This review covers a three night “staycation” cruise on the beautiful Sky Princess cruise ship. Another new cruise line to add to our ever increasing list, and again, we were looking forward to our cruising experience and finding out how well we would be catered for as gluten-free cruisers.
Sky Princess is a new ship, only coming into service in February 2019. At full capacity she holds 3660 passengers, for our particular cruise there were around 2000 passengers aboard. Compared to the minimalist design of the atrium on Britannia, I thought Sky Princess was elegantly stylish, and quite luxurious yet modern in appearance. She has a piazza rather than an atrium, and this is light and airy with some beautiful glasswork. To be honest, whilst all these ships are very different in their designs in the atrium/piazza areas, I haven’t found one I don’t like yet!
Compared to my previous two staycation reviews, I felt a little rushed on this trip, and didn’t have the chance to sample many places to eat, or collect information. The main reason for this is that our cruise was a themed cruise, with guest speakers, and we spent the majority of the first day listening to talks by them, and about half of the second day too. This obviously impacted on my ability to get round the ship and eat food (or at least find out about it!) So there may be a little bit of information lacking. However, we are going on a two week cruise on the same ship late in October, so I should be able to get information about anything I’ve missed!
Booking and Prior to Cruising
I booked our cruise direct with Princess via telephone, and of course mentioned that we are both gluten free, and that I am also a vegetarian. Princess told me I needed to go onto the Medallion app and add it in there. Whilst the Medallion app caused no end of trouble when we were on board, this was actually an easy (and trouble free!) thing to do on it. The app is used for everything, from adding your documentation and choosing an arrival time for check in, to ordering drinks and food on board, to finding your way around. When it works it is fantastic, however more often than not we experienced problems with it.
There is a section both on the website and on the app to complete for any allergies, intolerances etc. On the website, click on the check in button, then scroll down and there is a section for each passenger that says dietary requests. It isn’t strictly accurate, as you have to say you have an allergy to wheat rather than it saying gluten free, but there is also a comments section, so I ensured I filled this in to say I was coeliac. If you click on the circle with an “i” inside it next to food allergy, then it brings up information with drop down sections. There is a gluten-free/no wheat section, where it provides details about foods they carry on board, and also how you can order gluten-free beer (for $108 for 24 bottles, a bit of a cheek when the majority of people will have already paid for a drinks package). Similar can be done on the Medallion app, click on “my preferences” and from there go into dining, you can then mark yourself as being gluten free.
As soon as we boarded we went to our muster station to be checked in, and then dropped our hand luggage in our cabin. When we got to the cabin, we’d been left notes regarding our dietary requirements asking us to contact the restaurant manager upon arrival to the dining room to assist us. We decided to check out Alfredo’s for lunch first, then headed to the main dining room after that.
Unlike MSC Virtuosa and P&O Britannia, the Sky Princess (and other Princess ships) has an additional restaurant to eat in which is included in the cruise fare. Alfredo’s Pizzeria, as the name suggests, is a pizzeria that serves hand stretched pizzas, as well as calzones and some other dishes. When researching our cruise, I had read forums stating that they did gluten-free pizza, so we decided to go and test it out for lunch.
As soon as we spoke to the restaurant host we both felt completely reassured that they knew what they were doing. Straight away when mentioning being coeliac, she talked about how the GF pizzas were prepared separately to ensure there was no cross contamination. This made us feel very safe. She went through the menu with us, confirming that all starters except one were gluten free, and that most main dishes on the menu could be adapted to be so (although sadly not the calzones). The host also stated that she liked to always have one gluten-free dessert, although that wouldn’t necessarily be something that is on the menu. The second time we ate there, it was panna cotta.
The gluten-free pizzas are slightly smaller than the standard ones that are made there, but they are the perfect size for one person! We both found them to be a little crispy (although the second time we ate there, they weren’t as crispy), but both very tasty. We enjoyed it so much there that we went back for lunch on our 3rd day!
We carried on our exploration of the ship by checking out the buffet. The World Fresh Marketplace and Horizon Court Buffet are essentially the same place, as one seems to merge into the other. We were both very disappointed to find that nothing was labelled as gluten free, with the exception of one dessert (a mango cheesecake) that was displayed next to all the other desserts. There was a box of gluten-free cookies kept behind the counter separately from everything else which you could ask for. These went very nicely in a cup of ice-cream from Swirls (see later)!
As per advice on previous cruises, I looked for a chef with a tall hat and told him that we were both gluten free. He quickly went through what was GF on the buffet, but it was quite rushed. On our next cruise, I will definitely try actually eating at the buffet for lunch just to see how it is dealt with, and if they get you a separate portion from out the back.
Interestingly, when we went back a couple of days later, just for a look, there were some dishes that were marked as gluten free. Not many, and only at one end of the buffet. It felt like a strange half-hearted attempt to label some things up.
