest recipes can be the greatest (and bursting with flavor!) if they are prepared well. I have so many new menu ideas now!
I'm not going to lie - it was disappointing to see my brother and sister able to eat whatever they wanted. I was most upset by not being able to eat soft serve ice cream. I realize that this may change if my lactose intolerance goes away, but soft serve ice cream invokes so many happy memories of camps and our last cruise (9 years ago). During the hour or two when there was no official dining service, the food options were pizza, soft serve, and fruit. I now have a few new pizza topping ideas, but I was always eating fruit as my afternoon snack. I only gained one pound on the cruise. I don't know how the rest of my family did...

I would travel again with Royal Caribbean in a heartbeat and would recommend them to anyone with food allergies or intolerances. Dining out has never been so stress-free!!! I get sick really easily due to cross contamination and I am pleased to say that I had no problems whatsoever on this cruise! Everyone I talked to was very helpful and knowledgeable. They truly took care of me on this vacation! Thank you, Monarch of the Seas dining staff!!

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