Traveling Gluten Free From Hong Kong to Sydney -- Aboard the Celebrity Millennium
May 25, 2016
Today, we share another guest post from an experienced world traveler...this time it's Celiac blogger Gail from 50 Beds and Counting, a blog in which she discusses transitioning to retirement, travel adventures, learning how to build an active retirement life, and living with Celiac as well as heart disease. She shares her latest adventure, a 5-week trip beginning in Hong Kong and traveling to Sydney, Australia aboard the Celebrity Millennium cruise ship.
When I was diagnosed with Celiac more than eight years ago, I was concerned how this illness would impact traveling. I worried my travel dreams would be curtailed by my fear of finding healthy, safe food away from home. As it turned out, mostly I didn't need to worry. When I retired in 2014 (PhD clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and educator), my initial plan was to ramp up my travel schedule -- and I did. My husband and I have enjoyed international and domestic cycling trips, hiking tours, regular old walking around and sightseeing vacations, and cruises to far flung locales like Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, South America and more. Many of these experiences I've chronicled in my blog 50 Beds and Counting.
One of the many advantages of retirement is having the luxury -- and it is a luxury, especially after decades of one or two week vacations -- of longer-term travel. Most recently, our longer adventure was aboard the Celebrity Cruise ship Millennium. We'd long debated traveling to Southeast Asia, with each discussion sticking on food -- Could I find safe food in Asia? What about hidden, sneaky gluten fillers, especially in sauces? Would searching for food over-ride other aspects of visiting this exotic area? We remained locked in debate until we settled upon taking a cruise of the area. Because we are retired and have time, we planned to make the most of the pricey airfare by booking back-to-back cruises. We'd travel from Hong Kong to Sydney, Australia on one ship, for 30 days.
Prior to boarding the ship in Hong Kong, we had two days to take in some sights, stretch our legs, sample local cuisine -- all while recovering from unbelievable jet lag.
Luckily, the Shangri La Hotel, Kowloon offered excellent dining options. The hotel's Tapas Bar provided drinks and safe food like steamed mussels in wine at hours compatible with our disrupted awake and functioning cycles. We also enjoyed wonderful dim sum (and this wonderful pumpkin stuffed with vegetables) at the Shang Palace in the hotel (see my detailed review on GlutenFreeTravelSite.)
On embarkation day, we were happy to find that our home for 30 days, the Celebrity Millennium, was nicely situated at Hong Kong's cruise terminal for optimal viewing of the city's skyline, pictured below. This was a plus, since the ship was in port for a day and a half.
Since we'd traveled with Celebrity previously, we knew what to expect. As always, my husband had booked us on Aqua Class which meant we were assigned the beautiful, quiet Blu as our dining room.
Once on the ship, we scampered upstairs to the Oceanview Cafe where I introduced myself to the chef, discussed my dietary restrictions, and took a spin around the plentiful buffet. Over a number of cruises, I've observed that Celebrity customizes, to a certain extent, food options, according to the itinerary. Since we were in Asia, the Cafe offered lots of Asian choices.
On this cruise, we were especially lucky because the chef overseeing the Oceanview Cafe was also a Celiac who was accustomed to managing his own complicated diet. He understood when I explained that I followed a gluten free, veganish pescatarian diet, meaning no dairy, no meat or chicken. This chef, the wonderful Melvin, was from India and a master of spicy vegan curries and luscious lentil dals that made eating a vegan lunch shipboard a delicious, healthy experience.
During the cruise, when I had questions or issues come up in the Oceanview (and they always do), I asked to speak with Melvin or the manager on duty. They always helped with my concerns. While I mostly ate well in the Oceanview Cafe and appreciated the crew's efforts in providing GF food, I was disappointed in their pizza. I order my pizza vegan style (or cheeseless) with vegetables, sauce, and lots of basil, when it's available. This GF pizza was a mushy mess. But that's OK, because I wasn't on the ship to eat pizza!
While we could have eaten breakfast in the Blu, we never did because on sea days we headed to the gym for workouts. That meant we'd have coffee, walnuts, and apricots prior to the gym and sometimes a light breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe after. At breakfast, any number of gluten free items were available. However, I stayed with my standard -- gluten free toast, smoked salmon, and sliced tomatoes -- hold the dairy.
Dinners in the Blu were easy for me, except I suffered from over-attention. The lovely restaurant manager Igor, the talented, food pushing chef Bruno, and the vigilant server Emmanual were always on the ready with food and more food. This trio wanted me to have "The same experience as everyone else" which meant they were always looking for new ways to feed me. The first evening on the ship, I discussed my dietary restrictions with Igor and Emmanual who passed the info along to chef Bruno. What I appreciate about the Blu kitchen is that the chef cooks in a cleaner, healthier manner, using olive oil and forgoing butter. Celebrity asks folks with special diets to order their dinner meals a day in advance which I find kind of fun, since I saw the menu ahead of time. And it's easy to do. Since we were on the ship for 30 days, meals can become routine. If I wanted something special like rice pasta with basil tomato sauce (excellent, I might say)...or three orders of Vietnamese summer rolls as my entree...or four skewers of grilled scallops and shrimp...or a vegetable stir fry, I just told Emmanual the evening before. In truth, with a day's notice, the kitchen would make me anything I wanted (and some items I did not want!).
Most evenings I ordered fish. One can always order grilled salmon on a Celebrity cruise, but in the Blu dining room, I also dined on Five Spice Grilled Tuna (shown above), Scallop and Shrimp skewers, poached salmon, grilled halibut, fish stew, and more. Usually, I started with hummus served with vegetables, shrimp cocktail or a beautiful mixed green salad and attempted to end the meal with berries.
But since Emmanual and chef Bruno wanted me to have the same experience as other guests, "The Chef's Special of the Day" gluten free, dairy free, vegan dessert arrived each night as well as the berries. (Just look at this beautiful dessert they brought me one night.) This over-attention came from a desire to provide exceptional service. We ate well in the Blu, with fruit, fish, occasionally meat for my husband, vegetables, rice, and safe pasta.
However, when we disembarked in Sydney, Australia, we were ready for delicious but humbler, more American food. We were missing the states and especially tacos and decent pizza! Once we'd checked into our hotel, the Radisson Blu, Sydney, we did a search for a Mexican restaurant. Happily, Mejico, a restaurant with good reviews, was just a quick walk from our hotel. After a walking tour of The Rocks area and visits to a few galleries, we made our way to Mejico for a satisfying lunch of salmon tacos, margaritas, and guacamole with pistachio nuts served with crunchy plantain chips. (See full review on GlutenFreeTravelSite).
The next day we set off to walk as much of Sydney as possible with the real goal of finding an excellent pizza restaurant that we'd visited a year and a half before. Geographically challenged as I might be, darn if I didn't help steer us directly to Woolloomooloo and gluten free pizza heaven at Criniti's. My unorthodox cheeseless, lots of veggies, basil, and sauce pizza order did not bother the kitchen, and we were presented with a delicious, satisfying pizza (see GlutenFreeTravelSite for full review).
When we travel, I always experience some anxiety about food, especially when long flights, lots of plane changes, and new airports and countries are involved. But this trip, a little more than five weeks in length, came off mostly problem-free and provided unbelievable experiences.
NOTE: We have many other reviews of GF-friendly places in Sydney -- and throughout Australia -- on GlutenFreeTravelSite. Just choose a state or territory from under the Australia/New Zealand pull-down menu on this page to narrow your search.