Quick Serve Eateries (Lido Deck)
Aside from the buffet, there are a couple of options for quick eating round the pool on Sky Princess. Slice, as you can probably guess by the title, is a pizza place, and The Salty Dog Grill does burgers, hot dogs and fries. I didn’t find the time to eat at either of these places, but did have a chat there on the first day. At Slice we were told that gluten-free pizza is available, and it is made out the back so kept away from everything else.
The Salty Dog Grill stated that the only thing we could eat from there was the fries. I intend to try and find out a little bit more about this on our next cruise in October.
If you want a sweet treat, then Swirls is also on this deck, close to the entrance to the buffet. Swirls serves soft scoop ice-cream (vanilla, chocolate, or mixed) in cones (not gluten free) or cups. When I first asked there, I was told by the member of staff working there that the ice-cream wasn’t gluten free. However, I later checked with a restaurant manager who confirmed that it was, along with all gelato on the ship (more about that later!). The restaurant manager recommended that either a manager or a chef should always be asked about that kind of thing, as not all of the staff on the quick serve places have great English, so there can sometimes be an issue with them understanding exactly what you mean.
We actually found this problem at the bar too. I wanted a mudslide (my favourite drink!) and asked the server if the mix was gluten-free. She came back to say she had checked with the bar staff and it wasn’t. We were both a bit puzzled by this and wanted to know whether it was the mix or the syrup that was the problem. My husband asked to see the ingredients for both, and it turned out that both of them were fine. I don’t know if it was because the packaging didn’t specifically say gluten free that they got confused, and it’s obviously better for them to be safe. However, I’m glad my husband checked so I could drink my own body weight in mudslides for the duration of the cruise!
Pre-Ordering Meals in the Main Dining Room and the MDR Menus
I had pre-booked all of our dinner times/restaurants on the Medallion app before we even boarded the ship (you can also do this or amend/cancel bookings whilst on board). On our first day, we thought it might be a good idea to visit the main dining room (MDR) to see if we could pre-order anything for dinner. The restaurant host explained that we didn’t need to, and that we would be “looked after.” Of course, being both vegetarian and gluten free, this led to a not great experience for me at dinner time, so it was a little frustrating they hadn’t been able to help more earlier in the day.
At dinner, we were able to see the menus for the following day (both lunch and dinner) and place an order. Nothing at all is marked on the menus as being gluten free, which I feel is a glaring omission and not at all helpful. MSC produce a separate gluten-free menu, and P&O mark everything up on their standard menus, so Princess is definitely lacking in this respect. It is clearly a decision they’ve made to do this, as they don’t label up the buffet either. In my opinion all it does is make it more difficult for everyone involved, as when you pre-order for the next day, you have to rely on the head server knowing what can be made gluten free.
On our staycation cruise, they had afternoon tea in the MDR at 3pm both days. Unfortunately, we didn’t get chance to go and check it out due to being so busy. However, I did ask the restaurant host who stated that we would be best to order this in advance. On the Princess website it says that afternoon teas are a feature every day, so I’m hoping that on our longer cruise in October we can test them out.
Main Dining Room Dinner
As I mentioned earlier, dinner the first night wasn’t a great experience. Nothing marked up on the menu as gluten-free, and our server didn’t seem to have much of a clue, so he had to get the head server over who went through our options. Of course, it was all meat and fish, so fine for my husband, but I was offered gluten-free pasta with a sauce (I plumped for tomato based, but could have also had a creamy type sauce). Interestingly, although it was the head server who went through all the options, they don’t actually take the order, and get the server back to do that. Again, very different to the other two ships we’ve been on this year.
We were given gluten-free bread, which was just basic sliced bread. Throughout the whole cruise there didn’t seem to be any rolls, only basic sliced bread or for a couple of meals a bread with nuts in, which looked to be homemade (and was very nice).
Food arrived promptly, and was always hot. I did double check with the head waiter, who confirmed that like other cruise lines, they have a separate area of the kitchen to prepare all the “allergy” meals, and specific allergy chefs dealing with them.
Dessert wise, there was a flourless chocolate cake on the menu that the head server confirmed was gluten free, as well as crème brûlée and all of the ice-cream. I’d noticed that at lunchtime, there had been a Nutella gelato on the menu, and asked if it was possible to get some of that. They managed to find some for me, and it was delicious. From looking at the lunchtime menus, it looked as if there was a different flavoured gelato on offer each day. The flourless chocolate cake, although tasty, was unfortunately as solid and heavy as a brick, and the gelato definitely made up for it!
