This review will cover our experience of eating gluten-free on NCL Star whilst crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. It was our first time on this lovely ship (and first time sailing NCL as gluten-free diners), and our second cruise on NCL. We discovered that NCL deal with gluten free/allergy requirements quite differently to any other cruise line we’ve travelled with so far. Read on to find out more about our experience.
For anyone new to my blogs, I always like to give a little background information about the ship before detailing everything related to gluten-free sailing. It’s just a very short overview, and an excuse to post some ship pictures that aren’t food related!
NCL Star is one one of the smaller ships we’ve cruised on recently, with a maximum passenger capacity of 2438 passengers. There were around 1400 passengers on our cruise, and that meant that nowhere was too crowded. The Star was built in 2000, and started sailing in 2001, and some of the decor reflected that. The cabins had a lot of wood veneer, making them seem a little bit old fashioned compared to some of the more modern, airy ships that we’ve cruised on recently, and there are areas of the ship that could do with a bit of a revamp (the seats in the theatre come to mind, as a lot of them were broken).
In spite of that though, the Star is a lovely ship, and has some unique features, such as the stained glass ceiling in O’Sheehan’s. The staff on board were what really made the holiday – they were all so positive, cheery and helpful. It reminded me of our cruise on MSC Virtuosa back in May 2021, when they became the first cruise line to re-start cruising after a two year break following the pandemic. I’ve not known another cruise line be quite so hot on “washy washy” both as your board the ship, and as you enter the buffet. This in my opinion is a good thing, you can’t be too careful when it comes to handwashing on a ship (never mind Covid, do you really want a bout of norovirus in the middle of your holiday?).
Anyway, here are a few photos from the Star to give you a flavour of the ship.
Booking and Prior to Cruising
I booked directly with NCL over the telephone, and let them know we were both gluten free, which was then marked on our booking. Whether you book by telephone, on the website, or through a travel agent, you should be sent a link to their access desk form. This is a one size fits all form, designed to deal with any kind of physical disability, allergies, or general assistance that may be required.
It is really important if you are coeliac or gluten intolerant that you fill this in (similarly if you are lactose intolerant or have any other dietary requirement where special food is required). Why is this? The answer is simple – cruise lines stock up their provisions based on general assumptions and averages. If you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean, the last thing you want is for them to run out of gluten-free bread. By letting NCL (or any cruise line you’re travelling on) your needs in advance, they can more accurately plan for the specific medically required dietary provisions that are needed for your particular cruise. On our cruise, they did run out of GF english muffins during the second week. This was a great shame, as they were delicious.
I’d done my usual Googling prior to sailing, and found out a little bit of information about what we might expect on board. I’d seen mention of a special diets co-ordinator, but couldn’t find out much information about it. It turns out that the special diets co-ordinator is key to having the best gluten-free dining experience on the ship.
Special Diets Coordinator
** Edit September 2023. Having just got back from a sailing on Norwegian Dawn, they did NOT have a special diets coordinator on that ship. It therefore doesn’t seem to be something that is consistent across the NCL fleet. **
Because we couldn’t access our cabin when we got on the ship (cabins on all cruise lines are frequently not available until around 13.00, as they have to be deep cleaned from the previous passengers), we decided to head to O’Sheehan’s and see what we could find out about how to get gluten-free meals. I’ll talk more about O’Sheehan’s later, but it is a bar and restaurant that is available 24 hours a day.
A waiter came over, and we explained that we were gluten free, and asked what we needed to do to be able to get food ordered in the main dining room. The waiter got the maitre d’, who explained about the special diets coordinator (sometimes referred to as the special diets maitre d’), and contacted him to come to us. For anyone going on any NCL ship, I would suggest that you go to anywhere serving food and ask for the special diets coordinator to be contacted. They will then come out to you, and explain how your dining will work.
Our special diets coordinator was called Vijay, and he was the only person performing this role on the ship. I don’t know if this is the same on some of the bigger NCL ships, but will find this out in October, as we’ve booked a cruise on the NCL Getaway. Vijay dealt with all of our dining, and must get some serious steps in on the ship, as he is called here, there and everywhere!
Essentially all of your meals in the main dining rooms and also the speciality dining rooms should be made through the special diets coordinator. Each evening they will come to wherever you are eating (if they don’t come automatically, then you can ask a member of staff to call them), and will bring the menus for the next day for wherever you plan to eat. If you want breakfast or lunch in the main dining room, then they will also bring those menus.
