This review covers a three night sailing on Valiant Lady from Portsmouth on it’s maiden voyage. Virgin Voyages are a very new addition to the cruise scene, and we were keen to give them a try to see how good they are at dealing with gluten free. I’ve seen numerous blogs describing Virgin Voyages as “heaven” for foodies, but does that apply if you are gluten free? Well, here I am to let you know!
A Bit About the Ship
I always leave reviews of the ship itself to the 100s of bloggers/vloggers out there who dedicate themselves to those kind of reviews. They do it way better than I ever could, and I love watching videos before I get on a ship looking at cabin tours and ship tours. However, I do like to add a few pictures before I start talking about the food!
Virgin Voyages portray themselves as very different to a lot of other cruise lines, and in many ways I agree. Passengers are sailors (you will hear “Ahoy Sailor” a lot on board), the area other lines refer to as the atrium is called The Roundabout, and balcony cabins are called Sea Terraces. The entertainment on board is certainly “interesting”, and there are lots of other things about their ships that are different. However, they also have lots of beautiful areas on board, just like all the other cruise lines out there, and the bar areas are certainly up there in terms of looks with any other ships we’ve been on.
One area we really loved was the The Social Club. It has free arcade games, as well as free table football and air hockey, not to mention another game that we have since learnt is called shuffleboard, but we nick-named land curling! They also had board games constantly available, along with a cupboard containing every kind of game you could ever imagine which was open at set times. On top of that, they had sweet treats available, the majority of which were gluten free. This was actually the only place we found that you could get sweet gluten-free treats at pretty much any time. There was also popcorn available, also gluten free.
Food Choices – Where to Start?!
As I mentioned before, Virgin have chosen to do things very differently compared to other cruise lines, and this continues with dining. There is no buffet on board Valiant Lady (or Scarlet Lady, her sister ship). “No buffet”, I hear you ask? That’s right, no buffet! Instead, they have The Galley, which is essentially like a food court with a diverse selection of stations cooking different kinds of food fresh on demand.
There is also no main dining room. Instead, Virgin have six different restaurants on board, which you can book via the app or try for a walk in booking. Some of these are also open for brunch.
On top of these, there is an ice cream parlour, a pizza parlour, the Sun Club Cafe, hot and cold mezze in The Dock House, a hot dog bar, and room service.
All of the eateries on board Valiant Lady (and Scarlet Lady) are included in the cruise fare. Room service has a delivery charge of $5, but this is waived if you buy any chargeable drink (chargeable coffee starts at $3, so we did this one morning for breakfast). There are also some additionally charged add-ons in some of the restaurants, but these are made very clear.
If you like a variety of different foods, then there is certainly plenty to try. If you are gluten free, there is quite a lot of choice, albeit with certain limitations. My husband did have a wide variety of GF options to choose from. However, if like me you are gluten-free and vegetarian, then this is where it becomes quite limiting.
Virgin are adamant that The Galley is not a buffet, and in the main that’s true. You can look at the menu on the app and there are also paper menus available if you ask a server.
You are told to find a table, decide what you want from the menu, then place your order via a server. However, you can also go up to the food stands and take what you want (e.g. bento boxes) or ask for whatever you want (all day breakfast for example) and be given it there and then. So, kind of like a buffet in those instances!
There are seven different food counters (8 if you include the popsicle stand, but we didn’t see that open at at all on our sailing), as well as a couple of grab and go areas, plus a coffee shop (which is paid for coffees and teas). Here is a picture showing the layout:
Next I’ll include a picture of the paper menu. As I mentioned, you can also click onto the menu from the app. Unfortunately, we found that in every single eatery, the menu on the app was different to the actual menu provided in the eating area. Also inconsistent was the gluten-free marking. Either it would be marked GF on the app and not on the paper menu, or vice versa. This was a ship wide problem, and in my opinion, not satisfactory as it makes asking for food way more complicated than it should be.
I’ll go through each food option and detail our gluten-free experience.
The Daily Mix
We didn’t really order from here. My husband was up earlier than me one morning, and heard someone on the next table order a gluten-free bagel. They were told that this wasn’t available.
No idea if there were any gluten-free cereals, none mentioned on the menu but we didn’t get chance to ask.
