Having the courage to live in alignment with one’s values can sometimes be a challenge in the vegan world, but not so for Sophia Grewal of Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B. From urban dweller ‘climbing’ the corporate ladder in publishing and travel just over a year ago to vegan B&B owner in the lush hilly surrounds of the Macedon Ranges, Sophia and her husband Stan have established a truly special getaway, a ‘happy place’, for vegan travellers.
“Funnily enough, I never had aspirations to own my own business,” Sophia confesses. “My husband Stan and I had always dreamed of one day living in the country with animal rescues, but to my mind that was a long way away.” Sophia, someone who hasn’t always been vegan, embarked on this journey soon after making the switch. “Once I went vegan, there was a fundamental shift which saw me opening up my mind to new opportunities.
“I started to see the positive ripple effects my lifestyle change was having on others around me – just through being fit and healthy, sharing simple plant-based recipes, and opening up the conversation. I was so happy when family members, friends and colleagues also made the change to a kinder way of life. I began to wonder how many more people could do with this positive shift, but weren’t sure where to start.” Sophia’s start at creating Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B began to take shape after a visit to another vegan B&B and cooking school, The Beet Retreat. “It’s a lovely country property with gorgeous animals, amazing food and Jan [Saunders]’s wonderful company. I cannot recommend this place enough! Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this experience planted a seed in the back of my mind that would grow over the following months.” While it’s one thing for a vegan to have a great idea, it’s another to have the support of friends and family. Suitably for Sophia, husband Stan was immediately on board. “His response was: ‘Why wait? Let’s do it now’, which was equal parts exciting and terrifying! I also confided in Jan, who has been so encouraging and supportive every step of the way. I am so grateful to them and everyone else in our lives who never doubted we could do it.”
The Macedon Ranges proved to be the home for Sophia’s great idea. It was a way for Sophia to dig deep and plant her idea while exploring a part of Victoria she hadn’t experienced. Coincidently, the Macedon Ranges is also home to the farm animal sanctuary Edgar’s Mission. “It wasn’t until we decided to visit Edgar’s Mission a couple of years ago that I realised how much the region had to offer. I couldn’t believe that only an hour away from [Melbourne] there was Hanging Rock, Mount Macedon, rolling green hills and gorgeous boutique wineries.
“Finding Edgar’s Mission was like discovering a slice of heaven. So when we discussed a good location for a vegan B&B, knowing how many kind-hearted people visit this wonderful place every week on their tours, it made perfect sense to set up nearby and provide the complete vegan short break experience. The historic township of Romsey was ideal. As we arrived at the five-acre property and took in the panoramic views and charming house, we knew we’d found our happy place. As for the name – I wanted it to convey the property’s hilly location with its beautiful views, while also alluding to the farm animals you’d meet.”
Vegans, particularly vegan business owners, currently live in interesting times. There’s a current undertow of needing to live within one’s values while living a life that’s genuinely contributing to the world in a fulfilling way. This became clear to Sophia and Stan when they became vegan two years ago, after being vegetarian two years prior. “After over a decade working as a marketer in both publishing and travel, I always thought that once I worked my way up the ladder I would feel fulfilled. When I got to the point I thought I wanted to be, I realised it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The pressure was immense. I was burning out, and just crashing out on the couch every night; living to work, not working to live. While there were some wonderful travel perks and I worked in a great team, after going vegan I felt like there was something stronger drawing me away from my comfort zone. I wanted to truly live in alignment with my values. It was terrifying, but I’m so glad I took the plunge.”
So how did Sophia and Stan make the switch to being vegan? “I never thought we would or could go vegan, but it’s funny how life can lead you down a path that changes everything. Cheese and chocolate was life. Then, I was diagnosed with high cholesterol at 21, and was always sick with colds and flus that sometimes lasted months. But it all began when our love of canines led to us volunteering every Sunday at Save-A-Dog Scheme, a no-kill animal shelter. We then began fostering their long-stayers, and suddenly the world of animal welfare opened up to us through social media. We realised other animals really weren’t so different from our beloved dogs.
“I still remember the day Stan came home after seeing a video of cows in a slaughterhouse, terrified and trying to escape their fates. He was shaken to the core, and just his description of it was enough for us to make the decision to go vegetarian then and there. From there, social media continued to open up our eyes to a world that we had not been exposed to before. We learned the realities of the dairy and egg industries among other things, and after watching James Aspey’s ‘Wake Up Call’ video we couldn’t put it off any longer. We went vegan and didn’t look back!”
Since becoming vegan Sophia is breaking down the stereotypes that vegan food is ‘boring and bland’. “I set about learning how to make vegan versions of some of my favourites: Thai and Indian curries, pies, pasta dishes and more. It was so damn easy and in many cases even more delicious than the original! As time has progressed, my taste buds have evolved and now I love vegetables and a good hearty salad. I wasn’t prepared for was how amazing I would feel. My cholesterol dropped dramatically, and my iron and protein levels actually increased. I stopped getting colds so frequently. I had so much energy that I started exercising more. Intrigued by this, I completed a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition through Cornell University. This helped me better understand the linkage between our diet and the leading causes of disease and death in the Western World. It was amazing to discover how a whole food plant-based lifestyle can not only prevent disease, but sometimes also reverse it. But beyond the physical, I can’t even describe the internal shift that comes from finally aligning yourself with your core values. It was a feeling of true inner peace.
