by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, November 28, 2018
I turned vegan about five years ago, after watching the documentary Earthlings, which features truly shocking undercover footage of farms that has haunted me ever since.
Thankfully, by the time I jumped aboard the bandwagon, vegans were no longer seen almost universally as tedious, nor indeed was it quite so arduous for vegans to get a decent meal. In fact, veganism is full-on mainstream: even McDonalds has a vegan burger on its menu.
Only more recently, though, has the luxury industry caught up, and as a vegan travel writer, I’ve really noticed. It used to be that even some of the finest hotels in the world panicked when I informed them of my dietary restrictions, and subsequently struggled to cater for me, a guest who doesn’t eat cheese or butter, let alone meat and fish. But in the last year alone there has been a seismic change, and not just in relation to fine dining.
To be vegan doesn’t just involve eschewing meat, dairy, eggs and honey, but also the wearing of fur and leather. It means avoiding beauty products that have been tested on animals and rejecting feather-stuffed pillows, for example.
As my veganism is motivated by a concern for animal welfare, for me it also means avoiding travel operators that push activities like riding elephants in Thailand, petting cheetahs in Africa or swimming with captive dolphins in Florida.
Should influencers in the luxury-travel industry want to cater to this market, there’s a lot they need to consider - and it seems, more and more, they are.
Let’s start with food. This month is World Vegan Month, and London’s fanciest hotels and priciest restaurants were falling over themselves others to outdo each other with elaborate vegan tasting menus.
I’d say the one I sampled at Flemings Mayfair hotel’ s Ormer restaurant was among the best meals I’ve ever had, vegan or not - a wine-paired culinary extravaganza curated by Michelin-star chef Shaun Rankin, consisting of artfully arranged truffled vegetables, rich homemade gnocchi and coconut-infused desserts. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was that my carnivore dining companion gave the tasting menu a gold star too.
“We are seeing a growing number of luxury travellers to whom the vegan lifestyle is important,” says the hotel’s general manager Henrik Muehle, “and it brings me great joy to be able to not only offer them a vegan-specific menu, but one that rivals any non-vegan menu and can be enjoyed by all guests regardless of their beliefs.”
Baglioni Hotel London in Kensington has gone one further this month, offering a “ Vegan Stay & Spa Package ”, which comprises a two-night stay, a three-course vegan dinner, a bottle of organic-biodynamic wine, and a facial each with cruelty-free products by Insium, for the sum of £1,053 per room - an offer than runs until April.
The dinner fell short for me, while the breakfast service was glacially slow and included very few vegan options, but our room was lovely, as was the facial, and as a concept, I hope we’ll see more of this.
On the other side of the world, Australia now has its first all-vegan hotel, Ovolo Woolloomooloo in Sydney, with its on-site restaurant, Alibi, headed up by American celebrity chef Matthew Kenney . Kenney declared his decision to ditch animal products not just from his own plate, but from all his menus, to be “a risk to my entire career”.
However, he adds: “I believed then and do now that plant-based is the future of food. In the right hands, plants become art and are not only nourishing, but are also the most delicious food we eat.”
Influential celebrities to have been vocal about their choice to go vegan over the years include the likes of Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Ariana Grande and Liam Hemsworth.
Plenty more identify as "flexi-vegans", essentially meaning they eliminate as much meat and dairy from their diet as possible - from Beyonce and the Duchess of Sussex, to Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (DiCaprio is also expected to launch an eco-resort, Blackadore Caye, in Belize next year, so expect to see plenty of vegan-friendly options on offer there too).
It’s perhaps one of the reasons why the luxury hotels these big names are known to frequent have been forced to adapt their offering. Vegan poolside snacks are now on the menu at The Beverly Hills Hotel ’s Polo Lounge in Los Angeles; while you’ll find lavish vegan high tea everywhere from London’s Egerton House Hotel to New York’s Baccarat Hotel .
Some of these adaptations are coming from the top down. Take Sir Richard Branson, who recently stopped eating beef for environmental reasons, and told me during an interview this year that he’s quietly removed it from Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class menu - with no complaints from his discerning passengers thus far.
