If you are a Coeliac like me it can be quite daunting going on holiday.
I thought it might be useful to share my experience at the Moon Palace the Grand Cancun (a luxury all-inclusive hotel in Mexico).
It’s quite detailed, but if you are a Celiac/Coeliac or just Gluten-Free, you will probably be quite glad for all the info you can get!
I am a Coeliac (Celiac), I found out four months ago; for those who don’t know it means I can’t eat any food with gluten in it, not even a crumb! Even foods that are cross-contaminated are a problem, so if I am to eat safely restaurants really have to know what they are doing.
It can be really daunting for a Coeliac to go on holiday, so I thought it might be useful to share my experience at the Grand at Moon Palace (a luxury all-inclusive hotel in Cancun). A little background to my trip, I’ve only been out to eat once since my diagnosis. I went to Cote (a French restaurant in London), and it went well. I had a lovely meal and felt normal which was nice. I wasn’t glutened, so big bonus!
Other than that I’ve been not that bothered about eating out and trying to avoid takeaways, as my local options are pitifully scarce so it’s hardly a temptation. Weirdly enough, most of the takeout options near me are Pizza based and they don’t look very appetising. In actual fact, they are smaller, more expensive, and don’t look very tasty (Gluten Free tax!).
Pouring through loads of social media posts, it seems quite clear that Coeliacs (Celiacs for my Transatlantic pals) aren’t well catered for generally. Yet strangely I get the feeling that things could be quite different if you know where to go on holiday. Let’s find out if it’s true.
Wait a sec. who are you? is the question I am sure no one is asking. Well anyway, I am Robin Alterman, Director at Sunny Escapes and some might say I have skin in the game; however, what follows is just my honest opinion which hopefully some might find quite useful.
I read a few blogs before I left which suggested I needed to pack a sizeable suitcase full of gluten-free (GF) emergency foods. I packed a bit, but not loads as I was feeling pretty confident the Grand at Moon Palace could handle my dietary requirements from all the stuff I had read online.
The Flight – BA LGW to CUN (10 hours)
Put it like this, I was glad I brought some sandwiches and snacks with me.
The lunch was plain chicken, and unsurprisingly tasteless. The chicken was accompanied by couscous (edible) and a sorry-looking salad. Of course, I was treated to the obligatory rice crackers on the side (lucky me). Delightfully, I received a Ciabatta roll from Schar that should have been cooked, according to the packet, but wasn’t. Cheers British Airway, great job!
I couldn’t confidently identify the dinner I received later as food, so gave it a wide berth. To be honest most of the rest of the passengers including my family (muggles*) didn’t look like they were enjoying their food either. I figured the return journey wouldn’t be much better.
* Muggles are what Coeliac folk call non-coeliacs.
The Hotel – The Grand at Moon Palace in Cancun
I should confess that I’ve been to the Grand three times before (pre-Coeliac) so I really know my way around. I know the restaurants pretty well, both in the Grand and all over the Moon Palace. I’ve worked in travel for around 13 years and visited more than 50 hotels in the Cancun region in 8 previous trips, so I am quite well placed to compare it to other similar hotels.
I know the Grand is an incredible hotel, with probably some of the best food you can get in almost any all-inclusive hotel in Cancun. To be honest, I doubt anyone can truly verify this, as there are probably 800+ hotels in the area, but I would say it’s an educated guess.
The hotel is to my mind indisputably a great hotel, and of course incredibly Grand! I am very lucky to have been here so many times. I was, however, concerned that being Coeliac would take the gloss off this incredible hotel, and it wouldn’t be the same.
I must make it clear that this is my experience, but I cannot guarantee that it will be yours! I am literally putting my body on the line for you to read this!
First Few Days
The first few days were crucial to my understanding of what and where I can eat, so this is what I discovered:
On arrival at the hotel, I didn’t have time to inform Guest Services about my Coeliac personally as advised pre-travel. I had, however, mentioned it on the Palace Resorts app pre-check-in. It’s definitely worth downloading this app, it’s very useful but not perfect! You can see all the restaurant menu’s from the app, make reservations, and a lot more.
We got in pretty late and made our way confidently to the Lebanese restaurant Habibi, an old favourite of ours. I was armed with an incredibly useful Coeliac card in Spanish that I purchased from Coeliac Sanctuary, which I highly recommend. It certainly made life much easier, and throughout the course of my stay, many people saw this card and were instantly enlightened.
