This review covers a three night cruise on the lovely P&O Britannia ship. It was our first time cruising on P&O, and we had high expectations about the gluten-free food options on board. But did the reality live up to our expectations? Read on to find out!
Britannia isn’t as glamorous as the MSC ships, but there is an understated elegance about her. She looks much better in person that on some of the YouTube videos we watched, where we actually thought that the atrium and floors above her looked like a shopping centre!
Booking and Prior to Cruising
I booked our cruise directly with P&O. If anyone reading this has a Blue Light Card (available for a small fee to UK emergency services workers and other key workers as per the website eligibility) then they are offering amazing discounts on P&O staycation cruises – we got 50% off our balcony price! On booking I informed them that we are both gluten free, and that I am also a vegetarian. I then later followed this up (I like to triple check everything) by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to advise them of our dietary requirements, and had a reply a few days later confirming that it was indeed noted on the booking.
Before booking I did as I always do which is research, research, research! There is a lot of information out there, and I was delighted to see that in general people are very positive about P&O and how they deal with gluten-free dining. I think it’s important to do as much research as you can because you don’t want to be stuck on board a ship if they can’t cater for you, particularly when there are no port stops where you can stock up in case of emergency!! However, I felt reassured that we would be catered for well, and so we took hardly any snacks with us.
Once on board we decided to go to our cabin first to get rid of our carry-on luggage. In the cabin was a letter from Britannia’s food and beverage manager regarding special dietary needs and giving advice. This was basically
- speak to restaurant hosts
- make sure you tell your servers
- in the buffet speak to one of the stewards wearing yellow “Can I Help?” aprons
Finding your way around a ship can be a little daunting, especially when you’re hungry and on the hunt for food! On Britannia there are some great pictorial maps around located round the ships, which we found very useful. Snap a pic on your phone so you’ve always got it to refer to when you’re hunting down a place to eat!
Buffet Lunch (buffets are now back to self serve, this blog was written when covid protocols were in place)
It was exciting that we were ‘allowed’ to go to the buffet (unlike our MSC cruise), so we decided that we would go there for lunch. On these staycation cruises you join a ‘virtual queue’ on the app, and almost straight away we received a notification that our table was ready. You need to select the “I’m on my way” button, and it tells you that you then have 15 minutes to get there.
On checking in with the host at the buffet I mentioned that we were both gluten free, and as per the advice in the letter mentioned above, sought out one of the buffet stewards in the yellow apron. Here I encountered my first problem, which unfortunately happened a few times. Although the serving crew generally spoke good English, they seemed to have real difficulty understanding that I was both gluten free AND vegetarian. The hot dishes that were gluten free on the buffet were cottage pie (meat based) and roast meats, I should point out that everything is labelled up on the buffet as to whether it was gluten free, and any allergens contained. The dishes were fine for my husband, but as someone who is also vegetarian they were not for me. It took a while of explaining in different ways for the guy helping us, and the chef that he called over, to understand that I not only needed gluten-free food, I also needed it to be vegetarian. The chef offered to cook me the vegan option and to put it in a gluten-free roll. It was like a fajita, and I was assured the filling was GF. We also had some fries (they are marked as gluten free, but they cooked us some fresh ones out the back). The majority of the salad bar was marked as gluten free and as the buffet is currently served by staff due to Covid protocols, we both felt safe eating this. We asked for fresh butter (they keep the ramekins of butter by the normal bread rolls) and they were happy to get some for us to avoid any potential contamination. A word of warning though – the fresh butter comes direct from the fridge and is rock hard!
There is also a small area for special diets where they had all kinds of milks (oat, soya, almond etc), vegan cheese and butter, vegan mayo, gluten-free bread (kept under cling film so protected from contamination) and gluten-free pre-packaged cakes. There was also an area for GF desserts. So, so far so good……….!
