It was a website that hooked me on the idea of the Bahamas. A site that held the promise of palm trees, white sand, smiling tourists, cavorting dolphins, and the prospect of escaping sub-zero temperatures. We needed a vacation; we needed to get away for at least a solid week, and it had to be somewhere warm. I braced myself for the “sell”. Upon showing my husband Mark and our 6-year-old daughter Maya photos of a family-friendly resort – the Atlantis – I waited expectantly.
And then it came. “What are we going to do for food?” asked Mark.
I couldn’t help but sigh. What would we do indeed? I’d traveled by air on my own, with my multiple allergies, to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and egg, many times. I’d traveled to Rio de Janeiro, England, and throughout North America, and reacted only once, as a teenager. Careful advance planning had prevented future reactions. But traveling to the Caribbean with not only my own allergies in tow but our daughter’s idiopathic allergy (food culprit as yet unknown after basic skin scratch testing, but the allergist prescribed an EpiPen Jr. and advised us to keep a food diary) felt riskier.
If we were going to do this, we’d have to plan really well. I began to have some doubts. Maybe Disney World was more our speed?
The beach and our idealized dolphin swim won out, however, and it was time to plan. This involved calling the chef’s office at the hotel and filling out their forms, buying travel health insurance, preparing an allergy emergency plan, obtaining extra epinephrine auto-injectors, Googling the distance between the resort and the nearest hospital, and requesting a mini-fridge. (Thank you, Atlantis!)
I was delighted to learn that the Canadian airline, WestJet, had an Atlantis package deal available. WestJet is well known and appreciated in Canada for its allergy awareness. Unlike many airlines, they make on-plane announcements on request, asking that peanuts and/or nuts brought on board by other passengers not be opened due to the presence of an allergic flyer.
Next up – food. I pack allergy-safe staples when I travel, so I prepared the list, which included canned fish, cereal, cookies, and crackers. (These were handy when the restaurant at which we had hoped to dine the first evening was closed.) Before leaving, I learned that there was a supermarket a short cab ride away from the hotel, so on arrival, we stocked up on U.S. import staples such as milk, luncheon meat, cheese, and juice. It saved us a fair bit of money as well, as we enjoyed breakfasts and most lunches in our rooms.
On departure day, everything went smoothly. WestJet allowed us to pre-board so that I could wipe down the armrests and seat trays. The flight was fairly brief, and Maya was thrilled when she received a first-time flyer pin from the flight attendant.
The hotel was good at taking information about allergies at the chef’s office, but allergic guests are ultimately responsible for speaking with the chefs to ask food allergy questions before ordering each meal. In the end, we chose two regular restaurants, Murray’s Deli, and Johnny Rockets. The chefs and serving staff at both were wonderful.
One chef brought out the can of cheese sauce used to prepare mac and cheese so we could read the ingredient label. The chefs usually prepared our dishes themselves, and checked on us a few times during our meals. We kept foods simple: sandwiches, deli meat, plain juices, and the like. We didn’t risk Asian or Caribbean cuisines. (Though I took notes from Bahamian cookbooks in the Atlantis library to try out at home.)
And the serving staff seemed as excited to be there as we were. At one point, Maya began dancing and two waitresses joined her while my husband and I fell over laughing. How does a 6-year-old know how to move like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, anyway?
The social club for kids, teens, and families (called Crush) was allergy-aware, too. There was a fee to enter, but it was money well spent. It was a sensory feast, with a dance floor, movies and video games. Our daughter had more reason to dance when we noted several peanut- and nut-free treats at the snack bar, including Charms Fluffy Stuff cotton candy and Bahamas Goombay Punch – a delicious, if preternaturally sweet, soft drink with notes of pineapple.
Off-site, we enjoyed swimming, lazing on the beach and by the pools, Nassau’s Straw Market, a Junkanoo parade, and the Ardastra Zoo, where we fed apple slices to lorikeets. But without a doubt, the highlight of our trip was one we’d all been waiting for – time spent in the water at Dolphin Encounters.
It was certainly exciting to hug, pat, and get splashed by the dolphin, but then, the trainer instructed him to kiss each participant one by one on the lips. At this point, I should mention that my knowledge of food allergy related situations is pretty solid, but never had it occurred to me that you had to be careful not to kiss dolphins, as you never knew what the previous participants had eaten for breakfast. Allergen cross-contamination on a dolphin’s snout – that was a new one for the books. We passed on the kissing, but as we were being given feeder fish to offer to our new cetacean friend, I realized how fishy the water smelled. Fortunately, none of us are allergic to fish. Definitely not recommended for someone who is.
On our return home to Ottawa, we had a long airport layover, during which we tucked into allergy-friendly pizza – a treat after a vacation spent eating repetitive fare. But that didn’t matter. After all – we’d done it. We’d enjoyed a safe family vacation and were (mostly) ready to face the winter again. And with that thought, I reached for the can of Bahamas Goombay Punch that I’d brought back with me in my luggage.
Andrea Shainblum is President of Allercom Allergy Consulting, Inc. Allercom offers allergy and celiac risk-reduction training and allergy policy development services, as well as allergy coaching services. For more information, please visit www.allercom.com