First off, let me admit that sometimes I am a TOTAL slacker when it comes to posting larger reviews. For that I do apologize, but sometimes life gets the best of you and 2016 was one hell of a year full of my own health issues, family deaths, and more. I’ve had this post sitting unfinished in my queue since April of this year, but it just kept getting pushed back for editing and completion. I decided to take today, the first day of 2017, to try tying up some loose ends and completed it. I hope you forgive me dear reader…
Last January my husband and I took our first cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas. At that time the ship was departing from Fort Lauderdale Florida, making stops in Labadee Haiti, Falmouth Jamaica, Grand Cayman Island, and Cozumel Mexico. The ship that does this route has since switched to Oasis of the Seas, however the same restaurants exist on each ship. Let’s start with the bottom line: Regardless of which ship you take Royal Caribbean is bound to be a great experience if you are gluten free:
They have their stuff TOGETHER; they train their staff well, the food is flavorful, there are plenty of options, and everyone is beyond friendly. Here is what we experienced on this ship:
There are a variety of food options included in your cruise price with Royal Caribbean, including a main dining room, buffet, and pizza joint all of which cater to gluten free needs. The main dining room of this ship is a bit overwhelming. At three stories tall it is abuzz with chatter and dining noise during meal times, which included breakfast and dinner. It is mind-boggling to think of how many people are in that large room at once…
At breakfast only one level is open, so if you come with a smaller party you are seated with strangers.
Gluten free items for breakfast were denoted on the menu itself and included things like toast, pancakes, lox omelette, fresh fruit platters, eggs Benedict with salmon, yogurt, and more. There is also a breakfast buffet which you can pick and choose from as well, which seemed to have more limited options than the standard menu.
Dinner in the main dining room is like a well oiled machine, a machine not broken by the potential ‘kink’ of a gluten free order. Choose My Time dining for dinner if you want to eat whenever you want, although we learned reservations are essential if you don’t want to dine super later AND want your gluten free food ready when you arrive. You are assigned a dinner floor on your badge, and each section of that floor has designated staff. If gluten free I recommend sitting in the same section each time you have dinner in the main dining hall, this way your servers come to know your needs and can better accommodate. We met with our waiter, Keron, the second night we were there and explained our dietary needs. From then on each night we dined in the main dining room we were given the menu for the next day to review. Anything that could not be modified was crossed out, and anything safe was clearly noted. We were able to make our selections for the following night in advance so they could modify things as needed and we could feel secure in what we ordered.
While there were several days that the menu repeated our options seemed almost limitless, and there was very little that could not be modified. During our trip we were able to eat such things as: garlic soup, escargot, bay scallops in a butter and Parmesan sauce, strawberry gazpacho, shrimp cocktail, salmon, Chilean sea bass, Caesar salads, poached pear and arugula salads, eggplant Parmesan, tiger shrimp, chocolate flourless cake, strawberries with ice creams, creme brûlée, pudding and more. What’s even better is that we could order as many options as we wanted, so we spent many hours lounging and dining in the main dining room. While everything was stellar, I particularly loved the presentation of the desserts:
Despite the hustle and bustle of the main dining room the staff really know how to make you feel like the center of attention. By the end of the trip we felt like true friends with Keron and his staff. I give them A LOT of credit for working such long days and still maintaining a smile.
In addition to the main dining room, you can choose to eat at the Windjammer Buffet which is open for all meals. The Windjammer is the only restaurant open when the ship is prepping to leave port on your first day, so it was our first dining experience aboard the ship. The manager walked us through the buffet, outlining what was safe and what to avoid. Interestingly, the buffet has a gluten free section. For each meal there are a few options available in this section including pancakes, toast and French Toast in the mornings and Pasta and breads for lunch and dinner. Other options are also available throughout the buffet such as potato wedges, salsas, tacos, Mexican rice, sushi, and several types of dessert such as crustless cheesecake and different flavors of mousse. The Windjammer was our go to for breakfasts many of the days we were there, and for midday lunch or snacks. However, the staff is not as knowledgeable or on point as in the main dining room. But your plates from the buffet did look like this, and you could bring food anywhere on the ship to eat, which made for catching some great sunsets:
The final included option was Sorrento’s, the pizza shop. Minus the desserts I 100% think you should avoid this option unless you are in a bind. We tried pizza from there twice because it stays open late night; one time it had no cheese, and the other time it was hard as a rock. As a New Yorker this gluten free pizza was definitely a disappointment. However, they do have great gluten free desserts that you can quickly grab and eat while on the move as they came in tiny cups. We were able to get many a pudding, mousse, and panna cotta to enjoy.
