(Read the original article over on The Times.)
A small town in the Scottish Highlands isn’t where you’d expect to find the UK’s first vegan hotel – but then the recent rise of veganism has been full of surprises. Where once the plant-based movement was contained to cities and university towns, these days veganism is borderless. That’s why, last weekend, I found myself shuttling past the vast moorlands and steep forests of Perthshire to check out Saorsa 1875.
Billed as the country’s first fully vegan hotel, from food to fittings, Saorsa 1875 is at the head of the growing ethical travel movement, a concept many are still unfamiliar with – but one that’s becoming increasingly prevalent. While for many the idea of “vegan travel” may conjure up images of hemp-clad, dreadlocked hippies singing around campfires, the reality is quite different.
“This isn’t about abstinence or sacrifice,” said Sandra McLaren-Stewart, who, together with her husband John and son Jack, runs the hotel. “It’s an environment where guests can experience amazing food, drink and design that doesn’t come at the expense of animals.” The family has been vegan for more than four years, and pooled their knowledge to create the concept of Saorsa 1875.
As a vegan, I can attest to the lingering consensus that veganism is about self-flagellation, or denying yourself the finer things in life – but being a vegan shouldn’t mean compromising on luxury. At Saorsa 1875, the mission is to prove we can enjoy cruelty-free, sustainable indulgence without compromise. So how does it measure up?
As soon as I walked into the stately, gothic-style house in the picturesque town of Pitlochry, I could see that it’s that rare mix of both ethical and stylish, from the locally-sourced vegan snacks in the bedrooms to the gleaming wood floors. Large windows flood the spacious lounge with light: at one end there’s a well-stocked oak bar laden with spirits from around the world; at the other, coffee tables, cosy armchairs and antique sofas where guests flick idly through books and newspapers.
Upstairs, in the 11 boutique bedrooms, things are equally chic. With a green and gold parrot-adorned feature wall, my room – the Lynx Room – was as comfortable as I’d hoped, and, as I sank into the luxurious linens and plump pillows on my bed, it was a welcome (and rare) relief to know it wasn’t at the expense of any geese. Everything is vegan here, even the cleaning products, and in the bathroom, fluffy fair-trade cotton towels hang next to cruelty-free toiletries by Highland Soaps.
But I wasn’t going to linger in my room — there were cocktails to taste in the bar, Faodail, where co-founder (and expert bartender) Jack McLaren-Stewart hosts spirit tastings and cocktail masterclasses. I sipped a perfectly-made whisky sour as Jack explained the differences between Scottish and Irish whiskies. I began to enjoy it, despite never being the biggest whisky fan, though I switched to a quick Mezcal before dinner (with the range of global spirits on offer, it would’ve been a shame not to).
I joined other guests around a huge custom-built table, swapping stories and exclaiming excitedly over the menu. Head Chef Luca Sordi hails from Turin – although to vegans, he may as well have fallen from heaven. A chance encounter in an Edinburgh cafe led to Sordi’s hire. He’d already proved his vegan credentials at London’s prestigious Vanilla Black, so was given free reign to create the menu, using ingredients grown in the hotel’s vegetable patch, sourced from local suppliers, or foraged from the surrounding countryside. Before dinner kicks off, Sordi shyly described each dish, and the room positively buzzed with hungry anticipation.
On opening night, we enjoyed velvety whipped cauliflower with a pumpkin yolk and nutmeg dusting, followed by wood-fired sourdough bread and outrageously creamy almond butter with spruce tips and lemon thyme. Smoked carrot soup with whisky foam, burnt orange and rosemary biscuit followed, then a courgette, basil and buckwheat crepe with tender aubergine, marinated tomatoes and lemon pearls. Dessert was silky, hay-infused panna cotta with fragrant rhubarb and a chamomile meringue. It’s the type of dinner that instantly puts to bed the argument that vegan food can’t be decadent or inventive; the type of dinner I wish all those vocal vegan food critics could open their minds to try.
Though I’ve travelled to many vegan-friendly hotels, breakfast is almost always the weakest link; without meat, dairy or eggs, many hotels just serve fruit and toast. Not so at Saorsa, where the breakfast table groaned with plant-based yoghurts, cereals, breads, fruits and croissants – which, incidentally, were the best I’ve had since being vegan: light, buttery, flaky, soft… everything a croissant should be. Cooked breakfasts are on the menu too, and Sordi puts his magic touch to classics like beans on toast: no Heinz here, but smoky, Mexican-inspired black beans topped with fresh, zingy herbs.
There are no TVs in the hotel, and instead, music is the entertainment. During the day Motown, blues and folk songs drift through the building, and during quieter times, when guests are out exploring, you can occasionally hear the light, quick footsteps of family dogs Roxy and Lizzie (the hotel is, of course, dog-friendly). Local attractions include visiting whisky distilleries and the Pitlochry dam and fish ladder. However, plans to open a yoga studio in the garden and install several wood-fired hot tubs mean that guests may not want to leave the grounds at all.
As a family-run business, there’s a laid-back, welcoming atmosphere throughout, and guests stop and chat in the corridors. “So, are you vegan?” is an oft-heard question – although I should stress that non-vegans are welcomed with open arms. There’s no judgement, so omnivores needn’t worry about being questioned by “militant vegans” ( a tired, but sadly pervasive, trope).
You don’t have to be vegan to know we all need to eat less animal products; from a sustainability perspective alone, the issue couldn’t be more timely. Luckily, then, Saorsa 1875 offers guests that increasingly elusive concept: relaxing, epicurean indulgence, all guilt-free. I’ll raise a glass (of vegan wine) to that.