Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Let There Be Light - A Celebrity Cruise Review

In the beginning of a 7-day Western Caribbean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Solstice, I had high hopes for a relaxing gluten-free vacation. What I got instead was a celiac story comparable to the creation story from the Book of Genesis. As in, “In the beginning...the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

In my case, it was the ship’s handling of my gluten-free requirements that lacked structure, which in turn left the dining room staff without any solutions I deemed acceptable. While being seated in the main dining room on the first night of the cruise I asked the host about getting a gluten-free meal. He said to ask the waiter. The waiter recommended the “heart healthy” entrée for my celiac diet. When I tried to explain that eating gluten-free did not mean I was on a “diet,” he suggested I speak with the Assistant Maitre d’. He at least seemed more knowledgeable about gluten-free food but stated I’d have limited choices for meals because they couldn’t and they wouldn’t alter menu items for special groups. That evening, as we sailed away from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the darkness that fell over the deep was no match for the darkness of my mood.

Such was the inauspicious launch of a celebratory cruise for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary last November. There were eight of us family members sailing together. In addition to my father and mother (who has celiac disease), there was my sister (celiac disease), her husband, my brother (celiac disease), his wife, my husband, and me (celiac disease). With half of our group requiring gluten-free meals (Thanks for the gene, Mom!), we’d all taken necessary steps to ensure smooth sailing. That included researching cruise lines for celiac-friendliness, making gluten-free requests with our cruise reservations, following up with emails to the cruise line (Celebrity requires all special dietary requests be made at least two weeks prior to the sailing), and lastly calling Celebrity directly to verify they had our requests. They did – right next to our reservation numbers.

In all fairness, the first meal wasn’t bad. Crab Louie served in an avocado shell, a non-descript baked salmon served with boiled potatoes, carrots, and asparagus, and Crème Brulee. After dinner, though, I lit straight away to Guest Services to inquire about my family’s gluten-free meals. The special dietary requests were in the system. So, according to the clerk, there was nothing else I needed to do. Except, perhaps, leave a comment. Which I did: The dining room staff needs to be enlightened about gluten-free meals.

The next day dawned with choppy seas and an overcast sky. Intent on finding my sea legs and a clear mind during our first full day on the water, I headed to a morning yoga class in the fitness center, first passing through the Oceanview Café to grab a plain yogurt and a banana to sustain me until brunch.

My husband and I dined alone for brunch at Grand Epernay Restaurant, which is where all of our family evening meals were also served. There, I was once again handed off from the host to a waiter to another Assistant Maitre d’. This one tried to guide me around the crowded buffet tables searching for food with “no flour,” but when he finally conceded that he couldn’t answer my probing questions about ingredients, he called for a chef.

Eating from a buffet is always a little risky for people with celiac - a fact confirmed for me when I spied a fellow passenger at the brunch buffet holding a swan-shaped cream puff over an enormous fruit-filled table while someone took her picture. OK, so no fruit for me this morning, I thought. Fortunately, the chef was attuned to the intricacies of the gluten-free diet, and after pointing out safe food at the buffet tables, he went back to the kitchen to prepare a fresh plate for me. It was still rather plain - grilled salmon, potatoes, steamed vegetables, eggs, and bacon – and it was disappointing not to be offered a gluten-free swan-shaped cream puff – but it was still more than I could eat.

To justify the large brunch, my husband and I met up with my sister and her husband at the Lawn Club for a bocce ball contest against some of the ship’s officers. The Lawn Club, located on the top deck, is a half-acre of real grass with room for not only bocce but also croquet and a small putting green. Next to the Lawn Club was the Corning Museum of Glass Hot Glass Show. Several times throughout the week gaffers demonstrated their molten glass talent for appreciative crowds. The sculptures were later exhibited and sold for hundreds of dollars at an art auction held on the last day of the cruise.

From bocce and hot glass, the four of us joined my brother and his wife at Cellar Masters for a wine and cheese tasting featuring twelve wines from six countries. Nervous about nibbling from the plates of cheese and crackers scattered about the room, but also not wanting to appear greedy by filling up a plate of cheese while all the other wine enthusiasts were still filing in, I enlisted the help of one of the sommeliers. A few moments after a quick explanation of celiac disease, he handed me a small plate of cheeses to carry around as I swirled and sipped.

