A little over six months ago, Steven and I were drinking our weight in vegan Irish coffees, gorging ourselves on all-you-can-eat vegan food, and enjoying some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.
We also happened to be on a cruise.
Which, if you know me, may seem like an odd choice. For one, I’m a bit of a control
freak enthusiast when it comes to traveling, preferring to make my own plans and set my own schedule. (And, as an introvert, I prefer to spend a decent amount of that schedule alone!) Plus, I’m frugal. “All-inclusive” and “luxury” are not exactly in my personal travel vocabulary. And finally, I’m leery of the environmental effects of cruises and of their less-than-savory reputation when it comes to how they treat their employees.
So why, then, did Steven and I put down a big chunk o’ change to spend a week WITH OTHER PEOPLE on a CRUISE SHIP that was essentially ALL-INCLUSIVE?!
Well, friends, we were on an all-vegan cruise, where we could stuff as much vegan food as we wanted down our gullets before spending our days immersed in pristine, gorgeous nature. Curious? I don’t blame you. Settle in, because I’ve got a LOT to say about this experience — all completely candid, of course.
What is a vegan cruise? Who operates them? Why would I want to join one?!
The first time I heard about Vegan River Cruises (aka Vegan Travel), a German company that organizes all-veg cruises throughout Europe, my ears perked right on up. (Or rather, my eyes bulged — I’m pretty sure I saw it on Reddit first!) I’d always been more interested in the concept of river cruising than ocean cruising, because the boats are smaller, newer, and more eco-friendly, and I loved the idea of seeing European cities from a new perspective. But I’ve always hesitated when it comes to all-inclusives (including cruises) because I don’t want to miss out on the food. Sure, the kitchen might be able to churn out a vegan meal each night, and yeah, you might have access to a salad bar, butttt… let’s be honest. That is NOT the equivalent of the buffets and smorgasbords that characterize most cruises. I would be a grumpy vegan if I had to watch people stuffing their faces 24/7 while I twiddled my thumbs and counted down the hours till dinner. So, when I realized that literally ALL THE FOOD on the VRC ships would be vegan, I was instantly tempted. And when I learned that all toiletries on these cruises are also vegan and cruelty-free, I put another tick in the “SIGN ME UP NOW” column.
Let me backtrack for a second, because it’s important to understand exactly what Vegan River Cruises does. The company itself does not operate or sail ships. Instead, they make arrangements with existing cruise companies to run one-off all-vegan sailings, typically on the company’s existing routes. The boats are still captained and serviced by their regular staff, but behind the scenes, the folks at Vegan River Cruises work super hard to make sure everything is vegan. Well in advance of the trip, they work with chefs — often bringing in an advisor or consultant — to help veganize existing meals and dream up new veg options. They also recommend cruelty-free toiletry brands to stock the bathrooms and vegan vintners to stock the bars.
I’d been monitoring Vegan River Cruises’ upcoming journeys for a few months when I saw a new one pop up: their first-ever cruise of the Norwegian fjords. These majestic soaring mountains and their pristine waters had been on my must-visit list for a while, and I’d always heard that the best way to experience the fjords is by sailing through them. (That’s why many tour companies in Norway offer day-long sailing trips from popular ports.) So, we figured, why not make a week-long trip of it, hitting up quite a few of these picturesque ports and gorging ourselves on endless amounts of vegan food?
That’s just what we did. We booked our tickets in January 2017, and in September, we hopped a flight to London and prepared to set sail.
Are vegan cruises a good value?
This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” question! Compared to my typical vacation style, the cruise was definitely more expensive. (We did cut down on costs by booking round-trip tickets to London, from whence the cruise departed, on airline points.) We paid £1,249 each for our cabin, which had a really nice-sized window. (No balcony, but it was chilly anyway!) That’s roughly $1,700 a person with today’s exchange rate. (I’m wincing just thinking about that price. This was a splurge for us!) This price included seven nights of lodging and all our meals (including breakfast the day of departure) and averages out to about $250 per day per person. We stopped at four ports: Eidfjord, Flåm, Nordfjord, and Bergen. (We were scheduled to go to Geiranger rather than Nordfjord, but weather conditions prompted a change of plans.)
