This year is proving to be a year of many holidays, this time, 14 days on a cruise of the Baltics with my brother and his lovely family. It was amazing to see seven countries (Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Estonia) and I loved spending time with Dave, Lily, Lily’s mother and the kids. This holiday however, was not without its challenges.
I’ve had some very bad reactions recently after mistakes were made when I’ve been eating out. I’ve ended up in A&E and intensive care after assurances that a meal was dairy free, and been given the wrong meal, full of dairy! I find it hard to trust chefs and waiting staff and with good reason. I can’t live my life in a bubble though so I booked onto the cruise and started to plan, with military precision, the measures required to keep me safe. Life is an adventure and I refuse to hide away in fear.
I notified the company, Cruise and Maritime, of my allergies when I booked both by email and in person on the phone. They assured me they were used to dealing with numerous allergies and it would be fine. I’m used to be told this by people on the phone but it’s not always the case, and as it would prove to be in this situation, the boat were aware of my allergies but weren’t really prepared for exactly what’s required to keep a seriously allergic diner safe.
Planning and preparation
Doing the research – I found out as much as I could about the boat. There would be a medic on board, there was Adrenaline in their first aid kit and a defibrillator. Not that I hoped any of this would be needed but it was good to know. I didn’t have any reactions thank goodness so I never got acquainted with the boat’s medic…!
There was a fridge – My room had a small fridge so I knew I could take yogurt and plant milk. I bought the small one-use KoKo coconut milk cartons so I could take one each morning for breakfast, and some yogurt. But I didn’t take enough. I was told I could also have access to a larger fridge too but I never found out where this was. I also took small choc pots and Tesco puddings, the Italian dessert one and the cheesecake. And some Oatly custard! I’m glad I did because the lack of any kind of rewarding pudding was one of their big failings.
Pack safe foods – I took loads of food. Oatcakes, Nairns muesli, rice, lentil and quinoa pouches for lunches off board when we visited cities. I also took tuna pouches which I used both on and off board at lunch time as I only really ate from the salad bar which was vegan and dairy free guaranteed. Despite taking lots of food, I needed to use so much of it so quickly that I quickly realised I hadn’t take enough. Think about how much food you’d need for 14 days when you don’t feel confident, nor have the time to spend going round supermarkets hunting! Breakfast and lunches I used a lot of my own safe cereals and those pouches.
I figured I would use my common sense, and not take any risks and I’d be fine. I might go hungry but I’d survive.
So what went wrong?
Lots of things went wrong as it happens. I was not filled with confidence at any point but things did improve. It was a unique experience in that if it was any other normal restaurant I would have explained everything to them, why I wasn’t happy and probably never gone there again. I couldn’t really do that, I was on a cruise ship and I had to eat in this restaurant and be served by these staff for 14 days, so I couldn’t walk out and never return. I had to work with them, to explain things and to keep on explaining things and demanding simple options and continued vigilance.
- Confusion with staff and the chef… On one of the earlier meals I had a minor meltdown when they seemed to just not get it. It was a dish that looked just like what everyone else had and that on the menu should have had milk in it. I questioned whether this was a mistake as I had been expecting something simpler. No one could tell me what was in the meal they brought me. And instead of anyone being able to allay my fears, the dish was swept away and no more food brought to me. What was I supposed to make of that? I was very scared that they had made a mistake and just decided to brush it under the carpet and ignore it.
- Feta cheese in my dairy free salad – I’m pretty sure someone tried to pick out the feta to make something suitable for me. I had complained that I was missing out on courses, watching my fellow diners have seven courses and just getting a starter and main. I asked for some olives or anything, because I was starving! And they came up with a salad with hidden morsels of feta. Well that was not suitable at all. Absolutely unacceptable. My sister in law spotted it luckily…
- Sour cream on a meal that was marked on the menu as dairy free – so many mistakes and a seeming lack of detail when lives are potentially at stake. It was obvious to me that this looked like dairy and indeed it was. I was told i could have it without… buy why was this shown as dairy free on the menu if they then put sour cream on top?
- Allergens not labelled correctly on the menu – I would see something that looked to be nut and dairy free only to read the description and discover it should have cream, cheese or yogurt. I kept on pointing this out and marking up the menu to alert them but it happened on a number of occasions.
- Confusing presentation – Dishes that were supposedly dairy free presented in an identical way to other dishes that contained milk… I just couldn’t take that risk and refused to take even one bite.