The salad bar at lunchtime looked quite nice, and is marked as GF. You are able to go up to the counter and order exactly what you want, which is probably easier than doing it via a server.
Nothing marked up as gluten free here. Impossible burgers ARE gluten free by their ingredients, and when I asked, I was told that I could have one without the bun. However, the fries from here are not gluten free. I don’t know if this is because they are flour/wheat coated, or because of how they’re cooked (or both), but there is nowhere in The Galley to get GF fries (and in fact only one place on the ship that we were able to get them).
Diner & Dash
This is the counter for all day breakfasts. The omelettes are marked as gluten free, and my husband did have one for breakfast, which was cooked completely separately for him (always tell the server if you are coeliac and need food carefully prepared). This counter is essentially like a buffet, in that they have all the breakfast items pre-cooked, and you can go up and ask for what you want if you want to, or order via a server. We did have a cooked breakfast on our last morning, but it was cooked from scratch and took quite a while to get to us (this is both a pain and comforting, because at least you know it is being freshly cooked away from everything else even if you are sitting there starving!).
We did encounter a problem here, which meant that we didn’t have a great deal of confidence in what they were telling us. One afternoon we happened to be in The Galley, and as it was quiet, went up to the counter of Diner & Dash to ask what was gluten free, as none of the items were marked (bacon, sausage, hash browns etc). There were two chefs behind the counter, and they told us that everything was gluten free. We were a little bit surprised, but pleased.
The following morning, I placed an order for a full cooked breakfast. This included gluten-free toast, baked beans, fried eggs, hash browns and sweet potato tots. I told the server I was coeliac, and that everything needed to be gluten free, and if there was an issue with anything, to please come back and let me know.
Around half an hour passed, and she hadn’t returned. A different server eventually brought out my breakfast, and there were no hash browns or sweet potato tots. When I queried this with him, he denied that they had even been ordered. Eventually, our original server returned, and she told me that the hash browns and sweet potato tots were not gluten free. This is not what we’d been told the day before, so obviously a little bit concerning that not everyone knows what they’re talking about (and they really should know when they’re serving the food, it’s not acceptable to get it wrong).
If ordering items from here, make sure you specify how many of each item you want. The first morning I asked for beans on gluten-free toast. Took about 20 minutes, and what turned up was the tiniest slice of GF toast, and a miniature ramekin of baked beans! It may have been enough for a 3 year old, but not a fully grown hungry adult! To be fair to the server, she did offer to go and get me some more.
Cute bento boxes that you can go and help yourself too. These are slightly cut off from the menu on the pictures above (too big for my scanner!), but the only ones marked on the menu as GF are the breakfast mixed fruit bento and tropical bento. None of the lunch and dinner items are marked as GF.
I’m not a fruit lover, so didn’t try any, but if you are these would be great to take back to your cabin and graze on during the day (there is a small fridge in every cabin).
Let’s Taco Bout It
Self explanatory what they serve! Another one where there are inconsistencies – the actual counter has a sign that indicates all 3 of the lunch tacos are gluten free, however the paper menu only has the GF marking for two. I did double check with the server, as I wanted to try the fried avocado taco, and she confirmed it was definitely gluten free.
There is nothing on the paper menu or at the actual counter to suggest anything here is gluten free. Quite concerningly, the server told us that she thought the vegetarian dish was suitable, then came back and told us it wasn’t gluten free because it had soya in it! Of course, it could be possible that the noodles were rice noodles, and she was mixing up soya with soy sauce, but overall the lack of knowledge was very worrying.
Hot Off the Press
A counter that does open and toasted sandwiches. At the bottom of the menu it states that all menu items can be made with gluten-free bread. We confirmed with the server that any order would be made separately. My husband had the crunchy peanut butter and jelly toasted sandwich a couple of times, and said it was really good. It definitely was prepared totally separately, as we were sat by the counter seeing all the orders made, and his was not made there. The GF bread that they use for the sandwiches and toasties is much thicker than normal GF bread.
Quickeze Grab & Go
The items here changed according to whether it was breakfast time or lunch (or later). Fruit was always available.
Each box had allergens on (I’ve included one that shows gluten in it just as an example). The date bars and granola bars are available at breakfast, and are specifically marked as GF.
There are also boxes of salads available, these are the same as are available in The Pizza Place (pictures will be in that section). Again, they all have allergens marked.
