Culinary Vacations Not ‘Cookie-Cutter’ With Destination Discoveries

cooking classAs we’ve continued to report at Gadling, a new generation of culinary tours is on the rise. Food-loving travelers want more than generic cooking classes that teach how to make pad thai in Thailand or risotto in Tuscany. And a few companies – such as Destination Hotels & Resorts, North America’s fourth largest hotel management company – are complying by offering tours and classes that focus more on culture, locality and experiential elements.

With the launch of Destination Discoveries, hotel guests can tour the on-site apiary at Kirkland, Washington’s, The Woodmark, before taking a honey-themed cooking class with Chef Dylan Giordan. On Maui, personalized farm tours enable participants to harvest ingredients for a private class in their accommodation, as well as visit producers and sample handcrafted foods from the island.

The adventures aren’t just limited to food. There are also art, literature and active themes that reflect a sense of place; fly-fishing lessons in Lake Tahoe; nordic pursuits in Vail; art classes in Santa Fe; or a cultural and historic tour of Walden Pond via the Bedford Glen property in Boston. Here’s to more hotel groups doing away with homogenous travel.

[Photo credit: Destination Hotels & Resorts]

Mud Season Escapes: Where Ski Towns Go After The Snow

sayulitaThe countdown has begun; most ski resorts will be closing in roughly three to four weeks, and then they’ll temporarily become ghost towns. Welcome to mud season, the bi-annual, post-season time when businesses shutter and residents escape to hotter climes – usually (die-hards head to South America to chase the snow).

Be they lift op or millionaire, most locals have their favorite vacation spots – most of them affordable and south of the border. I’ve lived in my share of ski towns (and thus enjoyed mud season exodus), and there’s just no avoiding the fact that certain destinations are southerly extensions of the mountains. What can I say? Ski bums have great taste.

The following are some of the most popular places locals flock to for mud season. The good news is, you don’t need to live in a ski town, or even be a skier, to appreciate them. Book your tickets!

Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico
Also known as “Telluride South.” There’s just no escaping your neighbors, clients and customers, but this sleepy fishing village has managed to retain its charm, despite being less than 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta. Main activities: slurping ice cream, scarfing fish tacos, reading on the beach and watching the sunset.

Costa Rica
Crested Butte loves it some CR, especially a specific treehouse community (started by former locals) called Finca Bellavista. Tamarindo, Jacó and Mal Pais are also popular beach getaways for the off-season ski crowd. What better place for winter thrill-seekers to transition to warm weather pursuits such as whitewater rafting, surfing and volcano bagging?sea turtle
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Formerly known as the jumping off point for the ferry to Cozumel, Playa has become a bona fide resort, popular with families, couples and singles who desire a bit of luxury minus the crowds and squalor of Cancun.

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Located close to Playa, this buzzy village is better known as the home of some of Mexico’s most spectacular Mayan ruins. Popular with the backpacker crowd thanks to beachfront bungalow and palapa accommodations (alas, camping isn’t as prevalent or permissible as it used to be); Tulum is now a target destination for food lovers making a pilgrimage to Hartwood Restaurant, a solar-run operation that specializes in locally-sourced, contemporized regional cuisine (note it’s closed March 18-April 3 for annual maintenance). Also, don’t miss the cenotes, or sinkholes, that dot the countryside; you can swim in their crystalline waters, or even explore them via scuba.

Caye Caulker, Belize
Both diving and hammock enthusiasts are drawn to this laid-back island in the Caribbean Sea. Lobster at 9,000 feet can’t compare to freshly-caught.

Hawaii
A popular destination for trade wind-craving ski town refugees, especially Oahu, Maui and Kauai, depending upon budget and inclination. The diversity of outdoor adventure and relative ease of getting there is the draw.

[Photo credits: Sayulita, Flickr user waywuei; sea turtle, Flickr user -NINETIMES-]

Magical Moments Of 2012: A Personal Review

As the end of each year approaches, I try to take stock of the preceding 12 months, to absorb and assess the adventures, inner and outer. Reviewing this year, I’ve been filled with gratitude and wonder to realize that this has been one of the most enriching, exhilarating years I’ve had in a long time, especially the past six months, when I managed to squeeze six special trips into an overcrowded schedule. I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some of my most magical travel moments, and meanings, from 2012.

