Of all the categories of “niche” travel, could any be more pleasurable than the pursuit of the world’s finest chocolate? Not only is it one of the popular indulgences, but it may be good for you too — providing you watch the calorie, fat and sugar content.
Chocolate and cocoa contain free-radical-fighting antioxidants called flavanols. Every week, it seems, another researcher publishes a study about chocolate's role in enhancing mood, memory, weight loss and the maintenance of joint health and blood pressure. Some research reported by the National Institute of Health even suggests that chocolate might help prevent cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
And of course, its aphrodisiac properties are legendary.
Chocolate has been very much on my own mind the past few years, as I’m writing a book dedicated to that sweet subject. In my research, I’ve visited all the expected and many surprisingly terrific destinations that cater to chocolate lovers. As you’d probably guess, Belgium and Switzerland lead the pack, but places like London, Paris and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia should also be on every serious chocolate lover’s map.
The Reigning Chocolate Champs
Belgium’s fine-chocolate industry was born in 1912, when chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, a filled chocolate candy made primarily from cream, crushed nuts and sugar — which together give Belgian chocolate its characteristic creaminess. The business has continued to boom, and today the tiny European country produces some 172,000 tons of chocolate annually and has more high-end chocolateries per square mile than any other place on the planet. However you like your chocolate — silky-smooth, in the Belgian tradition, or less sweet, in the “artisanal” style popularized by a younger generation of chocolatiers like Laurent Gerbaud — you are sure to find something to your liking in any of Belgium’s 2,130 chocolate shops.
Belgium's primary chocolate center is its capital, Brussels (and, to a lesser degree, its little sister, Bruges). The Grand Place of Brussels is teeming with chocolate-laden cafés, restaurants, bars, boutiques and shops, all within steps of one another. Look for creations of such chocolate masters as Gerbaud, famed for covering exotic fruits with dark chocolate, and Edouard Bechoux of Florenville, renowned for his 17 varieties of hot and cold drinking chocolate. A must-visit is the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, which is chock-full of history and offers demonstrations and tasting.
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A Chocolate Nation Nonpareil
Switzerland takes tremendous pride in its chocolate history, which began in 1875, when Daniel Peter added cow’s milk to what had been a deep, dark, bitter delicacy and broadened chocolate's appeal. In 1879, Rudolphe Lindt melted chocolate, thus launching the popularity of what we now call the chocolate fondue. Since then, the Swiss have done a remarkable job of branding themselves as world-class chocolatiers, and as a result, virtually every one of its annual 10.5 million tourists consumes Swiss chocolate while visiting and/or brings some home as a gift or souvenir.
Today's Swiss chocolate has come a long way since the days of the ubiquitous tourist packages of eight little squares of plain milk chocolate. Some of Zurich’s chic chocolate shops have such spectacular window displays that they could be mistaken for art galleries. One of my personal favorites is Sprungli (the high-end division of the world-famous Lindt brand), with its colorful array of delicious macaroons, chocolate truffles and chocolate-dipped almond cookies.
Don’t miss Switzerland’s other incredible national resource while visiting — its breathtaking scenery. Combine the two by booking a ride on the Swiss Chocolate Train, from Montreux on the Swiss Riviera to Broc, and touring the Nestle/Cailler chocolate factory. The day trip provides endless photo opportunities as you pass vineyards, Alpine peaks and bucolic countryside. You can also tour the 800-year-old medieval village of Gruyères and satisfy your craving for cheese at its famous factory.
I See London, I See France…
The French like to boast that they make the best chocolate in the world. And while Belgian and Swiss chocolatiers probably aren’t losing any sleep over that claim, France does have an abundance of haute chocolate shops — especially in its capital. You’ll find more than 300 listed in the Paris phone book alone.
Every odd year, Paris hosts the world’s largest consumer chocolate show, Salon du Chocolat, held in conjunction with the World Chocolate Masters Championships. Exact dates have not been released, but the next one is scheduled for October 2013.
You can also take chocolate walking tours and sample the best of the best, including Pierre Hermé and Pierre Marcolini. But beware, French chocolate is pricey: A modest box will set you back about 50 euros ($62).
In the world of artisanal chocolate, there’s no more exciting place on the planet right now than London. A veritable “chocolate revolution” hit Britain some five years ago, when dozens of high-end chocolatiers began producing what many aficiandos consider to be the world’s best. This new wave of British chocolate bears no resemblance to the super-sweet product it once was. Today’s chocolatiers forgo preservatives and chemicals and use only the finest — and occasionally exotic — ingredients, including locally made goat’s cheese, Welsh lavender, caramelized rose petals and that inexplicable British "delicacy," Marmite (a spread made from brewer's yeast).
Because the chocolates are often made right in the shops (like at Paul A. Young’s shop in Camden Passage), when you walk the streets, the smell in the air can be intoxicating. Chocolate Week in London (October 8–14, 2012) will show you a side of the British capital you’ve never seen and give you a chance to mingle with fellow seekers of the chocolate holy grail.
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Chocolate Fantasy Island?
The small eastern-Caribbean island of St. Lucia is a top honeymoon destination, because of its rain forests and iconic volcanic peaks, the Pitons. But it’s also among the crème de la crème of chocolate-travel experiences.
Two upscale St. Lucian resorts take pride in catering to the chocoholic. Hotel Chocolat, a boutique inn run by a British chocolatier bearing the same moniker, more than lives up to the promise of its name. For starters, it produces award-winning bars and truffles from beans grown on its own cocoa estate. And chef David of the resort’s Boucan restaurant offers a special “Cacao Cuisine” menu — a selection of culinary masterpieces, like citrus salad with cashews and white chocolate dressing, cacao guacamole, and curried coconut and cacao chicken.
If you consider that merely a good start, stroll on over to the hotel’s spa, which offers an entire menu of “Cocoa Juvenate” spa treatments. Ground cacao is used to exfoliate and hydrate the skin and nails in facials, manicures and pedicures. The cacao massage — with a choice of cacao-peppermint, cacao-rose, cacao-nutmeg/cinnamon or pure cacao massage oil — is pure heaven.
Perhaps the ultimate St. Lucia chocolate experience is to be had at the exclusive Jade Mountain Resort, which is hosting its annual Chocolate Festival this December 13–16. The event starts with a cocktail party, featuring chocolat-inis, chocolate-inspired finger foods and a chocolate fondue. Day Two includes a tour of their cocoa plantation and a chocolate-making workshop led by the resident chef, and culminates in an all-chocolate dinner of sweet and savory. Guests are also treated to a chocolate breakfast in bed and a “Chocolate Delight” wrap in the spa, in which warm and cool layers of chocolate are applied to your body, stimulating the production of endorphins and making you feel like a million bucks. Or maybe a million calories. Ah, but who's counting?
Doreen Pendgracs is author of Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate and blogs about chocolate travel.