Monday, October 6, 2014

All Around the World: Royal Caribbean vs. Holland America (and which one does gluten free better)

Wanderlust: A very strong and irresistible impulse or desire to travel the world.

I've been on a few different cruise lines and the two that stand out for me in service and food are Royal Caribbean and Holland America. Having a gluten allergy, the food piece is extra important. Keep in mind that cruising is just one way to see the world and I recommend seeing it in every way possible and in whatever way works for you. However, since cruising is an expensive way, the service, food, and accommodations should all be well worth your money. For those of you looking to book a trip with a cruise line and who may be considering either of these, I hope you find the below information helpful in making your choice.

Royal Caribbean

Boat Accommodations

Adventure of the Seas
My most recent trip to Iceland and Norway was with Royal Caribbean on the Adventure of the Seas. Having taken a cruise from them before that stood out in my mind as fantastic, I had those same expectations. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. The boat is older, however, it was supposed to have been remodeled and updated not that long ago. I honestly have no idea what updating they did because the whole floor we were on, six, smelled like a weird combination of hospital and rotting fish. Our room smelled the same. The bed in our room was as hard as a rock and the toilet broke several times over the course of the trip. We weren't the only ones with these problems, however, we were the only ones that seemed to have gotten the haunted house room. For the first few days/nights the room made awful squeaks and squawks and ka-thuds so loud that no sleep was possible. Eventually, they discovered that the window in our room overlooking the promenade was loose. To me, that sounded very dangerous for all the people walking below. That fixed most of the noise, except for the ka-thudding. They had to check the areas all around and above us for any loose equipment/storage items. I'm not sure what they found, but one day the noise was gone. I will say our room attendant, Bobby, did the very best job he could of making things comfortable, but this experience is not up to par with how Royal Caribbean should and used to present themselves.

Entertainment and People

When it comes to boat entertainment, I expected more than I got. While there were plenty of things to do outside (rock wall, golf, basketball court, pools) none of those things could be used in the weather that accompanied Norway and Iceland. That was fine and understandable, however, it's what we could've done on the inside that I'm referencing. They had a movie theater, but the chairs were uncomfortable, there was no popcorn, and they played the same doggone movies over and over and over. They had games you could play, but only in special conference rooms  - no checking out and taking them back to your room. They had TV, but hardly. Outside of the spa and gym, which were both very nice, there wasn't a whole lot you could do inside the boat aside from drinking at the variety of bars and pubs or gambling at the casino, which are cruise ships staples. Even the shopping promenade, while very cute and fun to walk through, was boring after a day.

The nightly entertainers were good in the sense that they were geared more toward the UK clientele and so much of what they joked about or discussed were things Americans were unfamiliar with. This too is understandable, as the cruise departs from England and the majority of the folks on the boat were English. We often talked about this with our dinner friends who were from England and Scotland and who, for the record, were some of the coolest people I've ever met. One gentleman we met was so much fun to talk to that we skipped a show just to chat with him. He's from Whales and loves America, The Beach Boys, and is dying to go on a Route 66 vacation one day. I told him I'd swap lives for a bit and we could each pretend to be from the country we loved so much. All in all, the boat crowd was amazing. We are, generally, some of the youngest people on the cruises we pick (we have old souls, what can I say?) but we always end up in the company of great people. Don't let the potential age gap stop you from picking a particular line or trip.

Gluten Free Food and Service

The service overall on the ship was good, but in the dining room it was incomparably awesome. For most of the trip we had the same two servers - Wilfredo and Olexandra - who are hands down the best, most kindest people I've met in the cruising world. Olex's grandmother baked the gluten free bread and she was always finding me and bringing me my special slices. Wilfredo made you feel like you'd been friends for years. The two were an amazing combination! Outside of them, the overall ship service was good.

As for the food, it was equal parts disappointing and great. We were on the boat for two weeks and the first week it seemed like the food was being recycled day after day. I say this because one thing that you can rely on when cruising is good food, lots of it, and new options every day. The main dining room that first week was just plain, well, plain. The second week - amazing. It was like day and night. This, too, applies to the gluten free options.

