Day 166: Is Being Vegan on Viking Cruises Easy?…It’s Complicated

Day 166 of the Nowhere To Be Project was spent reflecting on our two-week British Isles voyage on the Viking Ocean’s ship the Star. Over the next few days I will post reviews of different aspects of the trip (Dining, Itinerary, Service, etc.), but I wanted to begin with a post about the vegan options on board as I have had many, many questions on this topic.

I notified Viking that I was vegan well in advance of our trip and the ship’s restaurant manager Joan (pronounced Joanne) was aware of this from the outset. She approached our table on embarkation day after I inquired with the wait staff about vegan options for lunch in the World Café (the casual dining buffet). She explained the process for special dietary requests to me at that time which goes as follows:
1- decide at least a day in advance where you will dine
2- obtain a photocopy of the menu
3- select the items you’d like
4- return the menu to the restaurant manager by 9am on the day you will dine

This process sounded simple enough and I was pleased. Not so fast! Despite following Joan’s instructions to the letter, the process of being vegan on the Viking Star was a comedy of errors. No matter which dining option we chose, when we arrived the wait staff seemed put off and confused about my diet. The only case where the chefs had been notified in advance of my arrival was at the Chef’s Table. All other meals were made on the fly, took forever to prepare and almost always included non-vegan ingredients (cheese, whipped cream, honey, etc.).

A pre-ordered “vegan” wedge salad served with bleu cheese:-/
A “vegan” burger served with cheese:-(

On the fifth day of the 14 day trip, I decided that the simplest option for me and the staff was the World Café for lunch and dinner where the dishes are labeled. However, “vegan” and “dairy” labels are not used by Viking and nearly all the vegetable-based dishes included invisible butter and/or cream. The only labels used by Viking are “gluten free”, “sugar free” and “vegetarian”. I inquired with World Café’s wonderful sous chef Clifford about this and he said he’d mention it to the “higher ups”. He was always willing to help in explaining the vegan options to me, but they were so few among the prepared dishes that I usually had to have something made special. Despite his enthusiasm, he was usually overwhelmed with his job duties which made accommodating my needs difficult for him. He was also limited in terms of available ingredients. In a nutshell, I ate pasta with garlic, olive oil and vegetables for nearly every meal and by the time I received it, my husband was eating dessert. Meal time became very stressful and I felt bad having to ask for special treatment just to eat. I worried aloud to my husband more than once about those on board with food allergies. If my dietary restrictions had been due to allergies, I undoubtedly would have become very, very ill.

Creamed spinach prepared with whole milk instead of nut milk:-$

After learning the hard way in the restaurants on board, I relied on room service for breakfast each day. Hang tangs are placed in the staterooms each evening for the following morning. Instead of selecting the listed options, I wrote in almond milk, avocado and mushrooms sautéed in olive oil each night and had no problems with what was delivered the following morning. Just a note that almond milk and avocado were not available by “special order” anywhere else on board despite my repeated efforts at obtaining them.

My daily “special order” breakfast
Specially prepared pasta in Manfredi’s…served with pepper and no oil! Yuck!

Vegan diets are becoming more prevalent each and every day and Viking MUST take action to adapt. We love nearly everything else about the company and are confident that they can work this out. In fact, this was our fifth voyage with Viking in just a couple of years and we booked our sixth while onboard (a river cruise on the Elbe River). It is my hope that Viking takes charge of educating their staff on vegan food preparation or it may be my last. The staff is so eager to please, but lacks the time, tools and knowledge of vegan food to do so on the fly! In short, a vegan option (other than fruit and salad) should be planned and included at every meal (labeled accordingly).

A success at Chef’s Table…mushroom tarte!

Day 151: Sunday Funday London-Style!

