This review covers our week spent on the delightful P&O Iona cruising the beautiful Norwegian Fjords. No apologies for the spoiler, suffice to say that our gluten-free dining experience was outstanding (so much so that we’ve booked a two week cruise on Iona next year!). For all the glorious details, please read on.
As always, I’ll start with a few details about the ship before moving on to the all important subject of gluten-free food! At the time of sailing Iona was the newest ship in P&O’s fleet (although Iona’s sister ship, Arvia, has now taken on this crown with her first sailing in December 2022).
Iona is one of the larger ships out there, with a passenger capacity of around 5200. On our sailing I was told there were around 5000 passengers onboard, but other than in the buffet, it didn’t really feel that busy. From cruises we’ve done, she is a similar size to MSC Virtuosa (see my gluten-free review of Virtuosa here). We didn’t mind the size of her, but did have passengers commenting to us that she was quite large (seemed to be the thing to talk about in the hot tubs!), so something to bear in mind if you prefer a smaller ship.
I would describe Iona as modern yet understated, with lots of chrome, marble and neutral colours. The atrium is light and airy, and proved to be a popular place to sit both day and night. Vistas is the main focal point, serving Costa branded drinks and a selection of cakes for sale (including gluten-free options). One morning as we were sat there relaxing with a coffee and book, the aerial artists were doing some practising in there, which was quite interesting to watch. You could also get a sheet with the round-up of the news each day, along with a sudoku puzzle.
I booked directly with P&O over the telephone, and let them know that we are both gluten free. There is an email address that you can send any dietary requirements to (see my Britannia review for details) but following our experience on Britannia last year I didn’t feel the need to follow up with an email. Our dietary requirements were noted on our invoice, and when we got to our cabin there was a letter confirming this with some useful information on (very similar to the letter on my Britannia review).
I’ve not included details about checking in at the port etc, as these aren’t particularly relevant any more. The blogs I wrote in 2021 when cruising re-started all had very strict Covid-19 protocols, which is why those details were included at the time.
A Top Tip For Your Cabin (Food Related!)
I learnt this from a random comment in a Facebook group I’m in, and so glad I did. You can get gluten-free biscuits in your cabin if you ask your cabin host. Perfect to go with the tea and coffee facilities that are in every cabin on Iona (and across the P&O fleet). Our cabin host left us a couple of packs of Schär biscuits every day, which were really nice. I’m not aware of any other cruise line that does that, but wouldn’t it be great if they all did?
General Description of Included Dining Places on Iona
Before going into each place in more detail, I want to provide some details about the places you can eat onboard for free (or should I say, included in your fare).
There are four main dining rooms on Iona, all of which have the same menus. These are called Aqua, Opal, Pearl and Coral. They are all open for dinner, and a selection of them for breakfast and lunch (the times and locations can be found in the daily Horizon paper delivered to your cabin, or on the My Holiday app). There are limited time spots available to reserve on the app, you can join the ‘virtual queue’, or you can take your chances and go directly to the restaurant and be given a table.
The Horizon is the buffet on Iona, and is open a lot! As well as breakfast, lunch and dinner there is afternoon tea available in the afternoon (I’ll take more about that below, but there were some great gluten-free cakes available) as well as late night snacks.
An alternative to the buffet is The Quays, which comprises of a fish and chip counter, an Asian fusion counter, and an American style grill. In the morning, these counters also do breakfast items, including gluten-free pancakes. In the same area as The Quays are some very small buffet style nibbles, which are breakfast themed in the morning, then more of a salad style selection throughout the day.
The Olive Grove is a Mediterranean style restaurant, which is a mixture of mainly included items, along with some which feature an extra charge (these are clearly marked on the menu).
Taste 360 does a variety of burgers/hot dogs/fries as well as gluten-free pizza, which they prepare safely. There is also a poolside grill, but I didn’t particularly investigate whether they did anything gluten free.
You can eat really well on Iona without spending an extra penny. However, for some people, eating at the additional cost restaurants is something they like to treat themselves to onboard. We did eat at a couple, which I will cover later in further detail. Every speciality restaurant had its menu on display outside, and just like in the main dining rooms, they all have allergen markings on them. If you want to eat at one of them it’s worthwhile going to speak to them 24 hours beforehand so that you can put in a pre-order if necessary, or discuss any possible menu changes that they might need to do in order to accommodate you.
