P&O Iona Chef's Table Deck 16

The Gluten-Free Cruiser’s Guide to P&O Dining on Iona

Can a gluten-free cruiser truly indulge in all the culinary pleasures a cruise has to offer? Very much so! On P&O Cruises’s Iona, I discovered a world of delicious and safe gluten free options that exceeded my expectations. Join me as I unveil the secrets to gluten free dining success on P&O Iona.

If you’ve been reading my other blog posts, you’ll know that my blog is destination focused. This won’t change! But when I started to plan my first cruise on P&O, sailing out of Southampton to the Norwegian Fjords, I found that there wasn’t much information about what gluten free dining is like on a mainstream cruise line like P&O. I was genuinely a bit worried.

So I’d like to share my first hand experience and insider tips for navigating the many dining options on Iona – this post will be the first in a series on gluten free dining on various cruise lines. I’ll also cover other dietary requirements when I have the relevant information too.

For my American & Canadian readers, P&O Cruises is owned by Carnival Corporation. I would benchmark P&O Cruises as roughly equivalent to Carnival Cruises and Royal Caribbean, though the ships are very much tailored to its primarily British clientele.

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How to Advise P&O of your Dietary Requirements

Before you even step foot on the Iona, it’s crucial to let P&O Cruises know about your dietary requirements. If you have multiple requirements (eg. gluten free dairy free or gluten free vegan) or additional allergens, jump to my section on multiple allergies below. Here’s a full list of special diets, intolerances and food-related allergies that P&O will cater for.

While gluten free is one of the special diets that P&O will cater for, knowing how many passengers require what kind of diet will help them “stock the larder”, so to speak. I’ll show you some of the branded gluten free products that P&O stocks, specifically for gluten free cruisers later.

1. Notification During Booking Process

The ideal time to inform P&O is during the booking process, although this is not strictly necessary. If you’re working with a travel agent, be sure to let your travel agent know when you’re making the booking, so the information can be relayed to P&O on your behalf. Notifying P&O during the booking process will save you having to contact them again though.

If you’re travelling with kids who are gluten free, it is essential to notify P&O of their dietary requirements as well, regardless of whether they typically eat from the kids or adults menus.

2. Contact P&O Directly After Booking

For this trip, I booked through an online travel agent. There was no special field for me to fill out dietary requirements during the booking process. So I had to notify P&O directly after the final payment was made.

This turned out to be a frustrating process! Contacting P&O customer service centre was painful. I tried multiple times on the phone and after long wait times of close to an hour, I gave up. (P&O’s call queueing software definitely needs an upgrade, as it doesn’t tell you what position in the line you’re in, nor approximate waiting times.) An email in a structured “contact us” form, with my reservation number, went unanswered for about 3 weeks.

I finally got through about two weeks before departure. And I got through only because I was offered a call back service when I phoned. Ironically, when I did eventually get to speak to someone, the call took less than 2 minutes!

Note: There’s no option to notify dietary requirements during the online check-in process. I guess this is because they’d like to “vet” dietary requirements in case someone has a requirement that they can’t cater to.

Deadline: You need to notify P&O Cruises at least 3 days before departure.

3. Confirmation Letter In Your Cabin Onboard

Once you’re onboard, you’ll receive a confirmation letter in your cabin. ๐Ÿ‘‡ This is the one I received in my cabin:

P&O Iona special dietary needs welcome letter in cabin June 2024

Pre-Ordering Process for Gluten-Free Dining

P&O Iona Main Dining Room Menu First Night Norwegian Fjords Cruise June 2024
P&O Iona First Night MDR Menu – Note menus change every night!

On the P&O Iona, the pre-ordering process for gluten free dining is very similar to other cruise lines. But I’ll explain a few quirks, as Iona does not offer set dining times in the main dining room. It’s all “Freedom Dining”, where cruisers join a virtual queue to dine in one of the four main dining rooms. (Similar to Carnival’s “Freedom Dining“, NCL equivalent of “Freestyle Dining“, Royal Caribbean’s “My Time Dining“, Celebrity Cruises’ “Select Dining”).

