Vortex Doughnuts | VeganMoFo 2019 Day Twenty-Six

It is a non-negotiable: When vegan doughnuts are available, one must consume said doughnuts. We followed this very edict this morning on our way out of Asheville. Our fried dough purveyor of choice? Vortex Doughnuts.

Don’t let the oddly negative reviews on HappyCow fool you: Vortex has plenty of vegan options, and not just of the cake variety. We found eight (8!) yeasted varieties on offer this morning, all of them looking fresh and delicious. I opted for a glazed apple fritter, which was bursting with pieces of apple and a nice sweet glaze. If I had one critique, it would be that the dough was just the tiniest bit dense, but that might’ve been thanks to all those lovely apple bits. Steven opted for a blueberry- and lemon-glazed doughnut and pronounced it “really good,” with a pleasant tang. (His coffee — the light roast — was less than stellar, but my dark roast was perfectly pleasant.)

We weren’t heading out of North Carolina straight away, however: We were stopping at the ASPCA’s Behavioral Rehabilitation Center in Weaverville, where a friend and former coworker now works! Sarah gave us a wonderful, comprehensive tour of this lifesaving, life-changing facility, which is really one of a kind. Trained behaviorists used time-tested protocols to help prepare fearful dogs from horrific situations  — fighting rings, hoarding, puppy mills — for adoption. The idea is to gather data, fine-tune the protocols, and share them with shelters around the country so they can develop their own programs. It’s really amazing work, and I loved hearing about it.

Of course, we couldn’t show up empty-handed! Sarah is also vegan, so we brought a half-dozen doughnuts for her to share with coworkers and her husband. I wish I could remember all the varieties we selected, but we were slightly rushed in the morning and I didn’t snap a photo of the doughnut case. I know there was an espresso-glazed, a chocolate-glazed, one with cinnamon and sugar… something with vanilla… an unglazed apple fritter… and some others. :) All fabulous, I’m sure!

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Beer Snacks! | VeganMoFo 2019 Day Twenty-Five

Hello from Asheville, North Carolina! We’re here for the weekend and having a fantastic time in this dog-friendly, vegan-friendly city. I’ll have all sorts of exciting food to talk about when I’m back, but for now, how about some simple bar snacks?!

During our first full day in Asheville, we paid a visit to the Wicked Weed Brewpub, a sprawling establishment with a restaurant, beer garden, bottle shop, and on-premises brewery. Something for everyone! We were there around 2:30 p.m. and had 7 p.m. dinner reservations elsewhere, so we decided a liquid lunch was ideal. :) We headed down to the basement-level outdoor beer garden, found a few empty spots at a table, and perused the menu.

I’m a fan of sour beers, so I had the Sandiaca (barrel-aged in gin barrels with watermelon and basil) and the Floresca (tequila barrel-aged with peaches and pink sea salt). While they were both tasty, I really enjoyed the former. I can drink those juicy sours all day long! (Though that might not be a smart move: The Sandiaca was 9% ABV!) Steven stuck to a pilsner and a grapefruit radler, but we both enjoyed some simple salty bar snacks on the side: marinated olives and boiled peanuts.

I’ve never had boiled peanuts (a Southern mainstay, apparently) before but really enjoyed them… until we found an unsavory, unmentionable, un-foodlike bit of detritus in our bowl of peanuts. Y’all. It was nasty. I won’t go into details, and you should thank me for that. I’m not one to complain about food at restaurants, but I did tell a staff member about this particular issue. After one look, he rushed our bowl away, and we looked on as he showed multiple other staffers, who were all equally horrified. We got the peanuts taken off our menu and got a round on the house, so all’s well that end’s well. Top-notch customer service wins the day!

Unfortunately, I think I’m put off boiled peanuts for the foreseeable future. Although our little bit of extra disgustingness probably came from their kitchen and not the peanuts, I’ve now got a strong visceral, visual association between it and boiled peanuts. And here I was, thinking I’d found a new favorite snack. Alas.

Vegans on a Plane: Vegan Food on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)

I’ve copped to it in the past, and it’s still true: I secretly enjoy airline food. There’s something pleasing and special about getting served a meal 30,000 feet in the air. Pleasing, special, and absolutely necessary during long-haul trips!

Perhaps I should rephrase, though: I enjoy the concept of airline food. In practice, it’s often difficult to literally enjoy the taste (Turkish Airlines’ yummy options being a rare exception). That was certainly the case with the vegan meals on SAS, aka Scandinavian Airlines. I first flew them in 2018 during my trip to Tallinn, which began with a long-haul leg from Washington Dulles to Copenhagen (and then a short meal-less skip to Tallinn). I flew SAS again last month for a stay in Copenhagen itself, taking the same flight from IAD to CPH and back again. Both trips included nearly identical meals, so I’m pretty confident what I’m about to share with you is the standard offering on an IAD to CPH (and vice-versa) flight on SAS. Spoiler: It wasn’t great. Sad face!

SAS airline plane wing over a snowy and icy landscape

First, a note on how to request vegan meals on SAS. I booked both SAS flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, yet I was only able to request a vegan meal when booking my trip to Tallinn. The interface might’ve changed since then, or I might’ve just missed it when booking my flight to Copenhagen, but I was not able to request a vegan meal when booking my most recent trip. After logging in to the SAS website itself, I searched fruitlessly for a place to put in my request but found nothing. (No surprise; it’s a buggy website overall.) There’s an option to upgrade to a special/premium meal (one of which is vegan), but you’ll pay extra for that. Instead, I had to call SAS customer service and request a vegan meal (code VGML). After the call, a “vegetarian meal (non-dairy)” listing showed up on my booking reservation. I was a little worried that it didn’t specify VGML, but I did indeed receive a fully vegan meal on my flight. Whew! (Of course, if you book directly through the SAS website, you’ll probably be able to specify a vegan meal then.)

So, on to the food itself! On the 8-hour flight from D.C. to Copenhagen (and vice versa), you can expect two meals: dinner and a pre-landing snack. Let’s talk about dinner first.

On the D.C. to CPH leg, I was treated (ahem) to a rice and veggie dish, served with the barest minimum of tomato sauce. The highest praise I can give this meal is that the rice was cooked well. Beyond that, there’s not much to say: The veggie portion was comprised mainly of flavorless zucchini and summer squash, alongside a few bits of tomato and onion. It was certainly edible, but not memorable, and the lack of protein meant it didn’t really stick. The main dish came with a somewhat respectable side salad (served with a lemon-balsamic dressing, meh), the ubiquitous fruit salad (flavorless honeydew galore, alas), and a decent bread roll with margarine. There’s also non-dairy (and vegan!) coffee creamer in this photo, though I didn’t use it.

On the CPH to D.C. leg, I received a very unfortunate pasta dish. Unfortunate because (1) the pasta was overcooked and a bit gag-inducingly soft, and (2) the spinach-mushroom-tomato topping was simply flavorless. Ugh, what a textural nightmare! And look at that sad side salad. Whereas the previous salad at least had some color (and legitimately crisp lettuce), this one was so pale and limp and lifeless. And what are those bizarre pale sticks on top?! They had the texture of jicama but the flavor of nothing. Just sad. As was the dressing; that tube contains a vile, sweet, oily dressing that I hope never to encounter again. Even the roll was lackluster. (YMMV; the first time I flew this route, the roll was fine.) Redemption came in the form of dessert, a rarity on VGML orders. This chocolate-coconut ganache was legitimately delicious and legitimately rich, and I was so pleased when I saw it on my tray during the Copenhagen trip — I remembered how lovely it’d been from my last trip! It’s topped with toasted coconut flakes and truly makes up for the rest of this sad meal.

Don’t expect anything quite so lovely on your pre-landing snack, however. Especially not on the IAD — CPH route!

This meal includes applesauce (unsweetened if you get Lucky Leaf brand; sweetened if you get Mott’s), orange juice, a tiny sandwich, and either fresh fruit or a bag of extremely sweet dried fruit. And margarine, for some opaque reason. Maybe it’s meant for the sandwich? Butter would certainly improve it, because the sandwich is a big stack of nothingness, just bread stuffed with cucumber, tomato, lettuce, and some kind of flavorless spread. Seriously sad.

The pre-landing snack on the CPH — IAD route is marginally better for one reason only: cold-pressed juice. Legitimately delicious strawberry-apple-blackcurrant juice that I would pay real-world dollars for. Sooo good and tasty, a nice blend of sweet and tart. I received this juice both times I flew this route, and I was thrilled to see it again on my tray. The sandwich, not so much. Though you’d expect that dark, seedy, rich-looking bread to have a robust flavor to match its appearance, in truth it was quite flavorless. Perhaps we can blame the altitude, or the fact that it was served quite cold (urgh). The lackluster bread was filled with equally lackluster ingredients, so lackluster I cannot even recall them properly. Lettuce, perhaps? And a flavorless spread you can just see in that photo. Meh.

In summary, the vegan options on SAS exist, but they are not terribly exciting. They are, however, redeemed by a few true highlights: cold-pressed juice and delicious chocolate ganache. Both of those were served on the route originating in Copenhagen, so you can thank European air catering for those.

