25 Days of Wandering - Land, Sea & Air - From St. Louis to Santorini
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I'm finally home--and what a crazy exciting wonderful month it's been! Sure, I unplugged my computer and cellphone & took a blogging break, but, oh baby, this was no slow-paced kick-back retreat! Not much poolside lounging or meditating on this vacation.
Most mornings we were up at 6:00 am and down at 11:30 pm!
I'm a "don't-want-to-miss-a-thing-kind-of-gal" & there was just too much to see at every port--and plenty to do on the ship. If we weren't touring, exploring, getting lost, hiking, talking, eating, watching outstanding performers in nightly shows, listening to music, drinking wine, dancing, working out at the gym, sitting in the hot tub or meeting new people--we were crashing in our room. In spite of the pace it was so romantic & relaxing-the Mediterranean, no cooking, no responsibilities.
We hiked the cliffs of Capri and the caldera between Fira & Oia in Santorini, got lost in Rome (at least I thought we were lost--my husband said "We're not lost. We're in Rome."), beached it in Mykonos, then hiked down the donkey trail, dodging cranky donkeys & manure, strolled the streets of Barcelona for eight hours straight marveling at Gaudi's genius, and then ate & drank ourselves silly on tapas & sangria.
- Part I: Son #2's graduation in St. Louis--a whirlwind 3 day trip, that included 20 hours of driving, and an overnight stop in Indianapolis to see our daughter-in-law's family. Couldn't have been a more perfect graduation day! Elie Wiesel was the commencement speaker, the threatening skies cleared to a bright blue--and we couldn't have been prouder parents!
- Part II: Got home, unpacked, & quickly repacked our suitcases for 3 days in Barcelona & a 12 day Mediterranean cruise to Rome, Naples/Capri, the Greek Islands of Santorini & Mykonos, Athens, Turkey, & beautiful Malta. We did a whirlwind house-cleaning in preparation for a visit from our grandson & kids at the end of our trip--I squeezed in another day at work--and off we flew across the Atlantic for our Mediterranean adventure.
- Part III: The five day visit with the kids & our just-turned 2 year old grandson. No sleeping in for Oma & Poppy! Plenty of play time, a train trip, relaxing outside, and lots of good food that we cooked together.
25 Days on the Road. What Worked. What Didn't. What I Learned.
1. The Best Airport Food for Vegetarians. Consult the Physician's Committe for Responsible Medicine List of Airports with Healthy Vegetarian Food. Thanks to the PCRM List we knew we could find a decent meal at Green Leaf Grille at the Newark airport before we headed off to Barcelona. A perfect loaded salad worked for me. Flatbread with hummus & vegetables for my husband. Tanked up & ready to roll.
2. Bring your own breakfast & snacks on the plane or you'll regret it. For an overseas flight, bring plenty of healthy snack foods, lots of water, and something to eat for whatever meals the airline is going to serve--if you plan to skip their offerings. We knew we were getting dinner at the airport--so all we needed to bring was something for breakfast. I brought along McDougall Oatmeal Raspberry Breakfast Cups that just needed some hot water to make them ready-to-eat. My husband brought along Ezekiel bread with PB2 & Jam. We also had plenty of Hammer bars, Two Moms in the Raw Granola bars, and a couple bags of Mary's Gone Crackers Sticks & Twigs. Too bad we couldn't pick up anything decent in Barcelona for lunch or dinner to take on the plane for the ride home!
3. Staying healthy on the germy plane. On the drive home from St. Louis I read a just-in-time article in Prevention on how to stay healthy while traveling. We decided to take their suggestions & brought along Clorox wipes to de-germ the plane's seat belt, tray table, and seat arms. Hand sanitizer & some saline nasal spray to keep the nasal passages moist & germ-free. We drank lots of water to stay hydrated. We opened the air vents above us, to keep the air circulating, but directed the flow away from our faces. At the hotel we wiped down all the usual suspects with the Clorox wipes--the door knobs, the remote, the light switches, etc. Did the bed bug check. It felt like overkill (I'm not a germaphobe)--but we did not want to be sick on our long-awaited trip. Brought along my neti pot and some Alkalol--just in case. Check out the Prevention article (link above) for more tips.. Everywhere we went on the ship there were Purell dispensers--to make sure no one got sick--colds or the dread norovirus. It felt like a hospital--but I was glad for it.
