Taking Your Diabetes On A Cruise

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Taking Your Diabetes on a Cruise

Glacier-capped mountains peered down on pine forests. The scent of the trees mingled with the briny smell of the ocean as the ship cut a swath through mirror-smooth water. I leaned back and took a sip of steaming hot coffee. Up on the sun deck, a woman was greeting the day with a yoga routine.

It was going to be the perfect cruise. While it wasn’t the first cruise I’d been on, it was the first where I was determined to take advantage of all the offerings a cruise ship has to offer that can help with diabetes control. I would ride a stationary bicycle while watching the coast slide by. I would eat sensibly. I would walk around neighborhoods that were as foreign to me as my own was familiar.

In years past, just as winter was wearing on us, spring break signaled that it was time for a trip to warmer climes. The grandchildren and I would board a child-friendly ship bound for the Bahamas or to the Caribbean. On ships filled with the shrieks of children and the smell of sunscreen, we’d bask in the sun, lazing the day away.

This time, we waited for the heat of summer and headed north, to Alaska. While the ship catered more to the middle-aged crowd than to the sandbox set, it did have programs geared toward children from toddlers through teens. (My tween and teen were so busy with their new friends, I’d have thought I was alone if not for their clothing littering the stateroom.)

While the kids kept busy and active, however, my plans for healthy cruising went somewhat awry. I did eat some nutritious, low-fat foods. But my intentions to perform lots of physical activity were not realized. Something on the ship triggered my asthma, so I had difficulty breathing. In addition, the chilly and damp weather kicked my arthritis into high gear, so it was difficult to move. And I forgot to pack extra shoes, so I had only the sandals I was wearing when I left the house, which meant I didn’t have footwear suitable for the gym. (While cruise ships generally have clothing for sale, few have shoes. If you’re desperate, however, you may be able to go shoe shopping while the ship is in port.)

Nonetheless, would I do it again, even with the glitches? In a heartbeat.

One thing is common on all the cruise ships I’ve been on: They’re very diabetes-friendly. From fitness centers and spas to menus that cater to nearly every dietary need, these floating resorts do all they can to meet your special needs.

Getting some exercise

Yes, there’s shuffleboard. But there’s a whole lot more on today’s ships designed to get your heart pumping faster.

If nothing else, you’re going to get some walking in. Cruise ships can be nearly as long as four football fields placed end to end. If you need to use a wheelchair, most cruise ships have handicapped-accessible staterooms and public areas. Even if you’re just a bit “creaky,” as I was on this cruise, there’s an easy way to get from one end of the ship to the other: Take the elevator to the Promenade Deck and make your way to the elevator that’s nearest your destination. In between, there are plenty of deck chairs and storage chests to sit down on and rest along the way.

Shipboard gyms or fitness centers are generally located at the front of the ship on an upper deck and have a wall of glass so you can watch the scenery as you work out. Imagine riding a stationary bike or walking or jogging on a treadmill while viewing the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Ocean or the whales and wilderness of Alaska. Strength-training equipment also is generally available, as are fitness classes and seminars on a variety of subjects.

This cruise included such diverse activities as yoga, stretch class, circuit training, body sculpting, group walking, and power walking. Personal trainers also were available. While most amenities are included in the cost of the cruise, there may be a charge for some classes or for a personal trainer.

According to the fitness director on this cruise, the fitness center professionals were all trained in sports science and familiar with the limitations that occur with medical conditions. However, to be on the safe side, make sure you know what your particular limitations are. For example, people who have some forms of neuropathy and people who have proliferative retinopathy or have recently had laser treatment for retinopathy are cautioned against performing certain exercises. Don’t count on ship personnel to know what is and isn’t advisable for you, and don’t be afraid to decline an activity your doctor has advised you against.

If you’re not into formal exercise, try dancing. With the variety of nightclub venues on large ships, you’re sure to find one that fits your style. And if you don’t know how to dance, this might be a good time to take a class. Yes, they’re available, too.

Unless the fitness center or spa has a pool where you can swim against a current, however, you probably won’t be doing laps. Why? Cruise ship pools are wet, but miniscule. You’ll never look at one and say, “Wow! That’s huge!” The hot tubs, however, are sufficient for soaking away the aches and pains of unfamiliar activity. And massages, available in the spa, are also good for relaxation.

Children and teenagers may not be allowed in the fitness centers on cruise ships, but there are often youth programs that offer plenty of activities to get kids moving. Some ships even offer shore excursions just for teens.


