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An interview with vegan travel pioneer Donna Zeigfinger

An interview with vegan travel pioneer Donna Zeigfinger
by Marla Rose

Donna Zeigfinger is a longtime vegan and an early adopter of spreading the message of compassionate living far and wide with her groundbreaking travel agency, Green Earth Travel. Based in the Washington, D.C. area, Donna has been helping people travel worldwide without having to compromise their vegan standards (or go hungry) since 1997 with an emphasis on sustainable travel and personalized, unique experiences for those who love to explore other cultures but don’t want to stress out about being able to eat. She takes the worry out of travel, which frees travellers up to really enjoying their adventures. Please check out Green Earth Travel and consider supporting Donna’s conscientious independent business. Also consider joining along on her summer tour of Italy, the Vegano Italiano Festival, which looks like it has all the makings of a fantastic trip. With vegan luminary hosts like the brilliant Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House and the divine Fran Costigan of Vegan Chocolate, this is a trip you won’t want to miss.

Marla Rose: I keep seeing references to your upcoming tour of Italy, the Vegano Italiano Festival, which is actually four separate weeks in Cilento with four sets of fabulous guest hosts. I just looked at your itinerary: What a blast this looks like. You’re going to Pompeii! Could you tell us a little more? How did you decide on your hosts and this particular area of Italy?

Donna Zeigfinger: Pompeii is a must - see the location even if you have been in the past. In the last few years they have uncovered and opened to the public the bathhouses. They are spectacular with his and hers community baths that give us an idea of how advanced the people of Pompeii were even by today standards. That's not to mention the sheer beauty of all the mosaics and the design of the baths themselves. What most people tend to forget is that Pompeii was a large city completely frozen in time. We will have 3.5 hours inside the city and will only be able to see a fraction of what is there is to see.

I met Fran, Our Hen House girls and Miyoko Schinner through Vegucated producer Demetrius Bagley, who is helping with us on this trip. My collaborator Gretchen from Tierno Tours has been working with Jason Wyrick for the past three years on vegan Italy trips, I met Dr. Ruby Lathon through the Food Channel Network peeps. Carolyn Scott-Hamilton and I have been talking for several years about doing a trip together. Matt Frazier I have known for several years and thought he would be a great part of the fitness segment of the trip.

MR: In addition to Pompeii, your trip also includes nature walks, a boat trip to visit some caves, touring a 13th century castle and, of course, great local Italian food. Does someone have to be vegan to enjoy this trip?

DZ: Absolutely not and in fact I encourage and challenge non-vegans to come on the trip and dare them to not like the food. I have yet to hear a complaint and in fact some have gone on to become vegans themselves.

MR: You’ve carved out an interesting niche for yourself as a travel agent who specializes in meeting the needs of vegan travelers. Could you tell us a little bit more about what those specific needs are and how you assist?

DZ: I typically will get a client who is vegan or whose family member is vegan and they just do not have the time to figure this out. They rely on me to help with arranging the hotels or tours to make sure that they have vegan alternatives for them. And I will try to help them with finding restaurants nearby so they do not have to spend time on their trip figuring that out.

MR: I don’t mean to be blunt, but in the days of Travelocity, HappyCow and Google searches, could you tell us what you bring to the table that an average traveler would not be able to do for him or herself? 

DZ: Oh gosh too many that I love.

One of my favorite places on earth is Ireland. I love the culture and the people. And it is becoming more and more vegan-friendly. I also love Central America (Belize and Costa Rica). I recently went to Dominican Republic and stayed in a small resort called Natura Cabana that had a vegan chef! The food was one of the best I have ever had - ever! We also went into town. That said, this will be my first time to Italy - yes, you read right - and I have a feeling this will be my new favorite.

MR: Have you noticed any international trends toward an expanding vegan awarness? How is this manifesting in terms of restaurants, willingness to accommodate, etc.? 

DZ: Well, when I got into this business in the ‘80s there was no Internet and the only way I could find out about places that could accommodate vegans was to phone them (too expensive back then), mail letters, get recommendations from other travel agents or travel there myself. It was the same thing with the cruises. Although I pushed my cruise line sales rep back in the early ‘90s to get a certain cruise ship a vegetarian menu and it worked! They added on veg items to their menu.

I would say now that about 80% of the restaurants now can accommodate vegans due to the high demand. If they don’t they lose a big community which means they lose revenue. Same with the resorts. Even the larger resorts like Sandals resorts have at least one vegan option in each of their restaurants. Same with the cruise lines - Holland America several years ago came up with a vegetarian menu (not vegan) but they can now tweak it to be vegan.

MR: Do you have any future vegan travel destinations up your sleeves?

DZ: Yes, we have more up our sleeves and will be announcing more of them later this year. Don’t want to spill the beans just yet. But I can say that I am in the works as of today for something very exciting to happen summer of 2016. [Take me with you! Thx, bye. Marla.]

MR: It can be intimidating for vegans to travel, especially internationally, if we’re not confident with our language skills and we don’t want to offend the locals but we also don’t want to go hungry. Do you have any words of advice?

MW: Yes, there are some wonderful apps now that can translate for you. The one I have used the most is called Translator with Speech and it is free. You type or speak into the app and it says and spells it out for you!

There are also a multitude of guides and apps to find restaurants near where you are staying. You have Veggie Guides, which are guidebooks all about different locations in Europe. You also have the Happy Cow app, which will locate veg and veg-friendly restaurants nearby. The list goes on and on. But the bottom line is you need to do your homework. And even though these guides are great to use you still need to call or have your travel agent (or hotel concierge) call or email ahead of time to make sure they are still open and have the same veg-friendly menu.

MR: Thank you, Donna! I’m excited to what’s next for you and Green Earth Travel.

2015, Vegan Street

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