4. Traveling on a ship that has wide selection of healthy food and accomodates vegetarians & vegans. We booked a cruise that we knew would accomodate both vegetarian & special diets. Thanks to the helpful advice of a blog-reader in New Hampshire who strictly follows the Esselstyn diet, we cruised on the Celebrity line, which he assured me would go out-of-their-way to provide a vegan no-oil diet if we asked for it. And he was absolutely right--I just didn't take the extra step to ask them to prepare our food without oil. I was happy enough to have a wide choice of creative delectable gourmet vegetarian dinner options--including many made without dairy. There were also plenty of plant-based lunch options to choose from--and a homemade fruit sorbet for dessert at every dinner. There's no restaurant at home where I would find this variety & quality of vegetarian food. The ship has a special chef who prepares food for people on restricted & specials diets. If I had heart disease, I would have no qualms about insisting that my food be cooked without oil. But, when we were off the ship for lunch or while in Barcelona, I was surprised at how difficult & expensive it was to find a restaurant with decent plant-based meals. Meat & pork are favorites everywhere. Fish and salad were often the best options available to us off the ship.
5. Fitting in some exercise. In port cities we put in many miles walking--but the pace was slow when we were on a tour arranged by the ship. On the few sea days that we had, we worked out in the ship's well-equipped gym. I even had a chance to take 2 spinning classes with a Romanian world-class cycling champ. And we absolutely never took an elevator--walking up & down 10 flights of stairs many times a day. This is definitely heart-pumping exercise.
6. Food Finds. Best find on ship's lunch buffet? The Indian food station. The mixture of dal, vegetarian curry & rice was fantastic. Best breakfast buffet find? The mix-ins at the yogurt station. Adding stewed strawberries, walnuts, flax--and the baked apples I found at the English breakfast station--made the ship's soupy fiberless oatmeal edible. We found a whole grain Marathon bread hidden among a large selection of fiberless white breads. Best port city find? Within the Farmer's Market in Barcelona, located on La Rambla, we found a delicious vegetarian take-out stand, called Organic.
7. Hosting a celebration dinner? Forget the restaurant! No time to cook? Find a Natural Foods Caterer! We knew we wouldn't be able to shop & cook a dinner for son #2's graduation--we just didn't have the time. And it wasn't going to be possible to go out to a restaurant on a Friday night. The solution was to contact Eli Margulies, of Eat With Eli in St. Louis. The cost turned out to be close to what we would have paid for dinner, drinks, & a tip at a really nice restaurant, and it wouldn't have been half as creative, flavorful, healthy, or leisurely. Besides, we ended up with leftovers for lunch! Eli's Graduation Dinner Menu:
Lemongrass Miso Soup with Tofu
Cucumber Peanut Salad (ala Heidi Swanson)
Fresh Field Greens with Carrot Ginger Dressing
Grilled Tofu with Spicy Peanut Sauce over Forbidden Rice with Julienned Vegetables & Roasted Pineapple (a knock-out)
Chocolate Almond Midnight Tofu Mousse Cake with Almond Praline & Raspberry Sauce (sinfully delicious)
8. Our best vegan lunches turned out to be part of the ship's shore excursions to Athens & Ephesus, Turkey. That was a big surprise. In Athens we had about 20 fresh vegetable entrees to choose from at an elegant hotel buffet, so we piled our plates high so we could taste everything. Short on atmosphere--but we loved the food. The Turkish restaurant near Ephesus was an out-of-the-way open-air roadside restaurant that I wouldn't have stepped foot in if it hadn't been part of the tour. A little on the sketchy side. Once more, a gigantic lunch buffet with about 30 vegetable-based entrees to pick from. Lots of variety--but not much on seasoning.