The Horizon Restaurant (Buffet)
The Horizon is open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner plus a late night snack buffet. In general, it’s split up into four different stations (the restaurant is quite large), and each station has the same selection on it. Each station has it’s own ‘diet’ counter, and this is where things like gluten-free bread and dairy free spreads and milks are kept. As per our experience on Britannia, there are staff around with yellow aprons on that say “Can I Help”, and these are the people who will do things like get you a fresh serving from the kitchen to avoid cross contamination, or toast your gluten-free bread at breakfast time.
I won’t lie, our experience in the buffet was that it was pretty manic all the time, especially at breakfast time. I am a bit of a late riser, which doesn’t help (it seemed like most of the rest of the ship was too!). We only did breakfast in there a couple of times for this reason. The late night buffet, which we only visited once, was very busy as well. Apparently people just can’t get enough of the food on cruise ships!
One of the things I love about P&O is that everything on the buffet is allergen marked. This makes life a lot simpler when trying to decide where to start with what to eat! If you’re gluten intolerant and able to handle some cross contamination, or avoid gluten for other reasons and don’t mind the potential cc risk, then it’s really easy to just grab what you want.
If cross contamination is a problem, then look for someone in a yellow apron, or ask someone behind the counter, and they will get you whatever it is you ask for either from a fresh container they have under the counter (they often keep them there for when the one on display runs low) or from the kitchen.
There is all the usual hot and cold food you’d associate with breakfast. If you’ve got other restrictions, such as being vegetarian like me, there wasn’t a great deal of choice with the hot food, but certainly enough for me to have a decent breakfast.
At the diet counter there is always gluten-free bread, which they will safely toast for you on request. They also have Schär croissants available, which were really nice warmed up. Gluten-free cereal can also be got from there. There are generally some pre-packaged muffins available – if you don’t see them then ask, and a member of staff will get them. As well as that, they have pre-packaged cakes from the We Love Cake brand (all marked gluten-free and approved by the Coeliac Society). These cakes are amazing, you wouldn’t know they were gluten free. We would grab a few each day, as they were great to take back to the cabin for treats later on, or to take off as a snack at ports. Again, if not on display, ask someone and they’ll get them for you (they’re kept frozen, and they defrost some each day. The ambient shelf life of these is mostly 28 days after defrosting according to the website, so they’ll keep with no problem).
The same set up as breakfast, including the diet counters. Most things are allergen marked, although we did find the odd exclusion with some of the salad dishes.
Although we looked round the buffet a couple of times, we didn’t end up having lunch there. We just decided there were other places that took our fancy a bit more (fish and chips at The Quays were a favourite!).
I don’t know if there were gluten-free fries available at the buffet, or if they would have been able to do any, and we didn’t ask. We did find out that you can ask for gluten-free crackers at the diet counters, and there is cheese available, which they will get you from the kitchen if necessary to avoid cross contamination.
During our cruise, afternoon tea was only available in the buffet, and not in the main dining room as I believe is the norm on P&O cruises. I’m not sure why this was, hopefully it will already have returned, or will soon, as we really enjoyed our afternoon tea experience in the main dining room on Britannia the year before.
You might want to have a small lunch on the days you visit the buffet for afternoon tea, as there is lots of choice! P&O seem to choose to make a lot of their cakes gluten-free, and I really like that. They also do it very well, the cakes are delicious (Princess could learn a thing or two from them, that’s for sure!)
Again, everything is allergen marked, and they do have a small selection of cakes on the diet counter, but not everything. We risk assessed as we went, and from looking at the displays on the buffet and considering what the gluten-free cakes were next to would dictate whether we reached through to take one from an as yet untouched platter, or ask for a fresh one from the kitchen. Cakes we enjoyed included brownies, battenberg, cupcakes and crumble.
There are also gluten-free scones available. We were given mixed messages about these, as we were told we’d need to order them in the buffet 24 hours beforehand, but actually when we went there, we found they were available when we asked. I also managed to get some gluten-free vegan wraps that were kept separately in the fridge (there were no gluten-free sandwiches on display that we saw, so I asked if there was anything that was both GF and vegetarian, and was really pleased to be given the wraps).
We didn’t have dinner in the buffet at all during the cruise, but the set up was the same as for the other meals. It looked like a similar selection of food as at lunch-time, and everything was allergen marked.
Late Night Snack Buffet
We only made it up here once! The diet counters weren’t open, and there didn’t really seem to be a lot that was marked up as gluten free. We ended up asking for some GF crackers and a plate of cheese.
