Sunday, June 06, 2010

Vegan Travels in Maine, Part I

My recent trip to Pennsylvania involved stays in Maine on the way out and on my return. A bus brought me to and from Bangor where I was first picked up and then dropped off by my road-trip partner (aka my favourite American and the main reason for my venturing into the US). Since we needed to spend a night in the area after his 10+ hour drive out to Maine, I did some Googling and eventually found a B & B -- my first -- within an hour of Bangor that was described as being a "vegan / vegetarian B & B" supposedly run by a vegan, and as "catering to special dietary requirements" for the complementary breakfast offered with each night's stay. My sweetie reserved a room days in advance, advising the owner that I was vegan and that we'd require an animal-product-free breakfast.

Elm Cottage is located in a gorgeous little tourist-magnet of a town called Searsport, located on Penobscot Bay along Maine's mid-coast. By prior arrangement with Janet, the owner, we arrived later than the habitual check-in time, the only guests in the two-bedroom B & B that evening. We had chosen the "Gardenview" room, rather than the "Bayview" room, both because it was described as being more roomy, and because we wanted to avoid the memory foam mattress of the Bayview room's bed. We drove by the place the first time, missing the small house completely on the tiny street on which it is located. A more careful look the second drive-by identified it as being the most nicely landscaped place on the street. We were greeted warmly at the door by our host, Janet, as well as by one of Elm Cottage's five four-footed residents.

Exhausted, we stumbled upstairs into our beautiful room to drop off our things and dart off to the nearby Belfast Co-op where the interwebs had told me that a wide variety of prepared vegan foods awaited. I took so many photos of the room and wish I had space to post them all. From its unique rustic bed-frame to the warm glow of its antique wooden furniture and its understated decorative touches, the room was inviting and cozy, while spacious enough to be comfortable with a small sitting area off to the side. There was complementary shower gel and shampoo left in the shower stall of the room's bathroom; one was labeled vegan, while the other wasn't. I had, of course, packed my own as I always do when traveling.

When we turned in for the night after returning from dinner, it was with open windows and a floor-unit fan found in one of the storage closets. It was a warm and humid night in Searsport. The next morning, we ventured downstairs and got to meet a few more of Elm Cottage's non-human residents. Janet is involved in rescue work and shares her home with an elderly deaf Lab mix pooch and a deaf and blind Cocker Spaniel, both abandoned by the humans previously looking after them. She also shares it with three cats, including the beauty whose picture I posted above. There was a fair amount of snuggling to be had before breakfast, but I didn't get the chance to ask Janet everybody's names since we were mostly in different rooms while I was getting acquainted with them. Although our feline greeter was out and about all the while looking for skritches, Elm Cottage's other two feline residents were more skittish and stayed out of sight. With a 10 am checkout time for guests spending just one night, we only had the opportunity to glance at the cottage's garden and sitting rooms and nab a couple of photos. Janet told us that the place had been a fixer-upper when she'd purchased it and that she'd tackled it one room at a time to bring it to its present cozy state.

I had been anticipating the vegan breakfast we'd been promised and when we saw the spread laid out for us, we were both wide-eyed in amazement. There was toast, homemade pumpkin muffins, margarine, apricot "butter" and preserves, green tea and coffee with soy milk, orange juice, granola and fresh strawberries. Janet also brought out a couple of small casserole dishes, each filled with a savoury mushroom-and-something stuffed tomato, which although not exactly breakfast-y, were quite delicious. Well, I liked mine; my travel buddy has an aversion to most tomato-based dishes and pecked at his politely, later admitting to me that since we were only staying to have breakfast, he'd never thought that he hadn't thought there'd be a need to mention his aversion beforehand to our host. Our host then mentioned to us apologetically that the large bowl of yogurt by the granola was dairy-based. She added that she hadn't had time to pick up non-dairy yogurt at the co-op. As I wondered why on earth she'd put out non-vegan food for a couple of people who'd specifically requested an animal-product-free breakfast, she brought it over and spooned out a few dollops into a bowl of granola she'd poured herself and sat across the table from us to eat it.