OK. Here’s the difficult part: food. It’s everywhere, it’s available all the time, and it’s already been paid for. In addition to the dining room(s), there’s pizza, burgers, and ice cream by the pool, a buffet, perhaps some specialty restaurants (which may have an extra charge), midnight buffets, 24-hour room service, maybe a patisserie or afternoon tea, and the list goes on.

“It’s bad,” sighed Sara, one of my dining companions, who also has Type 2 diabetes.

On the other hand, there’s no better place to be if you have dietary restrictions. Honest. In addition to including a different theme at each night’s seating, menus also list other selections, which can include vegetarian choices, a spa menu, and grilled options.

Gluten-free? Low sodium? Something else? Not a problem. Just let the maître d’ know what you need. You’ll get to preview the next day’s menu, make your choice, and the chef will, if possible, alter the recipe to fit your needs. The maître d’ will let you know which dishes can’t be altered to fit your needs. It takes a bit of the worry away from eating in unfamiliar places during your travels. It’s best, however, not to wait until you board the ship to let the food staff know about your special needs: Tell your travel agent when you book your cruise, and be prepared to submit your requirements in writing.

I had let the cruise line know I have diabetes, and on the first night at dinner, the maître d’ discreetly asked me if I would like to see the next night’s menu so the kitchen could prepare dishes to my needs. I assured him I could make my own selections from the menu and vary my insulin doses accordingly; nothing more was said.

Even with the best of intentions, however, there can be culinary landmines. I could order, for example, a fresh fruit or seafood appetizer, salad with reduced-fat dressing on the side, an entrée either from the night’s specials or from the grilled selections, and sorbet for dessert. But then our waiter would come along and plop a platter of goodies on the table for all to share.

This had never happened to me on any other cruise, and I didn’t notice whether the other tables in the dining room were receiving this same special treatment. I happened to be seated at a particularly fun-loving table filled with common interests (cooking) and circumstances (Type 2 diabetes) and complicated only by a tangle of English and Spanish that our waiter stepped in to unravel when needed. The rapport that existed among all of us — including the wait staff — could have contributed to camaraderie that lent itself to special treats.

In any case, if you are regularly presented with food you didn’t order, you could decline it, ignore it, take a taste (or more), or discreetly ask that the special treats be stopped to help you stick to your meal plan.

Medical needs on board

Ships have medical facilities, but they are usually not equipped to provide treatment for anything beyond minor illnesses or injuries. If something serious happens, you will be stabilized and transported to a hospital on-shore. There is a charge for medical services, and most insurance policies won’t cover those fees. Consider taking out a special policy that would reimburse you for medical expenses incurred while on your vacation.

Be sure to take enough medicines and supplies to last you throughout your trip — plus extra for “just in case.” The ship does not have a pharmacy.

Because I let the cruise line know, via my travel agent, that I have diabetes, there was a sharps container in my stateroom (although I had not specifically asked for one).

As mentioned before, handicapped-accessible facilities are available on most ships, although you might need to stick with the newer ones for the best accommodations. Aside from staterooms and public areas that accommodate wheelchairs, some have TTY (to enable people who are hearing impaired to make and receive phone calls), assistive listening devices in the auditoriums, and Braille signage. In addition, service animals are usually welcome. Again, let your travel agent know what services you need, so the cruise line can make accommodations for you.

Be forewarned that some cruise lines require that people with certain handicaps bring along a companion for assistance.

While there isn’t much that can’t be accommodated on board, hemodialysis is not available on the majority of cruise ships. However, a company called Dialysis at Sea provides dialysis services on some cruises. Call (800) 544-7604 for more information, or log onto www.dialysisatsea.com. Keep in mind that these services may not be covered by your medical insurance. Another option is to arrange for dialysis ahead of time at ports of call. Your home dialysis center may be able to help you set this up.

It can’t be said too many times: Tell your travel agent about any special accommodations you need, so that he can help you select the best ship for your needs.

Choosing your cruise

Because ships come in all “flavors” — from party ships, to those that cater to children, to those that emphasize more “grown-up” activities, choose your cruise according to your lifestyle and interests. If you want to do some research before contacting a travel agent, there are plenty of books available that compare the different cruise ships traveling to specific areas. The aforementioned www.cruisecritic.com has lots of information, from ship reviews to informational articles and even a message board where you can connect with others who are sailing on the same ship or at least the same cruise line.

Bon voyage and have an enjoyable trip. And if you’re sitting in seat 23A on the airplane, look in the pocket in front of you. If you find the novel I was in the midst of reading, let me know how it turns out.

Originally Published March 4, 2009

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