Have you flown a different SAS route? What was your meal experience?

7 Practical Travel Tips for Tallinn, Estonia

Sign post in Tallinn, EstoniaInexpensive — yet well-curated — museums. Vegan food everywhere. Fairy tale-esque medieval architecture with surprise pops of Art Nouveau. Tallinn has it all! Yet somehow it remains just under the radar, popular with savvy travelers yet relatively unknown to the casual trip-taker. (Well, those based in the U.S., at least — I hear it’s a popular stag party destination for Euro bros!) Let me assure you: traveling to Tallinn is well worth your time. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Estonia last year, and I’ve put together seven practical travel tips for Tallinn to help you make the most of your time in this enchanting city. Read on, and let me know what I’ve missed!

Skip the taxi and opt for a 1€ tram ride into the city.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a budget traveler, I do prefer to splash out on the parts of my travels that really matter — memorable vegan meals, fun day trips, entry to interesting museums — while conserving cash elsewhere. That’s (partially) why I opt for public transport rather than an Uber or a taxi, and when possible I prefer to walk rather than take a bus, metro, or tram. In tiny Tallinn, you really can walk almost everywhere, but you’ll definitely want to seek transportation to and from the airport. Here’s the good news: You can buy a tram ticket from the airport to the city center for 1€. Yes. ONE SINGLE EURO. That is an AMAZING deal, especially considering that other European cities ask you to pay upward of 15€ for the honor of hopping on a crowded bus for your ride into the city. (Dublin, I’m looking at you!)

Tram tickets cost 2€ when purchased from the driver, but you can buy a QR ticket ahead of time for 1€. Simply download the pilet.ee app and purchase it there (international credit cards accepted). The ticket is good for one year from the time of purchase, so you can even buy it before leaving home. To use your QR ticket, enter the tram through the frontmost door and scan the QR code in the reader. (I took a screenshot of the ticket on my phone since I turn off my phone’s data/cellular plan when I’m abroad.) So easy and so cheap.

Note: You can also buy QR tickets for bus rides, and the same usage guidelines apply. Be sure to enter through the front door; the scanner in the middle of the bus doesn’t seem to accept QR tickets.

View of Tallinn from Toompea Hill

Don’t worry about being disconnected — free public wifi networks abound.

Start doing even the most rudimentary research about Estonia and you’ll quickly realize that Estonia was an early adopter in terms of internet connectivity. In 2005, Estonia piloted an online voting scheme, making it the first country to do so. Many other government services are available online, so it makes sense that Tallinn also provides plenty of free wifi hotspots around the city. You can find a map of these locations here; once you connect to the TallinnWifi network once, your phone should recognize the network the next time you pass through it. It’s a great way to check directions on the go or look up the hours of your dining destination. ;) (Of course, this is an unsecured, open network, so keep that in mind and maybe don’t email your banking password to someone while you’re logged on?!)

BONUS TIP: If you’re going to use your phone on the go, consider bringing a portable charger so you don’t run out of juice while navigating to your next destination.

Take in the view — and get a history lesson — on the KGB tour.

Though it might sound a little cheesy, the KGB tour at the Hotel Viru is a decent way to spend a few hours. In the 1970s, the KGB installed a monitoring station in the top floors of the Hotel Viru, which was essentially a state-run hotel where visitors from outside the Soviet Bloc were required to stay. Though the KGB officially denied that the floor housed anything beyond regular utilities and storage space, everyone knew KGB agents were stationed there, using listening devices planted throughout the hotel to monitor all the goings-on.

Today, some parts of the monitoring station have been preserved in a modest museum— and you can see them on a tour (11€) that departs from the ground floor of the hotel. The best part of my tour wasn’t the reconstruction of a Soviet office or the other artifacts from the period; truth be told, the museum itself is a little lackluster. What I really enjoyed was the history lesson. Our tour guide had grown up during the Soviet occupation and shared plenty of real-life anecdotes and stories that brought depth to the facts, figures, and dates.

But what really earns the KGB tour a spot on my list of travel tips for Tallinn is that it comes with a fabulous view. The Hotel Viru is one of the tallest buildings in the city center, and you’ll have ample opportunities to snap photos from the balconies. Although it was rainy and grey during my visit, I still captured a few neat shots.

BONUS TIP: If you do opt for a KGB tour, buy your ticket in advance! You can stop by the Hotel Viru and go to the front desk to make a purchase, or order online. The tour meets and begins in the lobby (look for the signage), and on the day I took it, a few people were turned away because they hadn’t bought tickets in advance and the tour was full.

Find a (nearly free) concert to attend.

Many of my most moving and lasting travel memories include music, from stumbling across an outdoor opera concert in Rome to serendipitously visiting a cathedral in Vienna just as a traveling college choir began an a cappella performance. And then there was the moment when I — traveling alone for the first time, grieving the sudden death of my dog — became besotted with a busker playing a full grand piano in the middle of an Antwerp pedestrian plaza, sending both classical songs and pop music soaring into the air and providing a moment of calm in a busy city.

While I can’t promise you’ll have an equally moving experience in Tallinn, I can tell you that there are worse ways to spend a half hour than timing your visit to St. Nicholas’ Church (also called the Niguliste Museum)  with a free organ concert. You’ll find the church in Toompea, a hilly section of the city that houses Toompea Castle and offers plenty of great views. The museum houses both temporary contemporary art exhibits along with more permanent exhibits, including a fantastic Danse Macabre.  Entrance to the church/museum is 6€; half-hour organ concerts take place on Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. and are included in the price of the ticket.

BONUS TIP: Tallinn’s Dome Church also offers organ concerts on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. as part of a (free) prayer service and on Saturdays at 12 p.m. with a small donation.

Seagull on the ferry from Tallinn to HelsinkiIf you’re taking the ferry to/from Helsinki, know your terminal.

One of the best overnight or day trips from Tallinn is a visit to Helsinki, Finland’s capital. Three companies — Eckerö Line, Tallink, and Viking Line — operate ferry trips across the Baltic Sea; you can compare prices and book your tickets here. (Don’t be afraid to mix lines to save money — I traveled on Tallink to Helsinki and on Eckerö back and found no real difference between the two.) After booking, make sure you look up which terminal your company leaves from! While the Tallinn port is not huge by any means, there are separate buildings for the different lines and they’re maybe 5 to 10 minutes apart on foot. Save yourself the stress of ending up at the wrong terminal and look it up in advance.

BONUS TIP: Once you get to the Tallinn ferry terminal, you’ll need to print yourself a boarding pass if you’ve purchased your ticket online. If you have a digital version of your ticket stored on your phone, you probably won’t be able to check in using one of the digital automated kiosks because your digital ticket won’t have a security number on it. Instead, head to the ticket office staffed by a real live person — they’ll get you sorted! (This applies to Tallink tickets; I’m not sure about how the other lines operate.)

If you travel during the colder (or shoulder!) months, wear layers.

I visited Tallinn in early October and was treated (ahem) to some chilly temperatures. Nothing terrible, but there were some rainy, windy 40˚ F days that made me real glad I’d packed a warm jacket, a scarf, and my fingerless gloves. Here’s the thing, though: Many museums and restaurants seemed to overcompensate for the nippy weather outside by keeping things quite toasty inside. Now, I’m the type of perpetually chilly person who’d rather be overheated than cold, so I didn’t mind at all. But if you get cranky when you’re hot, you might want to wear layers so you don’t become miserable while wandering around, say, the Tallinn City Museum for a few hours. (Note that most museums have coat racks or lockers, so you can shed your layers  while you get cultured.)

Get out of the city!

You can easily while away a few good days in Tallinn. But don’t limit yourself to the city — get out of town and experience some of Estonia’s beautiful natural lands. I booked a day trip to Lahemaa National Park with Traveller Tours and Day Trips and had a great time. These tours include a driver and a small group; mine included two women (also from Maryland; go figure), an older British man with plenty of travel stories, and a young German teacher taking advantage of a school break. Our tour guide was entertaining in a wry, dry Estonian way, sharing tidbits about his own life and his take on Estonian culture while giving us the broader historical context for the country’s past.

We stopped at Estonia’s largest waterfall (all of 8 meters/26 feet high!) as well as a little coastal park, where we walked to the sea and felt the salty, cold air whip our faces and hair. Then we headed to a derelict manor — a relic of the time Sweden ruled over Estonia — and wandered the grounds. Next we visited a little fishing and maritime museum run by an avid artist and fisherman. His wife made and served us lunch; I’d told our guide that morning that I was vegan, and she provided a simple yet tasty vegetable and bean dish for me while the others had fish.

Our main stop for the day was Lahemaa National Park and its 1.5-mile bog walk. Tramping on the wooden footpath over the spongy bog, our little group breathed the clean Estonian air and got lost in our thoughts. Estonians love spending time in nature, according to our tour guide, and make trips to the forest to hunt for mushrooms or just take a hike pretty regularly. The bog walk was an otherworldly experience, and although the cold damp air seeped right into my bones and left me chilled for the rest of the day, I’m so glad I opted for the day trip.


Thanks for reading these travel tips for Tallinn, Estonia — and let me know if you decide to go!