Guest Services was one level down from Cellar Masters, so it seemed logical to stop there again to follow up on my comments from the previous evening. The initial response was the same we’d received before. Yes, they had our gluten-free requests. Yes, they had my remarks. Yes, they should be able to accommodate us. So why, I wanted to know, didn’t anyone in the dining room know anything about it? And, why were we not offered an assortment of fancy foods on par with what other guests were eating, especially when Celebrity claimed it could provide for special diets? That’s when the phone got picked up and a call made to the head of the dining room. The answer: we could have anything we wanted, but because it was nearly time for our 6:00 p.m. dinner seating, the choices that night still might be narrow.

One hour later, all eight of us sitting around the dining table noted that our waiter must’ve received further instructions about gluten-free food. He made several suitable suggestions and even checked with the chef about certain items. Somewhat placated, I feasted on melt-in-your mouth beef carpaccio artfully arranged over a forest of peppery arugula leaves sprinkled with shavings of salty parmesan cheese, a simple spinach salad with oil and vinegar, tender rack of lamb, and creamy mashed potatoes. The sides of steamed carrots and asparagus could’ve used a flavor boost, and I would’ve preferred sampling one of the three house-made dressings for my salad, but the assistant waiter whose job it was to dress the salads, cheery and always smiling as he was, didn’t speak much English and didn’t understand anything about gluten-free. The head waiter told us none of the salad dressings were gluten-free, which I found unbelievable, but some things just aren’t worth getting worked up about. For dessert I chose coconut sorbet while the other celiacs stuck with the Crème Brule. Towards the end of the meal, the Maitre d’ handed us menus for the following night’s meal and told us to pre-order our food. Doing so, he said, would allow the kitchen staff ample time to modify dishes as necessary. Ah, the clouds were parting!

Dry land appeared on day three of the cruise. It was Grand Cayman; a low-lying British Overseas Territory covered in sugary sand and coconut trees, and surrounded by water the color of blue topaz. Prior to meeting at 6:45 a.m. in the ship’s theatre for our shore excursion, I snatched another easy breakfast of plain yogurt and a banana from Oceanview Café’s limited “Early Risers Breakfast” that was served from 6:30–7:00 a.m. The breakfast buffet started at 7:00 a.m. That was followed by the late breakfast at 10:00, the lunch buffet at 12:00, afternoon tea at 4:00, dinner at 6:00, and then late snacks from 9:30 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. Pizza, pasta, and ice cream were also available throughout most of the day and night. The few hours of the day when food was not served, coffee, tea, and juices were available. For non-celiacs cruisers, it’d be easy to eat nearly round-the-clock. Part of me was glad not to have such temptations. Part of me was jealous.

The stingrays at Stingray City in the North Sound of Grand Cayman also eat easy. Story has it that in the 1980’s, fisherman used to clean their catch every evening in the North Sound, attracting rays looking for a handout. Now, the boats in the Sound are filled not with fish but with tourists like me who want to shuffle along the sand bar with outstretched hands, waiting for a stingray to slurp bait from our hands, slip up against our legs, or sidle up our arms for a kiss. It’s one of those “must dos” for first time visitors to the Caymans. The rest of the day’s outing consisted of more classic Cayman adventures like snorkeling near the reef and lounging on famous Seven Mile Beach. Our excursion also included a barbeque lunch on the beach. Provided by the tour company, separate from the cruise line, such meals must be evaluated on an individual basis. We were served pure beef hamburgers and several types of salads.

All too soon, though, we were herded back on the tour bus and deposited in George Town Harbor with ample time to shop for souvenir t-shirts, sunglasses, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and Rolex watches. Shopping in the various ports was not a draw for us, but for some folks it is a cruise highlight. There was even a “Port and Shopping Talk” onboard the ship the previous day that resembled something from the QVC Shopping Channel.

