Finding a good vegan-only hotel still feels like asking for the moon on a stick in many of Europe’s more rural destinations. Things are improving, of course, but as a tourist with a longstanding plant-based diet (I stopped eating meat as a child) I’m more than used to the vegan offering being nothing more than a dispiriting main course minus the meat.
However, a fledgling hotel chain with two properties in Italy’s mountainous north — where ragu, hams and gorgonzola still dominate menus — and one in Tuscany is offering a heartening chink of light to vegans who are desperate for la dolce vita . . . and fed up with a holiday diet that starts and ends with dried (and egg-free) pasta.
In the verdant Val Venosta in South Tyrol — the portion of northern Italy that sits just below Austria — is adults-only La Vimea, which claims to be Italy’s first vegan-only hotel. From the outside it looks like a classic Alpine chalet hotel with saw-toothed mountains providing the backdrop.
However, the Caldarelli family has transformed what was once a traditional ski/hikers’ retreat in the small village of Naturno into the region’s most progressive hotel, with sustainability at its core but zero compromise on holiday fun. Adults only, it has five types of yoga on offer, alongside forest bathing, a swimming pond, spa and gym plus a menu of activities that includes Nordic walking and trail running.
The swimming pond at La Vimea
It’s the food that brought me here, though. Trawling for ideas on Instagram I’d come across the chef Luca Sordi’s colourful, 100 per cent organic, plant-based dishes. An easyJet hop to Verona, and a winding two-hour drive through majestic scenery, put me at his table.
The owner, Valeria Caldarelli, tells me a health issue led her to a vegan diet a few years ago, along with the fact her daughter Francesca, who runs their Tuscany property, “decided to stop eating meat at the age of three”.
The family hasn’t looked back, and for visiting vegans like me La Vimea is a foodie paradise. There is unbridled happiness in walking down to breakfast and being able to eat everything. At dinner hotel guests dine next to an aromatic herb garden, sampling five-course menus conjured up by Sordi, a former engineer. Dishes, decorated with edible flowers, might include a potato and spelt gnocchi served with basil pesto, baked sweet tomatoes, saffron marinated courgette and almond parmesan. One night we had sushi rolls. For dessert? A delicious chestnut ice cream.
Beyond the food, which is locally sourced to support the mountain communities and adhering to a zero-waste initiative, the hotel’s other eco-conscious efforts are visible too. Lights are on sensors to conserve electricity; the bedding is feather-free and organic.
La Vimea’s sister hotel Paradiso Pure.Living, in the Alpe di Siusi, was the first vegetarian and vegan restaurant in the Dolomites and also has a focus on organic produce. Winding up to it, carving through glorious floral meadows and Europe’s largest mountain pasture, I’m quickly sold on the Dolomites in summertime. The free-flowing Aperol spritz helps to seal the deal.
The hotel’s pledge to the slow food movement is manifest in the works hung on its walls: giant blue snails, created by the artist group Cracking Art, are a visual pledge that the Paradiso kitchen is committed to using local produce and keeping traditional cooking alive.
Dishes at Paradiso Pure.Living
In the kitchen the chefs Grazia Bianchi and Mauro Massei serve up vegetarian cooking of the highest order. Breakfasts — including the best vegan chocolate croissants I’ve had — can stretch to five courses here, which is fine because there are buckets of indoor and outdoor activities to fill your days with. At the end of all the fresh-air adventures — listening to tweets, not reading them, is bliss — the Paradiso spa is the perfect spot to rejuvenate; there’s two saunas, a gorgeous steam room, hot tub and float experience, which feels like a hot-water bottle giving you a hug.
How did the Caldarelli family concept fare in even more foodie Tuscany? I Pini is an elegant “agrivilla” among the less dramatic but just as soul-soothing San Gimignano hills.
