Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

Special dietary requirements are getting more attention these days, both from cruise lines and from travel agents.

But few go to the lengths of chartering an entire ship for a group that is traveling together based on shared dietary issues.

The Celiac Cruise Europe is scheduled to sail March 16 to 22 on the AmaWaterways ship the AmaViola. The 6-day sailing down the Danube River from Vilshofen, Germany, to Budapest will be entirely gluten-free, including gluten-free pretzels and gluten-free beer, according to Connie Saunders, CEO of Total Travel and Events, Inc., of Winter Garden, Fla.

Saunders said the concept for a gluten-free cruise was inspired by one of the 35 agents working at the company whose young son was diagnosed with Celiac disease, a severe intolerance of gluten in foods.

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, an estimated 1 in 100 people worldwide have some signs of the autoimmune disease, which can damage the small intestine. While avoiding gluten has become somewhat fashionable as a health precaution in the general population, those with Celiac disease are medically required to abstain.

People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye and barley, such as bread and beer.

Following a successful experience with a large group on Royal Caribbean International, Saunders approached AmaWaterways about offering a gluten-free river cruise. Kristen Karst, the line's executive vice president and cofounder, said the best approach would be to take one of the very first cruises of the season. The sailing is a "pre-cruise," the week before the regular season begins.

"Imagine a cruise ship finishing its holiday season at New Year's, being completely cleaned. Then it's completely cleaned (again) when it comes out of drydock. So no gluten is going to be on this ship at all," Saunders said.

Chartering a ship is a big step for an agency, and a first for Saunders who admits to being nervous about the risk. She said she has a couple dozen cabins left in inventory at this point. The AmaViola has a standard capacity of 156 passengers.

Saunders said she has support for the cruise from the Celiac Disease Foundation, whose CEO, Marilyn Geller, will be accompanying the group. Also on the cruise will be Dr. Aline Charabaty, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and Clinical Director of Gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins/ Sibley Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Depending on demand, Saunders is optimistic that the Celiac Cruise will be more than a one-off voyage and the start of a continuing line of business for her agency. "Hopefully we'll do it a million more times," she said.

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