Culinary tourism seems to be about the most popular ingredient on the menu when it comes to the travel demand for new and involving experiences.
“Food and wine are surpassing art and culture as areas of interest for luxury travelers to Europe,” reports Brigitte Armand, president of Eurobound, specialists in independent and small group travel. “While art and culture will remain driving forces for European travel, upscale travelers want to expand their horizons with new and immersive activities such as cooking lessons, shopping with the chef at local markets, truffle hunting, staying at wine estates and getting acquainted with distinctive vintages.”
Spain is one of the newest destination additions to Eurobound’s Epicurean Collection of culinary-themed vacations, available exclusively through travel agents; its 12-day The Incredible Cuisine of Spain itinerary focuses on the regional food and wine specialties in Madrid, La Rioja, San Sebastian and Barcelona. Private car and guides are featured throughout, starting with three nights in Madrid, with a private tapas tour, plus an excursion combining Toledo with a winery visit; continuing to La Rioja for two nights, with a vineyard and wine excursion; three nights in San Sebastian, with a 5-hour Basque cuisine cooking class; and three nights in Barcelona, including a day of private touring to Montserrat and wineries visits.
Priced from $5,575 pp sharing, arrangements include all hotels and breakfasts, sightseeing and special activities, and private car available at and between destinations.
Totally committed to the expanding market of food-focused travel in Europe is Avanti Destinations, whose product manager Gabriela Anderson reports, “We have more requests for gastronomic tours and activities like cooking classes or wine tastings than any other type of special interest program.” In Spain, she points out, “we offer tapas tours in six cities, and the Madrid Taverns & Markets tour is fabulous; it includes the Mercado San Miguel, one of my favorite spots in Madrid.”
Really focusing on food, Avanti markets a 7-night Taste of Northern Spain vacation whose highlights are one night in La Rioja with a visit to the Wine Museum and lunch; two nights in San Sebastian with a private walking tour and funicular ride; a night in Bilbao featuring a private Pinxto & Tapas walking tour; one night in Oviedo and two nights in Santiago de Compostela with a full-day Albariño wine tour and lunch. The cost, from $1,715 pp dbl, includes top hotels with breakfast and an 8-day compact manual car rental.
And these are delicious times to plan for travel around Spain’s western neighbor, Portugal. Intrepid Travel, however, starts its 7-night Real Food Adventure—Galicia & Portugal tour tasting tapas in Santiago de Compostela, discovering the proud fish-mongering heritage of the port city of Vigo in the local market and during a Galician cooking class. Then, travelers step across the border to begin uncovering the flavors of Portugal during a 2-night stay in Porto, including a guided walk through the famous Mercado do Bolhão and sipping some of the city’s namesake wine of port during a full day of wine tasting in the Douro Valley. Ahead are home-cooked meals and a farm stay in the Alentejo region—fast gaining a reputation as a hotspot for Portuguese gastronomy; its capital is lovely UNESCO-listed Evora city. The adventure finishes up in Lisbon, where the signature stop is the Mercado da Ribeira where some of the capital’s top chefs preside in the impressive food court and signature sipping is a glass of ginjinha (wild cherry liqueur). The tour is priced from $1,921 pp dbl; maximum group size is 12 on departures May through September.
Nowadays, Portugal’s five-star food and wine experience is a river cruise, including aboard AmaWaterways’ 106-passenger AmaVida, sailing roundtrip from Porto on the 7-night Enticing Douro cruise. The cruising ground is the stunning Douro River Valley that cuts east across the beautiful Minho region from the Atlantic port of Porto almost to Spain. AmaVida’s journey down the Douro River—a bucolic world of dramatic gorges and vineyards planted on terraces that stretch as far as the eye can see—leads to the ancient city of Lamego, jumping-off point to enter Spain and visit Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as the palace and gardens of Mateus. The 14-century Alpendurada Monastery is the final spectacular architectural monument before the cruise ends in Porto. En-route along the Douro, passengers have many choices of daily excursions, including visiting wine museums, touring and tasting in the vineyards, and dining aboard and off-ship on traditional Portuguese specialties. Passengers may also book a 3-night, pre- or post-stay in Lisbon. The cruise season runs April 18 to Nov. 14, and starts at $3,099 pp dbl.
For clients booked to the southern Algarve coast (where this writer’s mother lived for 18 years), not to miss during the summer months are the unforgettable peaches and almond merengues available in the Saturday morning market of Loule, a short drive inland and into the hills from the village of Almancil.