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Vegan in Tallinn

Picture this: It’s 4:45 in the morning and you’re at the Tallinn airport, having gotten up at an ungodly hour and walked there from your airport hotel in a cold, dark, drizzly fog to catch your flight back to the United States. You’re looking forward to getting home and petting your pups, but you’re also sad to leave the city that’s captured your heart. You wander through the small but charming airport, smiling at the thoughtful touches — a small lending library, the free-to-use gym equipment, the sweet kids’ play area — and feel a little cheered. You walk past one of those ubiquitous airport food stalls, the kind with plastic cups of yogurt parfaits and crinkle-wrapped ham and cheese sandwiches. But something catches your eye: the word VEGAN, sprayed across a label on a croissant breakfast sandwich. You double back. You can’t believe it. Whereas you’re hard-pressed to find ready-made vegan snacks and meals at many U.S. airports, this tiny airport in Tallinn — with just 18 gates! — has a vegan croissant breakfast sandwich.

You can never eat breakfast this early. You buy the croissant anyway. You smile. You are completely infatuated with Tallinn. You can’t wait to return.

I think this experience is quite an apt encapsulation of my time in Tallinn. I found myself charmed and delighted by so many things: the architecture, the prices, the pedestrian-friendliness… and the vegan freakin’ food. After reading Amey’s paean to Tallinn last year, I knew I was in for a treat in this small city, but I still found myself surprised by how incredibly vegan-friendly it is! Heck, I even found three flavors of vegan ice cream cones in a tiny gelato stall in a mall by the airport! So of course I have to share. Read on for tips on where to find vegan food in Tallinn, Estonia. But maybe pause and grab a coffee or a beer or something first, because… I got wordy with this one. #sorrynotsorry

Vegan Inspiratsioon // Tallinn

Vegan Inspiratsioon

After checking in to my cute little Old Town hotel on my first night in Estonia, I was hungry. It had been a long day of traveling and I hadn’t had a solid meal in nearly 24 hours. (Though I secretly love airplane food, it doesn’t quite count.) After perusing the handy Google map I’d loaded up with attractions, sites, and vegan restaurants in Tallinn, I decided to head just up the street to Vegan Inspiratsioon for dinner. And when I say “just up the street,” I mean it: It was a straight shot from my hotel, barely a five-minute walk. This, I’d find, would define my time in Tallinn: Everything was close and vegan food was everywhere.

Vegan Inspiratsioon doesn’t look like much from the street; there’s a sign and not much else. You’ll need to walk through a darkened vestibule before you enter the restaurant proper, but when you do, you’ll be greeted with utter charm: stone walls, an assortment of cozy booths and tables, fairy lights strung everywhere, soft indie music, tea lights on the tables… and all authentic, not like it’s trying too hard to be Instagram-chic. Sit yourself at a table, grab a menu, and wait for someone to take your order. Service might be a little slow, but all the better to enjoy a long, lazy meal.

When I arrived close to 7 p.m. on my first night, the spacious restaurant was pretty empty. Gradually, over the course of my dinner, small groups arrived and filled in. But it remained quiet, and I felt utterly comfortable taking my time over dinner.

Vegan Inspiratsioon // Tallinn

Unable to choose among all the tasty-sounding dishes (and feeling a tiny bit of post-travel queasiness), I decided to hedge my bets and go for the Inspa Special Bowl, a hodgepodge of healthy-sounding menu items thrown into one well-packed dish.

The bowl included two decently sized beetroot-lentil-buckwheat cutlets, a generous portion of sweet potato fries, zucchini noodles, tofu egg salad, sauerkraut, traditional creamy Estonian potato salad, roasted chickpeas, hummus, dill-parsley ranch sauce, and a big pile o’ sprouts. All this for under €10, too!

I really loved those beetroot cutlets; they provided a nice flavor and texture to anchor the dish agains the lighter elements. I found the tofu egg salad almost shockingly tangy — I’m not sure what was in it, but it had quite a kick! I didn’t actually care for the potato salad, though; it was just way too creamy for me. (I’d almost ordered a full bowl of it along with soup — glad I didn’t!) The sauerkraut was excellent, and the hummus had a nice rich flavor. I found the sweet potato fries a bit oily and soft, unfortunately.

I also ordered a peppermint-ginger lemonade to settle my stomach, but alas — I tasted very little ginger and very little peppermint; it was quite sweet instead. Skip that one! The post-dinner herbal tea I ordered was much more to my liking. (According to the tour guide on my day trip to Lahemaa National Park a few days later, Estonians love herbal teas and will make them with just about any root, shoot, or leaf they can pick!)

On that first visit to Vegan Inspiratsioon, I somehow resisted the siren call of the dessert case. I was so full from that scrumptious bowl! But I made sure to leave room on my second visit (!) a few days later. On that night, ravenous from a day of walking my tootsies off all over Tallinn, I opted for the I’m Quite Special Burger, another beetroot-based patty. This one also featured lentils and buckwheat, and was served with tomato, fried zucchini, that tangy tofu egg salad, dill-parsley sauce, and some pickle relish on classic Estonian black bread. Boy, do I love black bread! This was a tactical and practical order on my part: I’ve learned my lesson about those massive Euro-style burgers served on brick-like buns; you’re pretty much required to dislocate your jaw to take a bite, and I always end up with a TMJ flare-up when I order one! So the black bread was much more manageable.

I adored this burger. Every little bit tasted delicious (except the tomato, which was frankly unnecessary!) and came together to form the perfect burger bite. The pickle relish was lovely, the patty was delicious, and the bread did not hurt my delicate mouth. The burger comes with coleslaw on the side, but it was unlike any coleslaw I’ve tried, almost curry-like in flavor and quite sweet. Tasty, though! I ordered an Estonian brown ale, and it was practically a second side dish: toasty, malty, and satisfying.

Somehow, even after all that, I had room for dessert. I opted for the raw raspberry caramel cake and was glad I did. I suspect it was nut-based with a date crust, but it somehow avoided becoming too heavy and rich like many raw cakes are. I didn’t quite taste caramel, but the raspberry was bright and the slice was nice and big: No measly, overpriced treat here.

All in all, I’d say Vegan Inspiratsioon should definitely make the list of vegan restaurants to visit in Tallinn. It’s relatively inexpensive, cozy, and situated right in Old Town… yet not close to the town square, which can get a bit rowdy. Save it for a night when you want to be left alone to eat your meal at a slow pace.

Vegan Restoran V // Tallinn

Vegan Restoran V

Okay, so, you know how I said that Vegan Inspiratsioon was barely five minutes from my hotel? Well. There was another 100% vegan restaurant also just five minutes from my hotel, but in the opposite direction. I WAS SURROUNDED BY VEGAN FOOD. This second spot — Vegan Restoran V — turned out to be my absolutely favorite eatery in Tallinn. And actually, I think it qualifies as one of my top-five vegan restos of all time. I’m not sure I can express how smitten I became with this tiny, cozy, super sweet spot, but I’ll try.

On my solo trips, I’m always seeking out spots where I can enjoy a long, lingering dinner and not feel conspicuous. I have no qualms about eating alone as a rule, but there are definitely some eateries where I might feel uncomfortable or out of place sitting with a book or my Kindle, sipping a glass of wine or a mug of tea long after finishing my meal. To be honest, one big reason I like these long dinners is because they fill what can be a dull time. Don’t get me wrong; I rarely get lonely when I travel alone. I’m pretty solidly introverted, and I don’t crave companionship until I’ve been fully alone for quite a while. But even I don’t want to sit alone in a hotel room from dinner until bedtime! So I like to fill that awkward time with a long, late meal, often followed by a nighttime wander around the city to get a sense of what it’s like after dark. (I’m still working up the courage to go to a bar or pub by myself. That one’s a harder sell for me!)

Vegan Restoran V is the perfect spot for a long, indulgent meal. On my first visit, the place was pretty full. (In fact, they recommend making a reservation because it’s a small spot, with fewer than 10 tables.) I had no reservation, but luckily there was a table for two open in the middle of the restaurant. I didn’t love the spot, though; it felt very exposed and conspicuous. So when a couple finished their meal and vacated a more secluded table by a window, I asked to switch and the waitress graciously assented. From there, I settled in for arguably the best meal of my trip.

Vegan Restoran V // saladOn that first visit, I wasn’t terribly hungry, so I opted for a glass of wine and a salad. Now, I normally do not order salads at vegan restaurants; it just seems like a waste when there are other, more creative dishes on offer. But my stomach was a little unsettled, so I wanted something simple. And you know what? I made the perfect choice. Bright, crisp, fresh lettuce leaves formed the base, and they were topped with a plethora of goodies: pecans, grapefruit slices, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, thinly sliced radishes, sprouts, and pomegranate arils, all drizzled in an amazing strawberry vinaigrette. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ll know that I am not a fan of vinegar or vinaigrettes, so the fact that I loved this dressing speaks volumes. It was almost creamy, and just the right amount of sweet. So, so good. I savored that salad for a while as I read on my Kindle and surreptitiously people-watched. A couple seated near me ordered the snack platter as a starter, and it looked phenomenal: a gorgeously plated smorgasbord of nuts, veggies, housemade cheeses, and dippers.

