This post is really an update to our experience on Sky Princess back in September 2021, when we did a 3 night staycation cruise. You can find that post here. Our experience was quite different this time, read on to find out what was better or worse!
Our two week cruise was a Mediterranean cruise, starting from Southampton and enjoying ports in France, Spain and Gibraltar. We were supposed to stop in Italy too, but the ports were changed in the run up to the cruise due to Covid restrictions.
Dining Room Experience
On the whole this was a much improved experience compared to our cruise in September. We were fortunate that the same head waiter was on board, and he dealt with our requests every night. The fabulous server we had discovered on the last night of our staycation cruise was also still on board, and so we sat in his section every evening. When you find a good server this can transform your dining experience, and we had a great time every evening.
There was sadly no improvement in indicating which menu items were gluten free (or dairy free for anyone that needs it). Also a lack of vegetarian choice, and they are still marking dishes containing parmesan as vegetarian (see here for why real parmesan cheese is NOT vegetarian). Our head server was kind enough to go and check whether the parmesan used on board was real parmesan, or an alternative hard cheese substitute (which would be likely to be veggie friendly), but unfortunately it was the real deal. Anyway, I digress…
In spite of the lack of GF markings, our head waiter was very happy to take all of our meal requests, whether that was something on the menu that could be adapted to be gluten free, or something else entirely. For my husband, as a meat and fish eater, all of his requests were something from the menu. I was able to request some of the vegetarian dishes to be adapted, but other requests I made included vegetable lasagne (I took a pack of gluten-free lasagne sheets on board as I had no idea if this was something they would have or not. As these were dry sheets in their own sealed packaging, rather than fresh, the chefs were willing to use them), risotto, curry, veggie burgers (this was a lunch request) and mozzarella sticks (I love these, and asked for them for lunch one day as could see they were on the standard menu. They were so nice I requested them as a starter for dinner one night as well!
Desserts were a “surprise” every evening, just as they had been in September. Again, I reminded our head server I wasn’t keen on fruit and preferred chocolate, and the chefs were very obliging. We often got different gluten-free desserts presented to us, mine were always chocolate whilst my husband had a bit of a mix. My favourite dessert was a pecan pie, which was so good! I requested this a couple of times.
In preparation for the dry cakes that we had sampled on board in September, I decided to buy some gluten-free self-raising flour and xanthan gum, and also printed off some recipes from Becky Excell’s website. Simple recipes, including vanilla cupcakes, Nutella chocolate cookies, and a vanilla loaf with jam and coconut topping.
We spoke to our head waiter on our first evening, explained what we’d brought with us and why, and asked him if he would mind speaking to the chefs to see if they would mind trying the recipes. The reply came back that the chefs would be happy to do this for us, and the results were amazing. Instead of dry, tasteless cakes we got moist sponges and perfect cookies that no-one would ever know were gluten free.
During the two weeks I wrote four sides of A4 full of both positive and constructive feedback, thanking our serving team and the chefs for being willing to try the recipes using the ingredients we had brought with us. The feedback was addressed to the Food and Beverage Director, and we ended up having a meeting with him during our second week. More about that later!
This was so much better than our experience in September. The signage round the buffet indicating which items were gluten free was vastly improved, particularly for breakfast. We spoke to the chefs (the ones with the big hats!) and they confirmed that everything that had GF on the sign was safe for us to eat. They were happy to do us GF toast separately, but to be honest, the bread really isn’t great and we gave up with that after a couple of days! We ended up having our breakfast in the buffet every day except one (and regretted the one day we didn’t!).
Lunch was MUCH better than previously. Again, a much improved range of signs indicating gluten free. For some reason, nothing on the vegetarian and vegan section of the buffet had GF signs, but the chef would go through it with us each day (as a veggie, there wasn’t much elsewhere in the buffet that was both vegetarian and GF). If there was nothing suitable, the chef could cook something from scratch, and we had some really beautiful stir fry type dishes made. He also realised I was a cheese addict, and after me asking once, he then presented me with a plate of mixed cheeses straight from the kitchen (avoiding cross contamination) every time he saw me!
We hadn’t had the chance to try this on our staycation cruise in September, so thought we’d give it a go. Word to the wise – don’t bother, it was terrible! We had told our head server the night before, so he had put the order in for gluten free (and vegetarian for me). The bread was so cold and dry it had clearly been in the fridge for a long time. My fillings as a vegetarian were grilled vegetables and tomatoes. No cheese, no egg, no hummus or anything exciting. I gave up after one bite. My husband had three different meat/fish fillings, but again, the bread was cold and dry. We were given different cakes, I assume because the cake my husband had had gelatine in it. It was actually quite nice, but the scone was awful. It was small, dry, crumbly and tasted salty, or as if way too much baking powder had been used.