Vijay explained all of this to us, and answered all our questions we had (as well as many during the course of the cruise!). Coeliac disease is treated as an allergy, and every time our order was taken he repeated our allergens back to us first. I told Vijay that I was a vegetarian, and that I did not want any parmesan on any of my dishes (as it is unlikely to be a vegetarian friendly version), and these were also listed as allergens and repeated back every time. We thought this was a really thorough way of doing things.
We asked Vijay about the buffet, and he advised us to speak to any of the chefs wearing black or white scarves, and they would be able to help us out with what could be eaten safely. Before leaving, we ordered our evening meals with Vijay for that first evening.
My advice to anyone on an NCL cruise would be make use of your special diets coordinator as much as possible. They’re there to make your dining experience the best it possibly can be, as well as to keep you safe. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and to push for things to be made for you (we didn’t realise until quite late on in the cruise that special desserts could have been made for us with 24 hours notice, as Vijay didn’t really tell us this). Be nice to them, as they’ll be running all over the ship for you and other passengers with dietary needs. On our particular cruise, Vijay told us he had 44 passengers listed with special dietary needs, with gluten free being the most common of those.
Buffet Lunch (The Garden Cafe)
Following our long chat with Vijay, we decided to go and check out the buffet for lunch. It was still quiet, as we’d managed to get an early boarding time on the ship, so we were able to chat with staff, and ask lots of questions.
The first thing we noticed is that there are no allergen markers at all. Not a great start, as this can make life so much harder. We walked up and down both sides (both sides have the same dishes) to get an idea of the general things available, then decided to find someone to assist us. As it was quiet, we ended up with a maitre d’ and a chef helping us. We were advised to always speak to a chef with a white scarf or black scarf, and they’d be able to help us whenever we were in the buffet.
At the top end of the buffet was a large salad bar, and that was all safe (there weren’t even any croutons in this section). There was nothing close by that could have contaminated the salad, so we were happy that this was safe, and enjoyed it pretty much every day. Don’t get confused with the smaller salad bars further on in the buffet – these had croutons, and were also a ‘tossed salad’, so people would pick what they wanted then it would all be put into one serving dish with the dressing they wanted, then tipped into bowl. The same dish was used each time, so this definitely wasn’t safe.
The chef went through what was safe, and also advised us that they had gluten-free pizza bases, and could make us safe pizza out in the galley. This became a staple, especially for my husband, who was a big fan! There was also a pasta station, and GF pasta was available. Just make sure that if not offered, you ask the person serving on that counter to make the pasta out in the galley, as there was a lot of contamination with the pasta sauces and vegetables at the pasta station. I had one time when the server looked as if he was going to make it there, but when I asked him to do it in the galley and explained about the contamination he was fine with this.
Other dishes available on the buffet included roast meats and vegetables, curries, soups, fried foods, french fries, sliced cheeses, meats and breads (gluten-free available on request). We didn’t really get to the bottom of whether we could have any safe french fries in the buffet, as the couple of times we asked, we got given different answers, so didn’t bother. However, in general, staff were helpful, and there was always food we could have. When I asked about curries and was told which ones were gluten free, staff were always happy to get some from a fresh container, either from underneath the buffet or from the galley.
There was a separate counter for desserts and of course, nothing was labelled up. We were told that there was a chocolate mousse which was gluten free, but unfortunately for me it wasn’t vegetarian. Also, there was a soft serve ice-cream machine in this area. On our first day in the buffet it was really quiet when we got there, and we asked a member of staff about the ice-cream. They didn’t know whether it was gluten-free or not, but actually took the trouble to go and find the packaging for us to check (it was). We really appreciated this effort, and had ice-cream from there a lot. Also, the sauces next to it were gluten free. Later in the cruise we found out you could ask for gluten-free cookies at the dessert counter.
There is a bar in the buffet, and we took the opportunity on the first day to ask if they had gluten-free beer. They did, although they had to go to another bar to get it for us, but the bartender kept it stocked up after that! The beer was readily available round the ship, and was the Redbridge lager, which is made from sorghum. It has a slightly unusual taste, but one that we found easy to get used to, and it was definitely better than having no GF beer available.