I was more interested in getting back to the ship for dinner! A light meal of fruit salad, potato leek vichyssoise, and seafood risotto was just what I’d ordered and delicious. Still, when it came time for dessert, I felt my choices were pitifully mundane - either another Crème Brulee or another sorbet. “Do you have any other gluten-free desserts?” I asked Alex, the dining room manager who oversaw all of the restaurant’s assistant maitre d’s and who was responsible for finally getting our gluten-free meals squared away. “Sure,” he replied. “Would you like a chocolate mousse cake tomorrow night?” Answering enthusiastically that I’d love to have something decadent for dessert, I still couldn’t help brooding about having to ask for it rather than be offered it, especially when there were four of us with celiac disease at the table. So then I asked, “What about gluten-free pasta? Do you have that as well?” “Sure,” said Alex. “Do you want pasta tomorrow night?” It seemed the ship could sail to Gluten-free land, as long as I steered.

On the fourth day in the book of Genesis, God made the sun, the moon, and the stars to separate the day from the night, to be signs, and for seasons, days and years. And it was good. All was also good on the fourth day of our cruise when we disembarked in Cozumel, Mexico. It was a perfect day with brilliant sunshine, blue skies, and a gentle island breeze. Our pleasant, efficient, and knowledgeable tour guide shed extra light as she led us around Discover Mexico Park. The site spans 2000 years of Mexican history, told through a collection of miniature architectural sites, popular arts, a video experience room, and a souvenir shop. My husband I purchased the fun photo of ourselves holding a colorful parrot, one of my parents sharing an embrace with a python draped around their shoulders, and one of the silent but somewhat spooky character dressed for Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday celebration.

Our sunny morning was followed by a sunny afternoon at Chankanaab National Park (Parque Chankanaab) where we snorkeled, relaxed on the beach, and had lunch at Laguna Grill. Carefully explaining our “wheat allergy” to the waiter who spoke fluent English, my mother, sister, and I shared chicken fajitas with corn tortillas, fish tacos, and fresh guacamole. From there, we took a taxi to the main shopping area in San Miguel.

Cozumel seems to have been affected negatively by the downturn in the American economy; it was not at all like the energetic encounter I remembered from a previous trip several years ago when American tourists spent their dollars more freely. At mid-afternoon on this trip, many shopkeepers still hadn’t made their first sale of the day, and several asked us why the Americans didn’t come any more. Naturally thrifty ourselves, we nevertheless tried to spread a little sunshine, purchasing a Mayan mask, silver bracelets, and the ubiquitous t-shirts. One owner was so happy that he insisted his wife take a picture of us with him while we all posed wearing floppy Mexican sombreros on our heads. Of course, he then tried to sell us those hats. We left smiling and shaking hands, but without the hats.

Dinner that night was also bright. Melon Midori for an appetizer, Red & Green Salad with Bacon, a vegetarian Vietnamese Yellow Curry, and the promised gluten-free chocolate mousse cake. Then the star treatment began. Would we like GF pancakes for breakfast? What time did we want to eat? How about another chocolate mousse cake the following night?

The fifth day of our cruise was a little out of sync with the creation story. In Genesis, the waters brought “forth swarms of living creatures,” and birds flew “above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.” But we were in Costa Maya, Mexico and decided to forego another day at the beach with the fish and instead took an eight-hour excursion to two accessible Mayan ruins - Kohunlich and Dzibanche. Unlike the ruins at Tulum, Mexico’s third-most-visited archaeological site with millions of visitors every year, these sites were nearly empty of people. Greeted by the eerie cry of howler monkeys in the surrounding lush jungle, I half expected to see Indiana Jones digging for hidden treasures among the ancient tombs and temples. Excavation is still taking place intermittently at one of the sites, in an area we weren’t allowed to access, but other than that, we were free to roam, explore, and climb the pyramids. Our guide, a direct descendent of a Mayan high priest, shared his knowledge about Mayan daily life, native plants, and religion.

A box lunch was included in this all-day trip, and gluten-free requests were allowed to be made. The regular meals consisted of tuna packets, crackers, cookies, cake, and fruit. The celiac diet boxes contained two apples, one orange, one banana, and a fruit cup. Fortunately, we’d packed our own tuna packets and other gluten-free snacks, but we all ate heartily at dinner that night. Seafood Risotto for an appetizer, sweet Strawberry Soup, Bistecca with gluten-free pasta in a cream sauce, and chocolate mousse cake. Yum!