Vegan Restoran V // mini pavlova

Afterward, I ordered a second glass of white wine (it was nothing special, but it was inexpensive!) while perusing the dessert menu. Vegan Restoran V offers two set desserts and a rotating selections of cakes, and I opted for a mainstay: a mini pavlova with avocado cream and strawberry sorbet. Oh. My. Goodness. The aquafaba-based pavlova was melt-in-your-mouth meringue perfection, with a beautifully rich avocado cream that managed to harness avocado’s creaminess without a too-strong flavor. And the strawberry sorbet was a delight as well, a nice cool, light dish wholly infused with strawberry flavor. Already a little in love with Vegan Restoran V, I was even more thrilled when the check arrived and it was just under €20 for what I considered a stellar meal and a perfect dining experience. To that latter point, the service was attentive without being overbearing, and I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable to be a single diner taking up a table. In fact, I even felt welcome. (There was one other single diner, and he seemed equally welcome.) I left dinner that night full but not uncomfortably so — the ideal state.

Thrilled with my first dining experience at Vegan Restoran V, I made a point to return again. This time I snagged a seat in the small area off the main dining room, and the servers graciously pulled apart a large table to give me my own. While this spot wasn’t quite as ideal in terms of people-watching, I loved how tucked away and cozy it made me feel. It was also quite toasty, so bear that in mind if you prefer a cooler dining experience! (My perpetually cold self found it perfect.)

Vegan Restoran V // tofu-potato casseroleTempted though I was to order the snack platter and enjoy it as my main meal, I wanted something a bit heartier after spending a full day tromping through Lahemaa National Park in the rain with Traveller Tours. I chose the week’s special, a potato-tofu casserole with pumpkin sauce (!), and a glass of local rhubarb sparkling wine. (I knew I was taking a risk with the latter; if it had been sweet and overly flavored, I would not have enjoyed it. Luckily it was quite subtle; I wouldn’t have marked it as rhubarb-flavored had I not known. ) Now, about that casserole… “layered pastry confection” might be a better descriptor! This dish featured flaky pastry layered with tofu, potatoes, zucchini, and other veg, topped with a mass of sprouts, pomegranate arils, and various other colorful leaves, all swimming in a pool of creamy pumpkin sauce. Rich, filling, and super satisfying, if a little salty for my tastes. I was actually a little surprised at how heavy this dish felt, but I guess my previous dinner point of comparison (a salad) was the exact opposite of casserole. I managed to finish and leave juuust enough room for dessert, however.

Vegan Restoran V // plum ice creamThis time around, I intended to order one of the daily specials. There was a chocolate-rum ball that looked quite intriguing, along with other raw and baked cakes and tarts. But then, at the last second, I chose the second regular dessert, described on the menu as plum ice cream with raspberry-marinated plum compote, topped with crispy oatmeal crumbs and a tuile pastry. Aaaaghhhh. What arrived was slightly different from the menu listing but equally amazing. I got a big scoop of fruity, almost buttery plum ice cream, along with marinated plum slices and a crumble that seemed to include freeze-dried raspberries (genius!). The whole thing was topped off with a crispy tuile wafer, adding just a little crunch. Amazing. And so rich. I practically rolled out of Vegan Restoran V. No regrets!

If I haven’t made it clear, I adored Vegan Restoran V. Everything about it hit all the right notes for me: the small but thoughtful menu, the ambiance, the service, the prices… and, of course, the food. It offers a slightly elevated dining experience that still remains low-key and cozy. Just perfect, really.

Psst… sorry these photos are so crap. The low light at Vegan Restoran V makes for an über cozy meal, but does not do much for food photos when you’re shooting on your phone!

Tokumaru

With locations in Tallinn and Tartu, this small Estonian chain is a super convenient place to get really yummy vegan Japanese food. While it’s not all vegan, the menu is very clearly labeled and there are lots of veg options available. On my first full day in Tallinn, I spent the morning doing a tour of the KGB’s old headquarters in the Hotel Viru, after which I was famished. Luckily the Solaris shopping center was just down the street, and I knew it housed a couple of veg-friendly eateries, including Tokumaru. Given the grey, chilly weather, I opted for a steaming hot bowl of tantan vegan ramen. When I placed my order, the waitress asked whether I wanted a small or large bowl. “Oh, large,” I said, as if it were the obvious choice.

Vegan ramen at Tokumaru // TallinnREADER. IT IS NOT THE OBVIOUS CHOICE. Do not order a large bowl of vegan tantan ramen at Tokumaru unless your stomach is prepared to hold perhaps a quart of super-rich, peanutty, miso broth, along with a goodly portion of noodles, mushrooms, tofu, bamboo shoots, and — oddly enough — greens. The dish might look average-sized in that photo, but I swear it was like the Tardis of ramen bowls. I could not finish my ramen, not by a long shot. Oh, the hubris. It hurt. (Literally. My stomach was bursting.) I mean, don’t get me wrong: This ramen was fantastic. So well-flavored, with lots of plump juicy mushrooms. But good god was this serving large. And salty. My mouth was so dry by the time I finally waved my proverbial white flag, put down my spoon and chopsticks, and declared myself defeated by the broth. It didn’t help that the communal water jug is far too small for the size of the restaurant, and the servers either ignored the fact that it was empty or just didn’t notice. By the time they refilled it, my mouth was a desert. I slunk away, ashamed at my failure to finish.

On my last night in Tallinn, I returned to the same Tokumaru location, mostly out of convenience. I’d just gotten off the ferry, back from a quick one-night stay in Helsinki, and the Solaris location was in the direction of my airport hotel — and conveniently located by a bus depot that would take me there quite quickly after dinner. I contemplated a couple dishes (vegan tempura?! sushi?!) but ultimately chose a starter of seaweed salad and vegan ankake yakisoba — featuring fried whole-wheat noodles,  mushrooms, carrot, napa cabbage, and greens — for the main. While the seaweed salad was nice (if large), I was a little disappointed with the yakisoba. I’m not totally sure what ankake sauce is, but I couldn’t discern much flavor in it. I regret not getting the tempura! Especially because I also couldn’t finish the yakisoba. This time I took the remains to go (…and then proceeded to leak the mysterious ankake sauce all over the bus, ooops) and ate a bit more as a late-night snack at my hotel that night, but it was even less tasty when cold. Sigh. So, if you do visit Tokumaru in Tallinn, I recommend skipping the yakisoba and trying one of the other vegan options. You can’t go wrong with the tantan ramen (…unless you’re allergic to peanuts). Just remember to order a small.

Veg Machine

Though Tallinn’s Old Town is undeniably picturesque and perfect for exploring, don’t spend all your time there! Walk a little north past the city walls and hit up Balti Jaama Turg, a massive three-level indoor/outdoor marketplace where you can easily idle away a few hours. Along with deceptively large and labyrinthine antique stores, tiny design-focused shops, and a grocery store (see below), you’ll find more traditional market vendors offering veggies, fruit, and plenty of non-vegan unmentionables. But the best part (in my opinion) is the first floor, which features nearly 20 street-food-style food vendors and stalls. It’s like a food truck park, but without the possibility of inclement weather! And with better seating! Yasss.

Pressed sandwich at VegMachine, TallinnFeeling peckish one afternoon, I headed to Balti Jaama Turg for a light lunch at one of the two (!) all-vegan stalls. I opted for VegMachine, lured by the inexpensive prices and the creative menu. These to-go dishes skew toward warm, healthy-ish comfort food, with burgers, sandwiches, wraps, and other mainly handheld delights. I chose the tofu croquette toastie, a pressed sandwich served piping hot. At just 4€, this was a steal! I appreciated the contrast between the soft filling and the slightly crispy bread. Although there were no real standout flavors, this was a wholly filling, warming, savory sandwich, perfect for my late (and light) lunch. I know it looks very yellow and (perhaps) unappealing in the photo, but I promise appearances were deceiving in this case!

Epic Coffee

Chilled through after a particularly drizzly, windy morning on my second full day in Tallinn, I sought comfort in caffeine. Down a side street off the Viru Gates I found Epic Coffee, a hipster-friendly coffeehouse serving locally roasted beans and offering plenty of non-dairy milks. I chose an oat milk latte, because I’ve got to get my Oatly fix when I’m in Europe.

Oat milk latte from Epic Coffee // Tallinn

The barista didn’t bat an eye when I asked him to fix my drink in my KeepCup, which was great. Even greater? My discovery of vegan goodies in the pastry case! Although a cookie was appealing, the slice of cake looked even better — especially after a disappointing breakfast at the hotel’s free buffet. (Fruit and rice cakes do not a nourishing breakfast make.) I got a slice to go and was surprised by how delicious it was — chewy and just a little dense, almost marzipan-y in flavor, and bursting with nuts. The perfect snack to tide me over during an extremely enjoyable few hours wandering through the Tallinn City Museum.

Bear Farm Chocolate, aka Karu talu šokolaad

Did I purposefully choose a hotel just three minutes’ walk from an all-vegan chocolate shop? Yes, yes I did. Did I have visions of stopping by every afternoon for a sugary, caffeinated pick-me-up? Also yes. Did I then only go once during my stay? Alas, yes.

