For Retirees on the Go, Culinary Tours Put the Focus on Food

Foodie travelers have a menu of choices ranging from culinary cruises, cooking courses and winery tours.

Retired personal chef Jennifer Buck of Webster, N.H., loves cooking, eating, shopping for and learning about food. Many of her former clients had dietary issues. “Some liked whatever I cooked, and some wouldn’t eat anything but chicken and peas and preferred food from cans,” she says. So now, at 70, she loves expanding her cooking knowledge and techniques, and recently took two Road Scholar culinary vacations in Tuscany and France. In Provence, she learned how to prepare lamb with carrots, onions, tomatoes and unpeeled bulbs of garlic, and simmered in wine and water for 12 hours in a covered pot.

“I’m ruined for eating in local restaurants in the U.S.,” Buck says. “It’s not like Italy and France,” where every meal consisted of the freshest cheeses and breads and dishes cooked with ingredients from local markets.

These days, “foodie” travelers like Buck, for whom food and wine are often the most memorable part of the trip, have many choices. Travel companies offer a wide range of itineraries in the U.S. and abroad that revolve around eating and drinking, shopping in local markets, cooking with chefs, and visiting and sampling the products of artisanal cheesemakers, boutique vineyards, olive oil producers and organic farms.

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To cater to this travel segment, Allan Wright started Taste Vacations five years ago. He says 75% of his clients are 50 and older. Taste Vacations offers eight tours a year and arranges custom trips.

The trips range from three to five days in the U.S., such as three days in Washington state, for $1,900 plus airfare, to visit wineries in Walla Walla and custom blend your own wine, among other activities. Or you can go for nine days on a wine tour to Chile and Argentina for $3,950 plus airfare and traipse through private vineyards and taste Malbecs. A popular seven-day trip to Tuscany costs $3,500 plus airfare. Highlights include a truffle hunting and cooking class with a local agriculturist, a tour of a pecorino cheese farm in Pienza, a gelato-making demonstration, and a wine tasting on a side trip into Umbria.

“We keep costs down by staying in centrally located four-star hotels, not five-star places,” Wright says. Meals vary from a private dinner at an estate winery to a beer-pairing dinner with a brewmaster to a formal dinner at an elegant restaurant, Wright says.

Travel company Road Scholar calls its food and wine trips a strong “niche” that has grown to about 2,000 travelers a year. JoAnn Bell, vice president for programming, says the company offers active hands-on cooking trips, as well as trips focused on lectures and tastings, in the U.S., Europe and Mexico. “Boomers care about their meals being the flavors of the location,” she says. “We are including more meals in local restaurants so our participants can experience local cuisine.”

A popular trip is “Lobsters, Wineries and Foods of New England,” for seven days, at a cost of $1,499 plus airfare, which winds through Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Highlights include meeting with lobstermen, fishermen and farmers, and sampling johnny cakes, clam chowder, maple syrup and other local fare. Or vegetarians may be interested in “California Vegetarian Cuisine, Buddhist Thinking and Energy Through Qi Gong,” a six-day, Santa Cruz–based trip for $795 plus airfare. The tour includes lectures and demonstrations of vegetarian cuisine and lessons in the Chinese practice of Qi Gong.

While many tours are land-based, it’s possible to combine a foodie tour with cruising. For example, Food & Wine Trails, based in Santa Rosa, Cal., partners with vineyards all over the world and offers about 20 cruises per year in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Alaska. Each ship takes from 50 to 120 passengers, for seven to 12 days, and 80% of the travelers are 50 and older, says marketing specialist Michelle Foster.

The Ingredients for Picking a Foodie Tour

Doing some research before you choose a culinary tour is essential. Here are some factors to consider:

Have you talked it through? “Only about 20% of our travelers call us first,” says Wright, who says he can help guide choices. For instance, he says, it’s helpful to know if someone prefers white wine over red, or is gluten-free or a vegetarian. “Argentina is not the best choice if you don’t eat meat,” he says, but “we can accommodate everyone.”

Do you want hands-on experience? If you want to come home with new skills, versus just watching chefs demonstrate techniques, look for a trip where classes are held at a cooking school because the facilities are often better. “I wanted to bring the exquisite stove home in my suitcase,” says Buck, about her experience cooking at the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon. In her afternoon there, Buck learned how to cook four desserts ranging in skill from moderate to difficult, and learned the technique to make a port reduction with citrus zest.

Tour companies arrange classes both with schools and with local chefs. Cooking schools are used to having an international clientele so they may be better equipped to handle multiple languages than individual local chefs. Also inquire about group size—classes of more than 24 people can be unwieldy, says Bell. The skill levels of students range from regular home cooks to advanced, but anyone can participate in these trips.

Have you chosen a region as well as a country? Cooking styles vary greatly even within a country. For instance, Buck wants to go to Sicily next, where the cuisine is quite different than in Tuscany. Road Scholar’s Bell points out that classical cooking classes in France may accentuate sauces and heavier ingredients, compared with a farm-to-table emphasis in Italy.

Do you want to visit big cities or small towns? Sometimes the best artisans are located in the countryside, where raw ingredients, such as olives and grapes, are grown.

How active do you want to be? Some trips combine food and wine with walking and biking; for other trips, the only walking is through markets for ingredients or to restaurants. Ask about the activity level.

Perhaps the best part of these trips is that you can recreate the recipes, and your memories, when you return. Buck’s favorite recipe is roasted fennel, which calls for adding just a little olive oil, salt, pepper and parmesan to the vegetable. But, she says, it reinforces a lesson she learned on an organic farm in Tuscany: the “philosophy of using just enough ingredients to enhance the flavor.”