The last port of call was Roatan, Honduras, where my husband and I went scuba diving so we could swim among the living creatures of the sea. Others in the family joined cultural tours and felt that of all the islands visited, Roatan was the least touristy. My brother and his wife stated it was their favorite island, and of all the places visited, this was one to which they’d like to return.

On the seventh day God finished his work and rested. Our seventh day was also a day of rest while the ship made an all-out dash back to Florida. My morning was filled with another yoga class and a late breakfast of yogurt and fruit at Oceanview Café. Other low-key activities included watching an Iron Chef-style cooking competition between two of the ship’s top chefs, lunch, and a French Regional Wine Tour tasting.

Then it was on to our last big meal, our last gluten-free chocolate mousse cake, our last toast to my parent’s 50 years of marriage. It was all good. Not perfect. Maybe it would’ve been perfect if that gluten-free chocolate mousse cake had been created for us...in the beginning.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

My New Friend - Amici Miei Restaurant

“The best meal I’ve had since we lived in Italy,” was how I described my lunch at Amici Miei to my husband, making him extremely jealous that he hadn’t been with me. Instead, I dined with a friend who’d noticed gluten-free pasta was on the menu of this Potomac, MD neighborhood Italian restaurant, and she immediately thought of me.

Amici Miei, which means “My Friends,” does not have a gluten-free menu. Instead, the menu states they offer gluten-free pasta (for an additional $2.00), and a big sign in the window announces the recent addition of gluten-free pizza that is cooked in the traditional wood-burning oven.

Many of the lunch specials, antipasti, insalate, and secondi are naturally gluten-free or easily modified. For example, when my friend lamented that we couldn’t share a Calamari e Gamberetti (shrimp) appetizer because the squid was fried, our waiter said it could be grilled as an alternative. Presented atop a mound of deep green arugula and sprinkled with parmesan cheese, my first bite of the flawlessly seasoned seafood transported me to the small northern Italian town where my husband and I had lived for two delicious years. The flavors were that true, that fresh. So authentic was the experience of that first mouthful I even imagined I heard my fellow diners speaking Italian. Turns out they actually were.

Restaurant Manager Roberto Deias and Chef Davide Megna both trained in Italy. I didn’t ask, but I think they are both also from Italy because it was Manager Roberto who I overheard speaking Italian with several lunch guests. Roberto studied restaurant management in hotel school on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, an autonomous region of Italy, while Chef Davide studied at a cooking school in the northwestern Piedmont region of Italy. Their menu at Amici Miei embodies tastes from several of Italy’s diverse regions.

For my pasta plate I ordered Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Bucatini is thick-stranded pasta; I was served gluten-free pasta twists in its place. The dish is often associated with Rome in the Lazio region, though the town from which it gets its name, Amatrice, used to lie within the borders of the region of Abruzzo to the east. Its simple tomato-based sauce is traditionally prepared using salt-cured pork jowl. Amici Miei uses bacon that added a rich smoky depth, and tiny bits of hot pepper pleasantly contributed to the customary zing.

Roberto appeared genuinely pleased that I commented about the restaurant’s gluten-free offerings and was aware of the pervasiveness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. He has a pastry chef brother in Italy who’s told him of the gluten-free demands for products there. Amici Miei serves one gluten-free cake, which sadly I was too full to sample during lunch. My friend’s lunch special included Panna Cotta, which is a cooked cream dessert from the Piemonte region that is naturally gluten-free, though it’s best to always check with the server and/or chef before assuming any menu item is gluten-free.

Amici Miei may easily become my new best friend. I’m making dinner reservations there for next week. Maybe I’ll even take my husband!

Amici Miei
1093 Seven Locks Rd.
Potomac MD 20854
Tel. (301) 545-0966

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Taste of Paradise

It was my mother-in-law’s idea to go to the Bahamas. I wanted to go to California. She desired a tropical location – turquoise waters and golden beaches - for a multi-generation family vacation. I’d already mapped out a quintessential Golden State summer road trip for my husband, me, and our three sons, ages 13, 16, and 20. My mother-in-law said she was paying. I started picturing myself sipping a Bahama Mama at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island. But the image was a little fuzzy.