We had the same positive experience in Alfredo’s as before, and had lunch in there a few days, particularly on port days when the main dining room wasn’t open. A couple of times we had pizza from Slice on deck, and I actually thought that the pizza there was even better than at Alfredo’s (more generous coverage for a start!). My husband watched them prepare it one day, and was very satisfied with how much care they took to avoid cross contamination.
A quick mention of breakfast in the main dining room. We found out, by asking our head server at dinner, that they did gluten-free pancakes at breakfast if ordered in advance, so decided to try them one morning. They took a long time to arrive, and weren’t great (had to drown them in syrup). The buffet was definitely our preferred venue for breakfast, particularly after this.
We didn’t order any room service, as to be honest, we didn’t need any extra food as we could find it elsewhere! The only problem we did have was if we were hungry after around 10pm and got the craving for fries, it was pretty much impossible to get them. Turns out that late at night in the buffet, they cook everything in the same fryers, so there isn’t a fryer kept for cooking GF food safely. During the day, this wasn’t a problem, and they would use specific fryers for fries only, or even get another fryer up and running if necessary.
The speciality restaurants were also something we avoided, as again, they’re quite poor for vegetarians. I maybe could have asked for something in particular to be cooked, but then as I could so that in the main dining room it just didn’t seem worthwhile. We ended up being on the cruise with another gluten-free blogger (and met up with her one night for a chat, which was great!). She did try the speciality restaurants, so if you’re interested in her experience, then have a look at Gluten Free Horizons for more details.
Food and Beverage Director
As I mentioned previously, we ended up having a lengthy meeting with the Food & Beverage director during the second week of our cruise, following my feedback letter. It was an interesting meeting, although he alone has little power to change anything. He did say that he agreed with a lot of my points, and acknowledged that Princess was very behind the times in terms of how they deal with gluten-free dining. In particular, he knows that the mixes they use for gluten-free baking are not great. We explained how much of a difference it had made to our enjoyment when the chefs had used the simple recipes I brought with me, along with actual GF flour and xanthan gum. Simple changes that would probably be no more expensive, but would really elevate the quality of GF baked goods and desserts available.
We felt that Oliver really listened to us, and agreed with a lot of our points. He also said that he had sent my letter on to Corporate, as he felt it was really important feedback. For anyone going on a cruise, no matter what cruise line you go on, feedback surrounding gluten-free food is imperative. If bad, then constructive ideas on how they can change things to make it better. If good then let them know, so they carry on doing it! If change is required, then it’s only going to happen if people let those in charge know that there is a problem.
We felt much happier overall about our dining experience on board Sky Princess after this cruise than we did after our staycation cruise. There are a few reasons for this.
- Our staycation cruise was only 3 nights long, compared with this 14 night cruise. Also, the staycation cruise was our very first experience of Princess, so we felt we knew a bit more on the second cruise about how things worked in general.
- We realised that the only way to find out if they could make something in particular was to ask. The worst they can say is no! Of course, we had asked questions on our previous cruise, but having longer on the ship meant that everything was less rushed. We also really got to know our serving team well over the 14 nights (because we had the same team every night), and this plays a huge part in making you feel comfortable and being able to ask for anything.
- Taking some recipes and the GF flour and xanthan gum needed to make them worked so well! My husband was a bit dubious, but as with point number two, I figured the worst they could say was no. We were hugely thankful to our head server and to the chefs who agreed to make them for us, and it really did transform our dining experience.
- The signage was much improved than before when it came to the buffet, although there is still room for improvement (particularly on menus, where there are currently no markings indicating whether anything is GF).
I think everyone who needs to be gluten free for whatever reason knows how hard it can be when eating out, and holidays are no different. On a cruise there is always going to be the element of having to make decisions about what you want to eat for the next day the evening before, to ensure it’s made safely, but I think that’s a small price to pay for having decent, safely prepared gluten-free food. Where I would like Princess to improve further is their signage, both at the buffet (for all meals with signage on all sections), and my marking on menus any meals that are gluten free (and also dairy free markings as well). The other area would be in their bakery items (both bread and cakes) and desserts. Oh, and to have GF beer on board. Really missed this on a 2 week cruise!
Overall though, we had a great experience, so much so that we’ve booked another Princess cruise for summer 2022!