The Gluten Free Vegan – On A Boat!

In the midst of the worst winter I can remember in a long time (I do have a short memory so keep that in mind) Levi and I finally got away. We booked ourselves a cruise in the middle of February. We were on the cruise the same time as that horrible Carnival Triumph experience was happening out at sea. I’m thankful that we were not on that ship.

We were aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship Dawn. This was our first ever cruise experience. The bonus of a cruise is you can stop and see a bunch of different places, find out which ones you really loved and plan to return to one of them for a week at time. That was the point of our cruise actually. We wanted to see Roatan and Belize. We had two stops in Mexico too but those weren’t as exciting as Roatan and Belize were for us.

norwegian dawn

Levi and I have become rather independent travelers. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that we lived abroad in the Dominican Republic and toured around the island a bit while we were living there. I don’t think we realized that we’ve become independent travelers until we went on this holiday. After all, it’s our first foray out of Canada/US since returning to Canada almost three years ago.

This is a food blog so let me talk about the food first.

When you go on a cruise there’s so much food. So. Much. Food. There are buffet restaurants, sit-down restaurants, specialty restaurants, room service, pub food, pool-side bar food, etc. The amount of food that must be stored aboard is probably staggering. The wastage of food is also probably equally as staggering. It’s pretty sad actually.

When we booked our cruise in January, we only had 38 days before our sail date. So I picked up the phone immediately and contacted Norwegian to inform them of our special dietary needs. I am sure most, if not all, cruise lines are the same. They’ll be happy to accommodate your dietary requests. The day we embarked we stopped by the Guest Services desk to inform them again of our special needs. They had all the information on file but I think they were a bit unprepared for the first night’s meal. Even so, they were still able to fix us something pretty decent.

Every night you select tomorrow night’s meal from the menu. They keep track of it by your cabin number. When you sit down to dinner the next night you let them know you pre-ordered and voila they prepare your meal accordingly.

Now, I’m not able to speak to cross-contamination issues or anything like that. What I do know is that due to misinformation the first two nights our dessert contained dairy. We were told it was a dairy-free sorbet but it turns out it was a sherbet – with skim milk. It wasn’t until we had a really informed waitress who listed off – by memory – all the ingredients in the dessert and corrected that misinformation. Somewhere in the course of our cruise meals Levi did have gluten. The reaction was very minimal. He had a few Dermatitis Herpetiformis sores and slight digestive disturbance. I think we sort of expected something like this might happen. There are a lot of chefs, cooks, kitchen helpers making everything run smoothly. Nobody is perfect and there’s always a chance of cross-contamination or issues when you put it someone else’s hands.

When we told people we booked a cruise the top thing everyone mentioned and raved about was the food. “The food is always so amazing on a cruise.” We got our hopes up for sure. We expected that our options would be limited with our special diets but we figured that with all the high praise for cruise food that we would still be wowed. Here I go sounding like a food snob. But, seriously the food was just average.  Even if I wasn’t vegan I don’t think I would have been all that blown away by what I saw others eating or what was on the buffets. Even with pre-ordering our meals there were two nights that my only options for vegetarian or vegan food was wheat pasta with plain marinara sauce. That’s disappointing to me. Levi was comfortable with eating seafood on the ship and he had more options because of that thankfully, because what would he have eaten instead of pasta?

We were selected with a few other couples to ‘Dine with the Captain’ and we were seated with the Hotel Director. The highlight of the meal was all the free wine. Oh the free wine! Of course, the company was good too. Turns out we had another gluten and dairy free diner at our table and also another vegan too.

The fresh fruit was great. It’s such a nice treat to have when you’ve been starved for good-tasting fresh fruit through our long winters.

There were some tasty Indian dishes on the buffet a couple days in a row for lunch. I was thankful for the variety.

I’m sure if we were into omelets and waffles then breakfast would have been a great experience. That was the meal each day with the least options and with no other restaurants open in the morning there was no choice but to dine at the Garden Cafe (buffet). My breakfast consisted of oven fries and roasted tomatoes. Every morning. For 7 mornings. Yawn.

Though Levi and I are foodies and the food options were less than exciting doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy the cruise.

this is our "we are having the time of our lives" look ... holiday brochure worthy, I think.
this is our “we are having the time of our lives” look … holiday brochure worthy, I think.

The entertainment on board is amazing. We made an effort to catch a show in the main theatre every night. My favorite performance was Jocka & Maria. They are aerialists and adage duo performers (did I say that right?) in the same vein as Cirque du Soleil. The feats of borderline inhuman strength and balance would have been remarkable on solid ground. That they were able to perform some of their stunts on a rocking boat was even more arresting.

The improv shows by Second City were so much fun. There was a comedian too who was pretty funny.

There was a piano player who primarily played in Gatsby’s Bar and he was mega-talented. We spent a lot of nights stopping by there and listening to him play and sing classics.

We did karaoke one night which was pretty fun.

Our first day out on the boat was a day at sea. It was beautiful and we spent the majority of the day sunning ourselves on the deck. The pool and sundecks are packed on days like these and if you’re looking to have peace and quiet you won’t find it there. It’s pretty noisy. But it’s a great way to meet new people as everyone seems really chatty when they’re on holiday. We made some new friends during our travels.

