Dining at sea has traditionally meant dining lavishly. As long ago as 1914, passengers on the RMS Laconia from Liverpool to Boston could enjoy everything, from beef sirloin and quarters of lamb to ox tongue and braised gosling – and that was just the main course. Into the 1950s, seaborne chefs regularly served up extravagant five-course meals, an expectation that has basically survived into modern cruising, with surveys consistently indicating that cruise holidaymakers place far higher emphasis upon quality food and drink than their landside equivalents.

Yet even as on-board cuisine continues to dazzle, with ever more focus on crisp ingredients and local delicacies, one group has tended to be ignored: vegans. For years, they have had to book food ahead, always worrying their meal has accidentally been cooked in butter.

But as veganism grows into a global movement – according to figures from GlobalData, the US witnessed a 600% jump in practitioners between 2014 and 2017 – operators finally seem to be changing their menus.

Not that the transition is necessarily easy. Chefs need imagination to avoid the worst stereotypes of the form, while some passengers expect the vegan experience to extend way beyond the kitchen doors. Yet the benefits of going vegan are enormous, opening the cruise experience to new demographics, demonstrating a willingness to adapt to new food trends and lifestyle choices, and making a positive environmental impact, while at the same time increasing consumer choice.

Dirk Bocklage came to vegan cruising circuitously. After a stint hosting murder mystery evenings in Hong Kong, he returned to his native Germany in 2011 and met up with a friend who had just opened a vegan food truck. After a couple of beers, the pair started reflecting on the lack of vegan cooking at sea. And so a dream was born. “That’s how the idea started,” remembers Bocklage, managing director of Vegan Cruises, a meat-free travel company. “Our first river cruise set sail in 2014. Now, we have many international clients from Europe, the US, Canada and Australia.”

The astonishing growth of Vegan Travel, the passengers of which can now sail everywhere from Croatia to the Galápagos, speaks to how vacant the market was before. That was partly a question of demand – as recently as 2015 a Harris Poll found that only 0.4% of Americans identified as vegan. For their part, operators echoed these trends by catering mainly to carnivores. “In planning all our menus, we look out for trends,” notes Bernhard Klotz, vice-president for food and beverage at Regent Seven Seas.

Even so, you get the sense that those few vegans that did go cruising felt awkward making a fuss. “Most vegans didn’t speak up for themselves. They didn’t say they wanted vegan meals,” says Sandy Pukel, president of Holistic Holiday at Sea, another vegan cruise firm. Bocklage agrees, noting that even if cruisers managed to arrange vegan meals, they generally had to hold their noses as the buffet next door overflowed with sausages and ham. As Bocklage dryly puts it, “that’s not their idea of a great holiday”.

These cultural challenges often dovetailed with more practical considerations. When he started Holistic Holiday, Pukel recalls clashing with galley chefs, long used to presenting terrines and tortes rather than tofu. “They think they’re great chefs,” he remembers, “and we were going on there and telling them what to do.” It hardly helped that as ships sailed between distant ports, and supplies were hard enough to organise already, chefs retreated to easier vegetarian dishes. To put it another way, when the largest vessels already need 60,000 eggs for a one-week trip, operators had little incentive to arrange vegan alternatives.

Vegetative state

Even for meat-eaters, Vegan Travel’s buffets are likely to make your mouth water. At breakfast, tropical fruits battle for your attention with warm, fresh bread, while crisp vegetables sit freshly cut and ready to eat. From there, guests can enjoy delicate vegan sushi for lunch, and luxurious curries and puddings for dinner. “It’s about fine dining,” says Bocklage of his menus. “It’s about creating healthy and fresh vegetable cuisine.”

Vegan Travel is far from alone. Over the past few years, vegan cooking has become fantastically sophisticated, putting paid to old stereotypes of boiled tofu and mysterious fake burgers. Nor is this revolution limited to specialised companies like Vegan Travel and Holistic Holiday. Royal Caribbean recently announced it would develop vegan options across all of its 26 ships, while Costa now boasts several plant-based menus. At Regent Seven Seas, Klotz says that passengers can enjoy “over 200” vegan dishes.