I’ve never considered myself the resort sort. As a certified scuba diver for more than a dozen years, my idea of the perfect Bahamain vacation would involve schlepping air tanks and taking giant strides off boats to swim among the cool sleek bodies of Caribbean reef, blacktip, and nurse sharks at one of Bahamas famous “shark rodeos.” For accommodations I'd choose a little pink cottage tucked into a secluded sandy cove, and I’d definitely be dining barefoot at the beach. Which is not exactly the stuff of a mega-resort like Atlantis with its 40 restaurants, lounges, and bars, a flashy casino, the country’s hottest nightclub, a swanky shopping mall, and a 140-acre waterscape. But this was my mother-in-law’s gift to my family of five, as well as to my husband’s brother with his wife and two children ages 11 and 15, so who was I to complain? Staying at the resort, I reasoned, would at least make it easier for me to get gluten free meals.

Our rooms were in Atlantis’ Coral Towers, which is situated next to Beach Tower and on the same end of the resort property as the conference center. Coral Towers and Beach Tower are the two most economically priced accommodations at Atlantis. Royal Towers, the colossal coral-colored anchor of the complex, houses glamorous upscale rooms. Two other hotels, The Cove Atlantis and The Reef Atlantis are even more exclusive. Across the marina is Harborside Resort, comprised of one, two, and three bedroom villas with kitchens.

Included in the price of all accommodations is access to Aquaventure, Atlantis’ own water park. Plunked down between the resort’s two beaches, Cove Beach and Atlantis Beach, Aquaventure is where the “kids” wanted to hang out all day, every day. While the thrill seekers among them sought out waterslides with names such as The Drop, The Falls, The Surge, and The Abyss, a favorite pastime for all of the cousins was playing “Monkey in the Middle” with a water ball in one of the numerous pools.

My boys were also excited to try Leap of Faith, a waterslide they’d seen on the TV show “The Amazing Race.” Although the slide featured in the show was actually the Bahamas’ twin, located at the Atlantis in Dubai, both involve a panic-inducing 60-foot near-vertical drop into a clear acrylic tunnel that passes through a shark-filled lagoon. Waiting in line for the ride, I watched several people nervously approach the top of the slide, stare anxiously at the sharks swimming below their feet, and ultimately decide the attraction wasn’t for them. For me, it was not quite the shark encounter I envisioned, but looking down the 60-foot drop did make my heart beat a little faster. As calmly as I could, then, I assumed the waterslide position – ankles crossed and arms crossed at the chest – closed my eyes and let go. The whole experience didn’t last more than five seconds, which is not nearly enough time to ogle a shark up-close. Especially if one’s eyes are closed tight.

Sharks are practically everywhere around the resort. Stingrays too. In fact, Atlantis is home to over 50,000 sea animals, representing over 200 species. Most guests stay safe and dry while observing lobsters, lionfish, jellyfish, grouper, barracuda, spotted eagle rays, and nurse and hammerhead sharks in various lagoons and the Lost Continent-themed aquarium called The Dig. Some, though, venture into the water to feed the stingrays, snorkel among the fish in Ruins Lagoon, or connect with dolphins at Dolphin Cay.

Dolphin Cay is positioned near the two most stylish hotels on the property, meaning it was on the opposite side of the resort from where we were staying. To get there required a healthy 15-minute walk from our hotel lobby, taking us past the fashionable high-end shops in the mall-like setting called Crystal Courts, along a meandering path through the bustling casino, into the sumptuous Royal Towers lobby, and then out to a covered breezeway reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie set. From there it was back indoors to Atlantis Kids Adventure, where parents can drop off their children ages 3-12 for supervised activities, and then outside again past the spa and fitness center before finally arriving at the 14-acre marine habitat and dolphin rescue-rehabilitation center.