The chef brought out our fresh fries and my husband’s cottage pie to the table, and after a little wait, brought my special supposedly GF fajita filling along with a couple of Juvela toasted rolls (I was shown the packet, as they also seemed to be confused as to whether I was vegan or vegetarian). I could see that the fajita filling was made with what appeared to be Quorn pieces, and I know that whilst the standard vegetarian Quorn pieces are gluten free, the vegan ones are not. I double checked online, which confirmed that I was right. Luckily I checked before I ate any! There were two conclusions that could be drawn here – either they were serving gluten-free non-vegan Quorn to vegans or the dish I had been given was not gluten free. My husband went and spoke to the chef, who then went and found the packaging and around 10 minutes later appeared at the table confirming that the Quorn pieces did indeed contain gluten. He was very apologetic, and I understand that he was trying to be helpful in cooking something that I could eat, but had I not realised and ploughed into eating it, there could have been serious health repercussions.
Another chef did come and visit our table before leaving the buffet. He was a sous chef, and wore a “big hat” (his description). He advised us that whenever we visited the buffet, we should speak to someone wearing a big hat to ensure no mistakes were made regarding food selection.
Overall it wasn’t a great experience at the buffet with the mistake that was made, but we didn’t let it put us off, and just made sure that wherever we ate after that we were very clear about our needs, and we had no further issues with incorrect food being given. Other than breakfast, we didn’t visit the buffet again, but that was down to the fact we had very limited time on a 3 night cruise, and wanted to check out as many eating options as possible.
Pre-Ordering Meals in the Main Dining Room and Main Dining Room Menus
Following lunch, we headed down to the Peninsular dining room. Although there are many gluten-free dishes marked on the menu, it is advised if you are coeliac or need to avoid cross contamination to order your meals 24 hours ahead. Obviously not possible when you’ve only just got on the ship, but the restaurant host was extremely helpful and made a call to the chef to see which dishes could be amended for that evening (there was no vegetarian gluten-free starter option for example, so this was able to be sorted out).
All your choices are written down, and they take the order for all three courses. Later on when you go to the dining room, they go back to the restaurant host station and get your original order. You can also order in Peninsular and eat in Meridian and vice versa, and they will send someone to go and get the original order.
For the remainder of our main dining room meals, we ordered these at dinner for the following day. We did not end up eating lunch in the main dining room at all, but if we had, we would have ordered that the day before as well.
I do not know if this is the usual procedure, but on the staycation cruises they serve free afternoon tea in the Meridian restaurant each day at 3pm. It is highly advisable to book this in advance and I booked our afternoon tea for the Friday as soon as we boarded on Thursday (using the app). There were a lot of people in the queue on Friday who hadn’t pre-booked and were left disappointed, as it was fully booked. As with lunch and dinner, we were able to speak to the restaurant host at Meridian on Thursday afternoon to request one gluten-free afternoon tea, and one vegetarian gluten-free afternoon tea. We enjoyed it so much that we immediately booked another slot for the next day and spoke to the restaurant host on our way out to request the same special orders that we’d just had.
Main Dining Room Dinner
Although we had requested early sitting, P&O was operating freedom dining on board the Britannia, which I believe is continuing for all of the staycation cruises. When ready we booked a place in the queue on the app, and because we like to eat fairly early it didn’t take long for the table to be ready. After being sat we explained we were gluten free and had pre-ordered, and the head waiter then came over with the hand written order we had made at the desk, and went through our order with us.
Just to clarify about the app, you cannot pre-book a time to eat in the main dining rooms. The virtual queue for each dining room and the buffet goes live when they open, and at any point you check it shows you how many people are currently in the queue. At the point you decide you want to eat, you simply join the virtual queue, then the app will let you know when it’s your turn. You can also head to the dining room without doing this, and you will be given a pager along with some idea of how long you might have to wait for it to buzz and tell you there is a table ready.
Food was quick to arrive, much quicker than on our MSC cruise. I suspect that this is because we were eating dishes already on the menu, rather than from a completely separate menu on MSC. Any allergy or special diet meals are prepared by ‘diet chefs’ in a completely separate area of the kitchen on Britannia, ensuring no cross contamination problems.
We were offered bread prior to our starter, which was the same sliced seeded bread we were given at the buffet at lunch. I don’t know which brand it was, but it was perfectly acceptable, and to be honest, I preferred it to the Schär rolls we had on MSC. When we ate at the main dining room on the third night for dinner, we were offered gluten-free rolls instead of bread. I’m not sure of the brand, but we had been given them at our meal at Sindhu on the second night, and also I was given them on our second afternoon tea experience.