It was very late, 9 pm Mexican time, but about 3 am for us, so needless to say we were knackered, and not up for a big meal. I flashed the card at the restaurant front desk and was pleased by the knowing reaction I received. At the table, I asked the waiter what I can have and he simply said “rice and salad”. I was disappointed, but it turned out I didn’t ask the right question.
Have a look at the menu when you go to a restaurant, then tell the waiter what you would like. All the GF options will be clearly shown on the menu. They should go off and discuss your choices with the Chef to see if they can make food Coeliac safe. It is easier if you pick the clearly marked GF items on the menu, but you’d be surprised what they can make for you if they exclude Gluten components, like the sauces. The restaurant staff here are well trained in how to avoid cross-contamination in all the main restaurants.
Habibi has a separate GF oven, and the Chefs are certainly clued up. They whipped me up some flamed grilled Chicken skewers and rice (Shish Touk) which were delicious, and about all I could handle at the time. In actuality, they made me four massive perfectly grilled skewers two of which I had to offload to my family. So far so good, and not glutened! I won’t keep talking about being glutened, but I will mention it if it happens, which of course wouldn’t be good.
Caribeno is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is a buffet, but for lunch and dinner, Caribeno is essentially a seafood restaurant. It’s not the biggest buffet, but we like that, it’s usually not too busy and the service is top-notch.
I flashed my GF Free card at the front desk lady, who told the waiter who in turn called the manager. Together they made me feel at ease. They suggested not getting food from the Buffet, so instead, I told them what I fancied, and they brought all the food to me. To be honest I felt a bit special as most people don’t get to eat a ‘la carte at a buffet!
The breakfast was really good: a plate of beautifully sweet and fresh melon and a delicious omelette.
This was when I realized that I probably needed to speak to guest services. It was chucking it down with rain and we got stuck in the lobby. In these circumstances in previous visits, I grabbed a sandwich from the Boulangerie (coffee shop plus) or went to the Grand Buffet for a quick bite. The lady at the Boulangerie said that basically, everything had Gluten in it, so I knew this was a no-go. The Grand Buffet was heaving so I found it a bit daunting, imagining, probably wrongly, that they wouldn’t be able to handle me.
I was frustrated, and headed back to my room and grabbed one GF snack I had brought with me. At this point, I figured maybe I hadn’t packed enough backup food, and getting sweet stuff was going to be problematic. On previous visits, we often went to the Boulangerie throughout the day. It’s a bit like Starbucks on steroids, and it’s free and very hard to resist.
Disappointed by my lunch experience and suffering from sugar withdrawal I trudged off to Guest Services.
Please know that If I name any staff in this lengthy blog, it is with prior consent. I believe that service levels at this hotel are exceptionally high, although when the hotel is busy sometimes the staff can get a bit flustered in some restaurants, which I think is totally understandable.
So anyway, I sat down with a very nice chap at guest services who told me he would inform all the restaurants that they have a Coeliac in residence. I was still a bit concerned so I asked to speak to a Food and Beverages Manager.
This didn’t happen until I came back a second time when an incredibly nice lady (Mariana) spent more than half an hour making all my concerns melt away. She gave me her Whatsapp details and told me to message her every time I was going to go anywhere to eat. I suspect she may have come to regret this, as I messaged her a lot! She was totally brilliant and made my stay so smooth and effortless. She organized almost every meal in advance for me, so I was confident that I would be fine wherever I ate. She arranged for desserts to be sent to every restaurant I went to if required.
She also gave me an email address for Guest Services if I couldn’t get hold of her. She called over one of the restaurant managers (Eduardo) who suggested I make a plan of every restaurant we wanted to visit, so they could be prepared for my arrival. All good stuff, at this point I was feeling total spoilt, with not a care in the world.
Jade was a great restaurant for us on our previous visit. We ate there five times so it obviously doesn’t suck! When I arrived at the restaurant I went through the pre-eating routine that I had just developed.
It went like this:
1) Give your room number to the restaurant front desk staff, who should automatically know someone in your party is a Coeliac. Point out to them who it is, a quick flash of your Coeliac eating card doesn’t hurt either!
2) Flash the Coeliac card at the waiter too.
3) Check through the menu and tell the waiter what you might like to have, they may call over the Chef, or just check with Chef.