What Didn't Work
1. I really missed my beans & greens! Sure we ate veg--but it lacked the best parts of my diet--beans, greens & whole grains. None of the rice, breads (except for Marathon bread), grains, or pasta we ate were whole grained. Turns out living without beans, whole grains, non-dairy milks, steel cut oats, kale, collards, Swiss chard, Green Smoothies, sweet potatoes, squash, berries, and sprouted whole grained breads does make a difference in how I feel. Sure, I didn't gain a single pound on vacation, but my digestive system was way out-of-whack without eating all the fiber that I usually eat. And I really missed my daily dose of beans or soy. Within two days of returning home--eating my steel-cut oats, Green Smoothies, baked squash, All-American Bean Chili--I felt like a new woman.
Son #2 tells me that he also notices a big difference when he has his usual Kale Smoothie after a week hiatus. His digestive system works better. He feels sharper. He notices improved word fluency. His energy level shoots up. I agree.
2. Strolling & walking the stairs are neither aerobic nor muscle-building. Sure I was on my feet everyday--walking all over the Mediterranean port cities--but it's just not the same as doing heart-pumping aerobic exercise & weight training. I can't tell you how good it feels to finally get back to my regular exercise routine--spinning, weights, & yoga. Being away from my regular exercise routine for a month made a noticeable difference. My body started to decondition. My muscles started to shrink, my yoga flexibility decreased, and my heart rate isn't getting up as high as it usually does during spinning. Hey, I know it won't take long to get back into the groove--but it's interesting to see how quickly the body deconditions when you take even a short exercise break.
3. When you're surrounded by desserts, alcohol, and restaurant fare--it's so easy to indulge. Yes, I had a little of a lot of foods I would never eat at home. And I had a glass of wine almost every night with dinner. Sure they tasted good--but not as good as I would have thought. I'm glad I tasted them--to get that out of my system, but it didn't make me crave more the next night. My most memorable indulgence: fresh-grilled sardines & Greek salad at an out-of-the-way tiny Santorini family restaurant that overlooked a parking lot--not the typical gorgeous Santorini cliffsides. My indulgences: hazelnut gelato, some fresh feta cheese on top of a Greek salad, a vegetable terrine topped with goat cheese, fresh-off-the-boat teeny tiny flash-fried sardines, The Barcelona tapas favorite--fried potatoes topped with hot sauce & mayo (so not worth it), chocolate bombes with raspberry sauce, a chocolate chip cookie, gravlax (salmon), and a very ordinary vegetable cheese pizza we ordered when it turned out to be the healthiest option on the menu. Really.
4. Getting asked why I was ordering from a separate menu & why I wasn't eating meat makes me feel defensive. I never met anyone else on the ship who was eating vegetarian--let alone vegan--although I'm sure they were onboard. Whoever we sat with for dinner invariably asked us what we were eating and why it wasn't on their menu. I usually bumbled out some explanation that we've been eating a mostly vegetable diet for a couple of years--primarlily for health. Often they wanted to know more--and I was forced to mentioned that we also don't eat dairy--and then sometimes I was pushed to say we also don't eat oil--and by then I wished I'd kept my mouth shut--and I felt compelled to say--"But really, we're very normal people--not fanatics or wackos." I definitely wasn't interested in talking about plant-based diets to people who were enjoying steaks & braised beef shanks. A little awkward. A little uncomfortable. Our dinner guests were all lovely interesting people--and I didn't want to talk diets.
5. It's harder to eat plant-based when you're the only two people in the room who are eating this way. So many of my friends, family, & co-workers now eat this way that it's easy to forget how uncommon it really is. When everyone is talking about the amazing Bananas Foster, beef shanks, lamb chops, or lobster that they had for dinner--and they ask you what you're eating--you feel a little separated from everyone else--but it wasn't really much of an issue. Just didn't want anyone to think I was some kind of a weirdo.
6. Bottom-Line: My trip was amazing, and it was surprisingly easy to stay mostly on the plant-based course--in spite of what now seems like a lot of "planned indulgences". Going no-oil would have taken the plant-strong challenge to a whole other level--but it would have been possible to do on this ship.
What I Learned
1. I was surprised to find out how much the addition of beans, whole grains, and greens contribute to how well I feel. I never would have realized their importance if I hadn't had the opportunity to live mostly without them for 3 weeks. I'm talking about improved digestion and more energy.
