My type-A personality really shines when I start recording my meals throughout each vacation - my husband always knows what I am up to when I pull out my sheet of scratch paper divided into segments for each day of that vacation.
My complete review of my dining experience on board Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas can be viewed on this page as well, but if you would just like to see all of my meals at a glance, well, here you go lucky vegan.
I realize that is appears that I eat meals akin to those of an elephant, so this is where I will remind you that A.) portions are smaller in the dining room because several courses are available, and B.) in the buffet I would often sample small spoonfuls of dishes that looked interesting and were plant-friendly.
(An abbreviated version of this post, as featured on the Happy Herbivore website, can be viewed here.)
The summer travel season is upon us, and many of you are anxiously awaiting your time away for fun in the sun. Maybe some of you are still working on making a vacation happen by trying to bring plans to life. I bet there are even a few of you who have your suitcases out and packed…for an August vacation. Regardless of which situation describes you, as herbivores, eating plant-based while traveling is probably something that has crossed your mind at least once or twice!
If you have a cruise vacation planned, hopefully I can bestow some of my knowledge upon you and give you some peace of mind pre-vacation. If you do not have a cruise vacation planned, or have been hesitant to cruise, perhaps my tips will make you more confident about possible future travel plans.
- Each cruise line and ship is very different in terms of accommodations, entertainment, itineraries, rates, and general atmosphere. Furthermore, on-board dining experiences can drastically differ from ship to ship and line to line. There are no industry standards when it comes to venue options, buffet and dining room offerings, and willingness to assist you with specialized meal preparations, but each line and its crew should do their best to help you… some just might do a better job of it than others. Do some research or work with a travel agent to find the best cruise fit for you and your traveling companions.
- Most cruise lines have a special needs department that will also work with dietary requests if they are submitted (generally) 45 or more days prior to departure. I recommend submitting your request and having your travel agent add it to your reservation, but most cruise lines will tell you that speaking to the head waiters in the main dining room once onboard is really the most important step for passengers with special dietary requirements (which for now, still includes us!)
- You really need to work with your head waiter in the main dining room to have special meals prepared for you at dinner time, even if it means simply adjusting the next evening’s vegetarian offerings to be vegan-friendly – this is really the key to having great plant-based meals on board. The chefs are creating thousands of meals for thousands of people each day, so they really need advance notice and additional time for special food preparations.
- Get to know your head waiter, and be friendly! People are likely to be nicer and more helpful to, well, nice people! Work with him throughout the duration of your cruise to ensure that you are enjoying delicious plant-based food on a nightly basis. I recommend extra gratuity for great service – the cruise ship staff works very hard, and my husband and I both feel it is important to reward those who go the extra mile to make our vacation memorable.
- Cruise ships generally offer three dining options for passengers: traditional early seating (usually around 6:00pm) traditional late seating (usually around 8:30pm) and a version of flexible dining. For traditional seating, you will select the size of your table upon making your reservation and then sit with the same passengers and be served by the same crew members each night. For flexible dining, you can head to the main dining room when you would like to eat and wait for a table, not unlike going out to a local restaurant on a Friday evening. Generally wait times are short, if at all, but reservations can also be made within this option as well. Eating as a vegan on a cruise ship is much easier when you work with the same head waiter each night, so I recommend selecting a traditional seating option or asking to sit in the same head waiter’s section each night if you have selected the flexible option.
- Generally, soy milk is available on ships if you ask for it. I wouldn’t count on almond milk, or other non-dairy options.
- Each line differs in their policies regarding food and drink items you are permitted to bring on board; usually, pre-packaged and sealed dry items like snack foods are fine. Beverages are a little trickier, so have your travel agent consult with your specific cruise line to learn what is permissible. Some lines will allow you to bring pre-packaged and sealed beverages onboard if they are required for special dietary needs (like the mini almond milk boxes you can purchase at the grocery store), but for items like this you really must check with each cruise line. Don’t forget to put liquids in your checked luggage or they won’t make it through security, and I recommend sealing them in plastic in the event of a leak…unless you want your clothing to smell of almond milk in the Caribbean sun. Please note that cruise ships will not store or prepare special foods and drinks brought on board by passengers, but many have cabins with small coolers for keeping things chilled.
- Be creative with the meals with which you must fend for yourself – concoct amazing salads, create veggie subs, experiment with oatmeal topping combinations, etc. (If you even want to indulge in a few French fries, I won’t tell!) I especially like this trick for the lunch buffets when your options might seem more limited at times.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The menus in the dining rooms are usually clearly labeled for dairy, nuts, gluten, meat, etc., but the description cards in the buffet often are not. Assume that vegetables are prepared with butter, but find a crew member and you will most likely score a plain serving made-to-order just for you.
- Don’t judge the ship’s food based on the first buffet before setting sail and the first meal in the main dining room. It is a crazy day for crew members because of so many passengers coming and going, and that meal should not be indicative of the next days of your voyage. My first meal on my most recent cruise? A plate of white rice and a heaping pile of steamed green beans (prepared just for me) and a side salad. Good, yes. But not what I was hoping to eat for a week! (It got much better!)
- Try to get out of the typical vacation mindset, which unfortunately seems to be centered quite a bit around quantities of food and general indulging for days on end. Focus on the memories you’re making and the sights you’re seeing – this is what I think traveling is all about. Enjoy an active, healthy, and fun vacation full of nutritious food and you will come home feeling amazingly refreshed…I guarantee it!
- Some will shame me on this one, but I always pack some vegan snacks that are more of the “treat variety”. When I went plant-based, I eliminated a lot of sugar and treats from my diet (I still visit the local vegan bakery weekly for something delicious) but I still have the occasional craving. And because of the “vacation mindset” I still can’t always shut it off. When we travel, I pack a vegan chocolate bar and some gummy bears from the aforementioned vegan bakery to tame my sweet tooth.
- Feeding your mini-herbivores out of the house can be challenging, but if you get creative, meals on the ship shouldn’t be an issue. Here are some ideas for your plant-powered kiddos…
Breakfast: cereal with soy milk, oatmeal, fresh fruit, peanut butter and jelly, toast, breakfast potatoes
Lunch: veggie burgers, French fries, loaded nachos, mini veggie subs, rice and vegetables, pizza without cheese, stir fry, peanut butter and jelly
Dinner: work with your head waiter for options – this is your best chance for variety
Snacks: fresh fruit, raw vegetables, vegetable sushi, nachos, French fries, crackers and peanut butter, sorbet
- When in doubt, head for the fresh fruit buffet and salad bar. You will always find many options for produce in the buffets (breakfast/lunch/dinner), so go ahead and be that passenger eating a giant plate of colors.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to travel mainstream! The travel industry is becoming more and more accommodating all the time, and I am pleased to report that I have only had very good to great experiences…I look forward to sharing more with you, and also hearing about your positive and negative dining experiences while traveling.
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.
Don't be afraid of mainstream travel!