The waiter should come back to you and tell you what you can eat, which in this instance wasn’t very much. I may have missed a trick here, as I didn’t know what to ask for. To cut a long story short, I ended up with rice with vegetables which was pretty good, but also unseasoned chicken and beef skewers which were mostly tasteless.
As it turns out Jade uses gluten in most of their sauces, so they were a bit scared to feed me anything that wasn’t plain. It was disappointing, but the rest of my family wolfed down their food, so it must have been pretty good. I didn’t stick around for dessert.
I decided I wouldn’t go back to Jade for the rest of my stay. I am not convinced it’s the place for Coeliacs.
For Muggles (Non-Coeliacs) it’s very good, although the service can be patchy.
Cusco for lunch is a buffet.
It’s not the biggest buffet, it’s a large restaurant but has a comparatively small buffet. It’s located out in the corner of the resort, and we often find it to be quite empty for breakfast and lunch. Today was no exception. This is no reflection on the food, purely the location. People seem to want to be where the action is I’ve noticed (generally the Grand Lobby), even if it means they have to wait longer for their food. After going through the Pre-eating routine, the chef whipped me up some Chicken and Potatoes. Pretty decent, but not mind-blowing! They surprised me with a GF dessert – Panna Cotta and took great pride in doing so, which was rather sweet of them.
In the afternoon, we head off to the waterpark, and upon our return to the room, I was pleasantly surprised to find six large GF chocolate brownies and a big pot of tea. They were excellent and I was dead chuffed. I knew I was going to be well looked after from here on in at the Grand. It’s probably worth mentioning that whenever meals were cooked exclusively for me, which I suspect was most of the time, I was given huge portions. I knew I would return to the UK more of a man than I left! (4 kilos more to be precise).
Full Disclosure: I love this restaurant, and if I could eat dinner here every day I probably would! It’s peculiarly not busy when everything else is. Actually, it’s totally mystifying, but then people are weird. The staff here are so lovely and incredibly accommodating. I can’t imagine feeling less anxious about eating at a restaurant than I do right here, and am trying to work out ways to franchise this restaurant and bring it back to the UK.
I’ll talk more about this and other restaurants, and the food later.
Tea and Cakes (Dessert)
As an Englishman, I feel dutybound to have tea and cake at 4 pm (or Tiffin if you are of a certain age). I mentioned a few times that I was concerned I would struggle with desserts, cakes, biscuits, etc to Guest Services. I told them I love all things chocolate, and later reiterated this point in a WhatsApp and an email, with my suggestions of what they could do to make me happy! I figured it was my holiday, and why shouldn’t I be as gluttonous* as everyone else at the hotel?
From this point on, tea and cakes were delivered to my room at 4 pm daily, definitely a nice touch. After 5 days of receiving Chocolate Brownies in my room, I spoke to Eduardo again, and he managed to switch up the tea-time cakes for me. It’s also worth keeping in touch with Guest Services and letting them know what desserts you want for an evening, or things could get repetitive.
* Interesting that the word Gluttonous and Gluten are quite similar? Do you have to eat Gluten to be Gluttonous, I wonder; possibly, but not at this hotel!
I was concerned about drinks, so I mentioned this at Guest Services, and was informed that the bars and restaurants were kept totally separate, and the drinks without gluten in them naturally wouldn’t be contaminated. So all good on that front! However, drinks did turn out to be quite problematic, as the bar staff were never that confident of which drinks I could safely consume. I was told frequently that Vodka was safe, but that’s not my tipple. Unfortunately, there is definitely room for improvement here, as I mostly drank Tea, Water and Lemonade throughout my stay, interspersed with the odd Miami Vice. I felt the safest drinking at restaurants, but not at any outside bars.
This worked pretty well, but allow plenty of time for your food. We placed the order on the app which is pretty decent and very promptly received a phone call from the kitchen just checking which food needed to be GF. The food arrived quite quickly and was surprisingly tasty. I had the same experience with both breakfast and lunch orders. Room service can also deliver food poolside if organized with Guest Services.
You will need to get reservations for these restaurants at the Grand:
JC’s Steak house
Le Chateau (French)
La Cantina (Mexican street food)
Casa Mia (Mexican fine dining)
The other restaurants don’t require reservations.
It can still be hard to get into Jade (Oriental) and Tavola (Italian) however, they are really popular.
Guest Services pre-booking restaurants for my whole stay was definitely a huge bonus for us, as it can be hard to get into the restaurants you want when the hotel is busy.