We didn’t have to wait long from finishing our starters before the main course came, and we both very much enjoyed our meals. On the first night we both had had the same dessert (dark chocolate and olive oil marquise), which happened to be both vegan and gluten free, and it was amazing! The second time we ate there, I ordered cheese and crackers, and the crackers were Schär and came in an individually wrapped packet. At the end of our meals we were given after dinner chocolates. They were different flavours (night one was mint, and night three was turkish delight) and the head waiter confirmed that they had been checked and were gluten free.
On researching P&O, I had seen numerous posts suggesting that they offered separate vegetarian and vegan menus. I asked about these, as I thought these might give me some further vegetarian gluten-free options, but it was confirmed that there are no longer separate menus. Staff were unsure as to whether this was just for the staycation cruises, or a permanent thing. Personally, I think it’s a shame if it is permanent, but I guess time will tell when cruising gets back to a more normal state of affairs as to whether they reappear or not.
At the end of the meal we asked for the lunch menu for the next day. We didn’t require the dinner menu, as we had booked in at Sindhu, one of the speciality restaurants (a birthday treat for me!), but were advised to pop down at some point the next day in order that we could view the menu for the following day and pre-book our meals.
Main Dining Room Breakfast
I found the breakfast menu a little disappointing. Unlike lunch and dinner, which is fully marked up with the gluten-free options, the breakfast menu is not marked up at all, and simply says under each section that there are gluten-free options available. We also were not served by the head waiter for breakfast, and we did find that there was a language issue with our server which made things a little bit unclear.
The only gluten-free cereal available is cornflakes (Schär), which come in their own individual pack, so you can be very sure on what you are getting. There are also gluten-free muffins available. We were offered plain (which I think were actually blueberry) and chocolate. I had a chocolate muffin, but it was a little bit dry.
For cooked options, you are reliant on the server telling you what is suitable and what isn’t, and this is where we had a bit of a problem. My husband asked about the bacon and the server’s exact words were “this isn’t gluten free, you can have it”. We had to clarify with the server three of four times before we eventually realised that what he meant was “this doesn’t contain gluten, you can have it”. The meat sausages are NOT gluten free, neither are the black pudding, hash browns, vegetarian sausages or vegetarian bacon. This leaves you with a variety of eggs, baked beans, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and gluten free toast. As a vegetarian, it was a little disappointing that they had no veggie GF sausages, as there are plenty out there. My husband said the same thing about the lack of GF meat sausages, there are plenty of options out there.
As with dinner the previous evening, breakfast was fairly swift being brought out. My top tip if you like baked beans is to request double, as a single portion is very small!
Overall, we found the breakfast experience on the first morning a little stressful as we were having to double check everything, particularly with the language barrier. I did ask on our way out whether we should have been served by the head waiter, and was advised that for breakfast, they will try and serve you if not busy, but if they are then you will be served by the normal servers.
We ate breakfast in the main dining room on the last day of our cruise as well, and it was a much better experience, mainly because we already knew what we could and couldn’t have. You still need to make sure your server knows it is a gluten-free order so it is prepared in the separate area of the kitchen.
On our second day we decided to try breakfast in the buffet. Again, this involved joining the ‘virtual queue’ on the app, but although there were around 30 people in the queue it wasn’t long before we got the notification that our table was ready.
The hot options at the buffet were very similar to what was on offer in the main dining room, with the addition of some omelettes (these were ready made and not fresh, I didn’t see anywhere to order eggs although could have missed it). Following the advice from our slightly disastrous buffet lunch, I spotted a sous chef in a big hat and asked if we could order a gluten-free breakfast. He asked what we wanted, then cooked it all fresh out the back to avoid any cross contamination. I was also impressed when asking about gluten-free toast to find that they keep a grill in full view specifically for gluten-free bread.
There were the usual continental options also available with various sliced cheese and meats and there was a whole selection of fruit available.
At the special diets section that we’d seen at lunch they had gluten-free muffins (same ones as I’d had in the main dining room the previous day) and a selection of all different kinds of milks, as well as the GF bread.
Similarly to the main dining room, the breakfast items were not marked up as to whether they were gluten free or not. I don’t understand why, given that they do this at lunch and dinner. Cross contamination of the food at the buffet is less of a problem than it would be ordinarily, because staff are serving the buffet and passengers are not allowed to touch it. However, just as we did, if you are coeliac or cross contamination is a problem then definitely seek out a sous chef to get them to cook what you want fresh out the back.