Overall Thoughts on The Galley
I think if you have no dietary restrictions, the concept works really well. People around us who ordered via a server seemed to receive their food pretty quickly, and you’ve also got the choice of getting food from the actual counter of your choice (but remember, it’s not a buffet!). I do think that if you were on a long cruise (over a week), then even with no dietary restrictions it might start to get a little bit repetitive, as the menu at each counter remains the same. I think the addition of something like a curry counter and/or a pasta counter would really add to the overall variety of food available.
If you’re coeliac or gluten intolerant, then things become a bit more challenging. This is not helped at all by the inconsistencies between menus on the app, paper menus and the signs themselves. On top of that, the mixed information we were given by staff meant that we became more and more wary as our cruise went on.
Ironically, the best place to get gluten-free food seemed to be the bread counter! It was great that all of their sandwiches and toasties could be made gluten free, and we know that they were made separately. Grab and go and bento boxes were also good, but not much choice.
For cooked food, I was disappointed that we were told one thing by one member of staff (that all breakfast items were GF), then told another by a server. There was then the comments made about the noodles. It doesn’t really fill you with confidence that anyone knows what they’re talking about. However, on the upside, cooked food did take a reassuringly long time to come out, so we do know it was cooked separately (confirmed each time by our server).
To not be able to get safe french fries anywhere in The Galley was also a big disappointment. To us, it felt like they’d given gluten free a bit of thought, but not fully thought through whether people could actually have a decent GF meal in The Galley. Virgin definitely have some work to do here. However, to end on a positive note about The Galley, we were still grateful to have some options in there, compared with our MSC cruise, when we couldn’t eat in the buffet at all.
Valiant Lady and Scarlet Lady have the same six restaurants on board. You can book into these before you sail, using the app, or you can wait until your board, and either book or try for a walk in. I don’t know how it works on longer cruises, but for our 3 night cruise the app would not allow you to book the same restaurant every night, it had to be 3 different ones.
The list of restaurants is as follows:
Razzle Dazzle – a predominantly vegetarian and vegan restaurant also offering “naughty” meat and fish dishes.
Extra Virgin – upscale Italian restaurant.
Gunbae – Korean BBQ.
The Wake – elegant steak and seafood.
Test Kitchen – experimental molecular gastronomy.
Pink Agave – Mexican restaurant, frequently referred to as the ‘gluten free’ restaurant.
All of these are available for dinner. On our sailing, Razzle Dazzle and The Wake were also available for brunch. Brunch couldn’t be booked on the app pre-sailing, but we ate at Razzle Dazzle on the first night, and were able to book a brunch slot for our last sea day at the restaurant.
How Did we Decide Where to Eat?
Simple, I googled! Whenever we book a holiday I do lots of research, and cruises are no different. Because Virgin are a fairly new cruise line, there isn’t too much information out there about how good it is for gluten-free eating (I really hope this blog helps with that). However, using Google, it was very easy to find menus for each restaurant (although this was the maiden voyage for Valiant Lady, the restaurants are the same as on Scarlet Lady, so plenty of sites out there with copies of all the menus). Although it’s possible the menus would have changed a little bit, I assumed that they would be similar enough to give us some idea as to where would be the best places to eat.
I don’t have all the menus from the places we didn’t eat in, as it just wasn’t possible in the time available to get them all. If you’re interested, you’ll have to Google like I did I’m afraid! For us, the menus have to satisfy my gluten free, eats anything husband, and then vegetarian and gluten free me! We just picked the three restaurants that seemed to satisfy these requirements the best.
Razzle Dazzle Dinner
As a vegetarian, it would have been rude of me not to try a predominantly vegetarian restaurant! It’s great that Virgin have realised that there is a high percentage of vegetarian and vegan cruisers (or flexitarians, or simply people who don’t want to have meat for every single meal), and have catered for them with their very own restaurant. For those of you who really can’t live without meat, there are some meat and fish based items on the menu, plus there is apparently a ‘secret’ menu you can ask for as well.
For us, there obviously needed to be gluten free items as well. Here is the menu we were given:
It’s a little bit disappointing for me as a vegetarian that there are more meat based gluten-free dishes than veggie ones, but it is what it is. Luckily, I like cauliflower!
