Before I took my Big Trip in September I was quite worried about how I would find enough gluten free food to last me a week aboard a cruise ship. Silly, I know, but these things are serious considerations for a hungry gluten free traveller. So I decided to write an exhaustive(/exhausting?!) guide which will tell you which of the dining venues on board the Jewel is best for gluten free, how to get in touch with the special diet waiter, how special diet dining works, and my personal top tips for getting the most out of your gluten free cruise. I’ll also show you what I ate and what I’d recommend. If you’re not gluten free or considering a cruise, this post might be a bit much for you. I’m not offended if you just want to click out and come back next week. Honestly, I promise. Endless pictures of plates of food aren’t for everyone.
Let me give you a brief idea of what on earth is going on in this post. In September 2016 I took a week long Alaskan cruise with Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) in their ship the Norwegian Jewel. It was booked via a travel agent as part of a larger package, an agent who was universally hopeless and I definitely wouldn’t recommend to a friend (or even an enemy). This was my first cruise and I had no idea how my special diet would be catered for.
NCL do something called freestyle dining, which means you can eat at any time and with any table size, providing you book ahead. This is not the communal dining of a traditional cruise setup, which tends to fill us with horror because we are antisocial beings.
Before you disembark
Once you’ve booked your cruise you should send an email to [email protected] advising of your booking details and exact dietary requirements. I suggest this as a mere formality, because the response I received from the customer service team was definitely not helpful. I asked if they could give me an idea of what food would be available in advance – are we talking the usual “we have gluten free bread available” and it’s one inedible type of bread that they try and serve with everything, and aside from that you’re restricted to those menu items which are ‘naturally gluten free’ eg salad or fruit salad? If I was on for a week of strict dieting I wanted to know about it in advance.
Sadly, customer services were not able to help me with any useful information at all. I also asked which speciality dining restaurants they would recommend and they declined to answer my question. Instead, they advised I go and speak to the Access Officer or the Restaurant Manager when we board the ship. Pro tip: ignore this advice. That’s not what you need to do.
Still, on booking I was advised to send an email to this address to let them know about my special diet so I figured it was better safe than sorry. I’d advise you do the same, but don’t expect any helpful information from whomever you get in contact with.
When you arrive on board
Needless to say, I arrived on board feeling a little bit nervous about what awaited me. I didn’t even know where to begin looking for the Access Officer or the Restaurant Manager (which restaurant manager? There are 13 restaurants on board!) so went to the main guest services desk which was swamped with passengers, what with it being embarkation day. Basically we were passed around a lot in a wild goose chase and nobody knew where we should go or who we should speak to.
Don’t bother with all of that. Go straight to Tsar’s restaurant and ask for the special diet waiter. I don’t think that’s their official title but they should know who you’re talking about. There should be two of these special diet waiters on board and you need to make best friends with at least one of them. We were assigned to Ramsy and he was amazing. He’ll sort you out for your first dinner, advising you on what’s gluten free and ordering in advance anything as necessary. You’ll be given his card with his mobile phone number on, which he carries around everywhere. If you ever have a question, just give him a ring and he’ll help you as best he can. After sorting out that first dinner, there is a routine that you’ll need to follow daily.
The deal is, you tell him where you’ll be for your evening meal, and he comes to that venue and finds you, carrying all the menus for the next day. To make his life easier you should try to advise him where you’d like to dine the following day, but it’s not strictly necessary. You then peruse these menus at your leisure, asking Ramsy for recommendations and alterations as you go. You place your food orders for all your meals for the following day, let Ramsy know where you’ll be for your supper and tell him you’ll see him again then. Ramsy may or may not serve you your actual meal, unless you are dining in Tsar’s, but he will have placed the order for you and made sure everything’s in place. Then you rinse and repeat for the duration of your journey.
Whilst this system was a bit to get used to at first, with choosing the next night’s dinner before you’d even eaten that night’s, it was by far and away the best way of doing it. The personal service made sure I could ask as many questions as I needed, he could tell me truthfully what was good, and you always saw the same person. That was also comforting.
