September 30, 2015 | By | Reply More

An Accidental Vegan: Holistic Holiday at Sea
By Judy Kirkwood

At Sea

At Sea

I had no plans to go vegan before a writer friend had a schedule conflict that prevented her from going on an annual vegan/macrobiotic cruise organized by her childhood friend, Sandy Pukel. I had been on various health kicks to decrease my cholesterol not to mention drop a few pounds; but had never seriously tried eating vegetarian, let alone vegan, which besides eliminating meat, fish, and fowl dispenses with dairy. I was skeptical, but my unconscious knew the only way I could curb my appetite for Outback medium rare filets, Red Lobster’s namesake with melted butter, loaded baked potatoes, and cheesy scrambled eggs with bacon, would be if I were captive on a vessel on the high seas.

An Italian luxury liner called the MSC Divina, making stops in Saint Maarten, San Juan, and The Bahamas didn’t sound too harsh – and it wasn’t. It was without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

The fourteenth annual Holistic Holiday at Sea will be launching from Port Miami February 7 to March 5, 2016 for a week, and it’s not too soon to sign up. Ports of call include Charlotte Amalie/St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Nassau, Bahamas. But the best things about the cruise happen on board the ship. Large cruise ships tend to be similar and predictable. The success of port tours are as good as your guides and the weather rather than dependent on location. What is distinctive about this cruise is the practice you gain taking care of your health.

My painless introduction to vegan eating was the lunch buffet Saturday after boarding: red beans and rice, a salad bar, tofu quiche (quite good), sugar snap peas, squash, and a multitude of fruit and veggies. Afterwards, we gathered to hear Jessica Porter, an actor, comedian, and book author (The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics) introduce the presenters on this “voyage to well-being.”

I had no idea the lectures, workshops, and private consultations that were offered morning til night were led by such eminent scientists, authors, and practitioners. Dr. Neal Barnard, author of more than 15 books, including Turning Off the Fat Gene and Power Foods for the Brain, gave the opening lecture. A sort of Dr. Oz for more scientific evidence-based audiences, Barnard is one of America’s leaders in the fields of health, nutrition, and higher standards in research. In addition, I was particularly interested in hearing Rich Roll, named by Men’s Fitness as one of the 25 fittest men in the world, talk about being a plant-fueled ultra-endurance athlete. His story, also told in his book Finding Ultra, was riveting and I enjoyed his presentation with his wife, yogini and chef, Julie Piatt, on raising vegan children.

My tablemates the first night were an acupuncturist from Palm Beach Gardens, a young nanny who had been vegetarian since the age of 11 (vegan at age 22), and a man who had stage 3 cancer and had undergone chemo and radiation, but who didn’t start feeling better until he went to the Hippocrates Institute in West Palm Beach and changed his eating habits (“by the second week I was in remission”). Another woman talked about genome testing to find out what foods are good for you or not. They all wanted to know when I became vegan. “This is my first vegan meal, I admitted, besides the lunch buffet.”

There are those who eat vegan for their health and those who are militant “ethical” vegans, who will lecture you if you’re wearing leather shoes. Luckily, everyone I met on the cruise went easy on me. In fact, I was congratulated for being willing to try something new and advised not to try to go 100 percent all at once, to take it slow.

Saturday night dinner was my first “hard-core” vegan food: tomatoes with macaroni and some kind of non-cheesy sauce, white lima beans with arugula, soup with corn (very grainy), tempeh on either mashed potatoes or cauliflower, and tofu “cheesecake.” It was ok. Not tasty to me, but tolerable. I ate half of everything. Before I left one of my new friends said I had very sparkly eyes. I was tempted to say “that’s from eating animal fat.”

I found out you could go up to the 14th floor for items from an all-day buffet available to everyone on the ship. I could easily cheat, but later that evening I just got a pear and an orange, and had a square of dark chocolate in my room. For anyone who is wavering about the vegan fare, everyone (e.g., a non-vegan spouse) has the option of ordering off a regular ship menu – the 1500 vegans made up only half of the ship’s 3000+ guests. But those who book the Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise do so mainly because they want to maintain their healthy lifestyle on vacation with a variety of options, as opposed to the meat and seafood heavy offerings on a regular cruise.