2. Plan ahead and bring food from the U.S. for your return plane trip home. Portable healthy food options are slim-pickings outside of the U.S. Don't expect to find much of anything healthy to eat at the non-US airport you fly home from. As for airline food--don't get me started! Our lunch was a doughy bun with a 2 fried chicken patties filled with cheese, mayo, a candy bar, a pale limp salad, & chips! Yuck! Has anyone ever ordered airline vegetarian meals? Is it worth it?
3. I should have done my restaurant homework before I left home. Here's where having a computer or smart phone would have been helpful! Next time I'm going to travel with more than just Frommer's and Rick Steve's guidebooks. Who knew how easy it would have been to check Trip Advisor or Happy Cow for recommendations for good vegetarian food? Certainly not me! Doesn't mean that the restaurants would have been easy to get to--or worth the effort--but at least I could have seen our options. It definitely would have worked well for us in Barcelona.
4. Plan your own shore excursions with the help of the internet. Our best advice came from two women from a small town in South Carolina who really did their homework. They checked out Rick Steve's site & Trip Advisor & booked reasonably-priced personal tours with highly recommended English-speaking guides who picked them up at the ship & took them to exactly where they wanted to go in Rome, the Amalfi Coast, & Athens. They were able to walk right into all the crowded hard-to-get-into places like the Vatican Museum & the Sistine Chapel--and were even taken to reasonable local restaurants that they raved about. The costs for their custom guides were the same as the bus-load-shore-excursions offered by the cruise ship!
5. If you're still full 3-4 hours after eating, your food probably had too much fat in it.
6. If you have zero intestinal gas a few hours after a meal--your food has very little fiber in it.
7. The best food is what you cook yourself.
What Made the Traditional Post-World War II Mediterranean Diet So Healthy?
After seeing the Greek islands for myself I now understand why the Mediterranean Diet got a reputation for being heart healthy. Steep hills, homegrown food, and isolation.
Imagine living on a craggy isolated Greek island, post-World War II. You had to walk up and down steep hills everyday to tend to your garden and your animals. There was no processed food coming onto the island.
You lived off of what you could grow yourself--tomatoes, greens, vegetables, fruits, and the wild purslane (high in omega-3s) growing on the hillside. Sure you had a little cheese, fish, wine & olive oil--and fava beans.
You were heart-healthy because you worked hard, ate lots of plants, a little fish, and a little wine. And that heart health came in spite of the olive oil--not because of it.
What's the real story behind the virtues of the Mediterranean Diet?
The authentic post-World War II Mediterranean diet of Crete--lots of physical labor coupled with lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and just a little bit of olive oil, wine, & fish.
Br J Nutr. 2004--when researchers went back to Crete to look at the health of the islanders--the group with the highest olive oil (MUFA) consumption had the highest heart disease, and those with the lowest olive oil intake had the the lowest heart disease. Click here and here for more about why olive oil & the monounsaturated fats aren't exactly health food.
The data on which the Mediterranean Diet is based came from the 1950's. At that time the people on the Isle of Crete had the lowest all cause mortality. It was post-WWII, they were poor, didn't have a lot to eat, ate mostly fresh fruits & veggies from their gardens, walked 9 miles a day, worked at hard physical labor and the highest consumption of oil was 3 TBS a day--and small amounts of fish. Big difference from how we live today.
The Parthenon in Athens
Hiking the Cliffs of Capri
All Aboard--Waiting for the Train--the Grandson Wave
The New Graduate Wave
Forbidden Rice with Roasted Pineapple--not yet topped with Grilled Tofu & Spicy Peanut Sauce
Our First Train Ride - Next Stop? Lunch
Our First Homegrown Crop of Lacinato Kale & Dandelion Greens - Went Right Into My Homecoming Green Smoothie
My First Meal After Our Kids Left- All-American Chili with Roasted Brussels Sprouts
What a trip! But It's Great to Be Home.
I really want to know!
Do you find it hard to eat healthy & exercise on vacation?
Any travel tips for sticking to a plant-based diet?
Do you notice a difference in how you feel when you aren't eating your usual fare?