Day 151 of the Nowhere To Be Project marked our second day onboard the Viking Sky. Having visited London several times before, we tried to make it a day of seeing things we’ve never seen before. In short, we did what we do best…wander! It was fantastic! There were two extra special highlights: 1- seeing the ruins of a Roman gravel road from the first century (amazing to see such history) at Southwark Cathedral, AND 2- the fact that London is a trailblazer in terms of vegan offerings (choices at every literally every restaurant and pub we walked by)!

We thought we’d beat the heat in the ship’s infinity pool after eight hours of walking the city. Unfortunately, the water was as hot as the asphalt we’d been traversing all day (hot tub hot)! Looking forward to cooler days ahead as we sail for Dover this evening. Anchors away!

Day 150: London…well, Greenwich really

On Day 150 of the Nowhere To Be Project we arrived in London on a red-eye to board the Viking Sky. Despite the exhaustion, we’re thrilled to be back although the record heat hit us like a ton of bricks. Upon arrival at Heathrow, we were greeted by friendly Viking staff and transported via coach to Greenwich, an area that is completely new to us. Since our luggage hadn’t caught up with us yet, we hoofed it out immediately to explore Greenwich and stumbled upon the Greenwich Market, a mix of vendors hocking hand-crafted and vintage items. It was then that I found Ruby’s of London and my jet-lagged spirit lightened at the sight of their vegan cakes and cupcakes. I’m much too tired to say much more as we sit and sip at Greenwich Tavern, so I’ll just leave you with a look at my takeaway haul.

Ruby’s of London Vegan Cupcakes

Day 146: Sailing the Waterways of the Tsars on a Viking River Cruise

Day 146 of the Nowhere To Be Project is dedicated to a full review of my most recent river cruise in Russia. Of all of the cruises I’ve done (over 50), this was the most unique. As a child of the Cold War, I was taught to fear Russia. Of course this background made it even more appealing when the chance to visit arose due the mystery of it all. It was also different from my other voyages with Viking because a travel visa was required. I took Viking’s advice and used Generations Visa company and was able to procure the appropriate visa in about six weeks. Viking also arranged air travel (it was included in the cruise fare via a sale) through Lufthansa which has become a favorite for international travel. My husband and I flew from Orlando to Frankfurt and then on to St. Petersburg. We were greeted by Viking staff just outside of the customs area and were then transferred by motor coach to our ship.

We arrived at the Viking Truvor on May 6, 2017 and were very warmly welcomed aboard with a toast of Russian vodka. The Truvor was different from the more modern Viking Longships. While comfortable and immaculate, the ship seemed chopped up and lacked the light and open feel of the European ships. We were in what was described as a “deluxe stateroom”, cabin 206. The amenities and furnishings were in line with those that we experienced on our previous Viking voyages (bedding, linens, use of space, bath products, etc.). Russian-themed movies were on a rotating loop throughout the cruise which was good because there were not many other television channels available.

Our voyage on the Truvor began with four full days in St. Petersburg. The ship was docked in a quiet residential area of the city. During our time in St. Petersburg we visited the Hermitage on a Viking tour (included). The museum itself was breathtaking, but the crowds were insane and more than uncomfortable. We also joined two additional included tours of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin and an up-close tour of the city itself. Our favorite tour in St. Petersburg was an optional excursion to a Soviet-era Kommunalka (shared housing). It was remarkable to sip tea with a woman who expressed (through an interpreter) nostalgia for communism. The architecture of St. Petersburg pits modern versus ancient in stark contrast. We dined out several times during our time in St. Petersburg and visited a few pubs. Communicating with the locals was never a problem and we found them to be as curious about us as we were about them. On the fourth evening of our Waterways of the Tsars journey we set sail for Mandrogy along the Neva River. The cruise director provided an interesting narrative on the ships’s speakers to highlight key sights visible from the ship as we dined on regional favorites in the restaurant. We cruised from the Neva River through Lake Ladoga and into the Svir River to reach Mandrogy.

