Last April, our family decided to take a risk for spring break and go on a four day Carnival Cruise. I had heard from a couple of people that Carnival was very good at managing cross contamination for gluten free guests, and we desperately needed a vacation. David and I were not sure if our kids would like being on a cruise ship for four days, and we hoped this short four day cruise would be a perfect way to test if we could handle a longer cruise in the future.
I want to state up front that this is in NO way a sponsored post. We paid for the entire cruise, for everything that cost extra on the ship, and at the ports of call.
Before the Cruise
When I booked this cruise, I opted to book the reservation through their Customer Service call instead of registering online. I wanted to verify that Carnival could accommodate gluten free guests, and that a special note was put on our reservation.
The cruise itinerary I chose began in Long Beach, CA with stopovers on Catalina Island, and Ensenada, Mexico.
Our family purchased a Faster to the Fun pass for $49 because we read online that it is really worth the extra money. I have to agree this was money well spent. Our family had priority boarding, which allowed us to board much earlier than those who did not purchase this pass. Faster to the Fun also has other perks including priority boarding for the shuttle that takes you to Catalina Island and faster check out/debarkment.
The First Day
Boarding the boat was quick, considering hundreds of people had early boarding with the Faster to the Fun pass. We boarded around 12:00 and decided to find lunch before the rest of the passengers boarded. We did not know where to go to talk to someone about gluten free offerings, so we went up to the Lido deck where the lunch buffet was being served.
I approached a dining staff member and they had the Executive Chef, Chef Russell, come talk to us. I was amazed that the Executive Chef had time to come and talk to us. He was very friendly and easy to talk to. Chef Russell is from India and his daughter is gluten intolerant. After talking to him I felt he fully understood gluten free dining and safe gluten handling procedures.
The Gluten Free Buffet Options
The buffet had gluten free options at several stations, including the sandwich bar, salad bar, rotisserie bar, and one hot item on the buffet. All lunches on the boat were buffet lunches on the Lido Deck, so we had to ask a lot of questions to make sure what we chose was safe to eat.
Outside near the pool there were hamburgers and hot dogs. The meats were gluten free, but I felt it was harder for staff to manage cross contamination at this part of the buffet.
The rotisserie chicken section was gluten fee. The chef cuts the chicken for you separately, so they keep it from becoming cross contaminated. I felt the rotisserie chicken was really good.
The pizza counter was open 24 hours a day and had gluten free pizza slices made to order. It took about 10 minutes for them to heat up a piece of gluten free pizza. Neither of my kids liked the pizza very much. The crust was thick and fluffy, like those old school hot lunch pizza squares we had when we were little.
The frozen ice cream bar, also open 24 hours a day, was gluten free. One machine had frozen yogurt and the other had ice cream.
The Gluten Free Dining Room Options
The chefs bake all of their own gluten free breads on the ship. (This bread is what is used in the buffet, sandwich station, and dining room.) Chef Russell said the best way to ensure our foods would be safe was to pre-order our breakfast and dinner meals each day for the next day. Jelena, one of the dining room managers, came up to us each night at the end of dinner with a menu for the next day. She would walk us through the options on the menu and what she thought was good. The kitchen was always willing to adapt anything on the menu for us.
We were seated at a table with two other families who ended up being wonderful. The first night our meal was not timed well. The kitchen pre-cooked all of our gluten free foods and the waiters brought it all out at once, before anyone else at our table had the chance to order. We just sat there with our appetizers, salads, and entrees piled all around us. It was a bit embarrassing. We didn’t know how to handle this. If we waited for everyone to have food, ours would have been cold. We opted to eat and apologized profusely to everyone.
We spoke to the waiter and he assured us this wouldn’t happen again. The kids ordered steak, my husband ordered a chicken dish, and I had brisket. The steaks were great, the chicken okay, and the brisket might as well have been dumped in the trash it was so bad. I noticed later that other guests who ordered brisket couldn’t eat theirs either. The highlight our first night was the green beans and bacon side dish and a chocolate lava cake. The good news is we survived our first day with none of us getting sick from gluten.
I won’t go into detail about every meal we had on the ship, the food was just not that exciting. Foods continued to be inconsistent the whole trip ranging from horrid to good. No meal, except the chocolate lava cake, was spectacular.
Safe yes, great, no.
Foods that we liked included the prime rib, pork chop, steaks, and lobster. Our kids really loved the gluten free chocolate chip pancakes and French toast. We tried a lot of other things but they are not worth mentioning. If you have a chance to try the Mexican coffee at the coffee shop, don’t miss it. (Warning, they put enough Patrone tequila in it to give you quite the buzz!)
Gluten Free Sandwich Bar Options
I was curious how the sandwich bar handled a gluten free order. There are hot and cold sandwiches. The hot sandwiches are cooked on a panini machine. I ordered a hot ham and cheese sandwich. I then stepped aside to where they make the sandwich and watched. The cook was amazing. He got a clean cutting board and knife. He went to a small side refrigerator and removed separate ham and cheese from a container. He pulled out a loaf of gluten free bread from the same refrigerator. He sliced the bread with the clean knife on the clean board. He also used fresh condiments, not the ones that are used for regular sandwich orders. He got a clean rag and cleaned the panini machine twice. He assembled the sandwich and put it in the panini machine. After it cooked, he took the sandwich off and put it directly on a clean plate. He used the same gluten free knife to cut my sandwich.
I was so impressed how the sandwich station cook handled everything. He had no idea I was a blogger intent on watching for mistakes.
The Rest of the Cruise
If you have preteens or teens, they are going to love to cruise. The older kids clubs kept them happy until midnight with dancing, games, and scavenger hunts. The kids all become friends quickly on the boat, leaving more time for mom and dad. It was a little disconcerting that our kids were out so late, but the kids were always with friends. We found the ship environment to be very safe (and yes, that was us spying on our daughter behind a big column at 11:30 p.m.)
If you are a health nut like I am, you do have to be able to stay cool and not freak out when your kids tell you they ate ice cream at midnight 🙂 .
Our kids only used the on board water park once. It looked like a lot of fun, but the weather was not warm enough. After going down one slide, they were freezing.
The ports were mixed. We loved Catalina Island and if you go, we can highly recommend the torpedo sub tour and renting a golf cart and exploring the island. The weather was perfect. One big thing to note, there are no quick, casual restaurants that have “gluten free” on Catalina Island. We did find a little Mexican stand called Eric’s on the pier that had corn tortillas. The carnitas and fish tacos were very good and none of reacted to the food.
Ensenada, Mexico was a bit of a disappointment. We did not book an excursion. Our trip was the week before our daughter’s foot surgery and she was still having pain if she walked much. Our family did walk around the city a little bit, but we didn’t feel completely safe on our own. We did find a tiny mission that was converted into a museum about local history that we enjoyed. I think the people who did the paid excursions had a good time in Mexico. We did not stay in Ensenada very long.
We had more fun drinking our fancy drinks on the Serenity deck than Ensenada, Mexico. The Serenity deck is adult only, and a nice quiet place to get away from the crowds and loud party atmosphere.
My husband and I didn’t do much late night dancing, but we LOVED the comedians the ship had. Each night they had an all ages show, and an adult only show. These were some of the best times.
Carnival is well known for its towel animals. This elephant was greeting us when we got in from the comedy club on our first night.
Well, that is a quick summary of our gluten free experience on Carnival Cruises. I feel confident recommending this cruise line if you have a food allergy. The kitchen staff is very careful with the foods you order. Our family did not have a single reaction to gluten, which I feel is great considering we are all pretty sensitive.
Have you been on a cruise? How did they handle gluten free for you?