We’d made reservations weeks in advance for a shallow water dolphin encounter that entailed donning a wetsuit and standing waist-deep in chilly 72 degree seawater to meet our Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Kelly. Her protective trainer, John, instructed us how to gently rub Kelly’s silky smooth back and belly when she swam past us, and told us how many of the dolphins at Atlantis were rescued after Hurricane Katrina released them into the wild from their previous home at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Greenport, Mississippi. Kelly seemed happy to let us hug, kiss and be photographed with her, though I’m betting it was because she knew that at the end of our 30-minute session we would each feed her a fishy treat. Deep water interactions in which you use a water scooter to snorkel alongside these beautiful creatures and experience a “foot push” are also available.

We visited Dolphin Cay on our third day at Atlantis, and so far it’d been the only activity for which we paid an additional fee. Golf, tennis, pottery painting, and the spa and fitness center also cost extra. We were even charged for a beach umbrella at Atlantis’ beaches - $30 a day – because they were supplied by individuals not affiliated with the resort. Other vendors on the beach hawked hair-braiding, jewelry, cocktails, and adventure activities such as parasailing, jet skiing, and jet boating. The finest feature of the beach, however, was the free one: warm, tranquil, tropical water. Whether swimming out to the safety rope that separated swimmers from motorized vehicles, snorkeling on the water’s surface, or lazily lounging at the water’s edge, I finally started to get the hang of a resort vacation.

Atlantis is a semi-inclusive resort. That means its meal plans are optional. At the time we visited in August 2010, the two meal plans were called Casual Dining Plan and Gourmet Dining Plan, and each included a full American or continental breakfast and dinner daily at selected restaurants with a choice of appetizer, soup or salad, one entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverages. These plans are now called Value Dining Plan (which limits guests to two buffet restaurants - Seagrapes and Marketplace - and a new BBQ place) and Atlantis Dining Plan (which offers a great assortment of casual and fine dining). At first glance, it’d be easy to dismiss these plans as too expensive. But when you stare dumbfounded at the prices on a restaurant menu, the meal plans don't seem exorbitant after all.

Dinner reservations are not accepted at buffet restaurants, so it’s advisable to go early or late. For other places, having reservations is practically a requirement to get in, so make them as soon as possible (see FAQs on Atlantis website).

Regardless of the meal plan, Atlantis guests with special dietary needs are advised to fill out the “Guest Allergy/Dietary Needs Planner” prior to their stay. I did so about a month before our vacation, and, as instructed, also contacted the Culinary Executive at the resort to inform them of all my dinner reservations. Sadly, I saw no evidence that anything was done with this advance notice. The Chef’s Office also never answered my questions about what gluten free foods would be available for breakfast at the two buffet restaurants, Seagrapes and Marketplace.

So on our first day at Atlantis I stopped by Seagrapes to make arrangements for my breakfast the following morning and called Bimini Road (where we had reservations for dinner that night) to inform them of my need for a gluten free meal. This was a pattern I repeated nearly every day, except that by the second morning at Seagrapes I became affectionately known as the “Gluten Free Lady” and was asked each day if I wanted to speak with the chef about getting a specially prepared meal. Eggs, bacon, yogurt, and fruit for breakfast were the norm, along with the occasional gluten free muffin or pancakes. Gluten free cereal was not available anywhere at Atlantis, so I was thankful I’d brought some from home with me.

Bimini Road
specializes in local cuisine. The chef personally fried a snapper fillet in the back kitchen for me, away from the busy front kitchen where flour is heavily used, and suggested grilled shrimp with butter and lime sauce for an appetizer, and a baked potato and salad for the sides. The chef at Chop Stix, a Chinese restaurant, reviewed the menu with me and said to order almost anything on the menu because he could make it gluten free.

On the night we dined at Carmine’s, with its classic Italian cuisine, problems started right from the get-go when we didn’t get seated until 30 minutes past our reservation time. When I asked to speak to a chef, the manger appeared instead to explain that all dishes at Carmine’s were prepared family-style and meant to serve 3-4 people. As nearly everyone in our group of 10 had their stomachs set on fried, flour-dredged, or pasta rich dishes, I thought surely the restaurant would prepare a small separate meal for me. But that was not the case. A compromise was finally reached when the kitchen agreed to sauté one chicken cutlet sans flour and to serve the remaining chicken marsala separately; they refused to modify any of the sauces for me. They also permitted me to order a kid’s sized plate of gluten free pasta, but would only serve it with marinara sauce.