Main Dining Room Dinner
There are two included dining rooms on the Star. These are Aqua and Versailles. Both serve the same menu, so it’s really down to personal choice as to which you prefer. We decided we preferred Versailles, and ate the majority of our meals in there. We’re early eaters, so would book a table for 5.30pm, and always got a window seat, which was nice. It was also quiet then, so didn’t feel so rushed or busy.
For the first evening, we had already chosen our selection when we met with Vijay earlier. Gluten-free options are marked on the menu, but we found that these were generally always meat or fish based (or sometimes no options were marked up). Great for my husband, not so good for me! However, adaptations can be made to the dishes to make them gluten-free, and vegetarian for anyone that needs it.
On the menu there is always one set of ‘classic’ dishes which remain the same every night, along with a selection of other choices that change every evening. One of these classic dishes was a vegetarian pasta dish (well, veggie if you had it without parmesan cheese!) that could easily be made gluten-free simply by changing the pasta, so I did have that a few evenings when the other vegetarian dishes could be adapted to GF.
Gluten-free bread (toasted) was brought to the table each evening for us when we asked. When being seated, you need to let the servers know you are gluten-free, and that you have pre-ordered. This takes away a lot of the unnecessary questions and most of the time, Vijay would be called to come over and deal with us, and repeat our order back to us.
Vijay also confirmed that there is a separate allergy kitchen and chefs for the main dining room, which is always reassuring to hear. There were a couple of frustrations, which were nothing to do with gluten, but related to me being vegetarian. I find that it is a common problem on ships (across all cruise lines) that chefs seem to think vegetarian means being vegan, and that I can’t eat dairy. Even though I had gone through all of this with Vijay, and explained it was only parmesan I couldn’t eat (due to the animal rennet in it), I had a couple of meals I ordered turn up without the cheese or eggs in. This did get sorted out by Vijay at the time, so not a big hassle, but if you are vegetarian, it’s just something to be aware of.
Dessert wise, the options on the menu were not great, and the gluten-free option was a standard offering of ice-cream/sorbet or fruit salad. Some evenings the desserts could be adapted (we discovered early on in the cruise that it was a good idea to ask Vijay when he came over to repeat our orders if any of the desserts could be adapted to be gluten free), so for example, there was a honey creme brûlée that was served without the florentine to make it gluten free.
We also discovered much later in the cruise that we could have actually been asking Vijay to ask the allergy chefs to make specific desserts for us. It’s a shame that Vijay didn’t offer up this information during our first meeting, but he had newly taken over the role from the previous server who had been doing the job (who was our server when we ate in Moderno one night and told us all about the different desserts that could be made) and it was just a piece of information that got missed. From our experiences on other cruise lines, we maybe should have thought to ask the question sooner. We have another NCL cruise booked, so will try on there and I’ll report back.
At some point during our meal, Vijay would take our order for the next day. He’d always bring the menu for the following evening, and if we though we might want breakfast or lunch in the main dining room, we’d ask for those menus too. We also had three bookings for speciality restaurants (these were included in the package we got), and pre-ordered with Vijay for these as well.
For our first morning, we decided to check out the buffet and see what kind of options we’d be able to have for breakfast. As per lunch, there were no allergen markings. There was a counter full of fresh fruit that seemed to be generally safe in terms of limited chance of cross contamination. Also, instead of big bowls of cereal, there were instead individual packaged pots of them, and this included honey nut cheerios, which have gluten-free markings on the packaging. My husband had one of these most days, and by the second week I noticed that there were starting to be less of them on display, so suggested he took a couple to keep him going. Sure enough, by the middle of the second week these had completely run out.
Just on a side note, these are marked as gluten-free on the packaging, but have whole oats in the ingredients, which are not specifically marked as gluten free. I know that allergen marking laws differ in the UK compared to the US (here in the UK oats have to be specifically marked as gluten-free to be counted as such). My husband did have a Google of the cereal in question, and decided that he was happy with what he found in relation to them being gluten-free, but others may want to make their own minds up about this.
As with lunch, both sides of the buffet generally had the same things. We tended to go right, and down to the bottom, and found this to be the quietest counter. We could always get a seat there, and never experienced a queue for anything. There were the usual kind of breakfast things available, starting with sliced cheeses and meats, then moving on to hot food. There also lots of bread, cakes and pastries available, which were on a separate counter after the hot food, and all we could do was look longingly at them, as of course they were all gluten filled!