The room, by the way, was fabulous. I had an oceanview cabin on the 10th deck with a balcony and a king bed. The rates vary from $1345 per person for an inside double to $1775 per person double for an oceanview with balcony. Considering you get vegan meals and amazing lectures and workshops from thought leaders in health, the rates are entirely reasonable.

Future meals were more appealing to me as cravings for my naughty comfort foods began to fade. One lunch menu included artichoke-olive tapenade with capers and garlic crostini; creamy cauliflower soup with watercress; Asian cucumber and wakame (a type of seafood) salad with sesame seeds, arugula, and lemon vinaigrette; penne with walnut pesto and grilled vegetables; sweet potato, green beans, and cabbage; and a walnut brownie with carob plus carob fudge sauce and toasted walnuts and fresh orange slices. Dinner one night was a Mediterranean pate of lentils and toasted walnuts; pea soup; an arugula and mint salad with pomegranate; sweet red peppers stuffed with veggies; wild rice herbs and tempeh with kale and fruit; and peach cobbler with vanilla sauce. There was no lack of food and I managed to remain vegan for the entire cruise. My only quibble was too much “soft” food.

For me, the cruise experience was enhanced not only by the vegan food and lectures by scientists and athletes, but by the many classes: mindful meditation, yoga, and a variety of cooking classes that I should have taken, like macrobiotic cooking 101 with the hilarious Jessica Porter. The most fun I had was in LinoStanchich’s Do-In self-massage class. Do-In is a system of stretches, breathing, and exercises that focus on acupressure points. We learned self-massage from our toes to the top of our heads, and practiced on each other by getting in a conga line and massaging the person in front. Medium pats in the fanny stimulated circulation and were an invigorating start to the morning. Individual consultations were also available for an additional fee and I had a wonderful Ayurvedic facial from Hansa May (using coconut oil and honey) that was so good I was told by a tablemate that night that I looked a hundred times better than the first night she met me.

MSC Divina

MSC Divina

For some travelers, it is the place that makes the trip memorable. For me, it’s often the people that make the trip memorable. I had a long discussion with two Puerto Ricans who grew up in the Bronx and changed their diet after moving to a farm in Iowa. A pediatric psychiatrist, he often suggests a change in diet as part of his treatment plan for young patients. He had lost 70 pounds with his vegan lifestyle change. As a single, I ate with many different individuals, couples, and groups (for instance 2 sisters and their 2 sisters-in-law celebrating the remission of cancer in one of them). Everyone had a genesis story of the evolution of their vegan life.

Certainly the most amazing stories were the ones told at the Recovery Panel presentation. When one woman came on the cruise in 2007, she was in Stage 3 of lymphatic leukemia. Within 6 months of adopting a healthy diet, in her case macrobiotic (similar to vegan), her leukemia was gone and her husband had gotten rid of his diabetes and high blood pressure. Another person had stage 3 breast cancer and was now cancer free. A man who had been accidentally exposed to mustard gas in the 1980s and had suffered a tremendous variety of illnesses saw a difference after 2 weeks of changing his diet.

Old San Juan

Old San Juan

I did manage to continue eating vegan for 2 weeks after the cruise – until my grandchildren came to visit, followed by my sister, a trip to Italy, and two more trips and more company. But one of the tips I picked up from the cruise was that making small changes leads to big shifts; and that you can change a bad day (for instance one in which I had two candy bars) into good data (why did I make that choice and how did I feel afterwards?). I am making changes and I am healthier in general. I have dispensed with all my chemical-laden lotions and potions and only use coconut oil on my skin. And I have left cow milk behind and now drink almond milk. At least I know I can be a vegan if I want to. The only things I really missed were feta cheese on my salads and Parmesan cheese on pasta.

Now I can’t imagine a conventional cruise where guests overdrink and overeat. I’d rather enjoy sunrise at sea meditating on timelessness with Yogi Desai, sunsets feeling light and peaceful after meals in which no animals were harmed – or humans.

Go to for information on vegan cruising out of Miami.


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