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.


  1. Hi Melanie,

    My name is Collette and I'm contacting you from the office of Travel Journalist Peter Greenberg. We're interested in doing an article concerning travel tips for travelers with Celiac Disease. If you could email us at info@petergreenberg.com we would love to chat with you.

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