Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Come Sail Away

Royal Caribbean continues to impress the Gluten Free Philly clan. We spent time over the holidays on Royal's Independence of the Seas, currently based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a five-night cruise with stops in Falmouth, Jamaica and Royal's private resort in Labadee, Haiti. This was the third time we've cruised with Royal since our 15-year-old was diagnosed with celiac disease, and each time it's gotten easier to manage his diet.

While the traditional dinner seating times for the ship's main dining room still exist, many cruise lines - like Royal - allow guests flexibility to choose their own dinner reservation times. Either way, you'll be served by the same waitstaff every night, so they become familiar with guests' dietary requirements. In our case, our servers took great care of our son, from bringing him freshly baked gluten-free bread at the start of each dinner meal to taking his order in advance the prior evening so that the following night's entree would come out at the same time as those of his family and friends. Royal's dining room menus are clearly labeled with gluten-free, vegetarian and lactose-free options.

Gluten-free choices are by no means limited to the dining room, which on Independence has a Shakespearean theme. At the ship's Royal Promenade, guests can feast on all-you-can-eat pizza at no extra charge, including a gluten-free version. The gluten-free pies at Sorrento's are made to order; guests just advise the order-taker how many slices they would like and wait about 10 minutes for baking. Also along this dining-and-shopping thoroughfare is a gourmet coffee house with Udi's chocolate-chip cookies for the asking and even a cupcake shop.

For a nominal charge, the Cupcake Cupboard sells cupcakes and cake pops, and gluten-free vanilla and chocolate cupcakes are made daily. Our son was thrilled when he was told that he could order gluten-free cake pops for the following day. There's no upcharge for the gluten-free baked goods.

Even the famous cruise buffet has many gluten-free options. Once at breakfast and once at lunch, I accompanied my son as he spoke with a Windjammer Cafe chef about what was available. On both occasions, the chefs walked the entire room with us and guided him to the safe choices.

The Independence, like some of the other ships in Royal's fleet, also has a Johnny Rockets burger restaurant. For a flat $6.95 per person, guests can order as many burgers as they want, along with unlimited fries, soda and ice cream. The fries were prepared in a dedicated fryer and, unlike at the stateside Johnny Rockets, there are also gluten-free burger buns available here.

Onshore at Labadee, Royal serves a barbecue lunch and has gluten-free burger and hot dog buns on hand. The night before our stop there, our head waiter advised us what was gluten free. In Jamaica, we stopped at Scotchie's jerk house for lunch after several hours at the Blue Hole falls near Ocho Rios. Both the chicken and pork were gluten free, as was the rice.

Prior to cruising, we spent some down time in sunny Delray Beach, Florida. Both Lemongrass and Deck 84, which sits along the Intercoastal Waterway, were gluten free friendly. We also met up with friends in West Palm Beach at Mellow Mushroom, a Southeast U.S.-based pizza chain that desperately needs to expand north as soon as possible.

While there were no hiccups along the way, there was one rather big annoyance. To avoid days of driving back and forth between New Jersey and Florida and to have a car at our disposal while in Delray, we opted to take Amtrak's Auto Train. The Auto Train runs non-stop between Lorton, Virginia (just south of Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, Florida (about an hour north of Orlando) with one daily departure each way every afternoon. It's a L-O-N-G trip - about 17 hours officially - not including the drive time to and from the train stations.

The cost of each trip includes dinner and continental breakfast, and I called Amtrak's customer service several times in advance to find out if anything on the dinner menu was gluten free. At the end, I was told that we should bring gluten-free food of our own but I should ask once aboard about ingredients and preparation. Ultimately, it didn't matter, since our son slept through the early meal time we had on both trips and managed to get by on protein bars and snacks. However, in this day and age, there's no reason that - particularly on a trip as long as the Auto Train - that Amtrak cannot provide a gluten-free meal option, even if it's pre-packaged. Amtrak is federally funded, and the federal government recognizes celiac disease as a disability.under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Indeed, Amtrak itself acknowledges that it must comply with the ADA. I don't know that I'd ever take the Auto Train again - the nighttime clicking and clacking, crying babies and constant train door door openings was enough to deter me from a future trip - but the absence of gluten-free meals on an extended ride was the polar opposite of our fantastic cruise experience.
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