With its “Freestyle Cruising” mantra, Norwegian Cruise Line tempts vacationers with the promise of a carefree voyage unhindered by schedules, fixed dining times or assigned seating arrangements. An impressive lineup of 10 or more onboard restaurants serve varied ethnic and American favorites, allowing guests to eat where they want, when they want and with whom they want. But the main dining room regimentation offered by most other cruise lines—typified by fixed seating times and a static table assignment with familiar wait staff—provides a sense of security for gluten-free passengers. After all, being served at the same table nightly by the same staff, who remember and attend to guests’ specific needs, has obvious appeal for those on special diets.
Realizing that a similarly secure experience must be achieved across its entire 14-ship fleet while catering to gluten-free guests safely and responsibly, Norwegian has put in place an impressive methodology for satisfying this need while delivering a quality dining experience across a wide range of restaurants. Since guests may never repeat a dinner restaurant experience aboard a typical seven-night Norwegian cruise, the line faces—and thankfully meets—the challenging task of tracking and catering to gluten-free diners. On a recent nine-night Western Caribbean cruise aboard the 2,340-passenger Norwegian Dawn, I put Norwegian’s Freestyle Cruising dining program to the ultimate culinary test by switching restaurants nightly.
As with other cruise lines, Norwegian prefers to be made aware of a guest’s dietary needs at least 30 days before sailing in order to stock the ship properly and provide adequate notice to ship’s staff. Once aboard, special-diet guests are identified in the ship’s passenger database by their name and stateroom number, which is captured in every restaurant reservation or when dining as a walk-up guest. Thus, restaurant supervisors and wait staff are immediately made aware of this status and proceed to confirm the details with the passenger. Before the end of the meal, the supervisor approaches the guest with the next night’s menu—regardless of venue—and takes the requested order. And while guests may be able to identify obviously safe menu choices, chefs are often able to customize dishes on request when given 24-hour notice. For example, rack of lamb, crab cakes and chicken parmesan—all typically off-limits for gluten-free diners due to the crust, breadcrumbs and breading—were customized with alternative grain preparations.
Ethnic restaurants that typically pose issues also satisfied diners’ needs satisfactorily. The line’s pan-Asian eatery, Bamboo, uses tamari soy sauce, while La Cucina’s modern Italian fare was enhanced with multiple gluten-free pasta choices. Moderno, the Brazilian Churrascaria, and Los Lobos Mexican Cantina both offered menus featuring largely gluten-free dishes. As in most land-based restaurants, however, desserts were fairly limited, with options typically revolving around crème brulee, ice cream and soufflé. But a chocolate fondue and hazelnut Napoleon in the upscale French eatery Le Bistro were pleasantly delicious surprises.
Breakfast, lunch, snacks…and beer
Although the focus of the dining experience is typically on dinner—after all, that’s where most culinary innovation takes place—Norwegian has instituted a similar regimen for breakfast and lunch. Most guests enjoy breakfast and lunch in the ship’s Garden Cafe buffet restaurant, but the likelihood of cross-contamination from serving tongs being moved by passengers from one serving tray to another leads to increased risk. Due to these conditions, passengers following special diets are encouraged to eat those meals in the main dining rooms.
In most dining venues, packaged gluten-free products are available, including sliced bread, rolls, bagels, pizza crusts, muffins, cookies, pancakes, French toast and waffles. And while these products certainly satisfy the need, their varying quality doesn’t always slake the desire. That’s where the gluten-free beer comes in, handily stocked in the ship’s bars.
The key to GF success
While the products themselves are easily supplied, it’s the careful, attentive and precise service delivered by Norwegian’s understanding staff and crew that ultimately makes the cruise experience a safe and secure success. Combining this standard with meticulously followed preparation and cooking procedures in galleys that reduce the risk of cross-contamination earns Norwegian Cruise Line kudos and allows guests to relax and enjoy “freestyle” cruising.
-By David Yeskel