This post is reflective of my experience in the fall of 2014.
While I could write heartfelt odes to the awesomeness that is Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, this post is dedicated specifically to my experience eating a plant-based diet while on board the ship for seven nights. A future post, which will be located on the My Travels page, will cover our entire vacation from start to finish.
Pre-Cruise Steps to Ensure Plant-Filled Nirvana
The planner that I am, I reached out to Royal Caribbean a couple of weeks prior to our sail date and submitted my dietary request to the special needs department. I included that I had a dairy allergy, because it freaks out restaurants of all varieties to serve allergens to someone who has the information included in their reservation, and honestly, I thought I would have better luck with vegan options that way. So, for this particular vacation I was known as “vegetarian with a dairy allergy” – another point some might disagree with, but this was my first plant-based cruise and I was being cautious! I found that taking this extra step prior to departure was completely worthless, and meeting with a head waiter once on board was the way to go. (More on that later!) I also found that “no dairy” pretty much took care of the egg situation when I was fending for myself at the buffets.
For morning meals on the cruise ship, we had several location options (mainly buffet, but also a couple of a la carte venues) and I was usually able to get really creative and enjoy healthy and filling meals. Our favorite spot for breakfast (and lunch too) was the Solarium Bistro, located in the ship’s aft on deck fifteen. This venue had a relaxing spa-like atmosphere and its fare reflected healthy eating choices. I found plenty of vegan-friendly options here, and the crew was always available to answer my questions about ingredients. (Please note that the signs on the buffets are not always accurate to reflect dairy, meat, etc. so be sure to inquire when you’re unsure.) I am an oatmeal fanatic at home, so for breakfast I usually gravitated toward the oatmeal bar and concocted some delicious combinations. The Solarium served miso soup that was accompanied by fantastic fixins, which made for a great breakfast as well. (The bowls sitting in the buffet line contain either chicken or shrimp, so ask for the server to prepare a bowl without meat and you will be good to go!) My vegan-at-home-but-omni-elsewhere husband would be upset if I did not include a mention of his favorite grilled vegetables – a combination of tomatoes, zucchini, and yellow squash – which he ate each morning. I am occasionally apathetic towards the squash family and I loathe tomatoes, so I took a pass on this one. Lastly, there was always an abundance of fresh fruit available. In the Windjammer buffet, options were a little more limited because this was the land of breakfast meats, pastries, and battered creations, but I enjoyed the miso soup here as well, along with my improvised breakfast potato salad (see photo), fresh fruit, and whole wheat peanut butter toast. As someone who normally eats some sort of fancy oatmeal and fruit for breakfast, I was content with my morning meal each day. Powered by plants, I was ready to start my day and enjoy the fun of the ship!
In the afternoons, we frequented the aforementioned Solarium Bistro because of the many tasty salads available there that were naturally vegan-friendly. I enjoyed a vegetable wrap one day that I thought was served on a whole wheat tortilla but I think in hindsight was a crepe. (Progress, not perfection!) Fans of gazpacho would also enjoy the bar with lots of toppings available for gazpacho-personalization. We also dined in the Windjammer a few times, but I really found the selections here hit or miss for the plant-powered palate. While there were many vegetarian options available, the dishes often contained cheese or butter and I had to move on to the next station. On a couple of occasions, I feasted on some really tasty Indian cuisine (which was available nearly every day), but I ate more lunchtime French fries in one week than I normally would in a three-month period…that was definitely my splurge on this vacation. (And they were awesome!) I was surprised to find that the hamburger/hot dog station had zero veggie burger options readily available (and I know lots of omnis that love veggie burgers, so I was really puzzled by this) so if I wanted one, I had to ask to order one from the dining room below. The server didn’t look too happy about this the one day I was really craving a veggie burger, but they obliged, and about fifteen minutes later I was munching happily on a burger piled high with vegetables. One afternoon, I ordered a veggie burger meal from Johnny Rocket’s (located on the Boardwalk, deck six) and took it upstairs to the Windjammer to enjoy with a salad. I also made myself a Royal Caribbean version of a veggie sub using every vegetable from the salad bar I could get my hands on, mustard, and assorted rolls. I also had a veg-friendly panini in the Park Café, (located in Central Park, deck eight) which also creates personalized salads to order. Again, there were options, especially if you are imaginative, but don’t be surprised and/or disappointed if you tend to eat the same sorts of lunches throughout your vacation. For me, this wasn't a big deal because I don't get too hung up on the food when I travel (as long as I have fruit, veggies, and grains I am happy); for those expecting to have a vegan-friendly buffet awaiting each day...the cruise lines just aren't there yet.