Lunch Around the Pool Area
There are a couple of options for food around the pool on the Lido deck (deck 16). I’ll keep what we found out about them all to this one section.
Firstly, I had been very excited to see on some reviews I’d read and on a YouTube video I watched that there was a large ‘grab and go’ fridge in this area containing pre-packaged salads, sandwiches and cakes (including some GF options). Described as being “like a Boots meal deal fridge” I was looking forward to being able to grab something from here to eat round the pool. Sadly, the grab and go area was not in use on our cruise, and had “I’m resting” stickers on the doors of the fridges. I’ve not seen anyone mention this in write ups of the staycation cruises, so can only assume that P&O have decided not to offer this option on the staycation cruises (I guess that maintaining hygiene could be a problem with people touching the fridge doors all the time). I feel like I need to cruise P&O again in the future when this is back up and running just to test it out!
On the opposite side of the pool is the Lido Grill and the Pizzeria. Starting off with the grill it does hot dogs, burgers and fries, and the menu poster does say it has gluten-free buns available. There are allergy signs over each dish, and the fries were showing as containing no allergens. We had also been told by one of the restaurant hosts that fries all over the ship were safe to eat, so had been hoping to get some to go with our pizza. However, when my husband queued up for some he was told that the fries were NOT gluten free, and we could not eat them. The queue was quite long, and there was no one else there who looked senior to be able to double check with, so we didn’t go to the grill again. This would be something I would like to explore further if I cruise P&O again – are the fries themselves not gluten free, even though no allergens were shown, or are they not gluten free because they are cooked with other gluten containing items?
Next, on to the pizzeria. After our experience on MSC of not being able to get any gluten-free pizza anywhere, or indeed be able to eat anywhere except for the main dining room, it was brilliant to be able to get a pizza. The bases are 10 inches – perfect to share if you’re trying to save some space for afternoon tea a couple of hours later like we were! They are stored separately in their own packaging, prepared separately, put in their own oven (one of the pizza ovens is kept specifically for gluten-free pizzas) then cut in a separate area with a specific GF cutter.
We ended up having pizza for lunch on both of our sea days, and it was delicious, I would definitely recommend. It was great to be able to have something ‘normal’ as well, and also to know that you could have some food without needing to leave the pool area. When we were on board, the pizzeria was open from 11am – 6pm.
As previously mentioned, we ended up booking the afternoon tea for both of our sea days, and I’m glad we did! Held in the Meridian restaurant, it was clearly very popular judging by the long queues and number of people who were turned away as they hadn’t pre-booked.
When seated, we informed the servers that we were gluten free and had pre-ordered. We were lucky to get a window seat, so we watched the world go by (or sail by!) as other tables around us were served their afternoon teas. The standard afternoon tea was served on a two tier silver platter with sandwiches and rolls on top, and cakes on the bottom.
The first noticeable difference about our special order was that they were served on single tier silver plates. I could tell that the sandwiches were made with gluten free bread, as it was the seeded bread we’d been served before in other areas, and was very different to the look of the sandwiches and rolls we could see on other tables. My vegetarian GF sandwiches were cheese & tomato and egg & cucumber, whilst my husband had ham & mustard and cheese & tomato.
The cakes looked lovely, and I could see that the ‘normal’ afternoon teas had some different cakes to ours, but also some that looked the same. Our scones were definitely different, as they were fruited whereas I could see everyone else had plain scones. I actually double checked with the server that our cakes were all definitely gluten free, and he went away and came back and confirmed that they were. I think it can be a bit of a double edged sword when you’re gluten free – you want to be as normal as possible when ordering food, and yet when food turns up and looks similar to everyone else’s food, it can make you a bit nervous. We did eat it, and it was delicious, and I have no reason to doubt what the server told us, but I think it might help allay people’s fears if maybe there was a menu or similar that came out with the gluten-free cakes to confirm what they were. I’m sure every coeliac reading this can relate to double or even triple checking something to make sure it really is gluten free!