We feasted on a lovely buffet breakfast on day five of our voyage before our noon arrival in Mandrogy (yes, the signature Viking sautéed mushrooms were there:-). Mandrogy is a tiny riverside village of brightly painted homes and skilled artisans. We had just a few hours in Mandrogy, but managed to stock up on a stash of unique handmade items including matryoshkas, lacquered jewelry and hand-knitted mittens and shawls. After a snowy afternoon in Madrogy we were ready for the warmth of happy hour back on board the Truvor and were pleased with the Russian wine offerings. We set sail for Kizhi, Russia at 4pm and found the onboard evening activities on the Truvor bountiful. There were Russian lessons, cooking demonstrations and cultural presentations offered throughout the cruise. Live music in the lounge was also a popular draw.

We were awakened in the early morning hours of day six of the voyage to the sounds of ice hitting the ship. We were the first voyage of the season and the ice had not yet been broken through. We made our way on deck to find that the Truvor was tailing a cutter. The cutter was literally plowing the way for us through the icy waters. Due to these conditions, we were not able to reach the island of Kizhi. With no pending destination, we ate and drank our way through the day, making this a good time to discuss the food on board. As with all Viking voyages, regional influences prevail. This meant a lot of soups, boiled meats, cabbage, and root vegetables. I had adopted a vegan diet just a month or so before embarking on the journey, but had not notified the staff of this. Even without special accommodations, I was able to eat fairly heartily. My husband, who isn’t vegan, enjoyed the piroshki (Russian meat pies) and the borscht, but also managed to get his steak and potatoes on board quite regularly.

We traversed the Volga-Baltic waterway to reach Goritzy at the one week point in our journey. We were eager for some fresh air at this point and were happy to join our fellow passengers for the included Krillo-Belozersky Monastery Tour. We were taken by bus to Kuzino to view the medieval monastery and churches. We also toured a local school and were given the opportunity to meet the students and purchase some of their artwork. Once again we learned that most Russian citizens are as fascinated with American culture as we are with their culture. It really is a small world! We met the ship in Kuzino at 3pm (it had sailed from Goritzy while we were at the monastery) and sailed for Yaroslavl. The staff of the Truvor went above and beyond to ensure that there were plenty of opportunities for engagement throughout the cruise and this evening was no different. There were more Russian language lessons, trivia challenges and Russian-themed entertainment to fill the hours. Perhaps the most popular event of the evening was an optional vodka tasting. My husband imbibed while I observed. The highlight was hearing about the pivotal role vodka plays in Russian culture from a waiter who was born and raised in Siberia.

On day eight of the voyage we awoke to the statue of mother Volga on the starboard side of Truvor after which we entered our first lock of the itinerary. We arrived in Yaroslavl at 3pm. Yaroslavl is part of the Golden Ring of quaint historic cities and is peppered with old homes and churches. We joined an included walking tour of the city and happened upon a lively street fair. At the fair we tasted local treats and purchased handmade tiles, a signature item of Yaroslavl, before gathering back on board the Truvor for our 7pm departure.

We awoke in Uglich, Russia on day nine of our Waterways of the Tsars voyage. The activity for today was tea with a local family. We were divided into small groups and taken by van to the homes of local families. The family we met consisted of a grandmother, her daughter and her grandson. The family lived together in a tiny three room home. They grew most of their food in their yard and supplemented their income by allowing Viking guests to visit their home. We enjoyed homemade pickles, tea and, of course, vodka, before making our way back to the ship for an optional matryoshka doll painting class. The farewell celebration was hosted at dinner with a toast and a parade-type tour of the galley for all passengers.

On the tenth day of the trip we arrived in Moscow where we would remain docked for four days. The ship docked in an area just outside of the metropolitan area. It took a decent walk through a park to reach the subway which was easily navigable. We joined the included Up-Close City Tour at 1pm on our first day in Moscow to get a lay of the land. We spent the rest of the evening roaming the city alone. Moscow is a very wealthy, safe and heavily-populated city. The dining and shopping options are limitless and go way beyond the impressive Gum department store. We stayed out rather late on that first day in Moscow, soaking up the Russian culture as much as we could. The rest of our time in Moscow was just as fascinating with a tour of the Kremlin and a Moscow By Boat tour. We were really wowed by this modern metropolis!