The ship has several add on restaurants, and snack stands, that you can partake in if you want to send a bit of extra cash; We tried two of these. First was Sabor, their Mexican inspired restaurant. For a 25$ ‘cover charge’ per person you can eat any and all the food on the menu (for yourself or sharing). For starters your tortilla chips will be modified because the standard ones they supply are fried in a non-dedicated frier. Instead, you are supplied with hard shell corn tacos to enjoy with your complimentary salsa and the homemade guacamole, made table side, if you choose to splurge. If you go for other Platos Chiquitos (appetizers) everything except the Calamari is gluten free. The red snapper and mango Ceviche was tropical and on point. For dinner, avoid the Tortilla dishes and instead go straight for the Platos Fuertes. We had the Pan Seared Red Snapper and the Jalapeno-Garlic Tiger Shrimp which were both great. To round things out try the Tres Amigos Margaritas (including standard, ice berry, and pineapple carrot flavors) and finish with the Flan. Perhaps avoid the espresso creme Brûlée which I found way too flavorful, unless coffee is your thing…
The second specialty restaurant we tried was Giovanni’s Table, their Italian restaurant. The bonus of Giovanni’s is they have a view, unlike Sabor. Even at night it is great knowing the vast ocean is just outside the window while you dine. Upon our arrival for the reservation the manager came out to greet us and discuss our dietary needs, offering us a complimentary gluten free bread with olive oil and balsamic glaze dipping sauces. He and the staff were incredibly helpful. Gluten Free items are identified on the menu, and there are a variety of options from Insalata Caprese per Due, Insalata alla Cesare, or Scallops on the Shell for appetizers, to Fishermen’s Stew for a soup dish or Risotto ai Fungi Trifolati (mushroom Risotto) for an entree. For dessert we had Cherry vanilla custard, berries and flourless chocolate cake. Everything was ogle worthy, as each dish was well presented and as picturesque as it was delicious.
Although we did not pick this option you do have the option to have a specialty gluten free lunch packed for you when you book select excursions, typically the full or half day ones. We were told they would pack things such as salads, gluten free sandwiches, and hard boiled eggs and fruit. Limited options, but good to know none the less. Drink wise if you fancy yourself a gluten free alcohol beverage you are set. One of the bars offers cider, and they use brand name liquors that are safe for Celiacs. We did did not do the drink plan because we are not heavy drinkers, but did not find drinks to add too much to the tab.
I’ll conclude by recommending that you FULLY take advantage of the cruising opportunity, since we all know experiences go beyond the food we can and cannot eat. Enjoy the recreational activities on the boat, book yourself an excursion for each destination if that’s your thing, lounge in the pool or hot tub during a windy night, and enjoy the sites and sounds of the boat as well as the destination. We got to experience a protest in Haiti (which prevented us from getting off the boat but showed me the conflict these resident’s face on a daily basis), rode ATVs in Cozumel through the jungle and got splattered in mud, climbed a rock wall on a boat (on a boat!), played trivia with strangers who gave us marital advice on how to stay together forever, departed Jamaica as the sun set and watched the sky overhead light up with brilliant color like I’ve never seen before, watched several performances on different nights of plays and ice skating skits, did a photo scavenger hunt of the entire ship which has us laughing and out of breath, and so much more. This was an experience of a life time that I will never forget. The food is only part of the journey, although having that available does make it all the better.