Here’s how the standard pre-ordering process works on the Iona:

  • Menu Review: The evening before, you’ll receive the next day’s dinner menu from your server, after you’ve finished your dinner. All the gluten free menu items are marked with a “GF” symbol.
  • Selection: If you’d like to order a starter, main course or dessert that’s already marked as gluten free, then there’s no “negotiation” needed. If something else takes your fancy that’s not marked as gluten free, then you’ll need to discuss this with the head waiter, who typically takes your order.
  • Placing your Order: The head server will take your pre-order, together with your cabin number. Some items not marked as gluten free on the menu may be customised and made gluten free just for you.
  • Notify Server of Your Order: On the following evening, wherever you choose to dine, notify your server that you have made a pre-order and which main dining room you made the pre-order in. Your server will confirm your order with you.

First Evening’s Pre-Order: You can place your pre-order at the stated location in your “special dietary needs welcome letter”. In my case, it was the Coral restaurant on Deck 7. I thought that two starters, four main courses and three desserts being gluten free was exceptional and as good as any cruise line that I have travelled on.

In addition, some starters and mains can be made gluten free – for example, the Caesar Salad would be gluten free if croutons were omitted. I had this on a different evening and did not have issues.

Note: Some items simply cannot be made gluten free, even with pre-ordering. P&O seem to have many “ready to cook” items on their menus, where the item was pre-processed (ie. factory made) and brought onto the ship ready to be cooked or fried. For example, I was told that the croquettes were pre-made ashore and just fried on the ship. So it’s not possible for this to be made gluten free.

Tips for Pre-Ordering Gluten Free Dining in MDR

P&O Iona gluten free caesar salad June 2024
๐Ÿ˜‚ Gluten Free Caesar Salad – a chef replaced croutons with GF bread! (I didn’t ask for it!)

On the P&O Iona, the main dining room (MDR) menus change every evening but the menus are the same, regardless of which MDR you choose to dine in. Coral, Pearl, Opal and Aqua restaurants all serve the same menu every evening. (There’s no unique dishes to each MDR, like Celebrity Cruises’s Edge class ships.)

So how can you make the pre-ordering process easier for yourself? Here’s my top tips and why:

  • Book Table Ahead: While Freedom Dining is great for flexibility, I found it easier to plan my dining ahead of time, especially as someone with special dietary requirements.
    • On the P&O app onboard (free to use, no WiFI package needed), you can book a table in a specific MDR for a specific time as soon as you’re onboard. You don’t need to plan out your dining plans for the entire cruise but I found it much easier to book a table at least the night before, so I can tell the head waiter where my pre-order needs to be served the following night.
  • Pre-Order Where You Will Dine: You can dine in any of the four MDRs and you can eat in a different MDR every evening if you prefer. I definitely tried to do this on this cruise as an experiment! However, I found it easier to pre-order where I’ll be dining, as multiple servers would ask me where I made the pre-order the night before in order to track down my pre-order. So you may prefer to:
    • Dine In Same MDR Every Evening: If your dining companions don’t object, then it’s easier to dine in the same MDR every evening. This means that you’ll order for the night before with the same head waiter. If asked by servers, “I pre-ordered it here” is just easier.
    • Order for Specific MDR: If your dining companions DO want to switch restaurants every evening, then tell the head waiter which MDR you’ll be dining the following evening. (That’s why I recommend that you plan where you’ll be eating the night before, as above.)
  • Dining in Non-MDR Venue Night Before: If you’re dining in a specialty restaurant or one of the included venues like The Olive Grove the night before, don’t hesitate to stop by a MDR afterwards and pre-order the night before. Just let the maitre d’ know you’re gluten free and you’d like to pre-order and the head waiter will come and help.
  • Forgot to Pre-Order? It’s absolutely fine although you may be limited in choices. I did not dine in the MDR every night but I did glance at the menus – on display on big screens outside the restaurants. There’s always at least one option listed as gluten free for each course and sometimes there are multiple gluten free options. However, if you’re a gluten free vegetarian or gluten free vegan, then pre-ordering is needed as the gluten free options are not always meat-free or vegan.