Cruise lines traditionally feature an early seating (around 6 o’clock) and late seating (around 8:30), but nearly all now offer a version of flexible dining so passengers have more control over their evening plans. Although we are normally ones to reserve late seating, my husband and I selected “My Time Dining” for this particular vacation; this allowed us to arrive at the dining room when we liked and be seated in various sections as though it were a typical restaurant. This also meant we had various wait staff and two different head waiters until we found a groove a couple of nights in and just asked to be seated in the same section, with the same head waiter.
While the first night on a cruise ship can present less-than-ideal meals for the plant-based crowd, I lucked out with several items on the menu labeled as dairy free and vegetarian - our Indian waiter was also incredibly helpful and quite familiar with the vegan diet. He was fantastic, and made sure that my meal was delicious. It was a "night one score" for me, which left me feeling pretty optimistic about my first cruise as a vegan.
Night two was significantly worse, and that was only because we were seated in a different section with a new waiter and head waiter that were pretty cranky. I had a salad, baked potato, and steamed veggies, which was fine and delicious, but I was unhappy and frustrated about the treatment I received. Let it be known that I am always kind and gracious to staff, and at this point I had asked multiple people on board how to best and most easily make arrangements for my food. I never like to be a problem for anyone because of my diet, so I tend to be even more sensitive about these sorts of things.
Finally, night three and beyond. We were seated in a section with an outstanding head waiter, Guney Dogan, who was incredible for my dinner arrangements. While the menus are clearly labeled for vegetarian, dairy, gluten, etc., I did have to tailor a few vegetarian options to be vegan-friendly. He made sure to bring me the next day’s menu each evening to help me place a special order, and I couldn’t have been more impressed with his service. All of my meals in the dining room were outstanding – Guney even arranged for some vegan-friendly desserts for me, which was a great treat! I will admit, I really looked forward to the incredible meals that were prepared for me in the dining room. The week started with unfriendly and unhelpful crew coupled with a great deal of frustration, but ended smoothly with incredible service and delicious and creative vegan dishes for me. I believe that had we dined at an assigned time each evening with wait staff who "knew" us, the entire process would have been much simpler, but thankfully, we found a good head waiter who provided great service.
For dinners, I enjoyed the following dishes: artichoke and eggplant tart, soft-shell tortillas with roasted vegetables and TVP chili, minestrone, insalata mista, and Italian eggplant dish, chilled mango and pineapple soup, pasta, bosc pear and arugula salad, moussaka, eggplant and olive tar tare with hummus and pita, sweet and sour "chicken" over jasmine rice, cherries jubilee with soy ice cream, assorted tasty fruit appetizers and desserts, and chocolate cake with bananas.
Sorrento’s Pizza – Located on the Royal Promenade, you can enjoy delicious made-to-order pies in about fifteen minutes. They will gladly skip the cheese and load up your creation with any of the fresh vegetables and herbs available. Topping selection changes daily - some nights we stopped in for a peek we saw great combination potential, and others not as much. Still, it is a nice option for a pizza fix, and I enjoyed my personalized pie.
Starbucks – Located on the Royal Promenade, you can enjoy your favorite Starbucks beverages at sea!
Ice Cream Parlor - If you’re craving something cold and sweet, the ice cream parlor located on the Boardwalk has two sorbet options daily. On a couple of occasions, I enjoyed a kiddie-cone that was the perfect size for me. Sorbet is something I can normally take or leave (let’s be honest, I prefer vegan-friendly ICE CREAM if I am going to indulge), but in the heat of the Caribbean sun, it was a tasty treat. When you see the other passengers walking around all day with their self-serve fro-yo cones, you might be tempted for a plant-friendly cone of your own. Power of suggestion, I think!
Park Café – In the picturesque Central Park neighborhood on deck eight, Park Café offers made-to-order salads and paninis for both lunch and dinner. There was a decent selection for vegans, but the options were comparable to other dining venues. It is, however, a scenic spot for a change of pace.
Wipe Out Cafe - Located on deck 15, the Pool/Sports Deck, the Wipe Out Cafe mostly offers non-vegan friendly food, but...Not that I endorse unhealthy food, but if you have a hankering for some poolside fries or chips with salsa and guac, this is your place.
***Please note that I am only referencing more “specialty” type snacks in this section and that fresh fruit and vegetables are readily available at various venues.
There were a few snafus when the cruise began, but all in all, I had a great experience on board Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and wouldn't hesitate to sail with them again (armed with some new vegan/cruising wisdom!). My husband and I love cruise travel so much, and it is exciting to see the dining changes that have been occurring and will continue to occur for those who follow a plant-based diet or have other special dietary needs. Each cruise line and ship is different in their offerings and helpfulness, and I will continue to share my experiences with you all.
And if you're sailing the Oasis of the Seas and you see my buddy Guney, tell him I said hello!
I would love to hear about your cruise experiences, both good and bad. Please comment below!
***While I receive discounted travel because of my career, I was in no way compensated by Royal Caribbean in exchange for this review.