Each night at dinner they would bring be a menu for the upcoming evening so I could pick my gluten free dinner. This was nice, but it also felt a little rushed and interrupted my dining experience a bit. On the menu it already listed which dishes were gluten free, however, they said they could make anything I wanted gluten free. This turned out not to be the case, not really. Instead of actually making a plate gluten free, they would leave off the gluten item and my dish would end up boring or empty-ish. They didn't actually substitute ingredients or alter it. That was hugely disappointing, especially since week 1 was so bad in general. Week 2 made up for a lot of that, as the gluten free options seemed to double. There was a cafe in the promenade that was open 24 hrs a day that handed out Udi's gluten free cookies like they were going out of style. That was pretty awesome.

Holland America

See that big boat on the right? That's us.
First and foremost, I have to admit that Holland America has ruined me in the sense that I compare absolutely everything they have to every other boat/line out there. Because yes, they are just that good. In almost every way possible.

Boat Accommodations

I've been on the Oosterdam and the Amsterdam boats and both completely blew my mind. The boats are well maintained and that's easy to see at first glance. The staterooms are spacious, elegant, and modern. The beds are super comfy, there is tons of closet space, and both boats are about equal in age to the Adventure of the Seas (which is why I was so surprised by the differences of how well each were maintained/updated). Best of all? No haunted house noises so you can sleep peacefully through the night! 

Entertainment and People

The two boats I've been on didn't have anything in the way of rock climbing walls or zip lines, but they had plenty to do overall. The movie theater had big, cushy seats with popcorn available, which led to the feel of a real theater. If you didn't like what they had playing, no problem. The boat had an extensive line of DVD's you could check out and watch back in your room. This, hands down, was one of our most favorite things ever. They also let you check out the games, so we'd get our favorite, Rummikub, and take it wherever we wanted to play - back to the stateroom, outside, anywhere. I didn't know how much I appreciated that until it wasn't an option. The library was spacious and they has this amazing lookout point with giant leather chairs where you could sip some tea, watch the view, or take a nap. They offered afternoon tea time that I simply adored and which, oddly, was not offered on the Adventure of the Seas with it's very English occupants. The nighttime entertainment was great, but it was more geared toward an American crowd so much of what the entertainers joked about or did was familiar. Holland America is one line in particular that tends to draw an older crowd, but again, don't let that stop you. It's a helluva line to cruise with.

Gluten Free Food and Service

When you book a cruise with Holland America they send you a gluten free meal planning sheet to complete prior to your cruise. This lets you tell them if you might want bread, pasta, brownies, waffles, etc., so they can plan ahead and get those items/ingredients for you. Once on the boat the crew seemed a little confused about where I should eat due to my gluten allergies, but eventually we all got straightened out. For this, I have to give Royal Caribbean credit for having a better educated staff overall. However, Holland America makes up for that in their flexibility. The nightly dinner menu's do not list which dishes are gluten free but that's because it doesn't matter. They will make anything gluten free! 

Every day a menu was delivered to my state room, which was perfect because I had the whole day to ponder what I might want and I wasn't bothered in the middle of my meal. I would circle my options on the menu, bring it back to them, and I'd get exactly what I wanted, but made gluten free. Only one time did I run into an issue where I couldn't get something because it was mass produced. Otherwise, the world was my own personal gluten free oyster. That never happens in "real life." Any of you suffering from gluten allergies or Celiac disease know this. You have limits, they tell you they can only do so much, so on and so forth. So to be able to select anything and get the same version, just gluten free, was truly expectational on their part and made my vacation that much more special. You do have to eat in the dining rooms for your meals (you can't go to the buffets offered at breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and this applies to both cruise lines, but hey, it's all included in your price anyway, so why not make the most of it?

The food, in general, was amazing. Each menu was a new creation, each meal was better than the last, and you were actually provided a four course meal instead of the three course that Royal Caribbean had. As for the service, Holland America knocks it out of the park every time. The wait staff, the room attendants (you get two of them), the front desk - you can't ask for better service. This is what Holland America is about: Offering the best service they possibly can to their guests. 

All in all, Holland America is my pick for the best cruise line and it has been for years now. I've yet to encounter a similarly priced line that offers the equivalent amenities and services that can compete to the bar that Holland America has set. Especially when it comes to gluten free accommodations. 

Per my great friend, Brian, who made the great point that I should share some personal pictures with everyone, here you go!

At Thingvellir in Iceland.

Being attacked by an obviously dangerous wooden crocodile. 

At my favorite place from the trip, Lake Loen.

My boyfriend, who is the second biggest ASU fan next to his best friend.

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