Fred Olsen Cruise Line Feeds A Coeliac – Plus Advice To Those On Special Diets

I like to highlight travel experiences that have gone the extra mile.  We should all expect to be well looked after when we travel, with good standards of service being the norm.  This post is about something extra, and all the better for being unexpected.

So I’ll set the scene.  We’re on a short cruise with Fred Olsen, as we’ve never travelled with them before,  As a cruise agent, I want to understand how they tick.  As a traveller, I’ve recently been diagnosed as coeliac, meaning I can’t eat anything containing gluten.  For the uninitiated, this means anything that contains a wide number of grains, which can be included in such unexpected places as gravy, Worcester sauce, malt flavourings and soy sauce.  The gluten can sneak up and make you pretty ill.  So I was understandably anxious.  And I’d packed a sneaky stash of peanuts, gluten free crackers and cookies and other snacks just in case.

We got to the cabin, and my OH began to peruse the newsletter.  He found a “Special Diets” meeting, hosted in one of the restaurants on that first day.  We went along to be hosted by the Executive Chef.  Not just anyone, but the main culinary man.  He spent time carefully checking the needs of people with special diets and allergies.  And he was very clear about what we should do.

If you are coeliac, your life often means going without in restaurants.  “I can do you this, but without that” is generally the way it goes.  I’m always slightly amused by the people who offer dips like hummus, but without the pita bread.  Do you intend I should lick it from the plate?  Can you not give me a carrot or two?  But it was a whole different scenario with Fred’s.

We were told, nay implored, by the Executive Chef, to ask for more.  Where a sauce didn’t fit our needs, we were asked to describe what we would like, and it would be made for us.  We were told what would be safe for us, and what needed to be investigated.  In short, we were told not to settle for less.  They had gluten free bread, and it was brought immediately without asking at dinner each night.  I had some really delicious food, some naturally gluten-free and some made especially for coeliacs such as a magnificent Christmas pudding.  And importantly, I was confident that they were taking me seriously, and that proper care was being taken in what I was served.

And when I happened to stumble across afternoon tea later in the voyage, I was majorly impressed to discover not just gluten free cakes on offer, but that they were both already there (not in a galley 3 decks away and awaiting a request) and immediately available, AND they were properly wrapped and segregated to avoid cross-contamination.  And they were mighty good too.

Black Watch – you had a very grateful coeliac passenger.  Thank you for making my first gluten free cruise safe and delicious.

Special Diets

Advice for Cruisers on Special Diets

Cruise lines cater for all kinds of special diets from low sugar and low salt to particular allergies such as onion or tomato.  My advice to travellers on a special diet is as follows:

  • Let your cruise line (and travel agent) know up front when you book
  • On embarkation day, the main restaurant may not be open and you may need to use the buffet.  Ask for assistance from one of the supervisors (who should be visible within the buffet) to help you find something suitable for lunch.
  • On your first night, your dinner will not be pre-ordered.  It may be worth going to the restaurant that afternoon to ask to see the menu for the evening, which will give you time to order something suitable if there is nothing on that menu you can eat, or can only eat with modifications.
  • For subsequent evenings, you will be offered the next night’s menu so that you can choose your dinner in advance and have it prepared to your requirements.  By this time your regular waiting staff will no doubt remember your needs, and will be ready to ensure they are met.
  • It is possible on some ships to order your next day’s lunch at dinner the previous evening.  This is for restaurant dining on board, and therefore may not be possible should a main restaurant be closed that day.
  • You can elect to take your breakfast via room service, the buffet or the main restaurant.  I have had no problems in getting gluten free toast delivered to my cabin as part of room service, so a special diet doesn’t stop you having your brekkie in bed.
  • As always in a buffet situation, be aware of cross-contamination, and don’t be scared to ask for new serving utensils or a freshly cooked item if you have any concerns that cross-contamination may have occurred.
  • Don’t be frightened to ask where they stash the goodies!  Celebrity keeps gluten free cookies at the Cafe al Bacio while P&O keep their gluten free and sugar free cakes at Costa.  Always ask…after all, you’re meant to be having a good time too!