I’m not a fan of fruit really, and when the head server told us that the gluten-free dessert each night would be a surprise, I knew that fruit would be likely to feature heavily! I asked him if the surprise could be chocolate based, reminding him that as well as being gluten free it would also need to be vegetarian (so no gelatine), and he said he would pass it on to the chef. For the remaining two dinners and the lunch we had in the MDR I did indeed get tasty chocolate desserts, so that was a definite positive.
For pre-ordering, the head server would give us the menus for the following day, then write down our order. If the vegetarian meal couldn’t be adapted to be gluten free they would ask me to suggest something, and there was always the back up option of pasta. In some ways it is nice being able to suggest things, but at the same time, because it’s supposed to be fine dining (to a degree obviously!) I don’t always know what to ask for, and am unsure of what they can and can’t do. Again, this is something for me to find out more about on our longer cruise in October.
We decided to check out the buffet for the our first morning. As with the previous day, nothing was labelled up, so we asked a chef with a big hat to go through everything with us. Apparently the omelette station is gluten free, and there is also a fresh egg section (we didn’t try either of these). I was very happy to be told the hash browns were gluten free, as I’d missed those on our previous two cruises. Again, no vegetarian gluten-free sausages for me though. We told the chef what we wanted to eat, and were told it was safe to select those items from the buffet. As the buffet is served by staff, I felt safe with this, but when buffets go back to self-serve I would definitely want to have fresh food cooked out the back to avoid cross contamination.
There is gluten-free bread available if you ask, which they will toast for you on a completely separate grill. There are also gluten-free cornflakes available in a big box behind the counter which you can ask for.
In the pastry/muffin area they had three different muffins which were marked as gluten free. We took one of each to try (they were clearly made on board) and although they looked good, they were so dry! For anyone reading this that loves baking, if you haven’t heard of her then Becky Excell has amazing recipes for gluten-free goodies. She also has two books out, and I am seriously thinking of noting down a couple of her recipes and taking them on board our next Sky Princess cruise, as they definitely need a bit of help in making edible cupcakes/muffins!
There was also an unfortunate incident with butter at breakfast, which we did report. It does highlight the importance of making sure that you ask for fresh portions of things, as they can so easily be contaminated. With the butter, it was in a large bowl, kept behind the counter and away from the bread, and being served by a member of staff. When my husband brought it to the table, I could see that there were bits in it. On further investigation it turned out that the server behind the counter wasn’t always using a spoon to transfer the butter, and instead was handling the bread/toast, then with the same gloved hands was scooping out butter. Easy to see why the butter was full of crumbs when this was happening!
Main Dining Room Lunch
We just did this once, but it worked well. Having pre-ordered the previous evening, food arrived promptly and was tasty. We were able to get white wine vinegar for chips, and Heinz tomato ketchup, which is gluten free. The brown sauce onboard was HP, which isn’t GF, but as always we had taken our own brown sauce on board. I had ordered a pasta dish, and my husband had a burger and chips.
The surprise dessert was a chocolate layer cake. Looked amazing, to the point that the table next to us commented on it! The actual sponge was a bit dry, but the layers meant that overall it was was quite nice.
Main Dining Room Breakfast
As per other meals, nothing is marked up on the menu as gluten free. Essentially, they have the same food as the buffet, so it very much depends on what kind of environment you’d like to eat in. Unfortunately, they seemed to be having some kind of nightmare the morning that we went. We were seated at 9am, and didn’t receive any food until 10am! The couple on the table next to us stated they’d been in the MDR the previous day at a similar time, and it hadn’t taken anywhere near as long, so I think we were just unlucky.
The International Cafe
Located in the piazza, the International Cafe is open 24 hours a day, and provides numerous (included in fare) snacks that change throughout the day. It’s not great if you’re gluten free, but I was told that the crudites were safe, along with the hummus. They also have some gluten free desserts (actually labelled as GF too!), although they are stored in the same cabinet and close to the none GF desserts. You can ask for them to get you a fresh one. If you have other dietary requirements, like I do as a vegetarian, you do need to check what’s in the desserts. There was a lovely looking hazelnut mousse that was labelled up as gluten free, however, when I enquired, it had been made using gelatine, so I was unable to eat it.
Late Night Snacks/Room Service
If you are a night owl and get hungry later on, your options are potentially a little limited. We didn’t get the chance to investigate room service, which is a shame, as with the Medallion app you can get it delivered to you anywhere on the ship! We regularly saw people having snacks delivered to them in bars etc, which is a really good idea. On our longer cruise, I intend to check out room service and find out if there is anything that is safe for coeliacs on there. If there is, then that would be a fantastic addition to snacking!
As mentioned above, the International Cafe is open 24 hours, so it’s possible you might find something there. The buffet is also open late, and my husband went up there one night to try and get us some french fries. It was after 10pm, and he was unable to get any, as they’d used the fryer for gluten containing items. Good that staff knew this so didn’t make us ill, but not great it had happened in the first place. The Salty Dog Grill was already closed, so not possible to get any from there after 10pm.
