Bali, Indonesia: An easy destination for families with food allergies

It's breakfast at the open-air restaurant overlooking Bali's Jimbaran Bay and my kids have been struck dumb. Normally I'd celebrate the silence. But right now someone is trying to take their breakfast order and they look like they've been asked for the square root of 167.

It strikes me that they've almost never had the simple pleasure of ordering from a menu before. And they've certainly never had a Four Seasons chef standing over their table asking them to order anything – whatever they like – from the a la carte menu in their heads.

"I'll have gluten free pancakes please," says one of them eventually. (At least I think she said please.)

"I'll have gluten free pancakes, too," says the other, "and scrambled eggs. And jam on toast."

One of the joys of eating out is being demanding: you scan a menu, stroke your chin and declare what you most feel like from a dozen or more options. But if you're one of the millions of Australians with allergies or intolerances, it's quite the opposite experience. There are usually just one or two options on a menu – if anything at all. You order what you can, or you stay home and eat where it's safer. And travel is tricky.

We found out that both of our kids had coeliac disease when they were aged three and five. Neither of us has it. But our then-toddler had gone from being a bubbly little boy to a moody tantrum-chucker. It turned out he wasn't absorbing the nutrients in his food. The lining of his stomach had been blitzed by the gluten he was eating, which triggers in coeliacs an auto-immune response.

Gluten is in bread, pasta and cakes. But it's also used in the process of making a lot of other foods such as ice-cream and soy sauce. When you're gluten-free by diagnosis, not by choice, crumbs matter. Even gluten free bread cooked in the same toaster as regular bread, or buttered with butter that was used for regular bread, can make you sick. French fries cooked in the same oil as battered fish? Not good either.

Now try explaining that to a waiter in a restaurant with limited English and you'll get a sense of why travel is so difficult for coeliacs, or for anyone who cannot eat certain foods. About one in 70 Australians has coeliac disease, research suggests. As for allergies, we have possibly the highest rate in the world for children, with one in 10 experiencing a food allergy. In the past two decades, there has been a two- to three-fold increase in the number of people presenting to emergency departments in Australia because of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions) to food and medications.

But if eating out in restaurants at home can be a hair-raising experience, you can forget about spontaneously scoffing down some tasty street food in Hanoi or Honolulu. So when we set out to plan a family holiday, it has to be somewhere the kids won't get accidentally "glutened", and over two well-planned weeks at high-end resorts and in a self-catering villa in Seminyak, we find Bali surprisingly user-friendly.

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Sure, there's the doctor who prescribes antibiotics for our seven-year-old's ear infection and tells us he's never heard of coeliac disease. And there are the well-meaning cafes catering to fad diets that have "GF" next to dishes made with soy sauce (not GF). But in the western enclaves of Legian, Seminyak, Ubud and Canggu, the wellness culture that makes Bali one of the three Bs alongside Bondi and Byron Bay is making it easier than ever for those with dietary restrictions to travel to Australia's favourite holiday destination.

I've always been a sceptic of fad diets but I've never been so grateful for them as I was on this trip to Bali with two kids who can't eat most of the menu. Half the menus we see have vegan and gluten free options marked up. In Ubud, I see the first sign I've ever seen, anywhere, advertising a "coeliac-friendly menu", and we find more 100 per cent gluten-free cafes and restaurants in two weeks than we have in the last four years living in Sydney.

Our kids have reached the ages of seven and nine believing croissants all tasted like cardboard. But in Bali, we find the best example of a gluten-free croissant we've yet tasted. Made's Banana Flour Bakery is pioneering the art of baking with banana flour and is making bread, pastries, waffles, burgers and pizzas that draw in travellers from the West. It also supplies more than 300 of Bali's cafes and restaurants and delivers to your door if you so desire. Next stop Australia, where it is looking at setting up soon in Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth – and where doctors know all about coeliac disease.

And at the Four Seasons Bali resorts at Jimbaran Bay and Sayan, the business of dietary requirements is taken very seriously indeed. Executive chefs Phillip Taylor and Jean Philippe Guiard both estimate that one in five guests has an allergy, a dietary restriction or a strong preference. From gluten free to nut allergies, veganism and paleo, five-star hospitality is now in large part about meeting very specific dining demands.

"Four Seasons has a principle that you can personalise your stay and that extends to dining," says Taylor, who has spent 10 years in resorts in Asia after training at Melbourne's Vue de Monde. "Four weeks ago we had someone stay who told us, 'I'm keto, paleo, gluten-free and I don't eat nuts.' We discuss every single guest who has a dietary requirement. It's on a big whiteboard and we have a daily briefing.

"It's like the more dietaries you have," he laughs, "the more VIP you are."

It's probably why our extensive research of coeliac Facebook groups and internet forums turned up repeated recommendations for Four Seasons resorts – from Bali to Mexico. The price is high, but it buys you a level of caution that some other five-star resorts struggle to meet.

The kids are soon ordering up plates of sashimi, nasi goreng and more burgers and spaghetti than you can poke a GF french fry at. And we can relax, which is after all the hardest thing for travellers with allergies to do.

FIVE TIPS WHEN TRAVELLING WITH DIETARY RESTRICTIONS

BALI IS BETTER THAN MOST

Ali Conlan, who runs short fitness retreats from Australia with the company Active Escapes, says Bali is better than more far-flung destinations such as Greece and the Maldives where they "find it very hard to understand some guests don't want any meat or animal product in their diet", for example.

LOOK TO SEMINYAK AND UBUD

Rebecca Tippett, a Perth-based dietician who used to live in Bali, says: "I recommend areas such as Seminyak due to the large number of high-end restaurants, often owned by expats, that offer GF options and menus. Ubud also has many restaurants that are well versed in GF dining."

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Take a card with an explanation of any dietary no-go zone written in Bahasa Indonesian and show it to wait staff and chefs.

GO HIGH-END

If you can afford it, high-end resorts are more likely to exercise the level of training and care you need in their kitchens. Same for restaurants, as a rule.

TAP THE HIVE-MIND

The internet is teeming with tips from other gluten-free and allergic travellers. Mine resources such as Facebook, TripAdvisor and Instagram before you go for ideas and feedback from others who've been before you.

TRIP NOTES

Joel Gibson was a guest of Four Seasons Resorts Bali.

MORE

traveller.com.au/Indonesia

indonesia.travel

FLY

Qantas flies to Denpasar daily from Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com

STAY

Rates at Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay start at $US649 (about $965) for a one-bedroom Garden Villa in low season, and rates at Four Seasons Sayan start at $US523 in low season for a one-bedroom Duplex Suite. These are promotional rates, include tax and service charges, and are subject to terms and conditions.

EAT

Seminyak: Made's Banana Flour Cafe, Jalan Kayu Aya, No. 5. Its bakery is in Canggu about 2 kilometres from the beach at on Batu Bolong No.41. Also try Barbacoa, Motel Mexicola, Jackson Lily's (all in Seminyak); Dietician Rebecca Tippett recommends Sarong, Sea Circus, Earth Cafe (all in Seminyak) and Monsieur Spoon (Seminyak, Canggu and Ubud). See madesbakery.com

Ubud: Ubud Gluten Free Kitchen, Jalan Sriwedari, No. 2, Ubud.

Bingin: Cashew Tree Collective.

Legian: Seaside Restaurant (recommended by Rebecca Tippett).

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