Bear Farm Chocolate is, as mentioned, an all-vegan chocolate and pastry shop in the heart of Old Town. It is adorable, with an old-fashioned cash register, mounds of myriad flavored fudges and chocolate confections, and a small selection of pastries. It also has hours that were not conducive to multiple visits during my stay in Tallinn, opening late and closely early. I ended up stopping here just once, opting for an amaretto chocolate that was both inexpensive and far too large for consumption in one go. Yet I ate it all at once, while walking somewhere, becoming queasier and queasier as I went. Ugh, regrets. Honestly? It wasn’t that good. I expected dense, rich fudge, and instead I got a kind of dry-ish cross between fudge and a traditional chocolate bar, with a slightly sickening almond flavor and way too much decorative silver glitter that attached itself to my fingers and refused to leave. It turned me off from the shop just a bit, and I never made it back to try one of the pastries that were on offer. (I was also sad because their hot water machine was broken when I stopped by, foiling my plan to get a tea and a pastry for a more leisurely afternoon snack than my rushed gobbling of a less-than-stellar piece of chocolate.)

Don’t let my experience turn you off, though: Plenty of reviewers love this place, and I suspect I just chose poorly… and ate too much in one go. Plus, they are unashamedly vegan for the animals, which I just adore.

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Other vegan options in Tallinn

My trusty personalized Google map was totally filled up with vegan spots in Tallinn! Here are a few I didn’t get to try or weren’t worth writing about in more detail.

  • Biomarket. This small chain of health food stores carries a respectable selection of vegan products, including tons of non-dairy yogurts. Locations abound in Tallinn, including one in the aforementioned Balti Jaama Turg market hall and a smaller one in the aforementioned Solaris shopping center. Also a great place to find Estonian food products to bring home as souvenirs; I picked up some herbal teas.
  • Rataskaevu 16. This well-regarded Old Town eatery is not entirely vegan or vegetarian, but it does offer some creative-looking vegan options in what appears to be a really lovely setting. This would be a great choice for a mixed crowd of diners.
  • Reval Café. Alas, this was perhaps my biggest food-related disappointment of the trip. I’d read in many vegan-in-Tallinn roundups that Reval Café — a small chain of coffeehouses with light dishes — was great for vegans. Unfortunately, I didn’t find that to be the case. I stopped in to a few locations (there are 12 around Tallinn) and made a beeline for the pastry case, having heard that they typically offer at least one vegan option. Yet nothing was listed as vegan. At one location, I asked the lady behind the counter if any of the pastries were vegan, and she hesitated for a second before pointing to a chocolate cake and saying it was. Hmm. I was dubious. She may very well have been right, but it was not labeled as such, which seemed odd for vegan-positive Tallinn. I skipped it, opting for an oat milk latte and no accompanying pastry. In terms of savory options, the one consistent vegan choice was falafel. No offense, but snore. If you’re in a pinch or traveling with omnis, Reval Café might be a solid option (especially since there are locations everywhere), but given the abundance of top-notch vegan food on offer in Tallinn, I wouldn’t make it my top choice.
  • Rimi supermarkets. Every savvy vegan traveler knows that it’s more than respectable to stock up on veg products at the local supermarket if vegan food will be scarce. I thankfully didn’t need to do that much this trip, but I did stop in to a Rimi Express one morning, looking for snacks before heading out on a day trip. Alas, this small location didn’t have my trusty standby (Alpro soy yogurts), so I had to settle for some nuts and crackers. (Bizarrely, it did carry some barista-style plant milks.) But the larger locations should carry more vegan options.
  • Toormoor. Another vegan food stall in the Balti Jaama Turg market hall, Toormoor focuses on healthy, mostly raw dishes. You’ll find both savory and sweet items, along with coffee and tea, and there’s a cute indoor seating area that takes you out of the hustle and bustle of the surrounding market.
  • Vegan Italy. Pardon me while I shed a tear for not getting to visit this all-vegan Italian restaurant. Located about 2.5 kilometers outside the Old Town, Vegan Italy was just a little too out of the way every time I was deciding where to go for a meal. I intended to go on my last night, because it was close(ish) to my airport hotel, but when I realized the place closes at 7 p.m., I changed my plans in a fit of pique — it would’ve been cutting it close after a 5:30 p.m. ferry arrival, and I didn’t want to feel rushed. Plus, dinner isn’t the optimal meal to take at Vegan Italy: You’ll want to go for the 9€ VEGAN LUNCH BUFFET. I mean, really. Unlimited pasta! Arancini! Bruschetta! Etcetera! INCLUDING DESSERT! The more I think about not visiting this spot, the sadder I get. Moving on.

This is, as always, not an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear your favorite vegan restaurants in Tallinn, so do share!

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Vegan in Tallinn, Estonia // govegga.com

Two Weeks in South India: Vegan Food Galore, Street Animals, and my Plastic Penance

As an opportunistic traveler, I’ve always got my ear to the ground for chances to travel. Friend is spending the last year of her art history master’s program in Florence? Book a flight to Italy. Other friend accepted a temporary position in Auckland? Time to fulfill my dream of visiting New Zealand. So when my brother Ian announced that he and his then-girlfriend P. were getting married, and that they would be celebrating not just in the U.S. but in India, I was thrilled. Hello trip to India! (And, y’know, yay for them getting married and stuff.)

Rear-view mirror in our van

That was a couple years ago. Since then, Ian and P. got married in a small civil ceremony in Seattle (where they live) and celebrated with their west coast friends. My parents began thinking of an east coast reception. In the meantime, P.’s parents — who are from India but currently live in Thailand — began planning the Indian wedding. We were invited, of course, but not just for the wedding: They wanted to take us on a tour of South India. They wanted to plan everything for us, from organizing a big van with a driver to booking our hotels to engaging tour guides for the temples we’d visit. A little stunned by all this work they were doing on our behalves — on top of planning the wedding itself! — we said, “…okay!”

Last month, all their planning came to fruition. Steven, my parents, my cousin, my sister, my sister’s boyfriend, and I (and Ian and P., of course) all trekked to South India for a two-week wedding and road trip extravaganza. Truthfully, I wondered whether all the planning would diminish my enjoyment. I’m not typically a group traveler, preferring to plan things myself and strike off on my own or with another travel companion. So how would a weeklong road trip with 11 other people, where our itinerary was scheduled in a massive Excel spreadsheet, work out?

Well. It worked out juuust fine. As soon as I realized I’d have to give up any control over our destinations and day-to-day plans, I did just that. I readjusted my expectations and decided this was an opportunity to sit back and enjoy myself, stress-free. No planning needed. No worry about scheduling intra-India flights or booking a tour guide or deciding where to visit. P.’s parents took care of everything, from providing bag upon bag of homemade vegan road trip snacks to booking hotel rooms in some seriously beautiful locations. I can’t imagine how different this kind of trip would’ve been if I’d been left to my own devices, and I’m actually glad they took the reins. India can be kind of a tough country to travel through, and I appreciated all the insider guidance. We packed a lot into our two weeks, with stops in Kochi, Coimbatore (for the wedding!), Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Swamimalai, Darasuram, Thanjavur, Srirangam, Madurai, and Munnar… whew! During the week-long tour portion, we stayed in a different city location every night, packing our days full of sightseeing. The majority of sites we visited were temples, with a few museums and local attractions (including a tea plantation!) thrown in to spice things up.

Of course, we had to fuel those long temple tours under the blazing Indian sun… and we did so with gusto. And since we’ve been back, curious friends have asked a common question. They’ve seemed less interested in the sites and more interested in the food! Ha. We’ve been barraged with questions along the lines of, “How was the food?!” And, “Was it difficult finding vegan food in South India?”

The food was, in a word, plentiful. It was also delicious. And rich. Very, very rich. Fully half our group was vegan (!), and we also had one vegetarian with nut allergies, so we were quite a mixed bunch with very specific needs. We were able to get vegan food with relatively little fuss, though the nut-free requirement for my sister was a little more challenging.

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Ian and P. (the happy couple!) are both vegan, so their wedding meals (yes, meals plural) were vegetarian, with ample vegan options. Those fancy catered meals went on and on — we sat down to a big banana leaf “plate,” which had a little pile of salt and a scoop of my new favorite food: pickle. (This kind of pickle, not pickled cucumbers.) And then the food started coming. Big scoops of fluffy rice. Steaming hot chapati or naan or parotta. Three or four types of gravy, what many of us in the U.S. call curries. Another gravy. A small dish of raw veggies in coconut milk. Another gravy. A bowl of vegan carrot halwa for dessert. Waiters coming by every few minutes, pressing us to take another scoop of this, a little more of that. Me, stomach bursting, having to say no, I can’t, I really can’t, I’m going to explode if I eat more food!

…and then doing it again a few hours later for another meal.

