Some say the way to most deeply understand a place is through its cuisine (just ask Anthony Bourdain). That's the idea behind culinary travel, where visitors learn to cook like the locals as a way to absorb a foreign culture.
"Today's travelers are experiential," says Erik Wolf, executive director of the World Food Travel Association, whose membership of travel professionals and consumers is at 18,000 and, according to Wolf, growing exponentially. "They want to get out of the bus or the car and actively participate and learn and do."
Colorado-based Epitourean sells almost 100 different food-focused travel packages a year. It sent about 3,000 foodies to Italy in 2012, and this year is on track to send a few thousand more. Other popular destinations include California's Napa Valley, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where low-country cuisine is the draw. Company President David Loy says that at least three-quarters of Epitourean's customers are over 50, and many splurge on a culinary vacation as a special way to celebrate a milestone birthday or anniversary.
Cooking trips, says Loy, are "on people's bucket lists."
Cost varies widely. Many U.S. bed-and-breakfast inns offer two- or three-day culinary getaways for less than $1,000. The Blair House Inn in Wimberley, Texas, has a three-day "barbecue camp" for $621 per person, double occupancy, where you can learn to cook Hill Country goodies like beer-can chicken and Texas brisket.
On the other hand, spending a week in a gorgeous riverside French manor in the Loire Valley while learning how to make chocolate soufflé and tasting artisanal cheeses is not going to be cheap. Plan for around $3,000, not including your flight, for that sort of high-end experience.
You can find deals, however: While Epitourean's listed price for, say, a culinary excursion through the hills of Umbria is $3,276, the company also has run a promotion that offered the exact same package for $1,749. Sometimes their partners want to increase occupancy for a certain time of year, or they want to draw new customers. So consider waiting for the right trip to go on sale.
Decide what kind of experience you want, then read the fine print to make sure you're getting it. Do you hope to get garlic under your fingernails, or are you happy just observing a chef whip up a great meal for your dining pleasure?
The International Kitchen provides hands-on cooking trips to Latin America and Europe. Founder Karen Herbst says, "A lot of people book trips with other companies and when they show up the classes are really demonstration and not hands-on as they expected."
And look online for reviews not just of the tour operator, but also check out the venue where you'll be staying and cooking.
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