Culinary Travel Enters a New Era

Culinary travel offers clients a feast of local flavor By: Janeen Christoff
La Reserve onboard the Oceania Marina offers food and wine pairings. // © 2011 Oceania Cruises
La Reserve onboard the Oceania Marina offers food and wine pairings. // © 2011 Oceania Cruises

Web Exclusive

TravelAge West editors dish about their favorite culinary travel experiences.

The Details

Auberge du Soleil

Food Network

Hawaii Food & Wine Festival

The Kahala Hotel & Resort

Les Sources de Caudalie

Oceania Cruises

Signature Travel Network

Villa Campomaggio

Waterford Estate

As many travelers do, I love food, and I love to try new flavors and cuisines every time I travel. In my mind, it’s one of the best ways to discover a new culture. And, I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone. In fact, when I listen to my colleagues and family members reminisce about their own travels, it almost always starts with some type of culinary experience — from eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant to sampling street food, cuisine is a dominant force in travel. 

“Food is one of the most important elements of the vacation experience,” said James Rodriguez, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Oceania Cruises. “When people travel, they want to experience fascinating destinations, sleep in welcoming accommodations and, above all, they want to eat well and experience new tastes and styles of cuisine.”

One of my favorite ways to experience culinary travel is wine tasting. And, in Stellenbosch, South Africa, I had one of my most memorable foodie moments at the Waterford Estate — a wine and chocolate tasting experience. This was paired with a “wine drive,” which can most easily be described as a wine safari, complete with a tour in a Range Rover. The wine drive includes a tour of the estate’s vineyards, during which clients can stop, get out and touch the vines and sample the various types of grapes. In the middle of the tour, at sunset, clients exit the vehicle and participate in a wine tasting and can sample several of the grape varietals seen during the drive.

We chose to end our visit to the Waterford Estate with its wine and chocolate experience. The exotic chocolates that we sampled with a selection of white and red wines made this activity particularly memorable, and I will never forget how the flavors of the various chocolates were transformed by the wine.

Since culinary travel is one of the fastest-growing travel segments, agents should take note of the many different ways in which clients can experience food when they travel. 

“There is tremendous interest in lifestyle travel, and culinary is one of the most universal of these types of travel,” said Michael von Wittenau, vice president, strategic business development for Signature Travel Network. 

Signature recently conducted focus groups to gauge travelers interest in taking a culinary vacation while developing its partnership with the Food Network.

“When we asked about culinary in our focus groups, there was a great amount of interest,” said von Wittenau. 

Some of the most popular destinations that arose were the Napa Valley/San Francisco area, France and Italy. 

“When asked about travel with the Food Network, interest was even greater, regardless of the destination,” he said.

Independent research also shows that Americans love pairing food with travel. Some 27 million American leisure travelers engaged in culinary or wine-related activities within the past three years, according to a Travel Industry Association survey. Further, 60 percent of American leisure travelers have indicated that they are interested in culinary travel in the near future, according to the study, and culinary travelers tend to be younger, more affluent and better educated than non-culinary travelers.

Additionally, the Portrait of American Travelers, 2011 survey showed that 65 percent of American leisure travelers rated the opportunity to try different and unusual cuisines as extremely or very desirable when on a leisure vacation.

With this level of interest in mind, agents should take note of the importance of cuisine for their clients, and not just for foodies. While cuisine can be incorporated in just about any itinerary, there are a few key ways to take a culinary-focused vacation and many companies and organizations are capitalizing on the trend.

Foodie Festivals
While there are many notable ways to divine a culinary experience, one of the easiest ways is to attend a food festival. This month is the Atlantic City Food and Wine Festival, which takes place July 28-31 and features renowned wine makers, spirits, producers, celebrity chefs and culinary personalities, including Guy Fieri, Pat and Gina Neely, Sunny Anderson and Robert Irvine.

Hawaii is a well-known destination for foodies and this year, the Kahala Hotel & Resort is bringing a little bit of Hollywood to the islands during its two-day culinary showcase, the Kahala Wine & Food Classic, held Sept. 16-17 at the resort. Executive chef of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, Calif., Carolynn Spence, and Rich Frank, owner of Frank Family Vineyards and producer of USA Network’s “Royal Pains” and FX’s “Wilfred,” are headlining this year’s festival which is called Hollywood Goes Hawaiian. The festival features a cooking demonstration, a wineology seminar, a cigar experience and more.

New this year is the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival, cofounded by chef Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s Restaurants. The festival, scheduled for Sept. 29-Oct. 1, will showcase Hawaii regional cuisine by using the state’s local produce, beef, poultry and seafood. Yamaguchi’s three-evening event features foodie activities spread across three Waikiki hotels: Halekulani, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Waikiki Edition.

Another well-known culinary destination is Mexico and, while there is nothing like Puerto Vallarta’s International Gourmet Food Festival, Mexico recently announced the debut of the new Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival. The 2012 event will honor celebrity chef Ferran Adria as well as other star chefs and acclaimed wineries in the Americas. 

“We’re planning a memorable wine and food experience in one of the most remarkable cultural and adventurous destinations on earth,” said festival founder and president of Amar & Partners Inc., David Amar. “Fantastic weather and some of the nicest beaches await our international guests.” 

Cruising and Cuisine
Another way to combine vacation time with culinary traditions is at sea. Cruising and cuisine have enjoyed a harmonious existence since this mode of travel was first popularized. 

“Cruising has been about food since its inception. In fact, the great trans-Atlantic liners of decades past were synonymous with fine cuisine,” said  Rodriguez.