Marketplace, a buffet restaurant, was a place I wouldn’t normally have felt comfortable eating because of cross-contamination with gluten foods. The chef actually advised against eating from the buffet lines! Instead, she escorted me around the food stations, pointing out choices available at the restaurant, and then instructed me to tell her exactly what I wanted to eat because she could prepare a fresh gluten free version of most selections, including gluten free pasta. Understandably, though, some dishes just couldn’t be prepared gluten-free, so most of my meals at Atlantis tended to be simple. Think grilled items and sautéed vegetables.

The biggest surprise at Marketplace was its table of delectable desserts for people with food allergies. Sadly, the flourless chocolate cake, lemon cheesecake, and assorted pastries were so luscious that everyone who passed by felt compelled to take a morsel, contaminating the specialty items with gluten, thereby making the food inedible for those of us who required it. When I pointed this out to the hostess she promptly fetched a fresh gluten free chocolate cake for me, which I enjoyed immensely. The bigger concern of cross-contamination at the dessert table was left unresolved, however, and was at odds with the gluten awareness expressed by chefs I talked with at the various restaurants.

For many people, staying at a resort means never leaving the resort. By the third day, though, following the morning at Dolphin Cay, I needed to get away from the ritual of pools, beach, and food, and so set off for downtown Nassau. Not that I was escaping commercialism by sightseeing in the Bahamas capital, where cruise ships dock continuously at one of the three piers on Prince George’s Wharf , but at least I was exercising my body and mind by walking the 3-miles roundtrip to take in the heritage of Nassau. Taxis and ferries also regularly ply the routes from Atlantis on Paradise Island to Nassau on New Providence Island.

It’s believed that Christopher Columbus was the first tourist in the Bahamas when he was looking for a route to the East Indies. He was followed by the Spaniards, who played a large part in wiping out the native Indians. Then the English arrived, claiming the land for themselves, and soon pirates and buccaneers based themselves here to better raid Spanish galleons. Later, British loyalists fled to the Bahamas after the American Revolutionary war, bringing slaves to set up new plantations, though the soil was not amenable and plantation owners eventually moved to other islands. Slaves were freed in 1834 and blacks eventually became the majority on the island. In 1956, a London-educated black barrister named Lynden O. Pindling was elected to Parliament, which eventually led to Bahamas gaining independence from Britain in 1973.

Guided one-hour walking tours are available almost daily, or get a map and saunter around the downtown area. On three separate jaunts into town and its environs, we visited historical buildings, somberly viewed the slave exhibits at Pompey Museum, haggled for handmade Bahamian goods and souvenirs at the Straw Market, sipped tropical drinks at a bar in Arawak Cay, and amusedly watched marching flamingoes at Ardastra Gardens, Zoo, and Conservation Center. All gave me a taste of the rich Bahamian flavor, but a critical spice was still missing.

Near the end of my week-long stay at Atlantis Resort, after a morning catamaran snorkeling tour to a nearby reef, my husband, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and I were famished. So we headed to Potters Cay, which is a chain of wooden shacks lining the road beneath the Paradise Island Bridge that connects Paradise and New Providence Islands. This is where fresh fish and conch are hauled in daily from the sea, and locals go to purchase seafood and produce. This is where the conch, a species of large sea snails, is pulled from its shell, cut into tiny bits, mixed with chopped onions and green peppers, doused with freshly squeezed lime juice and orange juice, and served up as Conch Salad. It’s gluten free!

As tasty as raw sea snails are, I was in the mood for snapper. Explaining to the cook at the randomly selected food shack that I needed my fish fried in fresh oil and without flour, it was clear he’d never heard of such a thing. But he was willing to do it. While he was off getting the oil and purchasing the fish, we chatted with a few local women, watched children play, and casually tuned in to the ebb and flow of passing cars, muted voices, and the sound of Nassau Harbor. When I was presented with a whole snapper and a side salad, served on a paper plate with plastic utensils, and the cook told me the head was the best part to eat, I knew I’d found the Bahamian flavor I craved.

For more information about Atlantis Resort: http://www.atlantis.com/.