For starters, the mushroom tartare was gluten free without the crostini, so I had that and my husband had the crazy cobb salad. I had the cauliflower for main, whilst my husband had the salmon, then we both had the cheesecake for dessert. Don’t be put off if you’re not a green tea lover (I hate any kind of tea), it didn’t taste anything like green tea and was absolutely delicious!
The food was beautifully presented, with edible flowers, and it didn’t take too long to come out. We were reassured by the server that it was being prepared for us in a separate area of the kitchen. I should add that Razzle Dazzle was also the only restaurant that told us we were down as being gluten free when we checked in (in spite of me phoning Virgin prior to our cruise to double check it had been put on our booking).
It’s a real shame there is only one GF dessert on the menu. We were very jealous of the cookies that other diners were ordering, as they looked amazing. Our server did bring us a vanilla cinnamon-almond milk each. This tasted delicious, and I don’t even like milk!
Unlike in The Galley, the fries are gluten free in Razzle Dazzle, so we ordered these as a side, along with some cheese tots (these were so good!). We were both absolutely stuffed after our dinner, and that was with me only eating half my main (the cauliflower dish is basically presented as a whole cauliflower head, it was enormous!). Definitely a thumbs up from both of us, but a little bit saddening for me that there was only one main I could have.
Gorgeous entrance to the Mexican restaurant onboard, we were told that everything on the menu was gluten free, including the snacks we were given as we waited for our food (warning, if you’re not great with spicy foods then don’t try these, they almost blew my head off!).
The link to the menu on the app showed different items to what was on the actual menu we were given – a common theme across this cruise. However, it was nice to have it confirmed that all the savoury food was gluten free. When we checked in to the restaurant, they didn’t say to us it was noted we were gluten free, but we obviously let our server know.
The menu is divided into small dishes, medium dishes and large dishes, and they encourage you to order a variety of dishes to share with your cruise companions.
There were no vegetarian medium plates, but they were able to adapt the potato dish for me so it didn’t have the chorizo with it. You’ll also see at the end of the menu is “treat yourself” section, which is an extra charge, but that is made very clear.
I don’t have a picture of the dessert menu, but there was only one gluten-free option, and that was chocolate tamales. I didn’t really like it, but my husband did. It was really nicely presented, just like the food in Razzle Dazzle, and it was all extremely tasty.
A seafood and steak restaurant might seem like an odd choice for a vegetarian, but it did have a veggie GF main course, so we decided to book it for our last night. It actually looked like a better option than the other remaining restaurants, and it’s a beautiful restaurant with views out the back of the ship (hence the name!). We like to eat fairly early, and were able to get a table right by one of the huge windows, which was lovely.
Here is the dinner menu for The Wake. Again, you can see the chargeable extras very clearly:
I didn’t really fancy a salad for starters, so I asked if it might be possible for them to make the twice baked potato with caramelized onion from the sides gluten free, and after checking with the chef it was confirmed they could. My husband had the roasted bone marrow, which was gluten free without the brioche. For mains I had the polenta, which was really tasty, and my husband had the filet mignon (the server confirmed that everything from the grill was gluten free). We weren’t able to have the french fries, as they weren’t GF, but did have the sides marked as GF.
The standard bread service in The Wake looked amazing, a really soft tear and share brioche. Nothing comparable for us awkward gluten-free people 🙂 , but we were given some toasted GF bread for the table.
Dessert was either panna cotta (which unfortunately I don’t like), or lemon cheesecake, which was gluten free without the cookie crumbles. Although this was marked as vegetarian on the app, when I double checked it wasn’t veggie, as it was made with gelatine. I’m used to it on cruises, gelatine is used an awful lot, but it’s still a bit frustrating when there are plenty of vegetarian alternatives. I had no dessert, but that was fine, I was full.
Anyway, as with our previous two evenings, dinner was very well presented and really flavoursome.
Brunch at Razzle Dazzle
We booked a 12.30 slot for brunch (although really at that time it was lunch! Service was a lot slower than when we had dinner in there, and I’m not too sure why. Although it was quite busy, everyone around us was brought their food fairly promptly, so I can only assume it was because ours was cooked separately (maybe they had to clean down first to make it contamination free?). Anyway, it was 55 minutes from ordering until we actually got our food.
My husband had the banana muffin, and it was good to see that it was served completely separately from all the other pastries they offer. Care was clearly taken to avoid cross contamination.