I spoke to the chefs every time I went there, and they soon got to know me, assuring me each time I had breakfast that nothing had changed. They confirmed that the hash browns were gluten free and cooked in fresh oil every morning, which was brilliant, as this isn’t always the case on other ships. Then there were potatoes, baked beans, bacon, scrambled eggs and some small sausages that were gluten free (but the bigger ones weren’t). Sausages are one of the things that are definitely worth checking every single time, as they often use different ones for variety, and it’s quite usual for them to have gluten containing ingredients in them.
As well as scrambled egg pre-made on the buffet, there was a fresh egg station, and everything on there was gluten free. They would happily make fresh scrambled eggs, along with fried eggs or omelettes, so it was nice to have some variety.
We asked about gluten-free bread, and discovered that we could have toasted white bread, multigrain bread or bagels, and staff would do this for us and bring it to us. My husband was exploring the buffet one morning (he’s always up earlier than me!) and actually found the gluten-free toaster on the other side of the buffet to the side we usually sat. It had a label on it saying gluten-free, and was positioned completely away from any other food, and in a way that passengers couldn’t access the controls to it. It was also at breakfast that I found out about the gluten-free cookies, and that they also had sweet gluten-free muffins available (but these were kept frozen, so it could be a bit of a wait to get them in the mornings as someone had to go and fetch them and de-frost them).
Overall, in spite of the lack of allergen markings, we were pleasantly surprised by how much was actually gluten-free at breakfast. The staff were always really helpful, and it was amazing to have so many bread choices, especially bagels. Having a toasted cream cheese covered bagel for breakfast was a real treat, and I’ve not been on any other cruise line that has had GF bagels available. Unfortunately, these did run out towards the end of the second week.
Another thing that ran out was the individual portions of jam and peanut butter. For anyone with specific dietary requirements where cross contamination is an issue, it’s always a relief to see the individual portion packs, as you know you’re going to be safe. Most cruise lines have moved to having big serving bowls full of jam and peanut butter, and these are a total nightmare from a cross contamination point of view, and means you have to ask someone to get you some fresh from the kitchen. Unfortunately these individual packs ran out at the start of week two of our cruise, so it was back to big bowls. We had noticed there seemed to fewer packs around towards the end of the first week, so actually took some which meant we had some available each morning on the second week.
Main Dining Room Lunch
The main dining room was only open for lunch on sea days, which is quite usual these days on most cruise lines. When speaking with Vijay he explained that there were three different lunch menus, which were cycled round. I’m not sure if we ate from all three menus, as we didn’t have lunch in the main dining room very often, as found the buffet was actually good enough for us to eat there most days with decent variety. It was a good place for getting French fries, which we didn’t manage to get elsewhere, so was great to be able to order them safely.
We found the main dining room really quiet at lunchtime, which is very unusual compared to other cruises we’ve done. When we did eat there, the food was really good, and nice to change it up from the buffet every now and again.
We didn’t actually eat dinner in the buffet, but did go up there to have a look. Each evening was ‘themed’, so something like paella night, or some kind of special meat. Alongside this was the same salad bar options as lunchtime, and a variety of other dishes similar to lunch. Had we have wanted to, I’m sure we’d have had no problem finding gluten-free options from the kitchen, or having GF pizza or pasta.
Main Dining Room Breakfast
The first time we did this, we were told the evening before that gluten-free pancakes and waffles should be ordered in advance, but that we didn’t need to order anything else in advance (this was a regular server that told us this, not the special diets co-ordinator). When we then got to breakfast the next morning, our server seemed very confused, and called Vijay to come and speak to us. He advised that we should actually order everything we might want the evening before to avoid any confusion, and to speed things up a bit. We made sure we did this for our future MDR breakfasts, and had some interesting experiences with everything coming on separate plates!
Menus are not allergen marked for breakfast, so it’s definitely easiest to pre-order the night before.
Overall, we were really impressed with the choices available for breakfast. As well as gluten-free pancakes and waffles, you can order gluten-free French toast , which was absolutely gorgeous. They also have gluten-free English muffins available, which were delicious toasted. Sadly they ran out of these in the second week of the trip. Apparently there were also gluten-free sweet muffins available too, but we didn’t try these.