Once owned by nobility, this 15th-century honey-bricked house is now the home of Valeria’s daughter Francesca and her husband, Benjamin, who are living the dream among acres of organic vineyards and wild herb, fruit and veggie gardens. Jams, oils and wine are all made at I Pini.
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The charismatic sommelier Giacomo, who left his own family’s hotel business to work with one that mirrored his beliefs, invites us to try them, while Lahiri, the chef, takes guests foraging for ingredients that he will later bring to the table. It’s farm-to-fabulousness, with one basket helping to create a courgette ravioli stuffed with cashew cheese and elephant garlic. Guests enjoy a quintet of courses with a side portion of spectacular views; the villa overlooks the charming 13th-century walled town of San Gimignano, which we duck into for pottery and truffle shopping during our stay.
Julia at I Pini
Who were our fellow guests? Many were more recent converts to veganism than me, explaining they were plant-based for either environmental, health or animal cruelty reasons.
The Caldarelli family has created an impressive blueprint for vegan hoteliers everywhere, offering tourists eating a plant-based diet the chance to dine well. This Italian jaunt felt like a love letter to myself; with no awkward moments in restaurants to face, only joy, which is what holidays should be all about, right?
Julia Clancey was a guest of La Vimea, which has half-board doubles from £292 (lavimea.com), Paradiso Pure.Living, which has half-board doubles from £274 (paradiso-pure.com), Vegan Agrivilla I Pini, which has half-board doubles from £333, minimum three-night stay (ipinitoscana.com), and easyJet which has flights from Gatwick to Verona from £29pp one way (easyjet.com)
Three other gourmet vegan stays
By Lisa Johnson
1. Saorsa 1875, Pitlochry, Highland, Scotland
The aim of this family-run vegan hotel is to show that the best things in life don’t have to be at the expense of animals or the environment, and its 11 rooms bear the names of endangered wildlife species that live in the nearby Cairngorms. Named after the Gaelic for freedom and the year the baronial-style building was constructed, it combines fair-trade textiles and upcycled furnishings with casual lunches and three or five-course dinner menus featuring dishes such as king oyster mushrooms with ricotta pesto, almonds and lemon.
Details B&B doubles from £170, three-course menu (Mon-Wed) £35pp five courses (Thur-Sat) £60; saorsahotel.com
2. Hôtel HoY, Pigalle, Paris
Buzzy Pigalle might not be the first place you’d look for a holistic haven, but that’s what this 22-room Japanese-inflected hotel is: the name is Spanish for today (read, living in the moment) and also stands for House of Yoga; the Franco-Mexican owner is a certified teacher; and there’s a hot yoga studio on site. The plant-based menus at Latin American restaurant Mesa, meanwhile, conceived by the Plant Academy London founders Lauren Lovatt and Carolina Rodriguez and featuring CBD-based desserts, are among the best vegan options in town.
Details Room-only doubles from £150, menus from £47pp; hoyparis.com
3. Villa Vegana, Selva, Mallorca
One of Europe’s first all-vegan hotels (it opened in 2013), this family-run retreat is housed in a 15th-century manor house with views through citrus groves to the Tramuntana mountains. It has four double rooms and four suites and serves vegans dishes from a different culinary tradition every day; think tacos with crispy vegan carnitas, mango coriander salsa, jalapeño cream cheese and pickled onions, or tiramisu with cashew mascarpone. All of which makes it a great place for yoga retreats: the next one is from 28 September to 1 October.
Details B&B doubles from £163, three-course menus £30; villavegana.com
Five food tricks to transform your vegan dishes
By Luca Sordi, head chef at La Vimea
● Make vegan cheese from cashews
● Create a substitute egg yolk with carrot cream and ginger by reverse spherification — a procedure used in molecular gastronomy
● Add dried sunflower seeds to bolognese sauce
● Marinate and grill watermelon to make vegan sashimi; make vegan sushi with organic avocado, tofu, smoked cherry tomatoes, peppers, olives and mushrooms
● Add texture to vegan dishes with ground walnuts
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