Some people wouldn’t dream of making their own coffee while on vacation — let alone whipping up a four-course gourmet dinner. But if you’re a gastronome who wants to combine top-shelf cooking instruction with an exotic get-away, consider a culinary vacation, which offers the best of all possible worlds.
From Southeast Asia to the Middle East, there are chefs and programs ready to feed your appetite for learning on location. Carolyn O’Neil, a food and travel–loving registered dietitian and author, is amazed by the growing trend. She says it’s hard to keep up with the number of hotels and resorts adding cooking classes to their offerings. “It’s funny that people who are dying to get out of the kitchen at home are clamoring to get into one with resort chefs and destination cooking schools,” she says.
Whether you’re interested in French-pastry making or preparing manicotti like a native, there’s a class for you. Each is served with a hearty side dish of culture.
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Get the Most Out of a Culinary Vacation
O’Neil offers this advice for making the most of your culinary escape.
- Do your pre-trip homework. Most of these experiences are intended for the accomplished home cook as well as the enthusiastic novice. Whatever your skill level, you can give yourself an edge by carefully reading all the materials about the classes sent to you beforehand by the hotel or resort. And practice your slicing and dicing techniques before you leave. Keep in mind that most internationally based cooking schools will be using the metric system, so you might want to brush up on your grams and liters (or prepare a cheat sheet).
- Carve out as much time as possible. A one-day class can give you a taste for a place, but great cooking schools have itineraries that include cooking classes, exclusive lunches and field trips. To absorb the culture and cuisine of a destination, you should plan to stay at least a week. In most cases you’ll also get access to behind-the-scenes tours with cheese makers, butchers, wine producers, even local farmers and fishermen.
- Start a food journal. Plan to take lots of notes and photos to help you remember the techniques and tips you learned. Often the recipes alone are not enough to help you recreate the dish. Ask for instructors’ e-mail addresses in case you have follow-up questions when you are attempting your masterpieces at home.
- Leave room in your suitcase. You may want to buy certain local ingredients that could be hard to find (or not as good) back home. Bring bubble wrap to protect breakables.
12 Top Culinary Vacation Destinations
- Authentic Australia: The emerging food and wine scene of South Australia is in the spotlight on this six-day food safari, which gives you just the right measure of Kangaroo Island wilderness. A hands-on approach at local vineyards, dairies and paddocks gets you up close and personal with Aussie grapes, olive trees, beehives and more during this blend of master cooking classes, elegant dining galas and visits to natural wonders, such as the island’s renowned sea lion colony. The cliff-top Southern Ocean Lodge is your home base as you tour farms and fields on this island the size of New York’s Long Island. About $6,240 per person (based on current exchange rates), twin-share, includes airfare from Adelaide.
- Dish It Out in Vietnam: This signature foodie biking tour from Hanoi to Saigon serves up Vietnam’s extremes as you haggle with fishermen at a bustling local market and later sit down to dine with descendants of royalty at a private home. It’s a nine-day parade of fruit, noodle variations, fresh vegetables and just-caught seafood. You’ll work off the calories and work up your own culinary inspiration as you bicycle by rice fields, fishing villages and French colonial architecture — between stops at hip restaurants, historical sites and cozy B&Bs. From $6,795.
- Perfection in Paris: Cookingvacations.com partners with the Hotel Renaissance Paris Arc de Triomphe to offer guests the chance to try their hand at preparing exquisite French cuisine during a week of hands-on sessions that teach both traditional and modern French cooking techniques. The lessons take place in various locales from the Champs Elysee to Montmartre and include a visit to a local produce market, where you pick up tips on choosing the right cuts of beef, tangerines and goat cheese. It’s all balanced with foodie-focused free time that will have you dining on the banks of the Seine and exploring Paris on your own personalized food journey in search of chocolates or steak tartare. $3,290 per person, double occupancy.