Our experience the following day was very similar, and what was even better (and to be honest, completely unexpected!) was that the sandwiches had different fillings, and the cakes were all different. We actually didn’t get as much on the second day, as the first day we were given a plate of sandwiches each and a plate of cakes each, but the second day the cakes were only a single plate to share. Anyway, my recommendation is to definitely book yourself in for afternoon tea at least once!
Speciality Restaurants (Including Review of Sindhu)
Britannia has a number of restaurants available with an additional charge. I’ll be honest and say that paying to eat on a cruise ship isn’t normally something that I do. I’m happy to stick with the included restaurants. However, it was my birthday on the first sea day of our cruise, so I decided that as a treat, it would be nice to book a meal at Sindhu, an Indian restaurant. In the Prior To Cruising section above I mentioned sending an email about our dietary requirements. I also asked if it would be possible to be sent through the menu for Sindhu as we were thinking about eating there. A sample menu was sent through, and I was advised to go to the restaurant the day before and have a chat with them, which is exactly what we did.
The menu at Sindhu is fantastic if you’re gluten free, as almost every dish on there is marked as GF. Ironically, it seemed to be the vegetarian dishes that weren’t marked up as GF, so it was obviously important for me to go along and chat to them to make sure they could cater for me. The restaurant host was very accommodating, basically saying that any of the vegetarian options could be made gluten free, and that he would go and place the order with the chef for the following day (despite me not knowing which of the two main course options I wanted!).
When we arrived for our meal we again confirmed with the server that we were gluten free. Our orders were taken, and we were offered poppadoms and dips, all GF. Our poppadoms were bite size, I’m not sure how this compares to the standard poppadoms given out as unfortunately I didn’t see any.
For starters my husband had Hariyall Jhinga (tiger prawns with pineapple chutney – already marked GF on the menu) and I had Chana Pakodi Chaat (chickpea dumplings and houmous), which the chef changed to make gluten free. Both starters were delicious.
For main course, my husband had the Calcutta Batak (pan-seared duck breast with aubergine fritters and a mustard poha – already marked as GF on the menu), which he said was perfect. I ordered the Sindhu Signature Plate, which was three different dishes, all vegetarian and gluten free. We were told that the gluten-free vegetarian version of the signature plate would be made with whatever the chef had available – in my case it was a paneer korma, aubergine curry, and an ‘indian chilli’. All 3 dishes were amazing!
On top of all this, we were also given a lentil daal, and the Navrattan Kofta Korma (dumplings in a saffron korma sauce), both of which were vegetarian and gluten free. I have no idea if it is standard to be given extra dishes, and we decided that it’s probably because when we had spoken to the restaurant host the evening before, he had put in an order for that dish as well as the signature plate as I hadn’t been sure which one I had wanted. The food was absolutely beautiful, particularly the Navrattan Kofta Korma. I had to leave some as there was just so much food, but it was probably the nicest meal I have ever eaten on a cruise ship!
Neither of us had room for dessert after all that delicious food. It was Celebration Night on the ship, and every passenger was given a voucher for a free glass of fizz, which we were able to use at Sindhu to enjoy with our meal.
You can see the prices of the starters and main courses we chose on the menu above. I think that the prices are very reasonable, and for the standard of food provided definitely worth it. Even more of a bargain is that on the first night of the staycation cruises, P&O have a special offer on to eat at Sindhu, The Epicurean or The Limelight Club for half price. What a shame my birthday wasn’t the first night! Obviously dishes at Sindhu are charged individually, which I understand is different from how it used to be charged, with a set price. The half price offer at The Epicurean makes it £14pp, and The Limelight Club at £12.50 per person.
We did not eat at either of these restaurants, but I did obtain the menus which you can see below and I spoke to them about dietary requirements. The Epicurean has a number of dishes marked up as gluten free, although nothing that is also vegetarian. The Limelight menu has nothing marked up as gluten free. Both places I spoke to said that they could cater for any dietary requirements as long as they were given 24 hours notice. The Limelight club was sold out very quickly on our three night cruise as Toyah Wilcox was performing in there and seemed to be very popular, so my advice would be if you think that is somewhere you might want to go, book as soon as you board.