Gluten Free MDR Dining on Iona – My Experience

I was genuinely very surprised and impressed with the gluten free MDF dining onboard:

  • Good Range of Options: There’s at least two gluten free options for starter and main course, and at least one gluten free option for dessert every night at the MDR. I didn’t eat at the MDR every evening on this cruise but I did look at the menu outside the restaurants every night. There’s usually also at least one gluten free vegan option for each course. This is much much better than other cruise lines I’ve cruised with.
  • Non Ice Cream Gluten Free Desserts: For those with a sweet tooth, be assured that you won’t be offered just ice cream (or sorbet if you’re gluten free dairy free). Some desserts were fairly standard (eg. flourless chocolate cake) but some others were absolutely divine!
  • No Hassle Pre-Ordering Process: If I dined in a specialty restaurant, it was still easy to just walk up to any of the four MDRs to pre-order for the following night.

What about Breakfast, Lunch, Afternoon Tea, Snacks and Ice Cream? ๐Ÿ˜‚ We’re on a cruise after all! Read my Gluten Free Guide for Best Places For Each Meal (and Snack) on P&O Iona.

Lunch on Embarkation Day – Best Gluten Free Options

I travelled to Southampton from Central London on embarkation day. Due to both Southampton train cancellations and the M3 motorway being closed due to an accident, I did not arrive at Southampton Ocean Terminal until about 2pm, nearly two hours after my allocated embarkation time of 12:15pm.

I wasn’t the only one who arrived late! So the check-in queues were long. I didn’t get onboard until 3pm. I was completely famished. What can a gluten free cruiser safely eat for lunch onboard the P&O Iona on embarkation day? Here’s your three options which are open, on embarkation day, before dinner starts at 5:30pm:

P&O Cruises gluten free fish and chips served at the Quays

The Quays, located on Deck 8 (aka Promenade Deck) Mid-Aft, is a food court with a street food vibe. There’s three counters, as well as a small self-service area with make-your-own salad bar and pre-portioned desserts. There’s also a self-service drinks area; you can also order drinks from servers, regardless of whether you have a drinks package or not.

  • Hook Line & Vinegar: Serves fish and chips, with optional mushy peas! Condiments such as mayo and ketchup are self-service too.
    • Gluten Free Fish & Chips: Gluten free fish and chips are not advertised on the menu! But please don’t hesitate to walk up to the counter and just ask for it. The chef I spoke to was friendly and said that my gluten free order is “made to order” using a separate fryer, so it will take about 5 minutes.
    • I read from other online reviews that fish burgers, scampi and crab cakes were served here too. But on my cruise, the only option on this counter is fish and chips. There was no other menu item available.
    • You can request just gluten free chips – be sure to specify gluten free, as this will then be fried in the gluten free fryer.
  • Boardwalk Diner: Serves two burgers and southern fried chicken. Unfortunately no gluten free option here!
  • Fusion: Serves Asian style takeaway dishes – this counter has a smaller menu selection during lunch time than at dinner. During lunch, there’s no gluten free options. (At dinner, there’s a vegetable Thai curry and a vegetarian Pad Thai which are gluten free).
  • Self-Service options: Make-your-own salad bar is another option. All common allergens, including gluten and dairy are marked – if the item is not marked with gluten as an allergen, you’re good.

So what’s my verdict on the gluten free fish and chips? It was absolutely delicious! The fish was haddock. The batter was light and crispy – just as it should be. The chips were thick-cut, well-fried and so so crispy! It really hit the spot. It was so good I had fish and chips three times on this 7-night cruise! I noticed that the standard GF portion is half that of the normal portion (two fillets) but you can ask for a double portion if you’re hungry.

