If you’re an omnivore who thinks good food is hard to find on vacation, try traveling while vegan.
Plant-based diets are growing in popularity, but most tourist destinations still cater to the comfort-food crowd. There are large parts of the country – indeed, the world – without vegan restaurants. What’s someone on an all-veggie diet to do?
Colette Coleman, an educational consultant and vegan in New York, is one of those travelers. She says looking for a vegan restaurant may be a mistake.
“Often it’s better to find a great vegan dish at a local restaurant serving diverse dishes,” she says.
For example, in Italy, she found vegan selections on the “contorni” portion of the menu – salads and vegetable side dishes. In France, she dined on lentil stews and ratatouille, which are vegan and commonly available. And in Latin America, the beans and rice were generally meatless.
If your New Year’s resolution included a switch to a plant-based diet, then advice like Coleman’s doesn’t come a moment too soon. Maybe you’re a few weeks away from a spring break getaway and wondering: How am I going to eat vegan at a steak-and-potatoes destination?
It’s not as hard as it looks. (By the way, a quick note about terms. Generally, “vegetarian” means no meat, while “vegan” means no animal products at all.)
“For someone who is just starting down the vegan path, my advice is to not stress out,” says Tammy Kerr, a travel agent in Hernando Beach, Florida, who specializes in traveling while vegan. Years ago, vegans who wanted to take a vacation were limited to a handful of places with acceptable food options.
“Today, vegans don’t have to make that choice,” she adds.
Technology can help you track down vegan food quickly. One smartphone app, HappyCow, is consistently recommended by vegan travelers. It lists and rates vegan restaurants and grocery stores near you. Review apps such as Yelp also allow you to apply a “vegan” filter to restaurant searches (the results are not always reliably vegan, so it’s best to call the restaurant if you have questions). And Google’s search results are getting better at pinpointing highly rated vegan restaurants.
Another helpful tool for vegan travelers: Vegan Passport ($2), an app created by the Vegan Society. It’s a multilingual phrase book with terms that will help you communicate your dietary restrictions to 96% of the world’s population. The latest edition covers 78 languages, including Hausa, Xhosa and Zulu.
Tania Pantoja-Alvarez, who runs a series of vegan events in Los Angeles called Vegan Street Fair, says she also connects with fellow vegans on Facebook groups such as Vegans United before she travels.
“Search for ‘vegan’ and the place you are visiting and see what pops up,” she says. “Join and ask for their best recommendations. There is nothing like the locals showing you around. You may even discover some cool vegan events occurring during your trip.”
But what if there are no vegan restaurants at your destination? Besides finding a plant-based dish at a regular restaurant, you can always look for other food sources. That’s the advice of Kristin Lajeunesse, author of “Will Travel for Vegan Food: A Young Woman’s Solo Van-Dwelling Mission to Break Free, Find Food and Make Love.”
“Look for a grocery store and stock up from their produce section,” she says.
Sometimes you have to improvise. Jason Holcomb and his wife have made several road trips to areas where few people know what vegans are. They travel with a steamer to prepare vegetables on the road.
“We once spent an entire week in Alamosa, Colorado, buying frozen vegetables from Walmart and steaming them in a vegetable steamer in the hotel we were staying in,” recalls Holcomb, a project development manager in Rockford, Illinois.
You can ease the stress of finding vegan food by taking a local food tour. Tour operators have rolled out new offerings for vegan travelers. Last year, for example, Intrepid Travel, a tour operator that specializes in adventure travel, launched vegan-themed tours for destinations such as India, Italy and Thailand. The eight-day India Vegan Food Adventure takes guests through Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, and promises to take them “far beyond the masala dosas and veggie samosas of the high street cafes.”
If you’d rather do your own thing, you can choose a destination known for being vegan-friendly. Portland, Oregon, has about 50 dedicated vegan restaurants, including vegan barbecue restaurants, and is home to what’s believed to be the world’s first vegan mini-mall.
“We want to make sure visitors with any dietary consideration feel welcome,” says Stephanie Selk, a spokeswoman for Travel Portland.
Hotels can range from oblivious to the needs of vegans to exclusively vegan. The latter describes the Stanford Inn & Resort in Mendocino, California, which bills itself the only plant-based resort in the United States. The furniture has no animal-based materials, so there are no leather sofas. Its on-site restaurant, the Ravens, serves organic-plant-based fare such as sea palm-and-root vegetable strudel and wild mushroom-and-creamy polenta.
“We use as much produce as practically possible from our own farm which, beyond being organic, does not use pesticides, regardless of their organic pedigree,” says Jeff Stanford, the inn’s owner.
If all this sounds pie in the sky, let me assure you: It’s not. For the past three years, I’ve been traveling nonstop with my three home-schooled teenagers. Two of us are on a plant-based diet and two are flexitarians. Some places are easier to be vegan than others. Portland, Oregon; Scottsdale, Arizona; Los Angeles; and Orlando, Florida were among our favorites. We struggled to find vegan food in such places as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Grand Junction, Colorado. But they always had grocery stores where we could buy all the fixings for a vegan meal.
Traveling while vegan has so many benefits that I’d recommend it even to my carnivorous friends. Switching to a plant-based diet can reduce the chances of weight gain while you’re on vacation. It also excludes a lot of expensive restaurant meals, saving you money. Don’t worry, you can thank me later.
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.