I'll preface my review by saying that I did enjoy the cruise - the staff were very friendly, the ship was clean, our cabin was spacious and my family and I truly enjoyed the activities and ports along our cruise. But this review isn't going to be about the cruise to Alaska; it will be about how Princess handled dietary restrictions for myself and another member of my family. When looking back at the whole experience, though, one in which dining constitutes as substantial portion of that experience, I felt like Princess missed the mark.
I have Celiac Disease and it is a medical necessity, not a lifestyle choice, that I eat a strict gluten free diet. No cheating, no cross contamination if it can be avoided, no gluten. In everyday life, it is tricky enough, but take that diet on vacation and it's a definite challenge. Now let's take that diet and put it on a cruise ship with a couple thousand other people and a kitchen staff that is expected to prepare and serve anywhere between 15 and 20 tons of food in a week (yup - tons!). I understand a dietary restriction can throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works, but it can be done, they tell you very clearly on the website they can, and though still a challenge, they say "come on board" with your dietary restrictions. On a previous cruise on Carnival I was able to eat safely, and fairly well considering, so I fully anticipated, and expected unfortunately, that cruising with Princess would be the same or better. It wasn't better and it was a much bigger challenge and pretty disappointing, for both myself as a gluten free diner and the other member of my family, who is vegan. I won't address the vegan so much because that is someone else's experience, but our experiences did overlap in some areas and so I think that improvements Princess should make would definitely benefit any dietary restriction (i.e. - sugar free, dairy free, wheat free, nut free, etc.).
So here are areas where Princess can improve and make the dining experience much more enjoyable to everyone: First - prepare a specific dining room menu for the dietary restriction and take that little extra step to try to make the meal look "normal". I had to order off of the regular dining menu, not a gluten free menu, and my meal would arrive looking pretty sad and nothing like the same meal non-gluten free meal. The kitchen just removed the "gluten" portion of the meal and didn't even try to make it like the other meal. (Pot roast with an amazing sounding reduction sauce and vegetables turned out to be chunks of meat and some carrots - boring and sad.) Carnival provided a separate gluten free menu and served a gluten free version of the same meal. It wasn't exactly the same but at least they tried.
Second - Taste the food you are serving your passengers. Everyone knows by now (if you don't, you need to seriously get out more) that gluten free baked goods can be bland, boring, tasteless or just plain icky. But, and I know this very much firsthand, there have been great strides made in the world of gluten free flours, breads, mixes, etc. and they are starting to taste almost normal, if not much, much better than they used to taste. Gluten free pancakes should NOT taste like paste. EVER. Get a new mix, taste the food and ask yourself if you would feed that to your family.
Third - consider the options you are providing to your passengers with dietary restrictions and how you would feel if you had to watch everyone else around you delight in choosing between chocolate cake, cream puffs, cheesecake, cookies, etc. and you only get one choice. I literally had only one option per day for a gluten free dessert, not even gluten free cookies. Three times out of the week my only option was rice pudding or tapioca. Really? It was extremely deflating and disappointing. Sugar free dieters only had one option as well and there was no option provided for (or labeled anyhow) for nut free, dairy free or vegan.
Lastly - think of the whole experience for everyone in a cruising party, be it a couple or a family. When a group of people (family, friends, co-workers, etc.) go out to eat and one of them has a dietary restriction, the group tend to defer to going to where ever that person can eat safely (if they don't, shame on them!). For my family, witnessing my deflation (it truly is like sucking the air out of a balloon) and disappointment made their experience much less enjoyable. I tried to laugh it off and encouraged them to not feel guilty, but they love me and couldn't help themselves. But when I said I wanted to try another cruise line next time they all agreed - because although they may vacation anytime they wish without me, if I am going they will defer to where I feel I can do so safely and have a great experience. ( I read reviews on CruiseCritic and other areas in the vast wilderness that is the internet and those reviews led me to choose Princess and my family deferred to me on that choice.)
A note on the buffet, because you can't really talk about cruising without talking about the enormous buffet, right? I had to be very careful in the buffet (cross contamination runneth rampant) but a simple discussion with the sous chef and he made sure to grab food for me from the back that was naturally gluten free or even prepared special dishes for me. Again, the dessert option was just the one sitting among the other gluten options.
I know I'm just one voice among many and unfortunately when people say the words "gluten free" may roll their eyes and call it a fad. But I have no choice in this matter and while I know I won't always get to enjoy the same experience on a cruise as everyone else, I still paid for the same experience and I feel Princess could have at tried harder to give me a better experience than I had. This is my review of my personal experience, and like anyone else's personal review, some people, who may have even been on the same cruise, may have a different perspective. I respect that and hope others will, too.
(NOTE: as of this writing, I have not experienced any symptoms of possible cross contamination - it takes a few days to hit me unfortunately - but I don't think I will since the staff seemed to be very understanding of the need to be gluten free and took great precautions to avoid cross contamination. For that, I feel Princess did a great job!)