The app doesn’t always work that well and it can appear that getting dinner reservations can be tricky. I’ve been in restaurants that were barely half full, but I wouldn’t have been able to eat there if Guest Services hadn’t arranged it for me. A couple of restaurant managers told me that it’s definitely worth trying to arrange reservations in person, and I am pretty sure they knew what they were talking about!
Lunch around the pool
After eating by myself a couple of times, I decided it might be nice if I could eat around the pool like normal folks. There are gluten-free options on the poolside menus, however, it was clear that they couldn’t guarantee the food would be safe from cross-contamination. This could only be guaranteed in a proper restaurant kitchen and Los Tacos.
I managed to organize lunch around the pool with Guest Services (Marianna). I had the option of choosing food from either Caribeno or the room service menu. I gave them plenty of time to make my order, and it all went off pretty smoothly. This arrangement worked very well as Caribeno and room service are both good options for poolside eating, however, Los Tacos is very good if you prefer table service. If only I’d worked this out earlier in my stay, not 3 days before the end! Aren’t you lucky you get to learn from my mistakes!
My god, you lot are keen to still be with me! I guess you want to know about the restaurants.
Ok, you twisted my arm:
Habibi is a Lebanese restaurant, and it’s ridiculously easy to get into when you have to queue for other restaurants. This makes no sense to me, as I love this restaurant, and if I could eat dinner here every day I probably would. More people should know how good this is, but then I guess it would be harder for me to get a table ( it can be our secret).
The staff here are so lovely and accommodating. I can’t imagine feeling less anxious about eating at a restaurant than I do right here, and I’ve been trying to work out ways to franchise this restaurant and bring it back to the UK.
Breakfast: They do a wonderful A La Carte breakfast here, definitely one you must try.
Lunch and Dinner: Yes indeed you can have an A La Carte lunch here, and it’s the same menu as dinner. This is a great option to get out of the sun and cool down.
It doesn’t really matter what you eat here, everything is delicious. There are plenty of gluten-free options marked on the menu, and I even had stuff that wasn’t marked GF, they just removed the offending foods. Case in point, the Lamb Schwarma with Labna (cheese dip), without the wrap is wonderful!
The grilled meats and fish are particularly good here, and I love the rice dishes (particularly the rice with lentils and caramelized onion – M’djurra – below), which you have to try. In fact, just come often and try everything, you won’t be disappointed!
The desserts are out of this world, however, there weren’t many I could actually eat. It pays to get desert organized in advance.
I ate here by myself one evening after we tried as a family to go to the Grill for dinner, to be told the wait time was one and half hours (I’m sure that was an exaggeration). So I headed to Habibi and got a table straight away, while my family headed off to Jade.
I was treated like a king and ate like one too, and although after the mains I was ridiculously full they proudly brought me out a special dessert which I had a good crack at (a chocolate nest). I got a few special desserts here, Crème Caramel and Chocolate Ganache to name a couple.
Let me make special mention of the two restaurant managers that looked after me particularly well, who you should contact if you are to eat here – Susanna or Viridiana.
I’ve already talked about Jade earlier on in the blog.
It’s a great restaurant and probably the most visited one in the hotel, it’s pretty big, but not great for gluten dodgers like me. Well, you can’t have everything, as we Non-Muggles are well aware. Still, plenty of other wonderful restaurants to choose from.
Tavola is an Italian restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, with pretty much the same menu for each sitting. We have eaten here a lot on previous visits, and I am going to guess that this is the second most visited a la carte restaurant at the Grand. It’s very popular and there is almost always a queue to get in. I was desperate for Pizza, a sentiment shared by most other Gluten dodgers, I reckon. All I can say is Tavola had a stab at it, but basically, they used Gluten Free flatbreads from Habibi as the base, and it doesn’t really work. If you want Pizza it’s probably worth mentioning this to the staff at the reservation desk, so they have time to organise it.
The pasta was better.
I only returned here once again, as I found better GF options at other restaurants.
Casa Mia is an extraordinary Mexican fine dining experience. We nearly didn’t come here, as I had a previous experience of Mexican cuisine at another hotel that wasn’t all that positive. Fortunately, we did, as this is a superb restaurant.
The restaurant was often quiet which is weird and wrong! I just don’t think other people know how good it is in here. Upon a later conversation with the lovely restaurant manager, it turns out the palace app doesn’t work too well, which explains why it’s so hard to get a reservation, yet often is not that busy.