Dining has been an important aspect for Oceania from the beginning.

“It has been the cornerstone of our brand, and we have continually raised the culinary bar at every opportunity,” he said. “This recently culminated in the introduction of Marina which, along with her soon-to-arrive sister, Riviera, is the only ship ever designed for epicureans.”

Most recently, the line partnered with Bon Appetit magazine for the launch of Marina.

“We had a long standing relationship with Bon Appetit and, when discussing the new ships and our groundbreaking concept for the culinary center, we both recognized the partnership potential and what each of our brands brought to the equation,” said Rodriguez.

The Bon Appetit Culinary Center is the first and only hands-on cooking school at sea, according to Rodriguez. 

“It’s a totally immersive experience,” he said. “You don’t just watch, you do.”

There are 24 fully equipped workstations where guests slice, dice, chop, roll out dough and cook their creations.

Another first is Marina’s La Reserve by Wine Spectator, one of the first wine-tasting facilities at sea. Here, guests can learn about the nuances of wine, premium and rare vintages or even indulge in a seven-course, wine-pairing dinner. 

In addition to its culinary offerings with Bon Appetit and the La Reserve tastings, the Marina also features an onboard wine-and-chocolate experience and scotch and whisky tastings, as well as several fine-dining options. Jacques Pepin, Oceania’s executive culinary director, has his own French bistro, Jacques, and has also created several other onboard dining experiences including the Polo Grill, a steakhouse; Toscana, serving Italian cuisine; Terrace Cafe featuring regional specialties; and Red Ginger, which offers Asian fusion. Pepin also annually hosts a voyage with a focus on cuisine. 

Food-themed specialty cruises are another very unique way for clients to have a culinary-inspired vacation, and Oceania isn’t alone in offering cruise itineraries that have been inspired by cuisine. 

Signature Travel Network and the Food Network joined forces to launch a food-themed cruise onboard the Celebrity Solstice in 2010. Last year’s cruise took place in September during a seven-night Eastern Caribbean sailing. The cruise experience consisted of VIP check-in and a private VIP area on the pier; an onboard VIP lounge with complimentary refreshments and a selection of cookbooks; invitation-only events for attendees such as a barbecue at the Lawn Club with different barbecue stations cooking a variety of foods; dine-arounds; special turndown gifts; Food Network talent demonstrations; secret screenings of upcoming Food Network shows; recipes; and more. This year’s cruise is a repositioning from Rome to New York City onboard the brand-new Celebrity Silhouette and will include additional events such as wine-and-food pairings. 

Hands-On Tours  
While cruising and cuisine enjoy a symbiotic relationship, tours are another great way to get a hands-on culinary experience in the heart of a destination. Most tour operators offer some type of food- and wine-inspired journeys. Recently, Signature and the Food Network announced that their partnership has branched out from just cruising, and that they have added new culinary inspired offerings — land tours.

The new land tours will debut in 2012 and take place in France, Italy and the San Francisco/Napa Valley wine region. Signature’s goal is to fill at least 20 departures, run by Trafalgar, with five in France, 10 in Italy and five in San Francisco and Napa Valley. There will be no more than 50 people on each departure, according to von Wittenau, and Signature has the ability to add multiple departures on a specific date.

“One difference between the land and cruise experience is that, on land, there is no [Food Network] talent involved,” said von Wittenau. “Guests visit and experience places that have been featured on the Food Network by some of its most popular hosts and then experience those places, such as diners, wineries and markets, in a similar manner as the host or in a very VIP way.”

Land experiences include airport transfers; a welcome dinner or cocktail reception at the hotel or a local restaurant; daily breakfast; authentic culinary experiences, including cooking demonstrations, visits to local markets and vineyards and olive-oil tastings; sightseeing in the area’s iconic destinations with a culinary twist; and more. 

Haute Cuisine, Haute Hotel  
Clients can also gain insight into a destination’s culinary traditions by choosing to stay at a hotel that devotes special attention to cuisine. Some of the most iconic wine properties are in the Napa Valley, France and Italy. Notably, Auberge du Soleil, located in the Napa wine region, is celebrating 30 years as a landmark dining destination. The luxury resort and its Michelin-starred restaurant opened in 1981 as one of the area’s first fine-dining venues. The resort has recently renovated and unveiled a new look to celebrate this milestone and is inviting guests to take advantage of its 30th Anniversary Experience package, available Sundays-Thursdays through Nov. 30. The package features a two-night stay, a chef’s tasting menu for two in the Michelin-starred restaurant, signed copies of Relais & Chateaux’ cookbooks, a charcuterie plate upon arrival, breakfast for two and more. 

Notable wine hotels in Europe include Les Source de Caudalie in Bourdeaux, France. The five-star establishment is located on the Smith Haut Lafitte vineyard in Bordeaux and boasts one of the world’s first vinotherapy spas. Two restaurants run by Michelin-star awarded chef, Nicolas Masse serve haute cuisine with some of Bordeaux’s finest wines.

And, when you think of Italian wine, Tuscany is sure to spring to mind and a stay at the Villa Campomaggio will likely please clients. The picturesque Tuscan villa offers panoramic views of the surrounding hillsides, dotted with vineyards and olive trees. The hotel is equipped with an outdoor pool, a modern spa and the in-house restaurant merges local culinary traditions with world-renowned wines.

Whether you are booking a trip for a casual foodie or a discerning epicurean, culinary travel presents many options. So finding out where to start — and what to eat first — are some of the most important elements of planning a foodie adventure.