For a trip to Norway, this was a decent value… but that’s because Norway is notoriously expensive. In fact, the one day we had lunch off the ship at a cute place called Kaf in Bergen, we were pretty shocked at how much a relatively small — albeit delicious — meal cost: nearly $50 for both of us, including a drink for Steven. (Grainy photo at left!) Had we paid for lodgings, all our meals, and transportation to all the ports we visited in Norway without being super frugal, I have no doubt we would have spent nearly as much as our cruise cost. Plus, there’s the intangible benefit of not having to worry about finding food, booking lodgings, and arranging transportation… and I think that does count for something!
It’s worth noting that the smaller — and more traditional — river cruises tend to be less expensive. VRC just started advertising a December cruise of a few Christmas markets in Switzerland and Germany (!!!), and it’s actually quite reasonably priced; twin cabins start at just 499€ for five nights, and obviously that includes all your meals as well.
What does a vegan cruise include?
See above — a cabin and all your meals. You can also tack on a drinks package with unlimited beer, wine, and cocktails, but Steven and I did the math and realized we would have to drink quite a lot each day to make it worth our while. I know myself — and my desire to make every penny count — so I knew I might get a bit obsessive ensuring that our drinks package was worth it. Not wanting to force myself into drinking more than I might want/need (always a good strategy, eh?), we forewent the drinks package and just told ourselves we could splash out on drinks as desired. They were relatively inexpensive anyway, and we never felt deprived.
The cruise also includes all onboard entertainment… and yes, that did mean we had — gulp — a cruise director. He was exactly what you would expect, and he seemed a bit puzzled by the whole vegan thing, as evidenced by his embarrassing garbling of the word “quinoa” at one point. Come on, quinoa is like the least bizarre thing vegans eat! It’s mainstream now! Ahem. Other onboard entertainment was more targeted to the audience; Vegan River Cruises had booked the likes of Macca-B, Dr. Michael Greger, Joyce Tischler (of the Animal Legal Defense Fund), Gene Baur, and Tobias Leenaert (the Vegan Strategist). There were multiple talks and panel discussions each day, many of which were stimulating and inspiring.
So, other than drinks, what’s not included? Optional gratuities for cabin stewards, of course, although tipping culture is not as big a deal in Europe as it is in America. Transfers to and from the Tilbury port, which you could arrange on your own or pay to join a coach from Victoria Station. You will also need to pay for shore excursions, if you’d like. Steven and I researched each port and discovered that most of them had gorgeous hiking trails just literal steps from where our ship would dock, so we only ended up booking two days’ worth of excursions (we stopped at four ports total). As mentioned above, rough seas prompted a rejiggering of our itinerary and we didn’t end up stopping at one of the planned ports, so we got our money back for that. We also ended up canceling our second one because we loved the DIY approach: disembarking on our own time and choosing our own activities. (An absolutely gorgeous hike in Olden, Norway, gave us spectacular views… and a chance to see a few grazing cows. <3) We also independently booked tickets on the Flåm Railway, an absolute must-do. We could’ve booked them through the cruise, but it was less expensive to just do it ourselves! On that day, we rode the railway up to its highest point, turned around, then got off a few stops later and hiked down the mountain ourselves, along with some newfound vegan friends who wanted to do the same thing. It was a great decision: We were almost entirely alone in the middle of towering forested mountains, passed by the occasional blur of a biker whizzing downhill.
I feel pretty good about our choice not to opt for any excursions. While I’m sure some of them were really neat, and they gave you the chance to go a bit further afield, our hike-heavy independent excursions satisfied me just fine.
What kind of people go on a vegan cruise?
You probably know the stereotype: Only wealthy elderly folks take European river cruises! That was not the case on our vegan cruise. We had quite the mix of folks of all ages, from hippie families with young kids to a seventy-plus-year-old grandma who had raised all her kids vegan (and without ever going to see a doctor, butttt that’s another story entirely). I would guess that the average guest was middle-aged, probably white, and probably vegan for health reasons. Which leads me to my next point…
What types of vegans go on a vegan cruise?
Oh, I was so ready to indulge in a favorite habit on this trip: people watching! I was incredibly curious about the kinds of vegans who’d take this trip… and they were all over the map. There was the 20-something Dutch couple we chatted with at dinner, comprised of a vegan nutritionist and her not-quite-vegan partner who was gamely enjoying his animal-free dining experience. There was the middle-aged Liverpudlian couple we sat with during another dinner, chatting about vegan food in Liverpool and their (extensive!) travels throughout the United States. There were lots of Brits, since the cruise left from London, and many Europeans. We met some Americans at Tilbury Port — from Alabama, of all places — and they told us this was just one of many trips they’d taken with Vegan River Cruises.