Main Dining Room (MDR)
Like every other cruise line, P&O suggest that if you have allergies, are coeliac, or cross contamination is an issue, that you order your meals in the main dining room the night before. This is so that your food can be cooked separately in the allergy kitchen. If cross contamination isn’t an issue for you, the lunch and dinner menus are all allergen marked (breakfast isn’t, but I’ll cover that shortly) and so it’s easy to order there and then.
When we first boarded the ship, we went to one of the main dining rooms that was open in order to place an order for dinner. No-one told us to do that, it’s just one of the tips we’ve learnt from cruising regularly. For my husband, there are generally no problems, as he eats meat and fish. Finding dishes that are both gluten-free and vegetarian can be a bit more tricky sometimes (although in general P&O are pretty good for this), so to avoid any issues with dinner on the first night, we try and go to the dining room as early as possible to look at the evening menu and see if there is anything suitable, or if it needs a special order.
The P&O menus tend to have a really good mix of things that cover all kind of dietary requirements. One thing I really appreciate as a vegetarian is that a lot of their gluten-free desserts are veggie or vegan, and they don’t seem to go as mad using gelatine in everything like the American cruise lines do. I had more of a choice of desserts on here than I ever normally do.
This is the one meal you don’t order in advance, so make sure you tell your servers that you’re gluten free. The menu is semi allergen marked, but not really in any useful way. You have to ask a lot of questions, and not everyone likes to do that. Also, staff were extremely busy, so we sometimes felt as if we were being a bit of a pain by asking questions.
There didn’t seem to be any kind of muffins available either, even though they have them in the buffet. On one morning, a very kind server surprised us by going up to the buffet and getting a couple for us, which we were very appreciative of.
For hot food there were the usual breakfast items you’d expect to be gluten free – bacon, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns and toast. The meat sausages were not GF, but we later found out (took us asking a head waiter and a whole 24 hours wait for the results ) that the veggie sausages were, so ended up having those.
There were a few supply issues onboard, as the hash browns ran out in the MDR by around day 5, which was a shame given that they were gluten free. They also ran out of nice flavoured jams by the end of the week!
We did eat breakfast in the MDR a fair few days, just because we preferred it to the manic crowds in the buffet. However, I’d say out of all the meals on the ship, it’s perhaps that one that P&O need to do a bit of work on to make it easier to order gluten free, and avoid having to ask so many questions.
We only had lunch in the MDR once, and we ordered it the night before. Dishes were able to be adapted; for example a tuna mayonnaise baguette that my husband ordered was served in a Genius roll instead. There was no problem with lunch, we just chose to eat in other places instead.
Overall we enjoyed our main dining room dinner experience. Every night when going in we would tell them we had a pre-order, give our cabin number, and then our food would appear a short time later. One of the bonuses we’ve found of having your dinner cooked to order in the allergy kitchen on any cruise line is that it tends to come out a lot hotter than we’ve previously been used to (lukewarm food on cruises is a well known complaint!). Gluten-free bread was always freely available.
Plenty of gluten-free options on the menus as standard, and I didn’t struggle being both vegetarian and gluten free. P&O are really good at giving consideration to the fact that people who have to be GF for medical reasons might also want to make other dietary choices. From memory, the only evening there wasn’t a vegetarian gluten-free option on the menu was on formal night at The Chef’s Table.
The Chef’s Table is something that is free of charge (and operates only on formal night), but you need to book on the app. Basically, an area of the buffet is set up as a main dining room, and there is a slightly different menu to the MDR (not much, just the odd thing). We were advised to go to The Beach House 24 hours before to place a pre-order, which we did, and the head waiter there was able to come up with an option for me which was suitable.
At the end of the meal at The Chef’s Table, chocolates were given out, but our waiter wasn’t able to confirm whether these were gluten free or not, which was a shame. The Chef’s Table was an interesting change to the MDR, and where we sat was nice and quiet. However, for some people, the area they were sat in was an area that people needed to walk through to access the buffet, so that was a little bit off-putting. Personally I don’t think you’re missing out if you don’t get to experience The Chef’s Table, as it’s not really any different to the main dining room. Depending on where you’re sat, it can actually be a worse experience than sitting in the MDR.