Overall, I felt very safe with his dedicated service and he made my trip infinitely more enjoyable. Thanks, Ramsy!
Ok, now I’m going to give you a little review of each restaurant, with pictures. Brace yourselves.
Restaurants included in your cruise fare
This is the smart half of the main dining room. If you have a special diet, you’ll want to eat most of your meals here because they have the best selection, and your special diet waiter will most likely work here. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
They have gluten free waffles and pancakes available for breakfast alongside your usual suspects, which I opted for with a plate of fruit most mornings. We ate at Tsar’s for almost all of our lunches, and we found the food and service of exceptional quality. You do have to wait a while to eat your meals, because good service takes time, but let’s face it. We weren’t in a hurry. And it was definitely worth it.
This is all the gluten free food we ate in Tsar’s. Highlights were the lentil curry, all the mousse-based puddings, the fish and chips, and the burger.
This is the casual half of the main dining room. We didn’t eat here because it was much easier to go where my special diet waiter Ramsy worked (Tsar’s). They serve the same menu as Tsar’s anyway, and I think Tsar’s was a nicer experience. It’s got a great view out over the back of the ship, which was an amazing view to have over a meal.
This is the buffet restaurant. I tried to eat here once, found there was basically nothing gluten free available and nobody to help me, and the whole experience was like feeding time at the zoo so I retreated rapidly back to Tsar’s. It’s open basically all the time except for the odd twenty minute gap where they swill the place down briefly, but has the worst gluten free selection.
The Great Outdoors
This is listed as a separate restaurant but is basically an extension of the buffet… but outside. It’s got similar opening hours to the buffet – in fact, when the Garden Café is closed for swill down you’ll probably be in luck at The Great Outdoors. There’s a similar lack of gluten free food available, plus when I went to scope it out I saw a lady who was old enough to do better picking a roasted potato out of the buffet dish with her fingers and putting it straight in her mouth. Who does that?!
Here we have an imitation Irish sports bar with a cosy friendly atmosphere. It’s got tv’s on the wall showing sports and/or the news, so it’s good place to go if you want to feel informed about one thing or another. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with limited gluten free items. For example, you can have a gluten free bun for your burger but the chips/fries aren’t gluten free. The fryer at O’Sheehan’s is shared, whereas the fryer at Tsar’s is dedicated gluten free. See, subtle differences, and that’s why I recommend Tsar’s.
Here’s the food we ate at O’Sheehan’s. The burger was fine but a bit dry. The side salad was fresh… but small. I got one leaf of lettuce and one slice of tomato, which I thought was a bit dismal seeing as I’d missed out on chips. The flourless chocolate cake was divine.
Chin Chin Asian Restaurant
I don’t recall what gluten free items were available, but I think it was pretty sparse. Maybe one rice noodle dish. I get a bit nervous with Asian restaurants due to the ubiquitous soy sauce, particularly as it’s “Asian” rather than Japanese, Thai etc which would give me a clue as to how much of the stuff they’re splashing around. It’s also only open for dinner, and there were plenty of better options for us so we didn’t end up eating there.
Sky High Bar & Grill
I think this was up on the pool deck somewhere. We didn’t go there – it sounded like a lot of gluten filled barbecue items plus it was freezing out on deck so we passed. I think it’s only open at a random time in the afternoons which also explains why we didn’t make it there.
Room service is allegedly free, but some items do carry a charge and all orders incur a delivery fee of at least $7.95 (plus tip) so we were stingy and didn’t go for this option.
Restaurants you have to pay extra for*
This is a Brazilian barbecue/churrascaria restaurant. It was so good we went twice. As with all the specialty restaurants, it’s only open for dinner.
For appetizers you just go and help yourself from the buffet. It’s full of the most delicious items and you could easily have a whole meal from this bar. Then they come round with various grilled/roasted meats, all of which were extremely high quality cuts, cooked to perfection, and all were absolutely delicious.