If you are likely to be hungry later in the evening, it’s definitely a good idea to check out when quick serve places shut so you don’t get caught out!
Due to how busy we were on this cruise, we didn’t get chance to go to any of the speciality restaurants, or even go and have a chat with them about their menus. The additional (extra charge) restaurants available on Sky Princess are Bistro Sur La Mer, which is seafood, Sabatini’s Italian Trattoria, Crown Grill, which is a steakhouse and Chef’s Table Lumiere, which is described as “an extraordinary treat” and a “perfect culinary journey for any special occasion.”
I know it’s not a restaurant, but there is a paid for gelato shop in the Piazza. It was the ONLY place on board where I saw allergen information displayed, which I think is unacceptable – if they can do it in one place, then they should be able to label up more effectively in all their eateries. The toppings are not gluten free, but the sign on the counter states you can tell them of any allergies and they will get you fresh gelato from the kitchen. I believe it is this gelato that they have in the main dining room at lunchtime – as previous mentioned, the nutella one is amazing!
Disappointingly, there is no gluten-free beer on board the ship. The only way to get some is to make an order through Princess prior to cruising, for which they will charge you $108 for 24 bottles. If you don’t have the drinks package, then I guess it could be argued that that works out to be cheaper than pub prices, so not bad value. However, the majority of passengers on board are likely to have a drinks package (the Princess Plus fare costs £30pppn, and includes drinks, tips and WiFi, so in my opinion you’d be mad not to take it!) so it seems very unfair to make people pay extra for gluten-free beer, and not even stock it unless specifically ordered and paid for.
For other drinks there were no problems, and as I mentioned before, we checked out the syrups and mix for frozen drinks, and these were all gluten free.
Prior to the cruise I’d read very positive reviews about Princess and how they deal with gluten-free cruisers, so I was expecting big things. Overall I was left a little bit disappointed, and Princess definitely have room for improvement.
The positives: Alfredo’s Pizzeria was a definite highlight of our trip. We both felt incredibly safe eating there, helped by the fact that the restaurant host was spot on with her knowledge about cross contamination as soon as we mentioned being coeliac. Just like on P&O, it was great to have some flexibility in where we could eat, and not just be limited to the MDR like on MSC. I really appreciate anywhere that makes that bit of extra effort to ensure all passengers, even those with specific dietary requirements, can have choice in where they eat. The food itself was nice, and was always beautifully presented in the MDR and hot. I very much appreciated the chef taking the time to make me safe, chocolate based desserts. The helpfulness of staff once they understood you was also very positive.
The negatives: The lack of labelling everywhere has got to be the biggest negative for Princess. To not have anything marked on any menu anywhere is, to be frank, poor and needs to be changed. It makes it harder for staff, because passengers have no clue which meals to even start with when asking for more details, so you’re relying on serving staff knowing all the details. We found that staff attitudes and general engagement with passengers was very mixed – our server on the first night was a little bit sullen and not particularly chatty. He didn’t seem to have much idea of what was in the dishes, and didn’t make us feel safe in any way. Contrast that to our last night in the MDR, and we had a really happy, chatty server who seemed to be very enthusiastic and wanting to engage. It’s amazing the difference this can make. Other than the odd dish in the buffet, there were no labels in there either. Also, where they did have gluten-free desserts labelled, these were in close proximity to other desserts, so not necessarily safe in terms of possible cross contamination. This was similar to how things were displayed in the International Café. A final negative from me is the lack of gluten-free beer. Other cruise lines manage to deal with this and have it on board and easily available.
Overall I think it’s a bit of a mixed bag for Princess. I WOULD be happy to cruise with them again (which is a good job seeing as we’re going on a two week cruise soon!) There is plenty of choice for eating, and the quality of the food itself is great (apart from the muffins at breakfast, they definitely need some help there!). What lets them down is the lack of labelling and the lack of understanding in some places where they have gluten-free food right next to none GF food, where it can easily be contaminated.
I would probably rate Princess above MSC, even though MSC produce an actual gluten-free menu. The reason for this is purely down to the flexibility of being able to eat in other places rather than being stuck in the MDR. Alfredo’s is a great addition to included in your fare eateries, and it’s great that coeliacs can eat safely in there.
Out of the three staycation cruises we’ve done so far, P&O are definitely the winners in how they cater for gluten-free cruisers. Not perfect, but their well labelled menus in the MDR and dishes in the buffet, along with cakes, bread and crackers being kept in an entirely separate section of the buffet, meant that it was much easier to know what you could eat.
If Princess could be more like P&O, particularly when it comes to labelling, then they would definitely make it easier for both staff and passengers.
Up next – our 4th and final summer staycation cruise aboard the Disney Magic!