Our Waterways of the Tsars journey ended in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 18, 2017 when we were transferred to the Moscow airport by Viking staff. Throughout this voyage (our longest yet with Viking), each and every staff member was exceptional. The ship was kept spotless, the food was good, the wine selection was outstanding and the itinerary was magical. There was always something to do on board during sailing times and there were plenty of opportunities for free time both on and off board. Our fellow passengers were friendly, well-traveled, mostly retired, and hailed from America, Australia and the United Kingdom. We were awestruck by Russia and its people and would absolutely consider visiting the country again.

Day 141: Beaver Creek – The Disney of the Vail Valley

I hung out in Beaver Creek on day 141 of the Nowhere To Be Project. I might describe Beaver Creek as the younger plastic step sister of Vail. It is located above the town of Avon, just twelve miles west of Vail. Like Vail, Beaver Creek offers four seasons of outdoor fun along with upscale lodging, dining and shopping. Unlike Vail, Beaver Creek has a decidedly manufactured feel to it. I would liken this to the vibe one gets while strolling down Main Street USA at Walt Disney World.

The multilayered village area of Beaver Creek is a slope side sea of brick filled with hotels, shops, art galleries and dining venues. The center of the action is shared by the Vilar Performing Arts Center, a popular spot for concerts, and a plus-sized ice skating rink (winter only). Mountain sports options are just steps from the village and include hiking, biking and a ropes course in the summer, and snow sports in the winter.

It was a perfect sunny day today, so I lunched al fresco at 8100, the mountainside casual dining option at the beautiful Park Hyatt Resort. I went with the grilled vegetable sandwich minus the feta and was shocked when it arrived cold. I wrongly assumed that grilled vegetables would be hot. No such luck! The view from the patio at 8100 was great, but the sandwich wasn’t even close to worth the $17 price tag, even by Beaver Creek standards.

What are Beaver Creek standards, you ask? I would go with pristine, pricey and very well-manicured. In sum, there are many things to love about Beaver Creek particularly for those who prefer a country club experience. If you’re looking for hyper-controlled luxury in the mountains, this may just be your spot.

All opinions are my own and I am never compensated in any way.

Day 140: Sacred Abundance at White Bison in Vail

On Day 140 of the Nowhere To Be Project I enjoyed another fantastic meal and just had to share it with you! I dined at White Bison in Vail. The restaurant’s namesake (the White Bison) is sacred in Native American culture, reportedly bringing great abundance to those who spot one. I’ve visited this restaurant a handful of times, mostly due to their outstanding open air terrace overlooking Gore Creek. Today’s experience was so pleasant that the view became secondary. Similar to most other restaurants in Vail, their menu is meat-centric. The difference at White Bison is that the staff and chef go above and beyond to accommodate the dietary needs of their diners. This level of service, paired with a desire to please their patrons, is so refreshing in an area where that authenticity is often absent.

We chose three menu items to share, all of which were already meat and egg free. Minor tweaks in the preparation made them dairy free as well. This amazing feast began with an appetizer of their flavorful crispy French fries. We usually don’t eat fries, but we spotted these on a fellow diner’s table and just had to try them. They were excellent!

Next we had the charred Caesar salad without cheese or anchovies, and with the addition of a nice vegan garlic dressing. Again, this dish was outstanding. The watermelon seeds and paper thin fresh beet slices helped to make this a standout. Even more char on the romaine lettuce would not be a bad thing though.

Finally, we shared the gnocchi which was drizzled with a luscious truffle oil. The dish was very unique with the addition of baby carrots, fava beans and snap peas. The savory blend of flavors was like nothing we’ve ever tasted. It quickly became our favorite recent meal and something that we will absolutely order again.