- Southwestern Fiestas in Santa Fe: Muy Sabrosa Cooking School, in a city where everything — from the spices to the ceramic kitchen bowls — has a cultural aura, is an ideal place to capture the nuances of Southwestern cuisine, from creating green chile croutons for soups and salads to perfecting your Chiles Relleños. This weekend package at the all-inclusive Inn on the Alameda leaves plenty of time for shopping and sightseeing. If you’re hungry for more of Santa Fe’s savory cuisine, restaurant walking tours are a great way to taste your way through the city. Two-night package starts at $376 per room; restaurant walking tours, $115 per person.
- Make It in Maine: For those seeking culinary knowledge in New England, the Hartstone Inn Cooking School turns guests into chefs. You’ll help prepare the inn’s evening meal during a four-hour private lesson alongside chef Michael Salmon. Weekend workshops at the Camden, Maine, retreat can be tailored to any size of group; themes range from holiday hors d’oeuvres to romantic feasts to cake decorating. The “chef for the day” program is $325 for one; add a second chef for an additional $50. Weekend workshop packages, from $352 for two. (Prices are added to room rates, which start at $135 per night).
- Succulence at Sagamore: Chocolate Covered History is an upcoming weekend (October 12-14) package at the Sagamore Resort on Lake George in the heart of the Adirondacks. Through day-long field trips, learn how important chocolate was to the military, then celebrate the sweetness with chocolate-inspired cuisine at a gala dinner. Although there are no hands-on cooking classes, there are plenty of tasty demonstrations. Manicures and pedicures are available once you leave the kitchen. Room rates start at $139 per night; event rates vary.
- Super Seafood in the Bahamas: The One and Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island in Nassau lures guests to the kitchen with mixology lessons and cooking classes given by the resort’s chefs. One night you might learn how to clean a whole fish; the next you’ll perfect your presentation of plantain-crusted grouper. Rates vary.
- Spices and Sweet Treats in St. Lucia: At Jade Mountain’s Cooking in Paradise program, the resort’s executive chef teaches about local island flavors and uses organic produce grown on the Caribbean resort’s 30-acre farm, Emerald Estates, to make everything from finger foods to champagne cocktails. If you long to hear “organic,” “sustainable” and “tropical” in one breath, this is the program for you. Rates start at $1,200 per couple per night.
- Wow ’em in Wadi Musa: Before or after your visit to Petra, this extraordinary experience will attune your taste buds to Jordan’s native flavors. In this one-evening event, guests learn how to prepare a typical Jordanian meal, including soup, cold and hot meza (appetizers) and salads under the supervision of professional chefs. Enjoy the results afterward — and take home the recipes to impress your family and friends. One-night event is about $45 per person (at current exchange rates); five-night group sessions available.
- Nuances of Nicaragua: In this weeklong program, chefs introduce travelers to the blend of indigenous, Spanish and Creole food with cooking workshops and trips to local markets. Discover the many faces of Nicaragua’s cuisine: Taste rum at the largest spirits distillery in the Americas and learn to concoct the national drink (the white rum Macua) as well as local favorites like the quesillo, made of corn tortillas and soft cheese. Eight days, seven nights: $2,500 per person for two people in one room; $1,700 per person for four in two rooms.
- Irresistible Ireland: This five-day course in Irish cooking takes place in the demonstration kitchen of the Tannery Cookery School. This combination restaurant, B&B and award-winning cooking program is all about modern Irish cooking, with an accent on such old-fashioned dishes as ox tongue. Local seafood, including steamed organic salmon or crab crostini, is also on the menu. Contact the school for pricing info.
- Awesome Amalfi: From native lemon trees to the birthplace of pizza, this region of Italy is renowned for its extraordinary cuisine. Guests who can tear themselves away from the mesmerizing cliffside views at the five-star Palazzo Avino in Ravello (formerly the Palazzo Sasso) won’t be disappointed by the Neapolitan culinary education that includes visits to local farms, gardens and vineyards. State-of-the-art kitchens look out over the sea. Revel in recipes before enjoying the feast you help prepare — always accompanied by the perfect wine. Pricing varies by program; double rooms start at about $284 (based on current exchange rates) per night.
Travel and lifestyle expert Stephanie Oswald is a CNN journalist, television host, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Travelgirl magazine.