South Indian thali for lunchReader, I am not exaggerating. Those catered meals were epic. But even our everyday meals — whether at the hotels we stayed at or at the little roadside restaurants where we stopped for lunch mid-drive — were also incredible. We’d roll in to a restaurant, all 12 of us, and P.’s mom would start her schpiel with the head waiter: “No ghee or butter in the gravies for these six. Please cook the naan in oil. No cashew paste in the gravies for this one. No ground nuts for her either, she has an allergy!” Then, ten minutes later, out would come a stack of metal platters for a thali. Or, more frequently, a vast assortment of breads and gravies, and maybe some rice (but not usually), and we’d begin stuffing our faces again. Protestations of “But I’m not hungry; I rarely eat this much at home; really I can’t eat now!” were met with alarm and were typically ignored.

If my stomach was protesting another heavy, rich meal, I’d opt for a ubiquitous offering on nearly every menu: Chinese noodles. This Indo-Chinese fusion dish was deceptively simple and could be ordered with lots of veggies; my favorite iteration was a peppery garlic dish I would love to recreate. Another favorite for a lighter meal? A crisp, thin masala dosa, served with coconut chutney and assorted other gravies, maybe stuffed with potatoes. So good.

IMG_4928One thing I didn’t indulge in very often? Dessert! Nearly all South Indian sweets are made with milk, so ordering off the menu could be difficult. That said, P.’s lovely mom had a friend specially make some vegan coconut burfi for us, which we gobbled down during our road trip (along with assorted other homemade Indian snacks). One hotel was able to specially make payasam with coconut milk, and another hotel gamely attempted a vegan chocolate cake for P.’s dad’s 60th birthday (an especially important birthday, which we were happy to celebrate together). And the halwa we had during the wedding was superb. We did also indulge in some uber-rich vegan chocolate gelato at Auroville, a sort of utopian settlement with an earth-friendly vibe. It was more than welcome in the heat.

IMG_4787In that gelato photo, you can see the mehendi on my hands. Since my sister, mom, cousin and I were all part of the wedding ceremonies, we were encouraged to get some mehendi done. Of course, our designs were tame compared to the beautiful — and expansive! — bridal designs that covered P.’s entire lower arms, hands, and feet. P.’s mom also provided saris for us to wear during the wedding, taking our measurements for custom-made blouses and specially ordering jute (rather than silk) saris for my mom and me, which I so appreciated. I felt a little hesitant about wearing a sari at first, not wanting to engage in cultural appropriation. But since we were part of the wedding and were being encouraged to wear them, I obliged (and loved it!). Two women came in to wrap us, then they pinned fragrant jasmine blooms in our hair and encouraged us to put on bindis and our matching jewelry. P.’s mom also bought tunics and pants for us to wear during the tour portion of our trip, which was so gracious. I just surrendered to the experience. :)

Street dog in KochiAnother new experience for me? Seeing street dogs. I’ve traveled pretty extensively in Europe, but never anywhere with a large population of street animals. I won’t lie; it was difficult. I felt like I had to turn off the part of me that sees an animal and automatically wants to pet/love/save her. Actually, though, the dogs we saw didn’t seem to be too badly off. Most looked relatively healthy, not emaciated or otherwise ill, and a few even had collars. We only saw one really unhealthy-looking dog, and that was admittedly pretty difficult. But watching a mama dog curl up by the side of a random woman one night while we sat listening to some traditional music at a temple? Beautiful. The woman was a little unsure at first, only petting the dog hesitantly, but soon they warmed up to one another and it was so sweet to see.

Street cow in Mahabalipuram

We also saw plenty of cows and goats (obviously owned), and they all seemed pretty happy, scrounging for fruit and veg on the side of the road. It was a little hard to watch when they were nosing among piles of trash, though. We couldn’t help wondering how much plastic waste they accidentally ingest. Which leads me to the biggest thorn in my side during this trip: my usage of plastic.

Before this trip, I couldn’t have told you the last time I drank out of a disposable plastic water bottle. Truly. I have my own metal bottle, and I just abstain if I’m without it. Steven and I try to cut down on our single-use plastics, but on this trip? We went through so. many. plastic. water. bottles. It hurt my heart.

To ensure that our drinking water was safe and wouldn’t make us ill, our hosts bought water bottles in bulk. I drank from them; sometimes there wasn’t an alternative, and I was glad our hosts had provided them. Becoming dehydrated during our tours was not exactly a viable alternative! That said, I did have my reusable bottle with me, so whenever we saw potable water available, I filled up. But that happened only rarely; there were filling stations at the Coimbatore airport when we were flying to Chennai, and the aforementioned Auroville also had them. I also drank from the pitchers at restaurants whenever possible, but still: I used a lot of plastic. And I feel terrible about it.

So now that I’m back in the States, I’ve imposed a kind of plastic penance on myself. I’m being extra conscious about my plastic usage; a new grocery store with an expansive bulk section just opened nearby, so I want to increase the amount of staples I buy in bulk. Shopping at the farmers market and gardening helps, too. Plus, our local Trader Joe’s is moving to a much less convenient location; while I’m gutted that I won’t be able to drive five minutes during the workday to pick up ingredients for dinner, I’m also kind of glad not to have the temptation to pick up whatever vegan convenience product catches my eye! I’m definitely guilty of making impulse Trader Joe’s purchases, and they’re rarely packaged sustainably. A lot of their produce also comes pre-packaged in plastic; I try to avoid that stuff, but sometimes I cave. No more.

That’s a bit of a diversion from my ramblings about India, but it’s all related. My actions here in Maryland have a greater, wider effect, and I try to be conscious of that fact. The movement to cut down on single-use plastics is worldwide; while reading Indian newspapers, I saw plenty of articles about plastic bag and plastic straw bans, and the one time I bought something (tea and spices, ha), the shop put my purchases in a reusable bag that’s become my lunch bag. (That said, the spices were packaged in plastic. I buy bulk spices here, but I couldn’t pass up the super-cheap pack of bay leaves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, dried ginger, star anise, nutmeg, and peppercorns.) But again, I digress. :)

…so, India? Yeah, it was a pretty good trip. And I can’t wait to go back.

Vegan Travel: An All-Vegan Cruise in Norway

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.

All-vegan cruise in Bergen, Norway
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?!

Eidfjord, Norway -- all-vegan cruise of Norway

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.)

Vegan meal at Kaf in Bergen, NorwayFor 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?

Vegan Irish coffee on all-vegan cruise

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.

Cow in Olden, NorwaySo, 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.

Will's Vegan Shoes dock boots review // govegga.comAnecdotally, 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:

All-vegan cruise in Norway

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?

Path in near Norway's EidfjordIt’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.
Kelly and Steven in Norway
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?!

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Disclaimer: This is a wholly candid and unprompted review! We paid for our vegan ocean cruise and have no affiliation with Vegan River Cruises.

Vegan in Rotterdam

Poor Rotterdam. It never had a fighting chance to win my affections. I arrived on a chilly, rainy afternoon after spending a few (relatively) warm, sunny days in Amsterdam. With my hood up against the wind and the occasional raindrop, I began the half-hour walk from the (admittedly striking) train station to my AirBnB with a minor sense of unease, and it only grew the further I walked. It wasn’t that the city seemed unsafe — more that it was slightly unwelcoming. I saw almost no one on my half-hour walk, a striking change after busy Amsterdam. The streets were unsettlingly quiet. The city gave off a distinctly barren vibe. The modern, clean lines of Rotterdam’s buildings were a jarring change from Amsterdam’s old-world charm, and they didn’t do much for me on that grey day.

Rotterdam central station

Shout out to Mr. Yawning Scooterist! (The blue skies appeared the morning I left… of course.)

I wish I could say my impression improved as the day went on, that I found a bit of charm in a seemingly charmless city. It didn’t happen, though. Perhaps the weather was to blame, but I found myself listless and anxious to leave. I gave the city a fighting chance, or as fighting a chance as I could in just under 24 hours. I had a good wander and I saw a few of the top sights, but I just didn’t connect with it.

Which is not to say the city has nothing to recommend it. The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen was an absolute highlight, with a surprisingly diverse collection. Although I got in for free thanks to my Museum Pass, I’d have happily paid the price of admission (€17,50 for adults as of January 2018). An eclectic yet engaging mix of Old Masters, Impressionists, Expressionists, Surrealists (and undoubtedly many more -ists) makes up the main collection, so you’re not sure what to expect in the next room. It’s also quite an educational spot; I didn’t know much about the De Stijl movement before spending time here, but the curators have done an excellent job of tracking the movement and I spent good long time reading through the signage. (Which, as a side note, is why I adore solo museum-ing. Free reign to… read!)

The museum also houses a fantastic display of “household objects that chart the history of design over eight centuries.” As I wandered through the basement rooms, I kept expecting the collection to come to an end — and then I’d turn the corner and find yet another room of, say, mid-century modern chairs or pipes used throughout the ages (including a charming one shaped like a dog).

The museum was blissfully quiet and uncrowded, a welcome change from the tourist-filled museums of Amsterdam. I was impressed and gratified I’d made the walk, and spent a few happy hours exploring.

Vegan cake in RotterdamAfter all that intense arting, I needed sustenance — in the form of cake. I headed to Heavenly Cupcakes, grateful for a chance to sit indoors and sip a hot beverage after a chilly walk. I ordered a slice of vanilla cake with raspberries and buttercream; it was perfectly serviceable, if a bit dense in texture. My perfect afternoon pick-me-up would’ve included a side of espresso, but alas: The espresso machine was being serviced at the very moment I stopped by. A pot of hot tea made a suitable replacement, and I enjoyed a leisurely snack in the otherwise empty cafe before heading back into the chill.