Both of us had the razzle dazzle breakfast, which was really nice, followed by the cheesecake again (only option). The non gluten-free desserts looked amazing, especially the rainbow churros, and of course the cookies that we’d drooled over when we were in there for dinner. If anyone from Virgin Voyages ever reads this, please please please consider some gluten-free cookies or other GF desserts!
Round Up of Restaurant Experience
For us, the restaurants we ate in offered a much better experience than The Galley. Although there are still inconsistencies between the app menu and actual menu items, along with differences in food marked as GF, we felt that the servers in the restaurants knew what they were talking about. Food was served hot, looked gorgeous with all the edible flowers and artistic presentation, and they were able to amend items on the menu to make them gluten free. The only time we had a really long wait for food was brunch.
If you’re just gluten free like my husband, with no other dietary restrictions, then there were several options available in the restaurants we ate at, so you’d be able to eat in each restaurant a few times and have a different meal every time. He thought the food was great, and of course we only managed to eat in 3 of the 6 different restaurants!
However, if you are also vegetarian like me, it’s not so great. Each of the 3 restaurants we ate at basically had one vegetarian main course, so on a long cruise, it could get quite boring. On other cruise lines I can look at the menu for the following evening and if there is nothing suitable, they will basically make anything I ask for. Virgin isn’t like that, and so for me as a vegetarian gluten-free passenger, the choice is very limiting.
Other Food Options
I’ve decided to pop everywhere else we ate in this last section, otherwise this blog will be never ending!
The Pizza Place:
We ate here once, and it has lovely seating areas both inside and outside. There is a grab and go fridge for salad boxes, and a pizza menu. All pizzas can be made gluten free, and they are taken away and prepared separately.
I’ll be honest, we weren’t too impressed, as the pizza base was very soft and bread like, not crispy at all. Some people might prefer that, but we both prefer a crispy pizza. We’ve definitely had better pizzas on other cruise lines, but it is really good that we are catered for.
The interestingly named gelato counter! There are six different flavours, but only two are gluten free. For me (and others will disagree I’m sure!), these were the two most boring flavours. Vanilla and brown butter financier (which seemed to be vanilla based too). There are no gluten-free cones, but they do have cups available.
We only had it once, and the server was extremely careful regarding cross contamination. There are separate scoops kept completely away from the other scoops, plus each scoop is washed under running water after every scoop.
Ship Eats (room service):
Ship Eats is supposed to be ordered via the app. However, because we wanted to speak to a human to emphasise that we are coeliac, and confirm what we could safely eat, we didn’t want to order like this. There was no number to call from the cabin phone, so we called Sailor Services (guest services on any other cruise line!), explained the situation, and asked if they could get someone to call us. About 10 minutes later, someone from the kitchen called to take the order.
My husband placed the order, and he said he felt very confident that the person he spoke to knew what they were talking about in relation to gluten free. He clarified that each thing he ordered was gluten free, including the blueberry muffin. He was told that delivery would be around 40 minutes, and that was pretty spot on.
Usually with room service, you get a huge tray with everything on plates and metal domes covering the plates. Not on Virgin! See the pictures below for how the food was delivered. The food stayed really warm, which we were very impressed with.
We both went for the “Scrambled” from the menu, which I had with vegan sausage (was assured it was gluten free on the phone) and my husband had with bacon. We also had the energizer, along with some gluten-free toast and a GF blueberry muffin. They managed to find some Nutella for me that I requested for toast (it isn’t on the condiments list, but they have it in The Galley, so hoped they’d be able to get some and they did).
The scrambled egg was a little bit runnier than either of us would normally have, but that’s very much a personal preference. Overall, it was a perfectly pleasant alternative to eating in The Galley. I can imagine that on a cruise in a warm country, it would be amazing to sit out on the balcony (sorry, sea terrace!) and eat whilst soaking up the sun and watching the world go by.
The Social Club:
This area has a hot-dog stall, popcorn, and a counter full of sweet fudge like treats, the majority of which are actually gluten free! The sweet counter had clear signage, and the one thing that wasn’t was a cake pop with it’s own stick. It was kept on the bottom counter and no tongs were used for it, so cross contamination was minimised as much as possible. The popcorn was also gluten free.