There is also The Glass House, with small plates available from £2.75 and larger plates including steaks from £7.50, and a private banquet for two priced at £18.00. There was a selection of gluten-free options on this menu, although nothing that was also vegetarian. I believe under normal sailing conditions there is another paid for restaurant called The Beach House, however this was not operating on our staycation cruise so I cannot comment on the suitability of the menu for gluten-free choices. I also didn’t see the menu for the Eric Lanlard afternoon tea, which is a paid for experience, as we only went for the free afternoon tea. Eric Lanlard cakes and pastries are sold in the Market Cafe on deck 5, but there were no gluten-free options there.
We didn’t use room service, but I have uploaded pictures of the menu. Not lots of choice, but there are some gluten-free options available. There was no mini bar in our fridge, I understand that they have removed the mini bar from the staycation sailings. That was fine by us as it meant we had lots of space for the wine and cans of Pepsi max we had taken on board!
Late Night Snack Buffet
This is open from 11pm – 1am every night. I didn’t make it up there to eat, as I was both too full and too exhausted, but my husband popped up one evening to investigate. There was nothing on display marked as gluten free, but he was advised that on request they could cook fresh french fries, and they also had gluten-free sandwiches and brownies available. Great to know that there are options available later on if you fancy a snack!
As per our MSC cruise, the bottled lager option on board was the GF Estrella Daura Damm. This is on sale for £4.50 a bottle. I also noticed on the room service menu that there was GF Old Speckled Hen available for a similar price. I don’t know if that would also have been available in any bars because we didn’t buy any beer on board at all!
My husband did check that the chocolate powder they used for the mocha coffees at Costa was suitable, and a member of staff kindly brought out the bag so that he could check. The syrups were also gluten-free.
The positives: P&O are clearly used to dealing with passengers with specific dietary needs, and the fact that there are so many gluten-free dishes on the menu is great. Ordering the night before for the following day in the main dining room was easy to do, and they were very happy to tweak dishes to make them gluten free. We both loved that we could eat at the buffet and at the pizzeria, giving us far more flexibility than we had on our MSC cruise. I think that when restrictions are eased, there will be even more places to be able to get food from, such as the grab and go. My highlight was definitely Sindhu, and I want to cruise P&O again just to be able to eat there!
The negatives: The incident at the buffet on the first day when I was given a specially cooked dish that actually contained gluten was a little bit worrying. I understand that it came from the chef trying to be helpful, but if I hadn’t realised what had happened before eating the dish, it would have been problematic. I would hope that something like this would be a one off, and I think that everyone with special dietary requirements understands the need to double check everything, so my advice would be to carry on doing this. Because there was also a bit of a language barrier at breakfast in the main dining room, I did mention it to the restaurant host as we left. She stated that if there is ever a problem, then to ask for either the head waiter or the restaurant host, and they would come and take over. The issue at breakfast could be easily solved if P&O were to actually mark up on the breakfast menu what is GF and what isn’t, as then it would be clear what you could have.
As for the burning question, would we sail P&O again? It’s definitely a resounding yes! Where MSC was at the minimum level for providing gluten-free food for passengers, we were both impressed overall with what P&O had to offer us. That one issue in the buffet aside, the quality of food was great, and the most impressive thing for us was the flexibility around where we could eat. All in all, for only our second gluten-free cruise experience, it was a definite thumbs up from both of us!
There are some improvements that could be made, the biggest of which I think is to label up the breakfast menu with which items are gluten free rather than having to rely on a server who may make confusing statements. This should happen both in the buffet, and on the menu in the main dining room. I would also suggest that in the buffet at lunch time, they give a little bit more consideration to the fact that there may be vegetarian or vegan Coeliacs who would like to be able to have a hot dish to choose. As they appear to have a vegan hot item as standard on the buffet, perhaps P&O could consider also making this GF, thereby opening up choices to anyone who is gluten free.
As this was my first P&O cruise I have nothing else to compare it to, and I know that all cruise lines are operating a little bit differently to normal on their staycation cruises. I would definitely be interested in sailing P&O again under more normal conditions to see how gluten-free dining is dealt with, particularly in the buffet, when passengers are back to serving themselves rather than staff doing it. I would be a lot more wary of selecting salad items for example, but would hope that P&O would be able to get fresh from the galley. I’d also like to learn more about the Lido Grill, and whether anything is actually safe or not from them as well as sampling the grab and go food.