Suitably sugared up, I walked to the can’t-miss destination you’ll find on all city guides to Rotterdam: the Markthal (Market Hall). 

A vast indoor market characterized by its striking curved and reflective exterior, a dizzying indoor mural, and dozens of stalls, the Markthal is as good a place as any to spend a few hours in Rotterdam. Although it previously housed a vegan-friendly eatery, on my visit the Markthal was sadly devoid of much vegan fare, as far as I could tell. Still, there were plenty of bulk shops and a few bars, so you can always buy looseleaf tea and/or get a beer! Neither of which I did, but — you could.

The area around the Markthal also features the stunning elevated yellow cube houses that sometimes pop up on Pinterest and make you do a double-take. They’re even more impressive in person than in photos, and I wandered in the little cube-y “neighborhood” for a good while, wondering whether I should’ve shelled out for an AirBnB room in one of them. But I hadn’t, so eventually I returned to my regular ol’ AirBnB to charge my phone and fret over what to do next. I decided to keep it simple and go for dinner. Burgertrut was just a mile away, so I hoofed it to this indie eatery for  — you guessed it — a burger.

The place was packed when I arrived, with patrons who skewed heavily towards the hipster more than the hippie. (I didn’t realize overalls are now “on trend” until I saw a band of teens rocking them!) Luckily, the relaxed atmosphere meant I could grab an open seat on a couch and order from there, rather than waiting for a table to open up. I was seated right next to a visiting artist who was working on some kind of wall mural; Burgertrut is just one piece of a larger organization that includes a public studio and a communal art space. We chatted briefly while I waited for my food, and then I adopted an awkward silence and pulled out a book to read. As one does.

While Burgertrut is not a fully veg establishment, it does have a fair few thoughtfully crafted vegan options alongside its organic meaty burgers. I opted for the curry burger with a side of fries and vegan mayo and found it all perfectly tasty (especially with a beer). Wholly sated, I decided to call it a night and headed back to my AirBnB.

The next morning, I hoofed it to Rotterdam Centraal where I grabbed breakfast: an Alpro vanilla yogurt and a cup of fruit. This ersatz parfait was a surprisingly filling breakfast, and I thanked the vegan gods that Europe sees fit to sell vegan yogurt in its train stations. And then I was off. Bruges was my next stop, and as I’ve shared, it blew me away.

So, Rotterdam. I left feeling perfectly happy to put it in my rear-view mirror, but also with a tiny crumb of regret. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to be like so many other European cities I love; by its very nature, it’s a different beast. Rotterdam sustained heavy bombing during World War II, and rather than try to recreate its older architecture, the city was designed anew in a much more modern style. And while I did enjoy and appreciate elements of that style — the Markthal and the cube houses, to name a few — perhaps I needed to clear my mental slate and judge the city on its own merits, not in Amsterdam’s glow.

Pooping dog statue, RotterdamAnd if I’m honest, there were a few moments that made me think Rotterdam had hidden depths I left unplumbed. I saw a few pairs of honest-to-goodness punks, for example, that made my counterculture heart sing a bit. These were not the try-hard young hipsters of Amsterdam but grizzled old-school punks, and a quick Google search does indeed indicate that Rotterdam is home to a legitimate punk scene. I’ve also heard that Rotterdam is tops if you enjoy clubbing and “nightlife,” but as I spend 99% of my nights on the couch knitting, reading, or re-watching The Office, this fact holds no appeal for me. (Another high point? Finding this statue of Fikkie the dog… and his poo. Yes, I consider this a high point. No, I am not ashamed.)

My most acute Rotterdam regret is not taking an afternoon trip to see the Kinderdijk waterfalls (see here and here). It had been on my tentative to-do list, but the timing just didn’t work out — you have to take a water bus over to them, and the schedule didn’t make sense given my limited time in the city. They look really lovely, though, and they remain on my bucket list.

All in all, with six months of retrospection behind me, I’m glad I visited Rotterdam. The cube houses had been on my to-see list for years, and my sense of the Netherlands as a whole country was deepened by my visit. Will I return? I could be convinced. It’s easily accessible by train, so a daylong visit could happen at some point — and definitely with a visit to Kinderdijk built in. Maybe I’ll even shell out for a cube house for a night.

Other vegan options in Rotterdam

My pre-visit list of Rotterdam vegan restaurants wasn’t huge since I knew I’d only be spending a single night there, but here are a few places I didn’t get to try.

  • Gare du Nord: Vegan bistro in a train car! Lots of organic and local options. Reservations recommended.
  • Happy Kitchen: Eco-friendly eatery and small grocery store featuring vegan goods that skew towards the organic, raw, and whole-foods-based.
  • Tribestlife Raw Food Kitchen: Café with a bevy of raw, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan menu items. Choose among small bites, heartier dishes, sweet treats, and plenty of hot and cold drinks.

Where to stay in Rotterdam

I opted for a private room in an AirBnB since I was essentially just there for the night. New to AirBnB? Use my referral link to save $40 on your first booking!

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Vegan in The Hague

I had grand plans for my trip to Amsterdam: I was going to take SO MANY DAY TRIPS to the little cities and towns dotted around Amsterdam proper. Delft, Utrecht, Leiden, Haarlem, The Hague… they’re all just a quick and inexpensive train ride away! I could be there and back in an afternoon! I would see it all!

…yeah, no. Sure, I technically had the time to fit in all (well, most) of those little jaunts, but I would have had to travel every single day. And I would have missed out on the absolute best parts of this trip: wandering around Amsterdam, savoring meals slowly, and leisurely strolling through museums. I’m glad I lifted the burden of trying to see it all from my shoulders and opted instead to do what I wanted to do in the moment. I ended up taking just one day trip and decided on the destination with pure pragmatism: I was going on a Sunday, and many of the museums in my potential destination cities would be closed.

View from the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, the Netherlands

View from the Mauritshuis in The Hague

The Mauritshuis in The Hague, however, was open for business. Considering that the Mauritshuis is home to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and a particularly charming Jan Steen (As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young), The Hague (or Den Haag, if you prefer the Dutch name) seemed like a fine choice for this Dutch-art-loving traveller.

And it was. The Sunday crowds were sparse, the sun was out to counteract a chill in the air, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this internationally important city. My only real disappointment? The Den Haag location of De Vegetarische Slager (the Vegetarian Butcher) was closed! This purveyor of vegetarian and vegan meats runs a “concept store” in The Hague, with a fully vegan menu of deli sandwiches and other lunch specialties. Sigh.

De Vegetarische Snackbar

De Vegetarische Snackbar, Den HaagMany of the other vegan places on my list were also closed, so I meandered through the city to De Vegetarische Snackbar instead. The walk took me through some more residential neighborhoods, which I always enjoy, and led me to an unassuming storefront in a little row of restaurants.

In my experience, old-school veg joints go one of two ways: There are the hippie-inspired, sprouts-n-tofu, peace and love joints (see: De Bolhoed in Amsterdam), but there are also the more hardcore, punk-inspired, surly-tattooed-server joints as well. De Vegetarische Snackbar falls into that latter category (minus the surliness).

The massive menu is all vegetarian and heavy on the junk food, with lots of burgers and fake meats. Clearly-labeled vegan options make ordering relatively simple, although it took a few tries for me to communicate my order (the lupine burger) to the server. Whereas almost all vegan-friendly restaurants in Amsterdam had staffers who spoke very good English, there was a little language barrier in The Hague. (Not, of course, that that’s a bad thing; just something to be aware of. I tried learning some Dutch before I went but found it bizarrely tricky. I usually have a knack for foreign languages, so that was a bit of a surprise.)

My lupine burger, though impressive to the eye and just fine to the palate, was nearly impossible to eat as assembled. I am developing something of an aversion to these massive buns. Honestly, can anyone actually fit that whole thing in their mouth?! It’s impossible and painful, like you’re going to either dislocate your jaw or rough up the sides of your mouth. So instead you have to deconstruct it and either shovel bits and pieces into your maw or weirdly eat it with a fork and knife, which is somehow nearly as inelegant as using your hands! I think menus should come with a warning if a given burger features a massive bun. Then you could ask for a smaller, softer one instead.

Anyway, my experience at De Vegetarische Snackbar was clearly marred by my discomfort and irritation at trying to eat a giant burger without looking like a total fool. I should have gotten the bitterballen instead.

Other options

I truly wish I’d had more time to try some of the other vegan joints in The Hague, because this seemingly buttoned-up city has plenty to offer.

  • De Vegetarische Slager: The aforementioned vegetarian butcher. Closed Sundays and Mondays, alas.
  • FOAM: The name stands for “Fresh Organic And Meat-free.” All-vegan restaurant open for breakfast and lunch only… maybe dinner if you eat on grandparent time. :)
  • Quinta Verde: Vegan “lunchroom” open from 9 am to 6 pm, serving breakfast, lunch, and even a prix-fixe brunch.
  • Veggies on Fire: Vegan restaurant serving dinner nice and late, from 5 pm to 11 pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays. Great reviews and lots of creative raw options.