The two servers behind the counter dealing with the hot dogs seemed a little unsure whether they were gluten free or not, and we didn’t pursue this, so still none the wiser!
The Dock House:
To be clear, we didn’t actually eat here, but it is another option. We just didn’t have any room in our bellies or time to fit it in on such a short cruise! It is a lovely lounge/bar area to relax in, with seating including beds. At midday they start a mezze trolley service, with hot and cold mezze. From the app, it looked as if most of the cold mezze was GF, although given previous inconsistencies with the app, I would definitely have checked this if we had wanted to eat there. For the hot mezze, only one option was marked as GF.
Gluten Free Beer
We didn’t find any onboard, although we didn’t ask about it either. I had found reference to it on one bar menu from Scarlet Lady (sister ship of Valiant Lady), but it was marked as $15 for a bottle! Clearly ridiculous for a bottle of beer, and no other beer was priced that highly on the menus I found. We did look on menus in places we were in, and peered into some fridges at some bars, but saw no evidence of there being any, so it remains a mystery!
This is a long blog, and I apologise for that! It is different to my normal blogs because of having to cover eating at so many different restaurants. Imagine if I’d managed to eat in all 6……..!
Anyway, Valiant Lady was a test booking for us, as we really had no idea how Virgin Voyages would fare on the gluten-free eating front. Their dining concept is completely different to any other cruise line, and there are definite pros and cons.
From my husband’s perspective, as a gluten-free eater with no other dietary constraints and happy to eat pretty much anything, he was pretty happy with Virgin’s offerings. Like me, he was frustrated with the differing menus on the app compared to the paper menus in places, and the inconsistent GF marking which meant everything had to be double checked. However, he could have easily eaten several different meals in the restaurants we visited, not to mention having options in the three other restaurants we didn’t have time to eat in.
He was less impressed with The Galley, as when it boils down to it, it’s a fairly small selection of food that is GF (although I guess if you’re happy with a sandwich for lunch, you could have a different one every day!). Overall though, he enjoyed his gluten-free food experience, and would consider another Virgin cruise based on the food (although he agreed with me that the GF desserts were generally lacking).
For me, I felt a bit let down by Virgin’s food offerings, as although they have thought about vegetarians and vegans and realised this is actually a popular choice for a lot of people, they haven’t seemed to consider that there will be passengers out there who are vegetarian/vegan and also gluten free. I actually felt quite sad that in Razzle Dazzle, a vegetarian based restaurant, there was only one vegetarian gluten-free option. For a company that is striving to be inclusive of everyone in everything they do, I didn’t feel that my needs had been included, or given much thought at all.
On other cruise lines, there is a similar problem, in that it is extremely unusual to find a vegetarian dish in the main dining room that is also gluten free. However, the big difference is that on other lines, because they have different menus every night and I can order the night before, they have huge flexibility and will cook me (and my husband if there is nothing suitable for him too) pretty much whatever we want.
I had really hoped that a forward thinking company like Virgin Voyages, who are trying to think outside the box and do everything differently to more traditional cruise lines would be brilliant for gluten-free dining. And actually, I think with a few changes, they could be well on the way to that. For now though, for us as a couple with our particular dietary requirements, they’re not a good fit. Not terrible, especially for my husband, but a little way to go.
If anyone from Virgin Voyages reads this (and gets this far) here are a few suggestions:
Sort out your app menus so that they agree with the paper menus!
Makes sure things on both app menus and paper menus are marked up correctly. This is obviously really important when it comes to GF, but matters for other things too (for example, if you look at the screenshot in The Dock House section, you’ll see that they’ve marked smoked trout taramasalata as V for vegetarian. If you can’t get things like this right, how do we know your GF markings can be trusted?).
Make sure that staff behind the counters know whether the food is gluten free or not, especially in The Galley (and the hot dog counter in The Social Club). The same goes for servers in there.
It’s brilliant that you’ve recognised that vegetarian and vegan food is now a popular choice, and have made one of your restaurants predominantly veggie/vegan (with meat options for those who can’t live without it!). But please realise that there are a fair few vegetarian/vegan coeliac or gluten-intolerant sailors out there too, and we would really love to have some kind of choice, and to feel included.
Once you’ve addressed those issues, you’ll have a great GF dining product out there, and have coeliac cruisers desperate to give you a go!