Everything we had here was delicious, and nearly everything on the menu is gluten-free. I’m not a restaurant critic, so I can’t paint you a sensory picture, although I can show you some actual pictures. It’s fancy food, it’s all so beautifully presented, I imagine this is what Michelin-starred food is like.
For dessert, they made me a lovely Apple Crème Brulee which was stunning.
I mentioned to Angelica (RM) how much I liked the Ganache on a previous visit (we ate here three times this holiday), and she asked the chef to make it for me for lunch the next day; Chef Diego made me two! (Tip: lose weight before you go to this hotel!)
The staff here were outstanding, they guided us through our food choices, and keep bringing us cheeky little side dishes, each one superb!
Let me make special mention of the following staff:
Daniel Rosario (our waiter/kind soul)
Angelica Bruno (restaurant manager and wonderful human)
All the other staff whose names I don’t know but were also fantastic…. cue Oscar music!
JC’s is one of the most popular restaurants at the Grand, and not easy to get a reservation. Despite its title, it has quite a varied menu and a fair few choices that are GF. It’s one of those restaurants that everyone wants to eat at, and the food is generally excellent. Steak restaurants generally cater well for Coeliacs, but I found it had a fairly limited menu for me, and nothing for dessert unless pre-arranged (tip: pre-arrange your dessert!)
Not that much on the menu was GF (no desserts were guaranteed to be Coeliac safe). I mentioned I wanted short rib tacos, so they kindly made them for me without the sauce (beer based), and they were still delicious! My steak and truffle-infused chips were also really tasty.
When I discussed desserts with the waiter pre-meal and said I was disappointed that I couldn’t have one, they managed to rustle up another Crème Caramel for me. Eduardo came over to see how everything was going, which was a nice touch. I told him all was great, and he was happy.
A really good option for lunch. I was able to completely avoid the buffet, as the waiters were happy to take my order at the table. The food did take a while, as I was told it would. They had to change the oil to fry me up some chips, but they were worth the wait, they were excellent. I also had grilled chicken which was totally delicious. Lunch was so good, that I came back the next day for a repeat performance. The family that joined me were equally impressed with the food if perhaps a little envious that I got table service, and they didn’t. Poor Muggles, it’s a hard life for them (boo hoo)!
Caribeno is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is a buffet, but for lunch and dinner, Caribeno is essentially a seafood restaurant. It’s not the biggest buffet, but we like that, it’s usually not too busy and the service is top-notch. Throughout my stay, the wonderful Caribeno staff looked after me the most. They had the pleasure of my company every morning and for many lunches; some of which they were kind enough to deliver to me poolside. I have to give massive credit here to the wonderful Carolina (restaurant manager) who looked after me so well. I was also waited on brilliantly by Marisol, amongst many others.
I ate à la carte here for all meals including breakfast upon great advice from Carolina, which set the template for my holiday. I didn’t go near a buffet all holiday, purely for safety reasons you understand, not because it made me feel special or anything!
Los Tacos is a brilliant lunchtime option for the gluten averse. A lot of stuff on the menu is gluten-free, they prepare it really quickly too. The staff here are very helpful and attentive. The food is also very tasty. This is probably the easiest way for us to have lunch around the pool. Hey, guess what? they serve lots of Tacos here, and yes they are very good. The staff here are attentive and helpful, and the service is swift. You’ll need that dip in the pool after you eat here to work off a few calories and all that.
Yeah, I know most of you probably skipped all the good stuff in the middle straight down to this boring old bit, shame on you! I made you scroll quite a bit, didn’t I, imagine how long it took me to write it, for you to skip all the sexy content – “Shame, Shame, Shame…”.
Let’s start with this, I put on 4 kilos in 14 days, and didn’t get glutened. I’ll just leave it there.
This is a fabulous hotel, and coming here as a Coeliac didn’t diminish this unassailable fact. If anything, the service I experienced on this holiday rose to new heights.
The food was plentiful and lovely with many different options for me. Cross-contamination is very well understood in all restaurants, although the bars should be a bit more clued up when it comes to the drinks. I would say that if you aren’t a friend of gluten or a Coeliac like me this hotel is a superb option. I have heard that all Palace Resorts are equally as diligent in their approach to allergens, but that I cannot personally verify.
If you are a hotelier and would like me to review your hotel on the same basis, feel free to contact me. I would, however, prefer it if you were very confident that I won’t get glutened!
Director – Sunny Escapes