Travel Snippets: The Grand Tour

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As a gentleman in the eighteenth century, it was considered obligatory to further your education and gather exposure to aristocratic European society by means of the Grand Tour of Europe.  The length of your trip was directly related to your purse, with anything from a few months to up to eight years being considered acceptable.  (Quite some gap year!)  In particular, a gentleman was expected to include Venice, Naples, Sicily and Rome on the tour, and to return with a fine collection of art and antiquities.  Some also returned with rather more exotic diseases.

Over time, the use of rail and steamship travel made the tour accessible to the middle classes, and the Cook’s Tour emerged via the one and only Thomas Cook, who began taking parties on the “grand circular tour” of Europe in 1851.

Happy Easter from the Giant Rabbit

No real prizes for guessing where this one was taken. ;-)

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A Swiss Easter Bunny Prowls The Streets of Ghent

We were waiting for a tram back to the hotel when this delightful creature appeared in the street, causing me to fumble around with my camera and clip his ears rather painfully in the one picture I can now find.  Fortunately I was unable to check whether he was really made of chocolate,  as I might have insisted he come back home with us.

So whether or not you are celebrating Easter, have happy holidays.  And may the Giant Easter Chocolate Rabbit be with you!

Cruise Cuisine: Dining On Oceania’s Marina

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The legendary miso glazed seabass…

This menu is from June 2012.  And it was truly delicious.

Warm Crushed Baby Potato with Caviar

Echire Butter and Fresh Chives

*****

Risotto all’Aragosta

Arboria Rice with Roasted Lobster Medallions in Lobster Broth Reduction

*****

Den Miso Glazed Seabass

Wrapped and Cooked in a Banana Leaf

*****

Seventy two hours Slow Cooking Short Rib “Perigourdine”

Semolina Gnocchi, Vegetable Casserole and Crispy Parmesan

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Due of Green and White Asparagus with Potato Waffle and Spinach

Soft Truffle Cream and Fondant Tomato

*****

“Gold Bullion” of Valrhona Jivara Chocolate Mousse

Praline, Exotic Fruit and Amarena Cherries

*****

Petits Fours and Macaroons

Cruise Ships: 7 Tips For Choosing A Cabin

If you’ve not cruised before, you may be wondering why you would want to choose a cabin.  After all, you don’t choose a hotel room!  But you do get the opportunity to make a choice on a cruise ship, and here’s why it may matter to you.

Celebrity Eclipse Aqua Balcony Cabin

Contemporary Style in an Aqua Class Balcony Cabin on the Celebrity Eclipse

Types of Cabin

On a cruise ship, cabins come in a variety of types from suites to balcony, outside or inside cabins.  Prices will generally run in a downward direction from suites to inside cabins.  Suites vary in size and amenities, with many having butler service; some are in very grand duplex or loft style with facilities such as a piano or private gym.  In a suite you will usually have a separate sitting room or sitting area, and in some cases there may be a second bedroom for your children.  Most suites have an outdoor space, sometimes with a private whirlpool tub, and also facilities for outdoor dining.  A balcony cabin will have some outdoor space which varies in size and shape by ship and deck; indoors you will normally find a sitting area alongside the sleeping area.  Outside cabins are normally arranged similarly to a balcony cabin, but feature a window or porthole instead of french doors to the outside.  Inside cabins are again similarly laid out, but feature a mirror or pictures instead of a window.

Celebrity Eclipse Aqua Class Balcony

Not all balconies are equal: this one is twice as big as the picture shows due to the shape of the ship

So how do you go about choosing your cabin?