Anecdotally, it seemed that many, if not most, of the guests were vegan for health reasons. Which is not to say that they didn’t also care about the ethics, but it seemed that many guests were relatively new vegans who’d been inspired by Forks Over Knives or similar documentaries. In my extensive observations (ahem) of the guests, I noted that many seemed ready to buy in to the most outlandish, non-scientifically-valid theories, i.e. the idea that veganism is a panacea. I personally find settings like this uncomfortable and off-putting, where the general attitude is that veganism is the One True Diet and that it will Cure All Your Woes, and people indulge in a sort of cultish celebration of their superior life choices. I heard a fair few people complain that the food (more on that below) was too unhealthy, with too much fat, sugar, and “processed” ingredients. To which I say: SHUT YOUR TRAP AND LET ME STUFF MY FACE. IS INDULGENCE NOT THE ENTIRE POINT OF A CRUISE?!
…so, overall, there was some anti-science bullshit that turned me off, yes. But on the flip side, there were plenty of animal welfare-driven, more old-school vegans to balance it out. Plus hearing from folks like Joyce Tischler and Gene Baur — people who have dedicated their lives to protecting animals in one way or another — was a wonderful experience and a humbling reminder of why I’m vegan.
What is the food like on a vegan cruise?
The million-dollar question, right?! The food on our cruise was best described as hit or miss. There were some really delicious dishes — especially the sweets! — and some that fell flat, occasionally because they were bland and occasionally because they didn’t seem coherent. For example, every morning, the breakfast buffet included a tofu bacon/sausage (really not sure which) that was more or less a stick of tofu, marinated in something extremely salty, then dehydrated (?!?) till it was incredibly dry. Not chewy or toothsome, just dry as a bone. I kept taking one for breakfast because I thought they would improve their cooking method, but no — it was always the same dry stick of tofu. Bizarre.
On the other hand, I loved nearly all their afternoon tea selections! The tea buffet always included a mix of savory and sweet, with little finger sandwiches, scones, biscuits, and other lovelies — along with vegan cream for topping. Mmmm. There was an almond scone that I particularly enjoyed. And because everything was bite-sized, I could really fill up my plate and try them all!
Like most cruise ships, this one offered either a buffet or a sit-down restaurant experience for dinner. We availed ourselves of the sit-down option twice, and found it wildly erratic. My first main dish was a seitan-based stew that was, not to mince words, pretty gross: The seitan was far too spongy and the broth lacked flavor. It was, quite frankly, difficult to finish this dish.
The buffet was a safer bet, because there were always dozens of options — everything from a massive salad bar to multiple hot mains. One winner was a whole-grain risotto, which I’d never even thought of trying. I want to recreate it at home! The buffet was available for all three daily meals (plus afternoon tea), or you could custom-order something at the outdoor junk food bar (my words), like a pizza, hot dog, or hamburger. I only ever got a veggie burger once, but I enjoyed it — it was nice and soft and veggie-filled. Overall, the buffet had something to offer any style of eater, and I never ever left hungry.
Two anecdotes: First, this ship did a great job of labeling what was oil-free (thanks for that, One True Diet vegans!) but was horrendous when it came to labeling anything that contained nuts! Are nut allergies just not a big deal in Europe?! I kept thinking about my sister — who is extremely allergic to cashews, walnuts, peanuts, and other nuts — and what she’d do on a cruise like this, when nothing was labeled but they were presumably using nuts in a fair few dishes. How exhausting to have to ask about each dish.
Second, something more positive: During breakfast on the latter half of the trip, I overheard a family sitting next to us chatting about the food. The dad had seemingly just realized everything was vegan, and was asking his daughters about it. “Yeah,” one of them said, “Do you not see all the signs?! It’s all vegan.” This was interesting for two reasons: One, because how on earth did they book an all-vegan cruise without realizing it?! (My hunch is that Cruise and Maritime Voyages, the operator for this particular cruise, had some extra cabins to sell close to sailing and offered them at a discount… perhaps without highlighting the vegan aspect. Yikes.) Two, if it took this family three to four days to figure out they hadn’t been eating animal products, the food must’ve been pretty “normal!” (…or maybe they were just unobservant. And considering that all the signage at embarkation included “SAIL AWAY THE VEGAN WAY” in massive lettering, in truth all signs point to blissful ignorance.)