I also liked the fact that gluten free fish and chips are served on a black plate, with a sheet of paper on top. Normal fish and chips are served differently, with chips in a small fryer basket. So if you’re dining with someone who’s not gluten free, it’s easy to tell them apart.

2. Horizon Restaurant (Buffet)

P&O Iona Horizon Restaurant Diet Counter filled with foods for people with dietary requirements

Horizon Restaurant, the self-service buffet, is located between the SkyDome and the Infinity Pools on Deck 16 (aka Lido Deck) Mid & Aft. Not all cruise lines label allergens on their items but P&O thankfully does. On embarkation day, there’s both hot food as well as a “make your own” salad bar at Horizon.

I realise that buffets are notoriously dangerous for cross-contamination, purely because cruisers may use the same tongs for multiple dishes. This is always a risk. If you’re very sensitive and don’t want to risk it, then here’s two things I’d recommend:

  • Grab a “Can I Help” crew member: These are crew members dressed in a yellow “Can I help?” apron at Horizon. They are specifically trained to help with dietary requirements and allergens. They will help you through the buffet area and select something suitable. They can also help you speak to a chef, if there’s something that you particularly want and don’t want to get it from the buffet area.
  • Ask for wrapped food in the diet counter: In the middle of the buffet area is the “diet counter” ๐Ÿ‘†. It’s not self-service and you need to ask someone to get access to the items. As you can see, all items are packaged, minimising the risk of contamination. There’s quite a lot of snack items here to choose from, which hopefully can fill you up until dinner time.

P.S. I’m very sensitive. If I’m glutened, I’ll know within 5 minutes and my face will start to swell up. I did not get sick from eating in the buffet on this cruise. But please make your own decision as to what you feel comfortable eating in the buffet.

3. Taste 360 (only if you’re desperate for carbs!)

Gluten free pepperoni pizza served on P&O Iona Taste360

Taste360 is located in the SkyDome area on Deck 16 (aka Lido Deck). It serves hot dogs, pizzas, burgers and fries. During dinner time, it also serves rotisserie chicken with fries, coleslaw and corn on the cob. For non-gluten free items, the items are self-service.

  • Gluten Free Pizza: GF pepperoni or GF magherita pizzas are available. It’s made on the spot and it takes about 10 minutes, depending on how busy the chefs are. The GF pizzas are baked in a different oven in the back and are cut for you using different equipment and different cutting boards.
  • There’s no gluten free burgers or fries available here. For GF fries, your best bet is to head to the Quays.

My Take: The pizza base was very doughy. While the base is thin, it was not crispy, making the doughy base taste worse than it should. It was unevenly cooked as well – one half of mine was burnt while the other half was a bit undercooked. That’s why I ranked this last on the list. If you’re desperate for carbs, then go for it!

Don’t despair! If you’d craving for gluten free pizza, go to the Olive Grove (included dining venue) for lunch or dinner on another day, but you’ll need to have a reservation. (The Olive Grove is only open for dinner on embarkation day and unfortunately not open for lunch on embarkation day. It’s open for lunch on other days, including port days.) There’s no cover charge at the Olive Grove. While some items carry a surcharge, there’s no surcharge on the gluten free pizzas.

Featured Image was taken at The Chef’s Table on Celebration Night

Trying out a new cruise line when you have dietary requirements is always a bit of a gamble. I know that I won’t go hungry but there’s no guarantee that I’ll have a range of options to choose from either. If you’re gluten free, I hope that this guide has helped you on how to navigate the MDR and pre-ordering process.

This is the first of five blog posts on gluten free dining on Iona. If you’re gluten free, please do read all five, so you’ll know all about the different options available to you. (I simply couldn’t put 12,000 words and 50+ photos on the same blog post!)

If you have any questions, please drop me a line below! All the best for your gluten free cruise adventure!

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