  1. Do you want to choose?  If you want to save money on your holiday, you can elect to book a guarantee cabin.  This means that you will be allocated accommodation of at least – and sometimes better than – the grade you have purchased.  The benefit is that you save money, and can sometimes end up with a better category of cabin.  The downside is that you have no choice on where that cabin may be located on the ship.
  2. How much time are you likely to spend in your cabin?  If you intend to enjoy all the facilities available to you on the ship to their maximum, and the cabin will be where you change clothes, shower and sleep, then it may not matter to you what kind of cabin you book.  In which case, make sure you use those savings for many more happy holidays!  But if you like nothing better than to chill on your balcony with a good book, then you might want to pay more attention to where on the ship you are located.  Do you want a balcony that given you some shelter from the sun, and one where you are not overlooked?
  3. Where on the ship will you be spending most of your time?  If you love the open decks, and a big ship is your cruise liner of choice, then a cabin on the upper decks will give you quicker access to the sun.
  4. If you would like to restrict the amount of walking you do on a big ship, then choose a cabin near to one of the banks of lifts.  Consider where you will be dining, and look at a cabin with easy access to that part of the ship; it will save you from walking up and down a big ship’s long corridors each evening.
  5. If you like to lie in, think carefully before selecting a cabin at the bow, as you will hear most noise from docking at that end of the ship.  Similarly, be aware of potential noise from restaurants, the gym and theatre when choosing your cabin.
  6. If you suffer, or fear you may suffer, from seasickness, choose a cabin lower down in the ship and in the middle of the boat,  This will minimise any impact of the movement of the ship.  Having said that, it is unusual to feel much motion at all on most cruise ships, and I’ve often had to look outside to see if we’ve yet left port.
  7. Ask your travel agent for their advice.  (And perhaps audition a new agent if they don’t have any to offer!)  There are many variations on the types of cabins available, and you might just find something different that suits your needs.  For example, newer ships have inside cabins that have windows with views over the inside spaces of the ship.  There are bright and funky cabins for solo travellers on the newer Norwegian Cruise Line ships, which have an associated studio lounge where you can meet and chat with fellow solo travellers.  Finally, I have heard of a fantastic inside cabin on board Royal Caribbean.  Its window to the Royal Parade is obscured by the cows from the Ben and Jerry shop below.  So the cabin is decorated in “cow style” and… if you book it, you get free Ben & Jerry’s during your trip.  What a bonus!

P&O Azura Inside Cabin

Traditional style cabins on P&O’s Azura

Oceania Marina Suite Sitting Room

Stylish contemporary lines on Oceania’s Marina

So when it comes to cabins, first choose if you want to choose. And then if you do, choose wisely!

Cruise Quirks: Captain’s Party

If you have been on more than one cruise with the same cruise line, you will undoubtedly have been invited to the Captain’s Party.  Designed as one of the loyalty rewards for repeat cruisers, the party normally falls at lunchtime on a sea day, and gives you the opportunity to eat, drink and make the acquaintance of the crew.

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Don’t worry – it wasn’t that quiet a party!  For some reason, we seemed to slip in a back door before many other people had arrived.  The party was hosted in a big lounge high on the ship, and it was pretty full.  Drinks on offer included a variety of cocktails and wine (I had sangria filled with some very finely chopped fruit…a bit odd between the teeth!) and there were a number of food stations set up including hand carved beef, sushi, and crepes suzettes.

There was some live music from the a capella group and the band, the Captain said a few words and presented a gift to the most-travelled cruiser on board, and there was much chatting with fellow passengers and crew.

Other “frequent flyer” rewards for cruise passengers include: free on board laundry, pressing and dry cleaning, free internet access, free speciality coffees and drinks, a separate lounge for breakfast, souvenir gifts, priority tendering and reservations at on board restaurants and special experiences such as backstage tours, tastings and the like.

Tune in next week, and I’ll tell you what it’s like to dine at the captain’s table.

Curious Places: Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker

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Image: Hack Green: http://www.hackgreen.co.uk

It isn’t every cold war secret bunker that advertises itself on brown road signs, but then Hack Green is something of an exception to many rules.

For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, there was always a vague and uncomfortable frisson that the strange pamphlet, Protect and Survive, sent by the Government to every house,  might someday actually be necessary.  Not that I ever imagined digging out our garden to cover some spare doors that we had placed over the space under the stairs in readiness for a nuclear event.  It was more of a gut fear that the excellent drama Threads might have some basis in future horrors.