What is the ship like on a vegan cruise?
Time to ‘fess up: My Norway cruise was not actually a river cruise; it was a true ocean cruise. In fact, it was Vegan River Cruises’ first-ever ocean cruise, and I admit I didn’t really digest what that meant until Steven and I were at Tilbury Port, just outside of London, staring at a honking, massive, legitimate cruise ship. We had seen the ship in pics but hadn’t appreciated how large it was until we saw it in person.It’s difficult to get a sense of scale in photos, y’know? If you’ve ever been on a traditional Caribbean cruise, it was just that type of ship. Ahem:
Honestly, I was a little disappointed… but I have only myself and my (willful?) ignorance to blame. I had been looking forward to seeing a smaller, more modern river cruise ship, but we were instead on a very large, very regular cruise ship.
And… it wasn’t great. The Columbus was built in 1987 (hey, just like me!) and it was showing its age (…I set myself up for this one…). Vegan River Cruises typically works with newer, smaller ships on their river cruises, and this one was not the norm. It felt dated, from the layout of the cabin to the overall decor. From what I’ve seen of the typical VRC ships, they make excellent and strategic use of space, so even a small cabin feels (relatively) spacious. Not that ours felt particularly cramped, but the overall style was just… bland. Dated. Plus, while newer ships are built with energy efficiency at top of mind, this one had one of those massive smokestacks that blasted out smoke into the otherwise pure Norwegian air. Not a pretty sight, and I cringed every time I saw it. That said, the ship had just that year been retrofitted and redone to meet new environmental standards, so presumably it’s about as good as a 30-plus-year-old ocean ship is going to get!
(On the related topic of working conditions, I have to admit that I didn’t investigate this as much as I should have — and I feel quite guilty about it. I know typical Caribbean cruise lines have pretty bad reputations, but I’ve always had the Pollyanna-ish assumption that European lines would not be so horrible, and that river cruises in particular would be much less stressful for staff. But this wasn’t a true river cruise, and this was a massive ship, so who the hell knows.)
What is the vegan cruise experience like, overall?
It’s actually a bit difficult to describe. For one, the entire experience was a little disorganized, on the part of the cruise line itself and on the part of Vegan River Cruises. The cruise line, for example, sent out horrendously incomplete and oblique emails beforehand, and it was painful to try to figure out how to book anything. Their website was a beast to navigate, a personal pet peeve. And the Vegan River Cruises staff seems quite small and overworked, so getting answers directly from them was also difficult. Many of us relied on a Facebook group to crowd-source answers, which is never what you want to have to do as you plan a wincingly expensive vacation.
That said, this was absolutely an amazing way to see Norway, and I so enjoyed the absolute indulgence of all my meals.
Should I go on a vegan cruise?
If you can lean in to a somewhat quirky and a little disorganized experience, go for it! If you enjoy VegFest-type experiences — and especially if you’re the type of person who attends lots of talks at VegFests — you would probably enjoy it! If you prize efficiency and getting the absolute best bang for your buck, maybe plan your own vacation, or opt for one of the company’s less expensive options.
I will note that although there were quite a few Americans on our trip, Europeans really get the better deal here. Most cruises are charged in euros (ours wasn’t because it departed out of London), so you won’t have to deal with the nasty exchange rate that we did. Plus, you won’t have to pay for transatlantic flights to get to your port! We also met a few people who booked their trips at the very last minute (as in, a week or two before departure!) and scored solid deals on their cabins, which you could probably not do as an American who would also need to book flights across the pond.
Personally, I would love to try a more traditional river cruise… and quite honestly, I’m seriously considering the Christmas markets one next December! I’ve been to Germany before, but I’d love the chance to tick Switzerland off my list. Plus, Steven and I had already batted around the idea of a Christmas market-focused holiday trip, and this could be a fun way to make that happen. Who’s in?!
Disclaimer: This is a wholly candid and unprompted review! We paid for our vegan ocean cruise and have no affiliation with Vegan River Cruises.