- Fried eggs contaminated with milk – They cooked the fried eggs to order which sounds marvellous! Until you spot that he was rotating the same pans, not cleaning them and making omelettes as well as fried eggs. I was able to have hard boiled eggs but just didn’t have the time nor the trust to demand safe eggs. From experience you end up hanging around waiting and by the time it comes everyone has finished their food.
- Lunches were limited – I was able to eat at lunch time but it was very limited. I felt safe choosing from the salad bar because this was completely dairy free and separate from the other food areas. There were tongs for each food item and it did contain peas, but it was very neatly used and there was no cross contamination that I saw. It was just plain lettuce, cucumber, tomato, peas, beetroot etc. I also felt safe with the boiled rice. This did mean however that I was eating a very low card diet and actually managed to lose half a stone throughout the fortnight!
- No pudding apart from fruit and sorbet. The fruit being melon and pineapple every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. I did complain about this and they did make some extra effort as the holiday progressed and produced some berries, with sorbet and poached pears, but I had to beg for this. If I hadn’t said anything it would have been expected that I would go without or have the melon…
- No afternoon tea – every day there were sandwiches, cakes, scones, biscuits and snacks. The only thing suitable for me was that damned melon and pineapple. I hadn’t taken enough treats to see me through the whole 14 days and had to live through intense envy as the rest of the boat gorged themselves on all these sweet treats while I sipped peppermint tea, green tea or a decaff coffee.
And what went right…
- Seven countries and so much fun – Visiting all the countries was absolutely the best part of this holiday. Some of the destinations were so much fun I didn’t want to leave but I enjoyed all the stops which included: Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Rostock and Warnemunde, Tallinn, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Aarhus. I loved Helsinki and Stockholm and will definitely be back to explore these countries in more detail. I was also really impressed with the little town of Aarhus! Apparently the happiest town in Europe! Tallinn was also beautiful. So many lovely places that I now know a little bit about. The hardest part was leaving these tantalising places after such a short time, sometimes only three hours.
- Family time was priceless. I am blessed with a lovely supportive family and we had so much fun. Despite the lack of wifi we managed to come up with places to meet up and enjoyed lots of games, fun, laughter and exploration together.
- Helsinki was a complete find, discovering the Stockman Food Hall, thanks to my step sister, where the freefrom selection was really impressive. I only had about 20 minutes shopping time but managed to stock up on Oatly milk, Yosa oat yogurts, Doves Farm biscuits and RiceUp rice cakes. If only I had had longer there! And I should have bought more!
- No allergic reactions – I managed to stay safe in the face of many challenges. Took no risks, checked, checked and checked again and kept things simple.
- The food in the evenings did improve. I enjoyed the food in the main restaurant every evening on the whole but since the food is meant to be a huge part of any cruise holiday, for me, with multiple allergies, it really wasn’t any where near the highlight.
So would I go another cruise holiday? I’m not sure. I can’t really recommend this cruise company without some assertions that lessons have been learnt from this experience. I am documenting all my findings, the mistakes etc. and will be writing to them. I would take way more food with me if I cruised again, but for an expensive holiday I didn’t really expect to have to provide so much of my own food.
I think if you were just eating gluten free or had just one allergy, say to nuts, you’d have been able to eat a lot of the food and wouldn’t have really felt you missed out.
I think I prefer to choose a destination to immerse myself in and explore to the full, with self catering accommodation so I have complete control of my own food. I don’t want to have to ask, beg, check and check everything I eat, so having some control is a better option for me.
Anyone else had similar experiences on a cruise holiday? Would you risk going on a cruise with multiple life threatening allergies? I’m not sure I would…
I found them bringing me dry gluten free bread and when asked to toast it they thought they cold do it in the regular toaster amid all the crumbs. I said no it has to be done in the kitchen in a gluten free area. They really have no idea.
Ruth Holroyd says
Oh dear! I had heard such good things before going from others who had great experiences. It’s very difficult on a cruise ship as you feel kind of trapped and helpless to do much! I was lucky that they did listen after mistakes were made and things did get better. I didn’t even try to get any wheat free bread. I wouldn’t have been confident about what went on back in the kitchen! I hope you enjoyed your cruise though despite the lack of toast!
Ishbel Spalding Gordon says
So glad you had a great holiday despite all the food problems. Your skin is looking great, looks like your new regime is working! I’m currently going dairy free myself to see if that helps alleviate my skin problems, too early to tell yet.