Action on Attack Warning. Check you have sent the children to the fall-out room. Check you have turned off the gas & electricity. Check you have shut all the widows & closed all curtains. Check you have remembered to push in any aerial on your radio.

HMSO Protect & Survive Pamphlet.

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This is not the place to debate whether such horrors have worsened or faded, but I like to think that we learn from previous generations’ mistakes, and so a trip to Hack Green is very much part of that.

There is also an amusing reason to make the trip: if you have ever worked for a Government department in the UK, you’ll spot various generations of civil service furniture carefully laid out in the building.  Remember that time when a lofty “Grade 7″ manager could expect a rug and a coat stand?  And a chair with arms?  You’ll find them there.  Along with those mightily uncomfortable green desk chairs and the accompanying metal desks.

Commenting on Government statistics on the effects of nuclear incidents & war, the Leeds City Council, Peace & Emergency Planning Sub-Committee said “ A politician uses statistics like a drunk uses a lamppost-for support rather than illumination”.

Not far off the beaten track in Nantwich, Cheshire, Hack Green bunker is mostly concealed by a large green mound as you approach the site.  It had previously been used as a decoy site to avoid bombing at the railway in Crewe, a major transport hub.  In 1941, Hack Green was selected to protect the land between Birmingham and Liverpool from hostile attack.

It is thought that in a nuclear war the UK would expect 200 megatons of nuclear weapons to be delivered against approximately 80 targets.

Central Office of Information 1980

A top secret plan called Rotor was devised to place 1620 radar screens into bunkers covering the UK.  RAF Hack Green was given the role of protecting Britain against the perceived Soviet threat of both conventional and nuclear war.  Using new long range radar, Hack Green could give warning to enable the RAF to intercept, and also enable the Victor V-Force nuclear bombers to launch a retaliatory attack.

RAF Hack Green was closed in 1966, with its role being transferred to RAF Lindholme.  It was to gain a new role in civil defence following two developments in the 1950s and 1960s: thermo-nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Secret plans were drawn up to manage the country’s affairs through seats of regional government, and Hack Green was purchased to be converted into a protected seat of government.  At a cost of some £32 million, the bunker was converted into a vast underground complex.  It had air conditioning, life support, nuclear fallout and decontamination facilities, emergency water supplies and the ability to support the civil servants and military personnel who would provide regional government in the event of a nuclear attack.

In 1985 Somerset council was given £20000 towards the cost of refurbishing its Civil Defence HQ. When inspected by the Home Office it was found to have an outside toilet.

It is a sobering experience to enter the bunker and see the incoming missile maps that would have lit up had nuclear war begun.  Displays would have indicated the time to impact while attack-warning sirens sounded across the country.  Particularly chilling for me was to see the map outlining the impact of an attack on Birmingham, the city in which I now live.  Hack Green has a broadcast studio, where messages would have been conveyed to the public.  Can you imagine how it would have felt to sit there, and do the best you could to provide information in such frightening circumstances?

The local government central nuclear civil defence HQ in Sheffield in 1984 was a broom cupboard. (Sheffield was a Labour controlled Nuclear Free Zone)

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war, some weapons were decomissioned and others updated to Trident.  Robert Siebert began the task of curating these important pieces of recent history by setting up the exhibits at Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker.  He managed to acquire the last two remaining WE 177 400-kiloton nuclear weapons via the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, and have them made safe for exhibition.

Visiting Hack Green bunker is a strangely warming experience.  As you enter the complex, you pass a small cinema room, where a series of public advice films, including “Duck and Cover” are playing.  There is a large cafeteria, where you can sit with a coffee and a bun, and listen to children calling happily as they run around the exhibits with their parents.  Then you work your way along the signposted tour, and your blood begins to run cold as your imagination works its way through the what-ifs.  It’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like for those required to work in the bunker.  Seeing the grim rows of metal cots, the on-site hospital and the red emergency phones really does call into question whether this was an exercise in hope or futility.  I emerged, sadder, wiser, but strangely hopeful.  And pleased that office furniture has made vast improvements in ergonomics.

Factoids courtesy of Hack Green’s website and the interwebs.