Roatan, Honduras was by far our favorite stop and it was our first. It reminds me so much of the DR and was the only place I really got to use my now-dwindling Spanish language skills. We walked out of the main tourist area and negotiated a little side tour with a taxi driver to take us to his favorite snorkeling spot for a few hours, then afterward take us on a little driving tour of the island before dropping us back off at the port. He took us to Half Moon Bay. It’s not the best spot on the island to snorkel but on days where a cruise ship is in port it’s the quietest and that’s what we wanted.

This was my view for the majority of the day.

Half Moon Bay, Roatan

Levi is an avid snorkeler. Me, not so much. I’ll do it but I don’t really love the idea of putting my face in the water and relying on a tube for air. I get used to the idea after a few minutes but it really has to be worth it for me to bother. And in Roatan it really is worth it. So many beautiful fish of all colors. A school of small bright blue fish swimming right beneath you in really shallow water is unreal.

Oh and I have to share this little fun tidbit. We stopped at the Honduran equivalent of a colmado. A small corner store that sells basic staples like rice and beans, cleaning stuff, rum, water, cola, etc. For $6 USD we purchased a 13 oz bottle of Honduran rum, 2 bottles of Coke and 4 bottles of water. And the rum. Oh was it ever good. It’s funny our taxi driver said it wasn’t the best kind you can buy there but it was the only local rum in this particular shop. His favorite rum is Flor de Cana from Nicaragua. Go figure.


Belize was our second favorite spot. We went snorkeling at the reef. Some dummies in our group thought standing on the reef was a good idea. Because they didn’t listen our tour guide took us all back to the boat sooner than we expected. I got to see a lobster.

Our next two stops were in Mexico and they were less thrilling for us. Costa Maya is a joke. It’s a huge tourist trap and unless you want to book a tour to visit the Mayan ruins I can’t think of anything worth getting off the boat to see there. That sounds super negative I realize but honestly … shops to buy vanilla and tequila, Carlos & Charlies and Senor Frogs, and that’s about it. Seriously. I really wished that we woke up early enough this day to go on a ruins tour because otherwise we walked around the little mall area, got a slush drink at Senor Frogs, got up to some shenanigans, walked back to the boat and had a nap. Maybe that’s not all that bad though. Those precious naps were a real treat.

Cozumel was our final stop and it was also very touristy. We did a lot of walking here. Levi and I just started walking off the beaten path down some of the side streets past the shops and restaurants. Those side streets also reminded me of the DR. I got to use my Spanish in Cozumel a bit too. We found a grocery store, bought some water and walked back to our boat. I’d go back to Cozumel I think. Apparently the snorkeling here is amazing but Levi was tired of snorkeling by now.

Levi got really seasick our final day at sea. I woke up with a horrible cold too. The seas were very rough and the wind was so strong and cold. We spent the morning trying to tough it out on the pool deck but with the sun disappearing behind clouds it was just too cold with the wind. I had to chase my towel down the deck it was so windy. Since Levi was so sick he ended up sleeping most of the day away and with my cold I was drinking hot tea with lemons. We were lame company. I ate dinner alone that night and attended the last variety show in the theatre myself too. There were a lot of solo diners and watchers. Levi wasn’t the only one impacted by the rough seas.

When we disembarked Sunday morning in Tampa we were originally planning to visit Busch Gardens. Levi was still getting over the nausea and my cold was even worse. So all we did was go to Whole Foods Market, pick up treats and groceries for our supper later that night so we didn’t have to go out again. Our hotel room had a kitchen so we could make our own food. I love Whole Foods. Levi got to sample some gluten-free beers. I found these new Earth Balance vegan aged white cheddar popcorn and cheese puffs. I embarrassed myself with how much I ate of that.

Will we cruise again? I don’t know. Probably. But we will likely book on a 5-star cruise line rather than a 3-star – if it means the food improves. The rest of the ship was lovely as a 3-star. It won’t be our next holiday that’s for sure. I think we’ve learned that we are more the type to pick a place, find a cheap place to rent for a couple weeks and just cook for ourselves, etc. It’ll be a while before we’re able to head off on a holiday again anyway.

If I could recommend one place to visit out of those four stops if you ever have the chance … I think Roatan would be the one I’d pick.


  1. says

    My parents enjoyed their two-week cruise on the Dawn. It was out of Boston, and sailed up into Canada, and then back. They don’t eat plant-based, but they didn’t rave about the food, either – and they’re not really picky. It wasn’t the highlight of their cruise experience (one of many) – the fun drinks and the shows were. :-)
    I think, when I do a cruise, I’ll want to be certain that the plant-based food is exceptional. I’m enough of a foodie when I’m not at home, that potato and tomato for breakfast every morning would get old, fast. I wonder if you can offer some feedback to Norwegian? Maybe you already did.
    Anyway, thanks for the review. Filing the information into my brain for future use. :-)

    • says

      Friends of ours took that route last fall too. I believe that the 5-star cruise lines would have better food options. Someone commented on my Facebook page about a cruise having labelled gluten-free and vegan food items in the buffet. Even that would have been awesome to see. We had a wonderful dinner with the Hotel Director who noticing we had special dietary needs specifically asked us how we enjoyed the meals on board. We were able to provide some feedback directly to him as well as in our post-cruise survey they sent to us.