I had been really excited about the idea of staying in my first B & B with the favourite American I hadn't seen in four months; I'd been very much looking forward to a promised vegan breakfast we could share together, anticipating some time to ourselves during the Maine portion of our trip since we'd be staying with his family in Pennsylvania. I don't eat out very much in my small city, mostly because there are no vegan restaurants here, and although a few can accommodate vegans by offering up a dish or two (usually salad or ethnic foods), my friends are all non-vegan and most with whom I would eat out invariably order animal products the rare times I do go out with them. The truth is that I will generally avoid meal-focused situations where I know I'll end up sitting across a table from someone sucking back animal flesh or secretions, because -- and I'm sure that this may not be the case with all vegans, but it is for me -- it honestly makes me feel ill at ease. Even my travel buddy was a bit shocked that Janet set out a dairy product as "optional" for us and then sat down with us to eat a bowl of it.

Although we both thought Elm Cottage was a beautiful place and we liked both its human and non-human occupants, we decided upon our arrival in Pennsylvania to book different accommodations for our return trip to Canada. Elm Cottage is a lovely place, but we were left feeling disappointed and uncomfortable about returning after the awkward and unfortunate breakfast situation. Instead, we chose a more private inn in Belfast that included a small fridge and coffee-maker in its rooms and comfortably fended for ourselves thanks to the nearby co-op and grocery store. All things considered, though, I think that were it not for the anticipation I'd built up about the "vegan breakfast" beforehand and for our both have looked forward to the intimacy we'd equally anticipated with a stay in such a small B & B, we would have been delighted with our stay at Elm Cottage.

(Edited to add a photo and to tweak the final paragraph after a night's sleep.)


Rich R said...

Well she was a "slashy", that kinda sucks thing is when one things not Vegan you kind of wonder about everything else.
This always pops up when I'm out at restaurants with my family unsuprisingly (recently in fact when we were assured out Italian host knew what vegan was and had meals availible, ofc he had no idea)and I'm left uncomfortably eating something I'm assured is vegan.
I've got to got to a wedding in august as well and I'm wondering what to do becuase nothing I've been offered sounds Vegan and I just blatently dont trust a big catering service to make anything non vegan when they're cooking for 100 people :/

Um sorry for the spam lol, glad to to see your posting again and had a good time :)

LoncheraV said...

What a lovely place, and at the same time... what a shame.

It troubles me how many people self describe as vegan but aren't really vegan. Makes me sad, because it really shouldn't be taken lightly. My experience with some people is that they make "little exceptions" while traveling, which really disturbs me because it shouldn't be a matter of convenience, I've traveled and gotten through sticky situations, even while unprepared, but have stuck to my ethics. I remember this one trip where I thought there would be fresh produce available in a small village we went to, but it wasn't the case. I ended up eating black beans, corn tortillas and rice 3 times a day for 2 days. It sucked, but I survived.

I wish all people would do the same, but that will only be the case if they take it seriously.

Dairy yogurt? Gross :(

M said...

Yesterday, I read a review of her place on the Boston Vegetarian Society's site where they described her as a vegan. It's funny, because she talked about how "rigorously" they'd screened her practices before agreeing to promote her B&B on their site, so there was obviously some miscommunication on one side or the other concerning that.

I guess that it just comes down to managed expectations. You're right that assurances that vegan options will in fact be provided by non-vegan service providers should always be weighed critically. Thankfully, in our case, there were plenty of vegan options offered.

What I usually suggest for weddings is that you just try to eat beforehand and bring a snack. Might be your safest bet in your case, if you feel uneasy about it.

I hope that I didn't sound too harsh in my review of Elm Cottage. It was indeed a beautiful place and the food we did have was absolutely delicious.

(Edited to remove tweet I'd pasted into my previous response.)

Update: I've received quite a few emails about this post, and opinions seem to be split down the middle. Some have said that they would have been thrilled to find any place that would have offered such a great vegan spread, regardless of the dairy blunder. Others have expressed that they think that if a service provider knowingly offers up a non-vegan option that they would be left wondering whether the rest of the food may have contained animal ingredients. (I really don't think that the latter was a concern with this place. Our host was pretty forthright about the dairy yogurt.)

Many have expressed that it's absolutely hit or miss with B&B establishments whether you end up eating breakfast with others. The truth is that had there been someone staying in the other room that night, it's entirely possible that we would have ended up sharing the table with other guests consuming non-vegan food. Given how good the rest of the food was, it seems to me that anyone -- vegan or non-vegan -- would have enjoyed the vegan spread. It seems to me that the simplest thing to do would be to just ensure that the spread is always entirely vegan so that everyone can be accommodated.