Vacation, Celiac Disease and Miramar Beach, Florida
Our family recently took a vacation to the Hilton Sandestin in Miramar Beach, Florida. This was our very first trip to take with our kids to see the beach. We were so excited to see their faces when they saw the waves and were able to sink their toes in the sand. Absolute heaven for a five and three year old. This was also our first vacation where we stayed in a hotel with her since the diagnosis. I wanted to write a little review on the hotel and the location to hopefully help other families going through similar obstacles.
A little backstory...our daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease two weeks before her 4th birthday. The first year was a big adjustment for us. We knew it ran in the family but had not researched celiac in as much detail as we did when our daughter was diagnosed. Our daughter's tTG-IgA count was very high and she was so incredibly sick that we made the decision to stop eating out and start cooking almost every single day to provide her with the best food she could get to nourish her body back to health. She was on the verge of looking emaciated and her eyes were hollowed out. She couldn't keep anything she ate in her tummy. Our house immediately became 100% celiac friendly and I transformed into a very strict celiac momma.
Back to the vacation...We started by flying out of DFW, which was not a great experience for Hailey. It wasn't the airline, it was actually the fact we wanted to eat lunch before boarding, so we chose Catina Laredo to eat in Terminal B. We sat down and asked for plain grilled chicken for our daughter and explained celiac. They were smart enough to send over the manager, who quickly told us all of their meats are marinated in soy sauce and are not gluten free. She said really none of their food on the menu is safe for celiacs, so Hailey sat there and watched us all eat. That look on her face when she feels left out, but doesn't say anything is disheartening. It was easier to quickly eat with our three year old and then take her through Starbucks to get a certified gluten free snack then to walk up and down the terminal finding a safe place to eat. Hailey ended up being sad the rest of the day. Something about that situation just really gets her down. It was a lose lose situation because I had to feed my three year old.
Then there was the hotel...
First, I had previously called the Hilton to ask about the restaurants and find out what was available to my daughter about a week prior to flying out. The menu's on the website led me to believe they were extremely gluten free friendly and the family rooms that you can book there have microwaves and a dorm room style refrigerator. The bunk beds were a huge hit with our kids. The only issue is, I never received a call back from them, so when we arrived my husband and I called downstairs to ask the food and beverage manager and they had a front desk person call us back and say, "just tell your waiter you are gluten free". I was trying to determine what was celiac friendly and not just the fad diet "gluten free" that you so often see on menus. This concerned me that they were not willing to tell us the best place to go in the hotel and if there were specific items on the gluten free menu that were more specifically celiac friendly. Telling us we have to discuss celiac at every single meal we sat down to have with a new waiter was not the answer I was hoping to receive... I wanted to know they knew the difference between being on a fad diet of gluten free food, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and celiac disease where cross contamination is a big issue. I wanted to know what items were on their menu that she could order without having to have the conversation with our waiter right in front of her. It was vacation. We wanted her to get a mental break from always having to discuss celiac disease. It really does get exhausting for her.
The first night we went to the Hilton Barefoot grille on the pool deck. I ordered a gluten free bun and explained to the waitress that Hailey and I had an "allergy". That is many times the easiest thing to say to waitstaff and have them understand the importance of cross-contamination. She had someone else bring the food and it was on a gluten bun. I took two bites and thought to myself, this really doesn't taste gluten free. She stopped by to check on us and when I told her, her eyes got big and offered to bring a gluten free bun. This told me two things: 1) she didn't really understand cross contamination, because if she did she would have taken the burger, brought me a new one immediately and sent a manger over to make sure we were okay and 2) the rest of the restaurants at this Hilton may be the same way, unless it was just this waitress and it was an isolated incident.
Any celiac knows those two bites could have ruined the rest of our vacation. Like many of you, my symptoms are not immediate. I became very ill about 24 hours later and couldn't leave the room. It's incredibly important for waitstaff not to make one single mistake when they encounter a "gluten allergy". She should have asked me if I was celiac, because that would have told me they were at least trained on it. However, that didn't happen.
Sandcastles is their indoor buffet, breakfast and all-American food restaurant. We were pleasantly surprised with how they prepared waffles and gluten free pancakes on separate equipment. We ordered the kids the gluten free waffles two mornings in a row and our daughter did not get sick either morning. It was awesome. That is however the only gluten free item that was safe for her besides some of the fruit.
We made it to the famous Lulu's Destin restaurant a couple times while on vacation. Before I booked this trip I called them to ask about their separate dedicated allergy kitchen and they were very confident they could serve celiacs. Their confidence was comforting. When we arrived the place was just as cool as it looks on the website, maybe even better. The atmosphere is hard to beat for families with kids. Each waiter was well trained when you said celiac and they immediately stopped you to say, our manager is the one that takes those orders, they will be right over. They not only got the order right each time, Hailey never got sick and they even tried to time the order to come out when the other kitchen brought my husband and son's non-gluten free food! We were pretty impressed. If you have a food allergy, this place rocks and I will support them with my wallet each time we travel back there.
You have to try out Moo La-la Ice Cream & Desserts in The Village of Baytowne Wharf. Super cute and my daughter was able to get cotton candy flavored ice cream, which was her "favorite ever". They use different scoopers and it comes from separate ice cream buckets. They have each ice cream labeled GF that is safe to eat. It was a really adorable place. There were NO good family places to eat that had solid gluten free menus in the Wharf, but it was a really fun evening there.
Overall, it was a wonderful vacation and our daughter did not get sick ONE single time. We did go to the local grocery store, Publix Supermarket at Grand Boulevard and they had a ton of GF options for us to keep in the room. We stocked up on snacks, PB&J sandwiches, GF hot dogs and basic foods like that to feed the kids for lunch each day. That helped us cut down on the restaurants.
Next year we will definitely be looking to rent a house instead so we can have a full kitchen. We probably wouldn't stay at the Hilton Sandestin again. It was nice for families, but it was incredibly crowded, $40 a day for the umbrella rentals on the beach and the rooms/bathrooms were really gross. My kids complained of how their sheets and blankets smelled so I had to call down for fresh ones, but the fresh ones had gross brown or black poop or food stains. Literally every single day. Between the poop stains/food stains on the sheets and the urine smell that hit you when you walked in, it will not be our first choice again.
I hope this has been helpful for some families looking to travel to this area! Reach out to us through the website if you have any questions!