Our Gluten Free Cruise… A Coeliac review of sailing the Norwegian Fjords on the Sapphire Princess with Princess Cruises
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A gluten free cruise Opportunity
Do you dream of a gluten free cruise, safe for Coeliacs? Have you been put off for fear of being stuck at sea and unable to find anything to eat because you are gluten free? Think again! I’ve been lucky enough to take a family holiday cruising in the Norwegian Fjords on the Sapphire Princess with Princess Cruises… And it turned out that gluten free cruising was gob-smackingly good.
I want to be absolutely clear… This was a self-funded family holiday with no commercial blog interest. But I was genuinely so bowled over by the experience, that I want to share our foodie journey with you.
Actually, cruising is a new experience for our family. Apart from a blog camp in Southampton, I had never set foot on a cruise ship. Travel is usually about getting into the heart of a city or country and getting down and dirty with the locals. It’s about absorbing every aspect of culture available to us and of course, enjoying the local food and fare.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from cruising. But as we wanted to visit the Norwegian Fjords, it seemed a great opportunity to experience a new form of travel to somewhere which has an ideal viewpoint from the water. Departing from Southampton, it also meant not having to worry about baggage limits… And not having to hang around at airports for hours.
Travelling Gluten Free – the usual worries and plans
As a family with two people who must not eat gluten due to Coeliac Disease, we worry about the probability of finding good, safe gluten free food on holiday. The thought of achieving a successful gluten free cruise increased this anxiety. Let’s face it, being ‘captive’ on a ship for 2 weeks eating baked potatoes and salad would seriously dampen the experience. A pleasure of cruising should be the eating. And the prospect of watching other gluten-eating guests being served dish after dish of drool-worthy cuisine is unbearable.
When travelling, we always go well prepared with gluten free rolls, biscuits and snacks. Starving on holiday is never an option. Cruise planning was no different and we went on board with plenty of sustenance.
but… Sapphire Princess know how to Gluten Free Cruise
We needn’t have bothered… For the first time ever, most of our supplies stayed in the case. The catering crew on Sapphire Princess were ‘on it’ from the moment we boarded the ship. We received a call to our stateroom almost as soon as we were in. This confirmed our dietary needs and asked us to make ourselves known when we came down to dinner. From that point on and throughout the cruise, both myself and Miss GF were frequently left speechless by the lengths the staff went to. Not only did they make eating on board as safe as possible, but also as decadent and varied as for all the other guests.
Nothing was too much trouble. Whatever we wanted was made in gluten free form… whether from standard restaurant menus, or around the ship in the all day cafes. And with no fuss. Seriously… When Miss GF decided she wanted to try battered frogs legs, the kitchen staff rustled up a gluten free batch as if it was the most usual request in the world. The guys on Sapphire Princess knew exactly what they were doing.
Learning how Sapphire Princess caters for their guests
While on board (and to make the most of our sea days), I managed to arrange to meet with Steve Reynolds, the Director of Food and Beverages and also with Generoso Mazzone (Maitre D’Hotel) and Octavio Bellesi (Executive Chef). They were all more than happy share their wisdom on ‘free from’ cruising and food preparation on board.
The logistics & practice of safe food preparation
Once inside the kitchens, you get a sense of the massive scale and logistical complications that need to be overcome. With more than 2,500 guests, there is a likelihood that a good couple of hundred of them will have food allergies and intolerances. These can range from Coeliac through to multiple life-threatening allergies. The catering team have a truly complex task keeping us all food-safe. The last thing they want or need is a passenger who gets sick because of an oversight.
The staff in charge of food on the ship are rightly proud of what they offer and when Executive Chef Octavio, offered us a private tour around one of his galleys, we had no hesitation in taking him up. He runs a tight ship (pun intended). I was reassured to see that not only were the special diet food preparation areas kept separate from the rest, but that bowls and ingredients were covered prior to cooking and special ingredients had their own storage areas. Even where dishes on the menu were naturally ‘safe’, they were still prepared for ‘special’ guests in a separate area. All of these practices help to avoid cross-contamination.
Ahead of the cruise, guests are invited to complete a dietary needs form on-line. This enables the crew to plan ahead and for chefs and food staff to know exactly who needs additional care. While it is hoped that guests use this facility, it is clear from talking to the guys on board that an ‘inevitable’ proportion of ‘free-fromers’ don’t inform up front. Of course they still require (and get) the same level of food care.
Is there a lot of food waste on a ship?
One of the things that particularly interested me was how, with two and a half thousand guests and an additional one thousand one hundred crew members, the officers knew what food to bring on board. Surely food waste must be an issue?
It turns out that the only food waste is really what people leave on their plates. The amount and type of ingredients brought onto each cruise is reasonably accurately calculated well ahead of departure. How? Well fascinatingly, it is based on the nationality and demographics of the travellers… And what they are known to usually order. So for example, a high number of cruisers from America will result in ordering higher quantities of meat. Europeans will eat more fish.