Breakfast in the MDR was a really nice experience on the Norwegian Star. It was never very busy, and felt super relaxed. On other ships, it’s often been quite busy in the MDR, and felt a bit stressful, but this was completely different. I guess the ship not being anywhere near full capacity helped with this.
Across various breakfasts we ordered gluten-free cereal, eggs benedict on toasted GF muffin, bacon, beans, mushroom, fried eggs, scrambled eggs, potatoes, toast, pancakes, waffles, French toast and shakshuka. The pancakes were definitely better than the waffles, the French toast was amazing and the shakshuka was delicious (I ended up having this every breakfast in the main dining room, as it was just so tasty). We were both very impressed with the breakfasts, and the range of foods available that were gluten free, or a GF option was made available.
O’Sheehan’s (24 hour pub/restaurant)
O’Sheehan’s is a pub/restaurant that is open 24 hours a day, and available on all NCL ships. The food is included at no extra cost. There are no allergen markings on the menu, but we found staff to be very helpful.
I wasn’t around early enough to ask about breakfast, but my husband was. He found that staff knew what they were talking about – for example he was told that the hash browns weren’t safe because they were cooked in the same oil as other things that contained gluten. Staff explained to him that you must ask every single time in there, as things are cooked differently.
On that particular day my husband was in there, he was told that the bacon was safe, along with the omelettes. He was also told he could have safe gluten-free toast.
We decided to try going there for lunch one day on the off-chance they’d be able to do something gluten-free. Obviously I’m a bit more tricky with the added restriction of being vegetarian as well! However, we had a head server come and deal with us, and he was amazing (so good that we made sure we filled out one of the feedback cards for both him and the chef).
After consultation with the chef, we were told that we could have the tortilla chips with cheese, sour cream and guacamole for starters (the other dips were not gluten free). The chef then offered to make me a veggie burger completely from scratch, as the ones they had were not gluten free. I was so touched that he would go to such a special effort for me, it really meant a lot. We were also given safe french fries, and my husband had a meat burger, which again was gluten free. Of course, these were all washed down with the gluten-free beer that NCL have on board!
The feedback card I mentioned is something we’ve not seen on any other cruise line, or at least not in the same way as NCL do them, but they’re a great idea. They have them on each table in all the dining rooms and restaurants, so if you’ve had a great experience from a server, head server or chef, then you can write this down to let management know. Feedback is really important for staff, and good feedback is rewarded by things like being given a shift off (cruise staff work extremely long hours with no days off for months at a time), or being considered when promotions are available. We made sure we took the time to fill these in, and of course did one for Vijay, who was fantastic all cruise long.
Ginza is a complimentary Asian Fusion dining venue, which is available on many NCL ships. It is only available in the evenings, and has a small menu from which you can select whatever you’d like to eat. We were told that things could be adapted to be safely made gluten free, but that this would need to be ordered via the special diets co-ordinator the night before. We chose not to do this, as there wasn’t really anything on the menu that was vegetarian other than vegetable fried rice, so it was bit limiting for me.
Topsiders Bar and Grill
This is the usual poolside grill place that you get on all cruise ships, serving burgers, hot-dogs and fries. We completely stayed away from here, as generally these are not suitable for gluten-free. We were able to get everything they served safely made in other places. There was also ice-cream served here from tubs. We tried to investigate if this was gluten-free, but the server behind the counter didn’t understand us. It was a little frustrating, but I guess we could have tried harder by asking a manager in the buffet to help us, but we decided we weren’t that desperate for ice-cream, as we could have the soft serve out of the machine in the buffet that we knew was safe, plus ice-cream in the main dining room. A little later on in the cruise, we did see one of the tubs that had the ingredients facing outwards, and read it was a ‘may contain’ for gluten, so it wouldn’t have been safe for us to eat.
There are no allergen markings on the room service menu, and we did not make use of it. Although most food items are complimentary, there is a $9.95 convenience charge for the service (unless you are in The Haven, in which case there is no charge).
A continental breakfast is available for no-charge, but this basically consisted of fruit, cereals and pastries. Nothing gluten-free offered, and although we could have tried hanging the card out on our door and writing GLUTEN FREE across everything, we generally prefer a bigger breakfast anyway.