“I spend a lot of time on Necker Island serving Beyond Meat burgers [plant-based patties that closely mimic real beef] to rabid meat-eaters and have them telling me, as the juice drips from their chin, that it’s the best burger they’ve ever eaten,” he also told me.
We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of lentils and floppy tofu but, as mentioned, this is a movement that goes far beyond food. To become vegan, for me, was akin to opening Pandora’s box. Once I took a peek behind the curtain of what goes on when animals are farmed, be it for their meat or their hides, I became just as disinclined to sleep on the feathers a bird was slaughtered for as I was to eat its flesh.
Far-flung resorts to have offered me vegan pillows upon check-in include Coco Privé in the Maldives, and The Cotton House in Mustique . Some guests, of course, simply require down-free bedding for allergy reasons, but anyone who’s done their research on how feathers are collected from farmed geese might want nothing to do with it on moral grounds. American actress Mena Suvari is one celebrity to have campaigned against this industry.
Even luxury luggage brands have caught on - leather, too, being a no-no for vegans. With more fashion houses banning fur from their collections this year - Burberry and Gucci have joined the likes of Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier and Diane von Furstenberg - bags and cases have followed suit.
It’s now easier than ever to find options with high-quality faux trimmings in lieu of real leather. Stella McCartney’s Falabella Travel Suitcase is currently going for £1,340; while my favourite luggage brand, Horizn, has just launched a vegan-friendly version of its carry on, the Blue Vega H5, for £359.
When it comes to “vegan experiences” abroad, there’s really no such thing. Instead, it’s all about avoiding activities that might appeal to well-meaning animal-lovers, but are no fun (to say the least) for the animals involved. A good rule of thumb? Don’t mount, ride, take selfies with or otherwise interact with captive animals of any kind if you’re at all concerned about their quality of life.
Green Pearls resorts are particularly strict on this. Take its magical, jungle-hidden Keemala hideaway in Phuket, Thailand, which not only refuses to sell tickets for activities including elephant riding or tiger shows, but actively warns guests to avoid them.
But for creature spotting, wildlife-enthusiasts won’t even have to leave Keemala’s grounds. It’s home to water buffalo, a peacock, goats, geese and chickens, which were saved or donated and now life in peace.
Other resorts may not explicitly label themselves as vegan destinations, but their eco credentials mean they naturally appeal to that demographic. In the Seychelles, both North Island and Fregate Island Private are ultra-luxe private-island resorts that support exceptionally impressive conservation programmes and show a sincere, business-wide concern for animal welfare.
African safari holidays can seem somewhat contradictory. There is simply no better or more ethical way to admire incredible animals such as lions, leopards elephants and giraffe than visiting their natural habitat on a really high-calibre safari. But guests may find a dinner menu featuring kuda and zebra meat after their drives. That said, most upmarket safari lodges will be equipped to serve vegan meals should you give them notice.
Truly excellent safari operators that I can vouch for, all of which take the protection and conservation of the animals on their land as seriously as the needs of their guests, include the Londolozi Private Game Reserve, Ulusaba, and Sabi Sabi, in South Africa; as well as Singita, with lodges in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania ; and Wilderness Safaris, which was voted the world’s best luxury hotel group in this year’s ULTRAs awards and has some great camps across Botswana.
Finally, there’s the issue of spa and bathroom products. You’d be surprised by how many luxury brands in this industry still test on animals, despite the EU banning the practice in 2013.
Something to note: it's a legal requirement that any cosmetic product sold in China is tested on animals in Chinese labs, so any international brands you see in Chinese hotels have complied with this ruling. Brands which don't test on animals include Aesop, Elemis and Penhaligon's.
More recently, Cliveden House and Chewton Glen have launched a new range of deeply indulgent vegan beauty products for their spa in partnership with English brand Oskia; and London now has its first certified-sustainable salon with all-vegan products through Karine Jackson in Covent Garden.
I dropped in recently for a cut and colour, worrying slightly that I might walk out with a dodgy hennaed, hippy cut, but instead emerged with glossy balayage and a new hairdresser I’ll return to. A testament to the fact that veganism - though still confoundingly divisive as a topic - is looking a lot more sophisticated today than it ever has before.
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