Recently, a kid named Sandy Pukel, whom I haven't seen since high school, tracked me down through Facebook. Turns out he is no longer a kid (surprise!); in fact, he is a health food guru, and he mentioned he was running his annual Holistic Holiday at Sea vegan cruise to the Caribbean.
The idea tickled my funny bone, and pardon me if I mention the word "bone" in the context of vegan fare. The average cruiser is said to gain 7 to 10 pounds in a week by shoveling in food by the truckload; Sandy said that on his cruise, folks lose weight.
Holistic journey This year's Holistic Holiday at Sea is March 21-28 aboard the Costa Fortuna. For program information, call (828) 749-9537; for reservations, (800) 496-0989, www.atasteofhealth.org.
I tried to picture it. Brown rice and seaweed. Tempeh, a vegetarian food, and sesame seeds. Bouncy little tofu balls for desert. I did a few food riffs in e-mails to Sandy and then, to my surprise, he invited me and my husband, Paul, to come.
As I pondered the draconian culinary experience, Larry Krug also contacted me through Facebook. I tutored him in French in high school. He's a bud of Sandy's, and he looked forward to meeting me in the health club on the ship.
Fine. I like gyms. But I didn't like the fact that Larry has 12% body fat. When I asked him how he could have 12% body fat as a middle-aged man, I found out that Larry had drilled the Marine Corps' finest for 30 years. He is a master triathlete and a super jock trainer. And he offered to train me in the ship's gym.
Paul was grousing about seitan ("wheat meat") for breakfast. I was worried about being caught between a health food nut and a trainer whose idea of an endearment was barking "Maggot!" at me, but off we went anyway.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., we boarded the Costa Fortuna, an Italian ship. About half the passengers looked as though they had overdosed on high fructose corn syrup. The 800 others were more lean and fit. The latter, of course, were the folks I dubbed "the macros" -- Sandy's meat and potatoes, so to speak.
I loved Sandy and Larry on sight. They're the quintessential Oscar and Felix. Sandy is tall, thin, laid-back, speaks slowly and laughs easily. Larry is short, intense, with bulging biceps and a searing wit and intelligence. We hugged and laughed and then the first meal came. It was a five-course gourmet offering of brown rice, sesame seeds, miso soup and seitan. Paul took a look and said he was jumping ship.
Every day, health experts offered information-packed lectures and workshops such as: "Is Your Cardiologist Killing You?" (by Dr. Sherry Rogers), "Natural Approach to Breast, Prostate and Colon Cancer" (by Dr. Christine Horner), "Understanding the Scientific Evidence for Plant-Based Nutrition (by T. Colin Campbell), "An Intensive Plant-Based Diet for Diabetes Management" (Dr. Neal Barnard) and "Straight Bowel Talk" (Warren Kramer). They were mesmerizing, offering information on natural ways to treat serious and chronic illnesses or prevent them. There were even macrobiotic cooking classes and a vegan milk and cookies party (almond milk, of course).
On the third day, Paul and I ditched the macro breakfast and went to the other side of the ship. There, on a sunshine-drenched deck, was a lavish breakfast buffet: scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, hash browns. My pupils dilated: The food looked unappealing. I glanced at Paul. He was pale. With our flesh-eating tails between our legs, we crawled back to the macro breakfast.
At our table were people who said they'd been cured of arthritis, cancer, allergies, high blood pressure, eczema, lupus and other afflictions by changing to a vegan diet and, in some cases, consulting with macrobiotic counselors. In fact, every meal was the same story: healing through food.
By the time we attended the Recovery Panel -- where cruiser after cruiser attested to overcoming health issues by changing their diets -- we were hooked. The combination of good food and tales of benefits cruisers said they experienced won us over.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that in Grand Cayman, after swimming with stingrays, we lingered on shore and sampled goat curry, and in Gumbalimba Park in Roatán, Honduras, after we posed for photos with trained howler monkeys, we had machuca (made of pounded banana, fish and conch) for lunch. But other than that, we were pure. And fit. Larry turned out to be a gentle trainer, and he woke up muscle groups we didn't even know we had.
When we returned home, Paul, who does all the cooking, stocked the refrigerator with the macro foods he had disparaged. Our freezer is devoid of turkey and buffalo burgers, chicken breasts and lamb. Our spice shelf has sesame seeds and seaweed bits. When our friends ask us why we have deserted the omnivore camp, we smile and blame it all on Facebook.