The most important thing I have to point out is that they have pao de queijo here. I’d never heard of these before, and to my delight discovered they’re naturally gluten free – it’s a Brazilian cheese bread made from tapioca. We ate at Moderno on our first night, and that was extremely lucky because I discovered these amazing things right at the beginning of our cruise. I then became absolutely hooked on them, and asked for them at every single meal we had since. Ramsy was usually able to sneak me some, even when we were eating in one of the included-with-fare restaurants which I’m not sure was strictly allowed but is definitely a perk of having your own special diet waiter.
I recommend the cocktail bar as well…
This steakhouse gets rave reviews. I mean, it was good. It was also busy! The steak was great, but no better than at Moderno in my opinion. The sides of dauphinoise and green beans were just as you’d expect in a steakhouse. It was a nice ambience, and we actually had our anniversary dinner there. Which means we got sung to over our pudding… mortifying. I’d recommend it, but I don’t necessarily understand why it’s more popular than Moderno.
The French restaurant. It’s also the most fancy on board. You definitely need to dress up for this one! It was pretty good, but a bit too much for us. We’re more humble folk. Still, seeing as it was included in our Ultimate Dining Package we thought we’d give it a try. We had all your French classics – mussels, scallops, lobster, creme brulee… As people point out, why not try something you wouldn’t normally spring for, seeing as you don’t have to pay extra for it? It was all very well cooked and service was impeccable. Still… it was just a bit too stuffy for us.
The Teppanyaki restaurant does what it says on the tin. The food is cooked live in front of you and there’s a lot of showing off, throwing food, audience participation, etc. You sit at group tables and I gather you actually have to talk to people. All that plus the risk of cross contamination was enough for us to cross it off our list. Yes, after a day of Organised Fun we tend to be a little antisocial!
The Italian restaurant. We struggled to get a firm answer as to whether they could do gluten free pizza for me; I think they had pasta but I’m not generally a fan of eating gluten free pasta out in restaurants (always disappointing if you ask me). Seeing as I could get gluten free pasta in Tsar’s without using one of our dining vouchers, we thought we’d use it elsewhere.
Sushi and Sake Bar
This is basically just a small bar area inside Chin Chin Asian Restaurant. I think the sushi wasn’t included with the Ultimate Dining Package, or something about it was expensive, so we didn’t go there.
There’s also The Bake Shop, which is a cake shop somewhere on the ship. I didn’t go looking for it because there was absolutely nothing there for us gluten free-ers.
*Unless you have the Ultimate Dining Package, which we had included as a special offer with our booking. This allowed us 4 meals at any of these restaurants for no extra charge. I would highly recommend getting this perk if you can, and personally I’d recommend it over the Ultimate Beverage Package although full disclosure I’m not a big drinker.
Miscellaneous top tips
- All specialty dining restaurants need to be booked, and I’d recommend doing so as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointment. The most popular (Cagney’s and the Teppanyaki) were mostly booked up during the popular slots by the time we boarded. You can book online using the My NCL portal. Oddly enough, once you make a reservation you can’t cancel it online, you have to call them up. So, make sure you’re certain on your decision before you click book!
- Check the dress code of the restaurant you’re visiting. Most operate on a pretty relaxed basis, but there was a collared shirts and no trainers rule in force at Tsar’s in the evenings. Don’t be caught out by it!
- Book as far ahead as you can, and look out for special offers where you can get the Ultimate Dining Package as a free add-on.
- This one’s a cheeky one so you didn’t hear it from me. Bring some zip-lock bags to your meals and you can make yourself a packed lunch to take off the ship with you. Our bags were never checked for food and we were very careful to take all our rubbish back on board again. In particular, I took away a bagful of the pao de queijo which were my only source of food on my flight home, after Delta stuffed up (thanks, Delta). Those things kept me going for the whole 9+ hours!
- Make sure to nominate your special diet waiter as your ‘cruise hero’ and fill out the on board feedback forms – this helps out your waiter and helps NCL improve their offering to passengers with special diets. Plus, every time you fill in one of these you get a plate of chocolates or other small thank you gift delivered to your cabin. Win-win!
Have you ever dealt with a special diet on a cruise? Or any other type of organised holiday? How did it go?
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