Be sure to try White Bison on your next visit to Vail!

As always, opinions and experiences are mine. I am never compensated in any way.

Day 137: Going Beyond Hamburg with the Burger

Day 137 of the Nowhere To Be Project was all about burgers (not the first time and sure won’t be the last:). Legend has it that the hamburger was created in Hamburg, Germany when ground beef was mixed with garlic and onions and served in an open-faced sandwich. This may be the case, but as a chronic world traveler and part-time hamburglar, I can confidently say that America has commandeered ownership of the hamburger. It’s no surprise then that a U.S. company has created what they call the Beyond Burger. The Beyond Burger is a very popular plant-based hamburger patty. It is the brainchild of the Beyond Meat Company, an innovator in plant-based options. The Beyond Burger is nicknamed the “bleeding burger” because its appearance and texture resemble that of a traditional beef hamburger. With the growing interest in healthier plant-based options, the Beyond Burger has become a very hot commodity with many stores struggling to keep it in stock. It is also popping in at many chain restaurants in the U.S. and the U.K.

As a burger-loving vegan, I prepare Beyond Burgers quite frequently. I either pan fry them or grill them. In my opinion, the pan frying gives them more flavor and a rich crust.

I am always trying to add a new twist each time I make them and today, I must say that I took the burger way, way beyond in the best of ways.

To begin, I warmed a tablespoon of avocado oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Next, I added sliced white button mushrooms to the pan, sprinkled them with a bit of garlic salt and sautéed them until they were just shy of crispy. I then placed a thawed Beyond Burger patty in the same pan, cooking it for about three to four minutes on each side. During the final minute of cooking, I spooned two tablespoons of Treeline soft french-style herb-garlic nut cheese on top of the patty and covered the pan with a lid. Once the cheese had warmed, I popped the patty onto thick piece of toasted sourdough bread coated in a layer of dijon mustard. The final touch was made when the mushrooms were spooned over the burger and a second slice of sourdough was placed on top. Yum!

I have not been compensated in any way for this post and have no vested interest in Beyond Meat or Treeline Cheese. As always, I write about my perspective alone.

Day 136: Is Vail’s Most Popular Casual Dining Restaurant Really Worth A Visit?

The open kitchen at Mountain Standard

Day 136 of the Nowhere To Be Project is dedicated to a review of Mountain Standard restaurant. Mountain Standard has been around for a couple of years and quickly made its mark in Vail Village. It is owned by the same proprietors that made Sweet Basil Vail’s go-to fine dining option. The restaurant boasts a casual western atmosphere with the open fire kitchen featured prominently. It is situated along the banks of Gore Creek in the heart of Vail and offers both indoor and patio seating along with a full bar.

I’ve visited the restaurant five times in the past year or so, trying both lunch and dinner. Most of the meals I’ve eaten at Mountain Standard have been good or slightly better. Most recently, I was delighted by the Crushed Fava Bean Toast appetizer ($14-ordered without the mozzarella cheese to make it vegan) at dinner. It was a fresh and slightly minty combination of deliciousness that I had never experienced and the unique taste of it will stick with me for a while.

The Fava Bean Toast

Mountain Standard is a meat-intensive venue which can be a bit challenging for those of us who follow a plant-based diet. In situations like this I get creative and compile a meal out of side dishes. Several different servers at Mountain Standard have told me that no menu changes or substitutions are possible at the restaurant, while others have worked with me to create a vegan option. Most recently that included tempura fried shitake mushrooms and a nice variety of fire roasted vegetables ($29). My fellow meat-eating diners have indicated that both the Rocky Mountain Trout ($29) and the pork shank ($35) are good choices.

