When I discovered that a travel website named Gluten Free Travel Site (www.glutenfreetravelsite.com) had been launched, I had to check it out. Having been gluten-free myself several years ago due to allergies, I was intrigued that someone cared enough to create a website that appealed to two of my greatest loves -- travel and eating. Although I now eat gluten (but in reduced quantities), I still found the site interesting and it made me think more widely about how difficult it must be for people with dietary restrictions and allergies to travel freely around the world.
The site was launched this spring by Karen Broussard, whose young son is Celiac. Like most great ideas, it arose out of experience while Karen and her family were traveling in the Caribbean and she was concerned about what her son was eating. The site accepts reviews of restaurants, hotels, resorts, grocery stores and food outlets and helps people with Celiac or gluten intolerances to plan their travel accordingly. It provides an excellent resource for Celiacs to share specifics of their own travel experiences and to get advice from other people on gluten-free diets. Reviews are personal and unedited.
You can search by geographical region and find reviews posted by like-minded travelers. When I searched under Australia, it was reassuring to find that my home town of Melbourne received a rave review for a restaurant called Pizza Piazza (tel. +61/3-9533-7110; www.pizzapiazza.com.au) which is located in the heart of the best shopping/entertainment street -- Chapel Street. Not only is this establishment Celiac-friendly but they have a comprehensive list of gluten-free pastas, pizza, desserts and even gluten-free beer. A special note added that the chef's wife is Celiac so he knew what he was doing.
Reviews come from as far away as KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where one Celiac received very personalized service and food preparation, including a tour of the kitchen at Chick's Lodge (www.exploreafrica.co.za/kzn/id104.htm), a family lodge catering mostly to game hunters and visitors to wildlife-viewing parks. I was quite surprised to find girls' favorite American Girl Place cafes and bistros (tel. 877/247-5223 or 888/777-0010; www.americangirl.com/stores) in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Dallas all serve gluten-free menu items. When making your reservation, you just need to indicate what your food restrictions are and they will cater accordingly.
Not all reviews are favorable in the sense that they also indicate problems people experience at particular hotels, resorts and in countries in general. At this stage there are a limited number of reviews, plus several countries with no reviews at all. It is also a great place for hotels and restaurants that do cater to gluten-free diets to post information about themselves.
If you have Celiac, food allergies, intolerances or other dietary restrictions, here are a few suggestions. This is by no means an exhaustive list or rocket science -- just some simple ideas that may really help when traveling overseas.
1. Do your research before you travel. There may be a society or help group in the destinations you are traveling to -- i.e. a state or national Celiac society that can provide you with information and suggestions. The Association of European Coeliac Societies (www.aoecs.org) lists chapters across Europe.
2. Read up. There are also several other websites that can provide assistance, like Food Allergy Connection (www.foodallergyconnection.org/index.html) and Food Allergy (www.foodallergy.org), which also offers books for sale.
3. Go Kosher/Halal. It may seem strange (especially if you are not Jewish/Muslim), but Kosher restaurants are everywhere from Peru to China and if you are allergic to dairy for example, you can be 100% guaranteed that you won't find anything dairy or milk-derived in a meat-based kosher restaurant. I once ate a great Kosher place in La Paz, Bolivia with a group of Muslim travelers who broke down accepted cultural norms to dine at the one place they knew would not be served pork products. Likewise, if you eat at a Halal restaurant, you will be sure that it is a pork-free zone. Try a resource like Kosher Delight (www.kosherdelight.com) or Zabihah (www.zabihah.com) for worldwide Kosher/Halal restaurant and grocery store listings.
4. Go Vegetarian. Many people have allergies or aversions to certain meat products, fish, or shellfish (myself included) and vegetarian restaurants can help take the guesswork out of what is and is not in the food. A strictly veggie restaurant will not cook in any meat or seafood-based oils or stocks.
5. Go Chinese. Even in countries where you know nothing about the food, you will almost certainly find at least one local Chinese restaurant. There is also a good chance that the owner or staff will speak English. Despite some regional differences, menus will be on the whole, universal and recognizable and you may be able to order something you might safely eat at home.
6. Know your numbers and names. I am allergic to (amongst other things) Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG and it is an additive that is found throughout the world -- and not just in Asian-based cuisine -- it's in flavored snack foods, soup stock and a lot of fast food. What is not universal is what it is called in different countries and how it is labeled. In Australia and the European Union for example, the law requires that only a number be listed as the ingredient -- Food Additive #621. In Japan, it is called Ajinomoto, named after the corporation that manufactures it.
P.S. It also occurs naturally in raw tomatoes.
7. Learn the language. I'm not suggesting that you do a crash course in Swahili, but make sure that you learn the necessary words to be able to explain your dietary restriction. Learn the words to spot on a menu that may arouse suspicion and have a card on you with your allergy or condition spelled out in the local language or picture (if in doubt, an English speaking staff member at your hotel should be able to assist you). Use an online resource like Allergy Translation (www.allergytranslation.com/Home/home.php) or Select Wisely (www.selectwisely.com/index.htm) to purchase an inexpensive allergy or food restriction card.
8. Do your own cooking. It may sound really basic, but preparing your own food may be the best safeguard when traveling. This may mean choosing accommodation with cooking facilities, staying in a serviced apartment or privately owned vacation home, or knowing where the nearest supermarket or fresh produce market is.
9. Pack all medications you will need on your trip in your carry-on luggage and make sure you always carry them with you in a bag or in your pocket when you reach your destination. Make sure you bring more than enough for your stay and store them in their original containers (in case of questions at customs), plus if possible bring a prescription or note from your doctor.
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