The daily food tally
The quantities of ingredients on a cruise are simply astounding… 2,700 pounds of potatoes cooked every day… Plus about 1,700 fish, 5,000 pounds of meat and 550 gallons of soup… Another 500 pounds of pasta, 2,500 pounds of vegetables and 1,600 pounds of salad. Then there’s 13 gallons of mayonnaise and 400 pounds of butter. Ready for the sweet statistics? There’s a daily total of 6,000 pounds of fresh fruit, 100 gallons ice cream, 6,000 assorted pastries and 300 full sized cakes and pies.
And that’s just for starters. The galleys use an average of 1,500 pounds of flour every day and a staggering 9,000 eggs. Yes really… I cannot in any way, shape or form get my head around what 126,000 eggs look like when they arrive at the start of a 14 night cruise.
How dining works when you need a gluten free cruise
Being first time cruisers, we hadn’t really considered the various dining options and happily accepted a fixed evening dining time in a named dining room. That suited our family fine. But I was also reassured from our experience of eating at other locations around the ship, that staff in all kitchens would have been well-able to meet our dietary needs had we opted for ‘anytime dining’.
Choosing the menu a day ahead
In the designated dining room, the head waiter would bring the next day’s menu to our table each evening so that myself and Miss GF could choose dinner (and lunch for sea days) for the following day. While this seemed less spontaneous than for other guests, the additional ‘notice’ meant that there was literally nothing on the starter-mains section that was off limits. The philosophy of Princess Cruises was very clear…. As gluten free cruisers, our experience should be as similar as possible to other guests. If the dish had pastry, they made it gluten free. If we wanted pasta, we got it. Sauces were specially adapted to make them safe. And only when there was no other way round, were ingredients completely substituted (such as rice instead of cous cous).
Attention to detail – knowledgable staff
Each evening, we were treated to freshly baked gluten free bread at dinner. The fact that it was freshly baked was in itself, astounding. But it was also served in separate baskets, cloth-wrapped and facing away from any glutenous offerings. When our waiter automatically offered separate butter as well, I was left in no doubt that all staff were trained on the risks of cross-contamination.
Every gluten free cruise needs delicious desserts
And desserts for our gluten free cruise? Although I fully expected to eat fruit salad and ice cream every day, I was left wide-eyed and spoiled. This cruise was like living on board a floating gluten free patisserie.
Okay… the choice was not quite as free-flowing as for gluten-eating guests, but we were presented with a gluten free surprise dessert every night… Everything from rhubarb pie and fruit crumble, to panna cotta, bananas foster, espresso creme brulee and chocolate brownie… There were ‘floating islands’ and a whole array of light cakes, pastries and mousses.
If you fancied a treat outside of main dining times, there were gluten free patisserie options around the ship too. And for breakfast, we could order gluten free pancakes, muffins or french toast.
There was even gluten free afternoon tea available on board. Decadent was an understatement. But most importantly, we were equal to other guests and felt we were no problem at all. No raised eye brows… or rolling eyes… And no tutting or questioning whether a little bit of gluten was really going to matter. These guys ‘got it’ and that was just fine!
The ‘extras’ that made our gluten free cruise truly special
And it gets better…
Imagine how excited we were when… (After a particularly crappy wet weather day, soaked through four layers to the skin, puddles in our shoes from a long rain-fuelled hike, phone completely trashed by water damage and the distress of losing all the photos stored on it building)… We came back to our stateroom to find a tray with four plates of gluten free goodies… biscuits, cakes and desserts. In our gluten free world, that kind of thoughtfulness just doesn’t happen. And when it does, everything feels better. It was a lovely touch and it made us feel truly special.
But it doesn’t end there… Towards the end of our cruise, there was an unexpected knock at our door. We opened it to be greeted with a large and very decadent-looking cake. I’d seen similar cakes around the ship, evidently created for occasions like birthdays and anniversaries. We had neither, so I (hopefully) asked ‘what’s this?’ and then tentatively ‘Perhaps you have the wrong room?’… ‘Compliments of the Maitre D’ came the reply.
Seriously? We were jumping around the room, so unexpected and exciting was our gift. The cake (a light chocolate sponge layered with whipped cream and decorated to impress) was absolutely delicious… But most of all, we felt like we mattered. And importantly, like we weren’t just another ‘dietary need’.
Aside from the food, the cruise itself was amazing and the Norwegian Fjords stunning. Miss GF was totally smitten with the whole experience and has been frequently suggesting new cruise destinations since our return. She has even managed to find a TV channel entirely dedicated to cruise pestering…
Of course, the fact that gluten free cruise eating was so easy and Coeliac was completely and refreshingly accepted without hinderance, was a massive part of her enjoyment. Our thanks go to the crew of the Sapphire Princess for that. You made our daughter’s year!
Will we cruise again? For sure! Miss GF has her sights set on warmer climes next time… But whenever and wherever we venture onto the open sea again, we will certainly be expecting great things.
For other posts on gluten free travel experiences with Gluten Free Alchemist, check out our Travel Destinations index.
You can also read my feature following this cruise on a day in Bergen in Princess Cruises Journey Magazine.
If you know a great gluten free destination we should consider travelling to we’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or contact by e-mail.