My custom vegan dish

The service at Mountain Standard is mostly attentive although they are usually very busy which can make the place seem a bit short staffed and chaotic. For example, at dinner last week I asked that no cilantro or raw onions be included on my dish. The server acknowledged this request and repeated it back to me. Unfortunately, it was delivered with both. When I spoke up the response was, “oh, sorry” with no effort offered to correct it. The restaurant includes a mandatory 3% service charge on all checks which is apparently earmarked for the servers, so be sure to factor this in when considering gratuity. Overall, prices are in keeping with the local norm, so lunch for two will run you about $50 without alcohol and dinner about $75.

The unwanted cilantro and onion

Is Mountain Standard my favorite restaurant in Vail? No. Those I’ve dined with have agreed. The rather limited menu is good, but it isn’t outstanding. In other words, this isn’t food that you’ll dream of in the future, but it gets the job done in a tasty way. With that being said though, I have enjoyed my previous visits and will likely go again…maybe just for the Crushed Fava Bean Toast.

Day 135: Is Sustainable Travel a Thing?

On day 135 of the Nowhere To Be Project, Vail, Colorado (my chosen hometown) was bestowed with the elusive title of “sustainable destination”. This is quite an honor considering that no other mountain resorts in the world have the right to carry the moniker. Exciting, I know, but what does it really mean?

Front page news in Vail today!

We’ve all seen the signs in hotels asking us to reuse towels to save water, but true sustainability goes way beyond that. A sustainable destination is one that focuses on environmental, cultural and economic preservation. In other words, formal procedures must be in place to protect and preserve nature, wildlife, regional history and customs, and to contribute to and support the local economy.

In Vail, plastic bags were banned quite some time ago and every public waste receptacle provides an education on items that can be recycled versus those that will end up in a landfill. There is also a profound focus on the restoration and preservation of natural resources and wildlife. Citizens benefit not only from an outstanding quality of life here in the mountains, but from a fabulous public transportation system and a push toward environmentally responsible affordable housing. All of these things (and many more) helped contribute to the title of sustainable destination.

Vail’s approach to rubbish!

All of the hoopla made me wonder how many travelers really consider sustainability when choosing a destination. According to recent research, that number hovers at just over half! As a frequent camper, the practice of “leave no trace” is a personal mantra, but I had no idea that so many other travelers prioritized it as well. It demonstrates that a zero footprint approach to travel should not end when the tent is packed away and the fact that one of the most popular resort towns in the world sees this is very encouraging.

Are you a sustainable traveler?

Day 132: Perpetually Packed – The Five Must-Have Items for Travel

Day 132 of the Nowhere To Be Project brought me the sudden realization that I pretty much live out of a bag. I do have a home base that is filled with a lifetime of memories and possessions, but with a life of near constant travel, my suitcase definitely gets much more use than my closet. Even when I’m home (as I have been for the past couple weeks), I keep the bag packed.

The Puddle Jumper by Lug is my favorite bag!

You may be wondering what the heck is in this always-at-the-ready travel bag? Besides about ten monochromatic mix and match (always black except for summer when white is prominent) wardrobe staples, I have several must have items with me always.

1- Small Toiletry Kit stocked with essentials: medication, toothbrush, SPF moisturizer and lip gloss. I use a zippered clutch that doubles as a purse with a pop of color.

2- Eye-mask and Earplugs – I protect good sleep no matter where I might be in the world! These two are sleep’s best friends!

3- Inflatable Pillow and DreamSack – These small luxuries are the (slightly larger) natural extensions of the eye-mask and earplugs. They take just a few cubic inches of space yet create a clean sleeping space anywhere.

4- Smartphone with Charger – A globally-enabled smartphone is a no-brainer. It provides basic tools like a compass and flashlight along with the ability to communicate and stay entertained. Mine is loaded with favorite travel and entertainment apps.

5- Noise Canceling Headphones – The tiny pocket headphones that we all use everyday may seem more practical for some travelers, but I find that they are not as effective in noisy conditions…R.V., airplane, ship, etc. Noise canceling headphones make movies, music and audio books a possibility in any setting.

What’s in your bag???

The DreamSack is a portable silk sleeping bag.