Situated on deck 8, The Quays is an alternative place to eat if you don’t want a full sit down meal in the main dining room, and don’t fancy the buffet. It’s quick and easy, and we ate there several times. The three different counters are called Hook, Line & Vinegar (fish and chips), Fusion (a variety of Asian inspired street food) and Boardwalk Diner (American style hot dogs and burgers).
In the morning, the three counters do various cooked breakfast options. We managed to get gluten-free pancakes served with Nutella and syrup from the fish and chip counter, and freshly made omelettes at the fusion counter. Apparently GF waffles are also available along with the pancakes, but we didn’t get to try these. The Boardwalk diner had the usual breakfast hot food available, we didn’t ask there if it was possible to get anything that was GF and safe from cross contamination.
Once breakfast is over, the counters revert to their signature foods. Hook, Line & Vinegar was a particular favourite of ours, and you can get delicious GF fish and chips, all cooked safely and avoiding the dreaded cross contamination. Being vegetarian I obviously didn’t eat the fish, but my husband said it was really good.
At Fusion, it seemed to cycle through a couple of menu choices throughout the week. Sometimes it was rice, sometimes noodles. There were curries some days, and stir fry/sweet and sour the others. If you asked, they were very knowledgeable about what was, or could be made gluten-free, and in my case vegetarian, and would often cook something up separately to make sure it was safe. I would usually have something from here to go with my chips whilst my husband was enjoying the fish.
The Boardwalk Diner didn’t look particularly suitable for us, as everything in display came in bread rolls, or was a breaded item, and there didn’t seem to be much in the way of vegetarian options. We didn’t bother asking if anything could be made gluten-free, although it possibly could have been.
The vinegar on offer was malt vinegar, so we avoided this, and there was Heinz tomato ketchup which is fine, and HP brown sauce, which unfortunately isn’t. We always take a safe bottle of brown sauce with us when travelling, as we love it!
The Quays seemed to be open until fairly late in the evening, and we would often see some of the performers (especially the Pulse band) eating there in between sets.
Just round the corner from The Quays on the way to The Olive Grove was an area where they would put some food out. During breakfast this tended to be pasties and muffins, none of which were gluten free. During the day it was salad type things and some cakes. Everything was marked up with allergen markers, but you would very much need to make your own risk assessment as to whether you considered it safe or not. We tended not to, and found it much easier to get things like gluten-free cake up in the buffet.
The Olive Grove
A Mediterranean style restaurant that is included in your fare, although there are some items on the menu which have an extra charge (these are very obvious). We managed to get a walk-in one day for lunch, but you are advised to book on the My Holiday app. As with everywhere else, the menu is marked up for allergens.
There were lots of gluten-free options available on the menu, most of which were included. However, the only items that were both vegetarian and gluten free were pizzas, so I was a little bit limited in there. However, the food was really nice, and it was very relaxed compared to the buffet or even the main dining room (it was very quiet when we were in there). Definitely worth stopping by and checking out, just for somewhere different to eat.
Situated up in the Skydome on the Lido deck, Taste 360 serves up a variety of burgers, hot dogs, and pizza. I didn’t really ask too many questions about the other food, but did check out the pizzas. They have gluten-free bases, and will go and make your pizza in the kitchen using fresh ingredients. It’s cooked on separate trays and they have different utensils for the GF pizzas. It took about 15 minutes from start to finish, but would definitely recommend.
Sindhu (Extra Charge)
We’d enjoyed our meal at Sindhu on Britannia when we sailed on her back in 2021, so were keen to see if our experience on Iona was as good. It didn’t disappoint. Each dish is individually priced rather than there being an overall cover charge for the meal, but we found it to be very reasonable.
I’d advise that if you have any speciality restaurants you really want to eat at on your holiday, book them as soon as you board using the app, as they do sell out quickly.
We popped there a few days before our booking and explained that we were gluten-free, and the restaurant host advised us to come back 24 hours before our booking to make a pre-order. Again, if cross contamination isn’t so much of an issue, then this isn’t really necessary. The menus are well marked up, and the majority of dishes on there are gluten free. However, if you are coeliac or need to avoid cross contamination, then it’s definitely advisable to make the pre-order so that they can ensure the correct care is given to safely preparing your meal.
Anything that isn’t marked as gluten-free on the menu can generally be amended to be GF (with 24 hours notice). The poppadums are gluten-free, as are the dips they are served with. We had a delicious meal which we struggled to finish (but we battled on as it was so tasty!). Sindhu is definitely going to be a go-to for us on our next Iona cruise at the end of 2023.