How to explain these changes? Studies may suggest there are now as many as 6.5 million vegans in the US, but a new army of committed denizens alone can not explain the shift – as Klotz hints, the charms of veganism go way past the traditional tie-dye brigade. After all, though he estimates that just 0.5% of Regent guests are self-identifying vegans, the operator’s plantbased breakfasts are gobbled up by around 30% of passengers. “Many guests simply want to incorporate more vegetable-based choices into their dining, for both health benefits and culinary exploration.”

He has a point. According to a study by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, over 30% of people are interested in eating less meat, either for the sake of the planet or their own bodies. Typical are the panels organised by Pukel and his colleagues at Holistic Holiday, the “heart and soul” of every voyage. Pukel says they’re an opportunity for guests to share how a plant-based diet helped fight their medical conditions, from diabetes to heart disease. Even so, this plant-based extravaganza would have been impossible without more fundamental changes in ship galleys. Prodded along by enthusiasts like Bocklage and Pukel, cooks are realising that vegan cooking doesn’t have to be dull. Regent Seven Seas is representative here, working with Michelin-starred chefs to dazzle customers with Hawaiian poke bowls and wild mushroom tarts, a variety that has the added benefit of luring even more plant-curious passengers.

Of course, whipping up delicious vegan menus miles from land is far from straightforward. But the process has been made easier by improvements in the supply chain. For one thing, new VAT rules mean that buying dairy-free products in Europe is far cheaper than it ever used to be. For another, vegan caterers have become more discerning about quality ingredients. When Holistic Holiday works with an operator, its order sheet of fresh vegetables is the biggest of the year.

And after years of being marginalised, Bocklage says, vegan chefs have become experts at crafting sophisticated dishes, even when ingredients are limited. “Our customers knew that it’d be hard to store fresh salad for seven or eight days,” explains Bocklage of a recent trip to Patagonia. “So after a few days, we worked a lot with seeds, with dry vegetables. People loved them. Lentils and the like are very nutritious and give quite a few vitamins.”

Planting a seed

With the wealth of vegan options now available across the cruise industry, it’s tempting to imagine that the plant-based uprising might die down. But, as green values continue to shape our century, veganism is clearly just getting started. Apart from seducing ever-more adherents – as Klotz puts it, passengers keep realising that using plant-based ingredients “doesn’t mean you have to compromise” on taste – veganism is influencing seaborne cooking at large. For example, Pukel notes that some chefs have started integrating tempeh (think tofu, but from Indonesia) into regular Asian menus.

Moreover, there is some evidence that veganism is slipping past the dining room threshold. Cabins on Vegan Travel itineraries are now decked out with vegan soaps and chocolates, while Bocklage has even partnered with a company to offer a line of vegan condoms. Whether or not they stocked up on asparagus beforehand, Bocklage confirms that “99%” of his guests enjoyed the idea. And with operators under increasing pressure from environmentalists, it seems likely that operators will further lean on their vegan credentials. Of course, this hardly means that the old banquets of Chateaubriand and lobster will disappear altogether. All the same, regular cruisers may notice a little more tempeh on their menus going forward, and perhaps even an extra spring in their step when they return to their cabins.

Increase in veganism in the US between 2014 and 2017.

Vegan surprise

In October 2019, Regent Seven Seas introduced more than 200 gourmet plant-based selections across breakfast, lunch and dinner services. Dishes include:

  • Wild mushroom tart with brittle pie crust, mushroom duxelles, red pepper coulis
  • Mulligatawny, a traditional Indian red lentil and coconut soup
  • Spiced potato and green pea samosas with tamarind chutney
  • Baked porcini and spinach cannelloni, with toasted hazelnuts, tomato and béchamel sauce
  • Mushroom and spinach crêpes, with béchamel and tomato sauce
  • Roasted mushroom stuffed courgette with quinoa-olive salad, pine nut dressing
  • Yellow pepper coulis • Singapore noodles, with stir-fried vegetables, turmeric, ginger, garlic, soy sauce
  • Green curry vegetable stir-fry, with aubergine, oyster mushrooms, cauliflower, green peas, jasmine rice
  • Crispy sweet and sour vegetables with tofu, cashew and sesame seeds.

Source: Regent Seven Seas