Ruth Holroyd says
Hi Ishbel, thanks for the comment. Good luck going dairy free! I’m allergic to dairy. But the thing that’s helped my skin more than anything else is cutting out topical steroids completely back in January this year. I cut out all topical steroids and protopic, a topical immunosuppressant. My skin got a whole lot worse before it got better but it’s amazing at the moment. Such an improvement and thanks so much for commenting. My legs and arms are still a work in progress but slowly healing. There are lots of foods that can exacerbate eczema, well worth looking into. It might not just be dairy. The only real way to discover the causes, if any, is to keep a detailed food, mood and symptoms diary. No easy task, and then if you can, find a dietician to help you do a food elimination experiment. I’m not an expert so can’t really advise you but I found this really helped me to pinpoint what was causing my eczema. For me processed food is awful, an alcohol. as well as tomato and celery. Good luck though and thanks for the comment. I love to get comments.
Deanne Crewse says
My husband and I have significant food allergies and cruise regularly. Of course we always notify the ship in advance and bring our own plant milk, rick crackers, snacks, and emergency protein (usually nuts and tuna). On most ships our experience in the main dining rooms has been similar to yours. I am allergic to Cows Milk and Gluten Intolerant. My husband is a celiac (strict Gluten-Free) The menus rarely accommodate my food issues (entrees that are both dairy and gluten free).. My husband does a bit better. Here are my tips for avoiding allergen exposure: 1) On the 1st night, make sure the Dining Room manager is aware of your special needs. 2) Stay with the same Dining Room Team throughout your cruise. Most servers want to please their guests and will eventually come up the learning curve. 3) Ask to see the dinner menu in advance (usually available the night before). This provides an opportunity to ask for necessary tweeks to accommodate your needs. 4) When the Dining Room isn’t working for you, opt for the buffet or a speciality restaurant. On the buffet, I usually stick with salad. On a recent Royal Caribbean cruise, they offered an entire section of Gluten-Free entrees- my husband was thrilled. We have had great experiences in the speciality restaurants (notify of allergies at time of reservation). In general, the servers in these venues have more experience and better language skills. They also are handling few diners. Thus, they have more time to meet our allergies needs… Of course, using these venues adds expense. One of our biggest frustrations is with staff who minimize our allergies. To counteract this, In all communication (written and verbal), we add that our request in due to medical need and not a preference. Gluten Free due to celiac seems to be better understood than my diary allergies. Unfortunately, staff seem to focus on lactose intolerance and stomach aches. My reaction to dairy is much more severe – respiratory distress, edema, severe joint pain, and colic diarrhea. This level of information is provided to those who can understand (management and chef). For the dining staff, I jokingly grab my throat and gasp for air. This seems to communicate the seriousness of the issue. Another frustration and area of surprise is that many basic food items (eggs at breakfast) are not considered Gluten Free. We assume this is a cross-contamination issue – so we order hard-boiled or poached! Ideally, cruise ships would offer guests with allergies and intolerances, a menu that lists all ingredients in each item and suggestions for eliminations or substitutions which would make the item compliant with the various dietary needs. This approach appears to be successful at many of the restaurants we frequent. I think this is the emerging “gold standard” in allergy accommodation and I hope this approach will be adopted by cruise ships also. PS Dairy-free dessert options are always lacking on cruise ships-fruit and maybe sorbet. To provide ourselves with options, we always take a few sweet treats (usually chocolate of some sort, meringues, and/or coconut macaroons) 🙂
Ruth Holroyd says
Hi Deanne, thanks so much for your lovely comment. It does sound like the norm that gluten free is understood and other allergens not so much from other discussions I’ve had. It’s very frustrating but luckily I had taken lots of puddings (Tesco Italian dessert and GF and DF cheesecakes) as well as oatly custard, and KoKo chocpots as well as biscuits and chocolate, oat cakes, my own bread and milk etc. If I hadn’t done that I think I’d have lost about stone in weight. As it is a lost half a stone and was so hungry when I got off the boat. I didn’t go short of food by any means but worked out I was pretty much carb free for the whole 14 days. I really don’t need to go on a diet, and for the price you shell out for a cruise holiday I didn’t really expect to have to consume ALL my secret stash of food, catering for my own breakfast, most of my lunches and all of my snacks and puddings. I did get the boring fruit but it was pretty disappointing. It did seem that it was seen as a choice, you’r right about that. Hopefully things will change. They just need ONE person on each ship to help those with allergies and make sure that all allergic diners are safely catered for. I’m not sure I’d recommend a cruise to anyone with multiple or severe allergies unless they were prepared to bring a lot of their own food. And yes trying the independent restaurants would have probably been a good idea but I just couldn’t afford the added EXTRA costs.