The Beach House (Extra Charge)
The Beach House is described as relaxed dining, with flavours from Latin America and the Caribbean. There was a cover charge of £7.50pp when we visited (I believe this may have gone up to £9.50pp now), and the majority of dishes were included in this. There were some with an extra charge on top, these were very clearly marked on the menu.
Almost everything on the menu at The Beach House is gluten free, which is brilliant. We did go there 24 hours beforehand to see if we needed to pre-order, but were told that there was no need. Obviously when our orders were taken, we did remind them of the fact we needed to be treated as though we were coeliac (see my About page), just so extra care could be taken.
We enjoyed three courses each, and really enjoyed our meal whilst watching the glorious scenery of the Fjords as we sailed slowly by. For the cover charge, I think this is a very reasonable price to pay for food that’s a bit different to everything else available onboard, and we’ll definitely be eating there again on our next cruise.
Other Chargeable Restaurants/Room Service
The above two are the only two that we ate at, but I did get some photos of the menus from other restaurants, which I’ll put below. Again, everything was allergen marked, and I have no doubt that they would do a great job accommodating any changes required with the requisite 24 hours notice.
There are also two places selling ice-cream onboard. We didn’t buy any, but these are all allergen marked too (photos below). It looked as if they had cones which may have been gluten-free, as they were individually wrapped, but we didn’t get chance to ask unfortunately. Hopefully on our next cruise, which is two weeks long, we’ll get to check this out.
We didn’t use room service at all, but I’ve included photos of the menus. These are allergen marked.
Just like on Britannia, there was gluten-free Daura Damm and gluten-free Old Speckled Hen on the menus in the bars. Unfortunately, the Daura Damm was out of stock for the whole cruise, which is a little disappointing for me as I only like lager, and not ale. I know that cruise lines, just like supermarkets, are still massively affected by supply chain issues, so hopefully this is just a temporary problem.
We were both hugely impressed with our experience on Iona, and for me, it ended up being at least equal to our experience on Disney Cruise Line, if not slightly ahead. The main reason for this was the ease of being able to obtain safe, tasty gluten-free food at a huge variety of different places featuring different cuisines.
There are some slight improvements that could be made, but overall P&O has a great gluten-free product that it offers its passengers. My main criticism, and this goes for every single cruise line we’ve sailed on so far, is that passengers aren’t given enough information up front, it’s up to you to ask questions to find information out. Things like the fact you can get gluten-free biscuits in your cabin is amazing, but they don’t put this information anywhere. I’m lucky I saw it on a random Facebook post one day. Also, there was no information at The Quays stating you could get GF pancakes or waffles at breakfast, or GF fish and chips and other options at the Fusion Counter.
Not everyone wants to spend their holiday asking constant questions, and I totally understand that. Fortunately I don’t mind, and I like to get as much information about what possible gluten-free food options there are. Possibly because I’m greedy and love food, but also because I can then write it up here to try and help other people. It does mean though that for lots of people, and even for us, if you don’t ask the right questions then you can quite possibly miss out on things simply because you don’t know about them.
The Horizon buffet is a little bit limited in its lunch and dinner options, not to mention pretty much permanently busy. On Iona we didn’t find this to be too much of a problem though as there are so many other places you can eat. The Quays is a brilliant alternative, but be aware that it’s only available on Iona and Arvia. I must praise the diet counters at the buffet – make sure you try a gluten-free croissant and grab a couple of We Love Cake cakes every day. You won’t regret it! Also, the fact that they make so many of their cakes gluten free as standard is really forward thinking, and makes life that little bit easier. That, along with the allergen markings everywhere, make it simple to get safe and tasty gluten-free food.
Overall, we had a brilliant week eating a huge variety of safe gluten-free food (our scales at home confirmed just how much we’d enjoyed it!) whilst enjoying the absolute beauty and tranquillity of the Norwegian Fjords. We booked a two week cruise on Iona for December 2023 based solely on our amazing eating experience, that’s how good it was! On a longer cruise, we hope to enjoy some of the places we didn’t get to try this time, such as the Limelight Club.
I can’t recommend P&O highly enough when it comes to gluten-free eating. There will be things about the ships in the fleet that people love or hate, and it’s down to the individual to do their own research about that, as that isn’t the purpose of my blog. For us though, we actually really enjoyed Iona as a ship as well as for the brilliant eating experience, and are very much looking forward to our next cruise on her.