Speciality Restaurants (extra charge)
There are six speciality restaurants on Norwegian Star which have a separate charge. Most of them are paid for on a á la carte basis, but a couple have a set cover charge. This link will show you which are which, and also links to example menus for each restaurant. There are no allergen markings on the sample menus, so if you’re wanting to book before you go, it can be a bit of a guessing game as to which restaurants will cater well.
A lot of people who sail on NCL have the ‘Free at Sea’ package included with their booking (it can be added on for a very reasonable cost, which is determined by the length of your cruise). This covers the drinks package, gratuities, a certain amount of included wi-fi, as well as a number of meals at speciality restaurants (this number is determined by the type of cabin you have). This is how the package works if you have booked from the UK, I know it is slightly different if booked in the USA (I believe you have to pay gratuities for drinks you get with the drinks package for example).
We were in a balcony cabin, and had three speciality meals included with our Free at Sea package. From reading other reviews and looking at the online menus (and trying to determine what could be made gluten free as there were no allergen markings), we decided to book La Cucina, Moderno Churrascaria, and Teppanyaki. I’ll cover these in more details below.
The restaurants we didn’t eat at were the Sushi restaurant (didn’t look great for a vegetarian), Cagney’s Steakhouse (same reason), and Le Bistro, which is a French style restaurant. Le Bistro had one vegetarian option on the online sample menu which was something with puff pastry, so I thought it might be a struggle to get something vegetarian and gluten free in there. A Brazilian churrascaria might seem like a strange choice for a vegetarian, but there was method in my madness, which you’ll see below!
I’ve never eaten at a teppanyaki style restaurant before, as I didn’t think it would be very vegetarian friendly. However, I was assured that they could cater for us both, so we decided given we had three meals included to give it a try.
We checked with Vijay, who said that we didn’t need to pre-order for this particular restaurant, and just to let staff know when we got there. He confirmed that they had gluten-free soy sauce which would be used, and that my vegetarian food would be cooked before the meat and fish was added to the grill. I confirmed this with staff when checking into the restaurant.
One thing that was recommended to us was to book the earliest sitting, which on our sailing was 5.15pm. It was explained that by doing this, the grill would have been completely cleaned down from the night before, and that they would therefore be able to cook our food safely on it in front of us. If you choose a later sitting, the gluten-free food is cooked out in the kitchen to ensure it is safe. You still get to enjoy the ‘show’ watching everyone else’s food being cooked, but this might be something to think about if you want to see your own meal being cooked.
Initially things at the restaurant were a little bit confusing, and this did make me worry a little bit. One server told us that both starters were vegetarian and gluten free. However, it turned out that the miso soup wasn’t GF, and the salad had to be served without the seaweed in order to be gluten free. There was also a snack of some beans served prior to the starters, and apparently these weren’t gluten free either.
It didn’t bode well, and I did start to worry we’d made the wrong choice in coming to this particular restaurant, but things did improve dramatically after that.
For anyone that like me, has never been to a teppanyaki restaurant before, it’s quite a performance! Knife skills, egg juggling, singing, and performative cooking. Not the place for a nice quiet meal that’s for sure! It was definitely good fun though, and I’m really glad we got to experience it.
The egg fried rice was cooked first, and that was done using gluten-free tamarind sauce instead of instead of soy sauce. Next onto the grill was my vegetarian choice, which was vegetable teriyaki. I was served this whilst they cooked my husband’s gluten-free meal, which was chicken and rice noodles. The egg fried rice was kept well out of the way whilst these were done, and we were offered more of it if we wanted. The chef then offered us more for the final time, as he then went on to cook everyone else’s meal and reverted to using standard soy sauce, so from then on everything was contaminated.
Two dressings were served with the main courses, but only the creamy mustard one was gluten free (and really tasty, I asked for a few top ups of it!).
There were two dessert choices on the menu, but only one of those was gluten free. It was a selection of fruit, so I didn’t have any (I’m a bit fussy when it comes to fruit), but my husband did. We did notice that other people were served some kind of sauce with the fruit, but my husband wasn’t, so I guess whatever it was wasn’t gluten free.
If I’d paid the $59 (plus 20% for gratuities and service charge) I’d probably have been disappointed with the meal given the lack of starters and dessert choices. However, as a meal that was included in our package it was well worth it as a one off. The main meal was fantastic, and the whole entertainment that the chef provides made for a great environment.