Along with De Vegetarische Snackbar, these four eateries were the ones that caught my eyes and made it on to my shortlist. But check out the HappyCow listing for The Hague: This city has tons of veg-friendly establishments! It’s really quite impressive.

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Vegan in Bruges

Kelly in Bruges

Bruges: the sleeper hit of my recent trip to Holland and Belgium. I booked two nights in this small city on a bit of a whim; I knew it was deliciously quaint and charming, but not much more than that. As a consummate planner and preparer, even this tiny dipping of the toe into semi-spontaneous travel was exhilarating. But then, the night before I arrived, I started to regret my choice.

It was a Wednesday night in Rotterdam. I was bored. I was cold. I was heading to Belgium the following morning and I was wondering whether I’d made a mistake. I’d been enjoying Amsterdam so much that by comparison, Rotterdam couldn’t help but disappoint me. (More on that later.) What if Bruges was the same? What if I found myself in a boring, tiny city with nothing to do, nothing to see, and only the relative comfort of a few vegan restaurants to sustain me? Why had I booked two whole nights there without doing more research?!

Bruges, Belgium // copyright Kelly WilliamsWell. Those fears were, of course, unfounded. My arrival in Bruges felt charmed. The sun was out, the day was warm, and I was riding high after a brief stop in Antwerp to change trains. I’d found Antwerp absolutely breathtaking, to my surprise and delight, and my expectations for Bruges were raised in kind.

The whole walk into Bruges from the central train station had me grabbing my phone to snap photo after photo, mouth agog in sheer delight and surprise at the city’s charm. It’s impossibly quaint, like something out of a Disney movie. And it’s a bit like Amsterdam writ small, with slightly shorter buildings, fewer canals, and a more compact city center. I’m sure the fact that I was staying in a incredible 500-year-old canal-side hotel didn’t hurt my impression of the place! (See below. Shout out to travel hacking!)

Hotel Ter Brughe, Bruges, Belgium

Even the crowd is different. Whereas Amsterdam plays host to droves of hen parties, stag parties, and college students on break, Bruges’ visitors seemed of a more — ahem — mature inclination. I’m guessing it’s a popular stop on European bus tours that cater to older travelers, because I saw quite a few groups of pensioners following a tour guide’s bobbing umbrella around the city. To my partying-averse self, that was a good thing (even if I did have to endure the slow-moving groups clogging up the sidewalks more than a few times). I’ll take a dozen retirees dawdling through a guided tour over a dozen liquored-up frat boys any day of the week.

Bruges, BelgiumAnd about that fear of boredom: Bruges may be small, but there’s lots to see and do. Even though I took it easy on the touristing front, I was never bored. I visited just a few hotspot locations and instead spent my time enjoying the sunshine, meandering through the blissfully bike-free streets (well, relatively bike-free), and eating. Always eating.

It’s surprisingly easy to find vegan food in Bruges, especially considering that this is a relatively small city. I spent two nights and barely two days there, so I didn’t get to sample everything, but I was so impressed with the places I did visit. Read on for details and a list of the eateries I didn’t get to try.

#food

If you are in Bruges, go to #food (pronounce it “hashtag food”) for dinner. If it’s sunny, ask to sit outside — there’s a hidden patio out back, so you can enjoy the sun while you enjoy some fantastically creative food. This relatively new restaurant does serve meat, but it’s also incredibly vegan-friendly. Everything is clearly labeled, and the servers get it when you say you’re vegan: after ordering my vegan entree, my server brought me a bowl of spicy popcorn and reassured me that it was vegan even before I had a chance to ask.

#food is definitely trying hard to project an image of quirky eccentricity, which generally irks me. (Everything is very colorful, and the restaurant eschews place mats, opting for records instead.) However, the menu is so genuinely creative and playful that it justifies all that quirky decor. I ordered the Coconut Oil, which is described as “lasagna with coconut, sweet ’n sour sauce, pineapple and lots of veggies, with fruity salad.”

Now, calling this dish “lasagna” is a bit of a stretch… but who cares when it tastes so good? Thinly sliced zucchini, pineapple chunks, and coconut made up the bulk of this souffle-esque casserole-y dish. (It really defied description.) I wasn’t sure whether I’d like the sweet ‘n sour flavor profile, but it was absolutely perfect alongside the tropical ingredients. And thanks to a generous topping of pomegranate seeds, toasted coconut, edible flowers (!), and passionfruit, there were plenty of textures to set off the more souffle-like main dish. The fruity salad on the side was also a masterpiece, featuring a very light vinaigrette over salad greens, tomatoes, grated carrots, golden raisins, strawberries, grapes, orange slices, and a gorgeous Rainier cherry on top. The fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this salad must be a testament to my more refined palate, right? Because this combination of fruit and veggies in the same dish would not have met with my approval just a few years ago!

#food is a bit on the pricey side, especially for Bruges, but I considered it well worth my money for the attentive service and the thoughtfully prepared dishes. I was seated by a large British family who ordered quite a few different dishes, and to a person they all raved about their meals. My only regret: not ordering dessert. But! On the way out, the server (who I believe is the owner) handed me a raspberry aquafaba meringue. “For our vegan guests,” he said. What a treat.

Editor’s note, 06/2018: #food has moved locations since I visited, but it’s still up and running and seemingly more vegan-friendly than ever!

Royal Frituur

In Belgium, a “frituur” is an eatery that serves quick, fried foods, including the famous Belgian fries. Royal Frituur takes that concept and expands it to include a bevy of vegan and gluten-free options. No, it’s not healthy — again, this place is literally designed to serve deep-fried foods — but it’s a fantastic option for vegans who are sad they can’t enjoy the fries from Bruges’ ubiquitous fry stalls. (They’re cooked in animal fat, typically lard or ox fat. Gross.)

royalfrituur

This is a small place, a little outside the city center, but still an easy walk given Bruges’ relatively small size. It was not very busy when I arrived around 7:00 pm on a Friday. Staffed by a single woman, most likely the owner, it’s a small, relatively unassuming joint, with all the various vegan and non-vegan patties, burgers, balls, and other fryables on display in a front case. What makes Royal Frituur so remarkable is the sheer variety it offers, from your average soy-based patty to the hazelnut one I chose. I believe the proprietor carries a few items from De Vegetarische Slager (aka The Vegetarian Butcher), a meat substitute specialist that supplies much of Europe with all sorts of meat-free goodies. (They have a great backstory, too.)

Anyway, my hazelnut burger was crunchy and filling, if not particularly exciting. I also got a small order of fries, which turned out to be too large for my small tummy. But the dip — a horseradish mayo — was really tasty. (Royal Frituur has six vegan fry sauces.)

bruges5

A few quirks of Royal Frituur: To sit at the small lunch counter, you’ll need to buy a drink (hence my sparkling water in the photo above). It’s also cash-only. Everything is relatively inexpensive, however, so it’s a great place to use up those euro coins burning a hole in your pocket. If the weather’s nice, forego the lunch counter and head to the park just around the corner. You can find an empty bench and take a gander at the Sint-Janshuis windmill, which is still used to grind flour today.

Other vegan options in Bruges

Given my short stay in Bruges, I didn’t get to try too many veg-friendly joints. The city happened to be hosting a food truck festival starting the Friday I was there, and all the flyers advertised vegan food. So I visited the festival and grabbed a couple of vegan momos for lunch on Friday. They were tasty, but they also meant I missed out on another restaurant visit. Oh well. Here are a few other places that never made it off my list and onto my itinerary.

  • Books and Brunch: Used book store and tea room with vegetarian and veganizable options. Only open 9 to 5, so best for breakfast or a light lunch.
  • De Bron Vegetarian: Small vegetarian eatery offering a single main dish each day. Cash only.
  • De Plaats: I tried to hit up this centrally located vegetarian restaurant on my first night, but it was unexpectedly closed (according to the hand-written sign out front). HappyCow reviews are mixed, but I thought it looked cute.
  • For a wonderfully comprehensive resource of all things vegan in Bruges, check out Trudi’s list on the Bruges Vegan blog.

General tips + recommendations

  • If the weather is nice, you could certainly do worse than grabbing a few to-go items at the many Carrefour Express spots around the city center and enjoying them in the middle of Markt square. I did just that one morning, with a super-tasty Alpro mango quark yogurt and an accidentally vegan apple pastry. (Side note: Why is quark (regular or vegan) not a thing in the States?! The Alpro version was a thick, pudding-like yogurt, and I loved it!)
  • For beer enthusiasts, a visit to the family-run Brouwerij De Halve Maan is a must. The beer you’ll sample on the tour (Brugse Zot) is vegan, and they even serve a tasty unfiltered version you can’t get elsewhere. I’ve been on plenty of brewery tours, but this was one was especially fun and informative. Plus, you get a great rooftop view of the city at one point! There’s also a pleasant beer garden if you want to extend your post-tour drinking beyond the one free sample. (And they have a crowdfunded BEER PIPELINE that transports the beer underground across the city to the bottling plant. How neat is that?!)

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Vegan in Bruges, Belgium // govegga.com Vegan in Bruges, Belgium // govegga.com

 

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