“For me, it’s been easy to stay on track because I did it for the animals. Every time I crave a slice of cake or a piece of dairy cheese, my mind instantly associates it with the what that animal went through for my five minutes of taste gratification. And then I reach for the delicious almond feta or egg-free chocolate brownie.”
Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B offers home and refuge to rescue animals who may not have survived without the drive of such committed vegans like Sophia and Stan. As like humans, each non-human animal who calls Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B home has their unique story and personality. “We have a sweet senior dog, Quincy; a failed trained sniffer dog whose fear of escalators saw him fall into a life of luxury. After living in urban environment he can’t quite believe his luck that this is where he’ll spend his retirement. We never intended to have a horse, but life had other plans! Twenty-five year-old Suzy is an ex-pacer who has been living on the property for most of her life. When her previous elderly owners needed to downsize, they couldn’t find a home for the old gal, so when we heard her future was uncertain we made sure she stayed and received all the love she deserves. Sven and Leroy are our cheeky six-month-old goats. They were rescued by Edgar’s Mission after learning they were going to be euthanised if they didn’t find a new home fast. As volunteers, Stan and I embarked on a three-hour road trip to central Victoria to rescue them, and in the process we fell head over heels for these affectionate kids. Sven (white) is the brave explorer of the two, while Leroy (black) is the ultimate lap-goat and loves a cuddle. They have quickly taken to Suzy as their adoptive mother, which is so sweet to see. They keep everyone amused with their random, joyful leaps in the air, and how they run sideways with their heads struggling to keep up with their bodies.
“These furkids have all taught us how unique and different every animal is. They each have a personality, and complex social structures. They feel happiness, joy, fear and pain. They are so much like we humans, in all the ways that count. And the unconditional love they show us, and the other species they live alongside, is something truly special. The dream is to add a few more animals to the clan over the coming years – specifically ones that are used for food or fibre – so that the vegan curious can come and interact with animals they wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to spend time with.”
Along with all the learnings involved when starting a new vegan business, there’s also a need to establish and retain connected to the local community in which the business operates. While social media and online channels enact these connections, Sophia sees the holistic value of connections in day-to-day vegan life. “I began volunteering for Edgar’s Mission in August, helping out in the office. Eventually this lead to hosting their Sunday morning tours, where I’m lucky enough to take visitors around the sanctuary. With over 450 rescues, there are always friendly animals who are happy to greet us. The guaranteed spot on an Edgar’s Mission tour is a huge highlight for our Hilltop Hooves guests. Their tours are announced once a month, and sometimes within hours they are sold out. So, it’s a great way for people to have peace of mind that they won’t miss out.”
Not only do guests of Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B experience Edgar’s Mission, they are met with a B&B that can be their happy place that’s so close to nature. “Animal lovers get the ultimate fix with dog and goat cuddles on the property. Horses and cows can be seen grazing in the distance and an abundance of birds and rabbits also call Hilltop Hooves home. Foodies love the included plant-based breakfast options, from fluffy pancakes with berry compote and ice cream, to hearty big breakfasts including scrambled tofu, smoky baked beans and garlic mushrooms on toasted sourdough. Our dinner package is a popular addition, and cooking classes can also be arranged on request. “The property itself, with its endless views of the rolling hills, is something very special. The sunrise can be watched from the comfort of your bed, and on a clear night you can see stars straight ahead from our hilltop perch.
“Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B has attracted people from all walks of life; mostly couples, and also friends having a weekend away. Ages have ranged from students to retirees. The majority are from Melbourne, but we have had visitors from the U.S, and interstate travellers from Adelaide. While most are vegan or vegetarian, we have had couples who were just curious. This has been fantastic, as we’ve had some very open and respectful conversations. They have been surprised at how tasty the meals were. That, coupled with the Edgar’s Mission tour, just reinforces the message of how easy living kindly can be. It is so rewarding, and really gives you faith in humanity.
“Everyone is welcome and there is absolutely no judgment here. I have been in your shoes, and know what it’s like to feel like you could never give up the meat, cheese, chocolate and eggs. Whether you’re interested for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons, I’m here to answer any questions you may have, share some helpful tips if you want them, and cook you delicious food. Simple as that.”
So, what about the immediate future for Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B? “Yoga! I’m currently completing teacher training, so once certified I’ll be able to offer yoga classes as an option for guests. I’m hoping to make Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B the ultimate retreat experience.”
As vegan travel increases and veganism enters the mainstream, there is hope that the current world will see animals in a new light, and that this world can benefit from the choice of going vegan. Sophia is optimistic of the current tone that vegan is attracting. “Bring on the vegan revolution! There are so many great vegan travel options popping up, and I believe that as the movement grows, there will be enough business for all of us to be successful. My hope is that we can all collaborate and support each other.”
Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B is currently booked out until May 2019, and will be taking bookings for after this date. To find out more, visit the Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B website. To enquire about a booking, contact Sophia at [email protected] or 0415 403 235. Couzens Lane, Romsey, Victoria, Australia 3434.
This interview is dedicated in loving memory of Sofia and Stan’s senior furbaby dog Buddy who spent his retirement years at Hilltop Hooves Vegan B&B.