La Cucina is an Italian restaurant, and we’d hoped that we would be able to be well catered for in here. Having spoken to Vijay about it, he advised us we would be best to order through him the night before, so he brought us the menus and we made our selections. Being both vegetarian and gluten-free I was a little bit more limited than my husband who only has to deal with being GF. There were things we couldn’t choose, such as the gnocchi, as it was brought in from outside rather than being freshly made, and was therefore not gluten free (a similar experience to a starter of cheesy mashed potato croquettes I’d wanted in the main dining room, which were also bought in from outside rather than made from scratch, and not GF).
I ended up selecting the burrata caprese for starters, mushroom risotto for the next course, and pizza as my main course (which was made using the same bases as you could get in the buffet). As a main course, pizza was my only real choice, as there was nothing in the Secondi section which was vegetarian. My husband had calamari fritti, mushroom risotto and pollo cacciatore. All of the food was delicious.
For desserts, it was the usual selection of panna cotta type things, which I do not like (and are not vegetarian as they use gelatine to set them). We had actually booked La Cucina for the evening of our wedding anniversary, so had asked Vijay if the chefs might be able to us some kind of flourless chocolate cake to finish off our meal. Instead, we were presented with an amazing (and huge!) white chocolate cake, complete with chocolate icing and Happy Anniversary piped onto the top. We were assured it was both gluten free and vegetarian (no gelatine), and it tasted amazing.
It was a really lovely touch, and we were so grateful to Vijay for arranging it. Overall, we loved our meal at La Cucina, and it was the perfect place to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Of the three speciality restaurants we ate in it was definitely my favourite, even with the slightly limited choices for me as someone who is both vegetarian and gluten free.
Our final choice for using up our speciality dining credit was a Brazillian churrascaria, serving up meat, meat and more meat! As I’ve mentioned before (lots!) I am vegetarian, but my husband isn’t. Although he has absolutely no problem eating vegetarian food (and indeed cooks it at home), I never want him to feel like he is missing out on things because of my food choice. I had read that Moderno had an amazing salad bar, as well as Brazilian cheese bread that is gluten free, and so given that the meal came as part of our package, and wasn’t costing any extra, I thought it would be nice to give it a try.
We spoke to Vijay the night before, and I asked if there was any way of getting a vegetarian meal in Moderno whilst my husband enjoyed all the meat. Vijay said that this wasn’t possible, and that there was no facility up in the kitchen in Moderno to cook anything off menu like that, but that I could pre-order a main dining room entree through him, and he would have it brought up to me. I was more than happy with this option, and it was nice to have something to eat whilst my husband was sampling all the different meats on offer.
Vijay advised us to tell the staff we were gluten-free when we got there, and luckily for us, our waiter was someone we had met on the first day, and had been with Vijay when we had our very first meeting. He was actually the special diets co-ordinator before Vijay took over the role, so that made us feel really confident about eating in there.
There are 43 options on the salad bar, and our waiter went through what was suitable. Unfortunately neither of the soups on offer were gluten-free, and there were a couple of salads that had couscous in, but these were very obvious. There was also a bowl with croutons, as well as bread on the salad bar.
By and large it was fairly easy to risk assess what looked to safe from cross contamination, but it would have been possible to get fresh from the kitchen if this had been an issue. It had also been explained to us that gluten-free soy sauce was available if we wanted any of the sushi from the salad bar.
Our waiter also confirmed that the Brazillian cheese bread (pao de queijo) was gluten free, and to ask him if we wanted more, which we did! You can help yourself to as much salad as you want throughout the meal. You are served some side dishes, which comprise of white rice, black beans, garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms and fried yucca, and again, these were all confirmed to be gluten-free and safely cooked.
Be careful not to eat too much – it’s very easy to get carried away with the salad, bread and sides before you even get to what is considered the main event! When you’re sat down you’re given markers with a green side and a red side. This is so that the meat servers know when to come to your table (when the green side is displayed) and when not to (when the red side is displayed).
There were 12 different meats on the menu. Our waiter had told us that just the sausages (2 kinds) were not gluten-free, but my husband made sure he said he was gluten-free to each of the servers as they came by just to double check. Vijay had brought up my pasta meal, so I ate that, whilst my husband enjoyed the various cuts of meat. To be completely honest, I’d filled up so much on the salad, cheese bread and sides that I didn’t really need it, but I felt obliged to eat some as Vijay had brought it to me!