      The entertainment was definitely awesome and one thing I don’t think I emphasized enough in this review was just how truly amazing every staff member we encountered was. They were all so friendly and helpful.

  2. Tiina says

    The Dawn was my first ever cruise. Then it was a NY to the Bahamas itinerary. The first stop was Florida. Been there. Didn’t even get off the boat. Any idea how much fun it is to sip a cocktail out of a coconut monkey head poolside with only 4 other people on deck? loved it. The only other stops were the private island and the Bahamas. Snorkeled on the island, enjoyed the Bahamas for a day.

    While the stops were fun, the main point was just to get away with the kids to a place where work couldn’t find us. Its like staying on a floating hotel. I love hotels :-) [Seriously – I had 60 room nights last year for business. Plus vacations. Never tired of a clean hotel room]. So much so that our next cruise was transatlantic – the inaugural cruise of the Norwegian Epic from London to NYC. 4 nights in London before embarkation, NYC is home. Loved it!

    My son is vegetarian. I’m gluten free trying to deal with arthritis and psoriasis, so not as sensitive as a celiac. I was able to get by – cross-contamination doesn’t affect me. We found that at the “additional charge” restaurants the food was much better than the “included” restaurants on both cruises.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Tiina. Sounds like you really enjoyed the cruise experience! :) I was thinking about the specialty restaurants possibly being better and now that you’ve said it, I know next time we’d definitely splurge the extra couple of bucks to dine at a specialty restaurant each night. It really isn’t all that much money $15-$20 per person is quite affordable. Thanks – that’s good to know for next time.

  3. Kathleen says

    I had the same sucky experience food-wise as a gluten free vegan on Celebrity. I booked it because we heard they were great at accomodating special diets. I was served chicken, soy sauce, crepes, dal with butter in it, and everything was super salted and mostly oily even though it was supposed to be low to no oil and low to no salt. I would not cruise again. I also mostly had to wait 2 hours to eat which majorly cut into my time. Oh and I was pregnant to boot. Not fun. I need to be in a place where I can make my own food or have easy access to food I can eat.

    • says

      Thanks for sharing your experience on a Celebrity cruise Kathleen. Someone had mentioned that perhaps they would have better food options but I’m glad I know better now and likely won’t bother. Honestly, the more I think back on it and think forward to our next holiday I much prefer cooking for ourselves anyway – even on holiday. I enjoy it so much – it’s not a chore. (Obviously, or having a food blog would be kind of silly! hehe) This way we can better control the food we’re eating and also make sure we make food we actually enjoy! Definitely leaning towards doing a vacation rental with a kitchen and shopping at local markets for our next holiday. In fact, I think that’ll be part of the fun holiday experience for us.

  4. says

    Hi Megan,

    I found your site while searching for gluten-free websites. My husband is gluten-free and dairy-free. He didn’t eat meat on the ship either (he ate seafood). We have been on Carnival, Princess (twice), and Royal Caribbean. The food on Carnival and Princess was excellent, but RC’s food was just okay. We love to cruise and are definitely sailing again in the future. We were thinking about trying out Celebrity or Norwegian next time, but we might just stick with Princess.

  5. Veronica says

    Next time, try Holistic Taste of Health’s cruise. Because they make arrangements with MSC cruises to bring their own team of chefs, I have never had to worry about the food. They offer vegan, macrobiotic, raw and oil-free menus, which is great. I’ve been on this cruise 3 times and it’s great every time, in addition to the workshops, exercise sessions and social events provided especially for the group. The ship sails out of Fort Lauderdale or Miami in early March every year. I highly recommend it.

    • says

      Thank you Veronica! It wasn’t until after we returned from holidays that I first saw mention of Holistic Taste of Health’s cruise. It looks amazing. If we ever do cruise again I’ll be sure to remember this suggestion! Were there other cruisers who weren’t part of the vegan group? Or was the entire ship just reserved for this specific occasion. Just curious. Thanks for the info.

  6. says

    Unsure if youll see this but my sister is gluten free and vegan and she found Princess to be extremely accommodating. Not a huge selection, but they would throw stuff together based on what was on hand, and always well made.

    Im trying to find if Norwegian is the same.

    • says

      Yes they will be able to accommodate you on Norwegian. Make sure you contact Norwegian at least 30 days prior to your sail date to inform them of your dietary requirements. Also make sure you speak to Guest Services once you arrive on the ship you’ll be able to arrange for all your dietary needs. The food quality was average – not 5-star or anything. Like you said it was on Princess – the selection won’t be huge or terribly varied but there will be something for you.

  7. Veronica says

    The ONLY way to do gluten-free vegan on a boat is to do the Holistic Taste of Health cruise, which sails from Fort Lauderdale or Miami in March of each year. They have a contract with MSC Cruises to bring on board all their own organic, gluten-free food, which is prepared by their own chefs. No other cruise line can beat that!

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