Once my husband was done with all the meat, it was time to move on to dessert. I wasn’t really expecting to be able to have anything, but we were told that the coconut flan was both gluten-free and vegetarian, as was the rice pudding (albeit I don’t like rice pudding, but my husband does). We were also presented with a meringue that our waiter had got specially made for us by the pastry chef, which was really kind of him.
Throughout the meal we chatted to our waiter, who having previously been the special diets co-ordinator knew his stuff. He asked how we’d found the food on the cruise, and we said that overall we’d been very impressed. The only thing really lacking had been decent desserts. He then explained that we could have been pre-ordering desserts along with our main meals, and that there was a flourless chocolate cake that we could order. We asked Vijay about this the next day (our meal in Moderno was quite near the end of the cruise), and had one made for our last night. It was really good, so a real shame we hadn’t known about it earlier on.
As a vegetarian, a meat based restaurant doesn’t seem like an obvious choice, but it was actually a great meal, and I would definitely eat in Moderno again if we had some speciality meals included in a package. Even without pre-ordering an entree from the main dining room, there would have been plenty to eat, and we both left there feeling absolutely stuffed.
Gluten Free Beer and Drinks
I’ve already mentioned the bottled gluten-free beer available, called Redbridge. This was available in most bars, and if not, then a drinks server would normally go and find it elsewhere for us. Sometimes, the drinks servers hadn’t heard of it, or didn’t know it was gluten free, so I found it helpful to take a photo of a bottle so I could show them a picture of it.
We did also check that the syrups and sauces used in cocktails were GF, as well as the ice-cream mix for my beloved mudslide cocktails. I first discovered mudslides on an NCL cruise a few years ago, so of course I had to indulge in a few!
Something to be aware of is the hot chocolate sachets in the buffet. These were Nestle branded, and when we checked the ingredients, they were a ‘may contain’ for gluten, so not suitable for coeliacs. Just something to bear in mind, as it wouldn’t necessarily be an item that people might think of checking.
There’s a lot to unpack here, as NCL were quite different to the other cruise lines we’ve sailed in terms of having one person dealing with all the special diet orders. I’ll start with the negative aspects, before moving on to the positive aspects, of which there were a lot.
The obvious negative for NCL is the lack of any kind of allergen marking in the buffet. However, this seems to be a common theme, as you’ll notice if you’re read any of my other blog posts for different cruise lines. We really did find the chefs in the buffet very helpful though, and probably the friendliest staff out of every cruise we’ve done. They soon got to recognise us, and would happily go through what we could eat, getting safe fresh food from the kitchen etc.
For us, this was the only really negative aspect, and because the staff were so helpful, it didn’t negatively impact on us. It would save time for staff though if signage was used, as you would at least have some idea of what was safe and what wasn’t.
We really loved having just one person dealing with all the special diet orders. It’s a great concept, albeit it must be very hard work for them running round the ship to all the various eating places taking orders and delivering food. You definitely get more consistency when dealing with just one person, and Vijay got to know us and our likes and dislikes very quickly. The only other cruise line we’ve experienced something similar is Disney, where they had one person taking special diet orders at all the poolside eating places (see my DCL review), but this didn’t extend as far as the restaurants. I would love to see more cruise lines do something like this.
Something else we really liked was the choices of different breads, especially at breakfast. No other cruise line has had such a choice, and having gluten-free bagels as an option for breakfast was a real treat. Similarly the English muffins available in the main dining room for breakfast were really tasty, and the gluten-free French toast was incredible.
Another positive to really call out was our experience in O’Sheehan’s, with the staff and chef going above and beyond to make us food from scratch that was safe to eat. It’s always fantastic when something like that happens, and we were so appreciative of the staff.
Overall, our gluten-free dining experience on the Norwegian Star was a positive one, and one I’d happily recommend to anyone. Yes, you do have to ask questions, and don’t necessarily get to find out exactly what they can do for you if you don’t ask the right questions (like us not asking specifically about desserts for example). Again though, this is common across all the cruise lines we’ve sailed. More information definitely needs to be forthcoming from all of them about exactly all the adaptations that can be made to make your eating experience the best it can be.
We would both be happy to sail NCL again, and have actually booked a transatlantic cruise on the NCL Getaway for October 2023. Fingers crossed we have such a good experience as we did on the Star.