Festive in France

The Cote d’Azur has been one of my favorite places in the world since I first landed there in the mid-1970s. This year I was lucky to be able to savor the region for two weeks in June, visiting four places I’d never been before – Marseille, Montpelier, Sainte-Maxime, and Cagnes sur Mer – and revisiting two I’d fallen deeply in love with decades ago: Nice and St Paul de Vence.

I’ve already written about Nice and St Paul for Gadling. Among other riches of the trip, I had the best bouillabaisse of my life at the harbor-front Miramar restaurant in Marseille and was enchanted by the ambiance of student-spangled Montpelier, where a perfect cobbled square with a perfect café under a perfect canopying tree seemed to magically appear around every corner (and where the streets flowed with wine and song on the marvelous night of the Fete de la Musique). One of the most memorable highlights was spending one precious night at the Hotel Negresco two weeks before that legendary institution celebrated its 100th birthday. What an extraordinary hotel! Part priceless art collection, part history museum, part culinary temple, the Negresco – still owned by the feisty and fabulous 89-year-old Madame Augier – is emblematic of the intelligence, elegance, and artfulness that define the Cote d’Azur for me.My favorite moment of the entire trip was another birthday celebration. A very dear friend who lives part of each year in France treated me to a heavenly lunch at a renowned but well off the beaten path terrace restaurant called La Verdoyante, in the village of Gassin, about two and a half miles from the sea. I will never forget this feast. On a blue-sky day, the sun-mottled, out-of-time terrace exuded something of the atmosphere of Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette: festive people savoring a relaxing repast, with a view of rolling green vineyards and hills and a soupcon of the Mediterranean glinting in the distance. We had an amazingly flavorful succession of dishes, all artfully presented, including locally made foie gras, a delectably flaky poisson du jour served with fennel, figs and pancetta, and chevre cheese from a farm over the hill. The culinary fireworks ended with a special surprise – a scrumptious, sparkler-topped raspberry macaroon cake.

Birthday gifts don’t get any better than this: a sun-bowed, vineyard-wrapped celebration of food and friendship, a reminder of the life-riches that surround us, deepening and expanding every year.

Hawaiian Hideaway

A few days after returning from France, barely enough time to do some laundry, I repacked and rambled with my wife to Maui and Molokai on a trip I had won – won! — in a random drawing at a travel fair. On Maui we stayed at the Hotel Wailea and the Napili Kai Beach Resort and on Molokai at the Hotel Molokai. We loved aimlessly exploring both islands, stopping at beaches we found at the end of meandering paths, eating at food trucks, picnicking in parks — but especially savored the quiet of Molokai, where time truly seemed to slow down.

We wandered around the main town of Kaunakakai, poking our heads into shops, asking questions of the shopkeepers, who seemed much more interested in talking story than moving inventory. Our most memorable meal on Molokai was the mahimahi plate lunch at Mana’e Goods and Grindz, a combination country store and counter restaurant on the highway toward Halawa Valley (where you could also pick up spark plugs, videos, and sweet onion salad dressing, if needed). We loved it so much we drove back the next day for seconds.

The synthesizing moment of the trip for me was one afternoon on Maui when I sat on our patio at the Napili Kai simply absorbing the breeze that rippled the sea and rustled the palm fronds: Time slowed and slowed, the trade winds blew, the moist air swaddled my skin; suddenly a rainbow appeared, arcing from the sea into the clouds, and for a suspended moment it seemed to me that nature was offering its own snapshot of my soul. Hawaii re-taught me the value of recalibrating pace, the riches that reveal themselves when you open your head- and heart-space.

California Dreaming

In August I ventured across San Francisco Bay – a good 40 minutes by car from my home – for the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference. My journey took flight the day before the official conference began, when I led a worldly, wide-eyed group of writers on a day-long walking workshop in North Beach, my favorite city neighborhood, where old-San-Francisco Italy meets new-San-Francisco China and Vietnam. We rendered homage at City Lights bookstore, Molinari’s aromatic delicatessen, and sweet Stella’s Pastry, then talked about writing and life over paninis and lattes at Caffe Greco.

The conversations and connections that took seed that day blossomed over the ensuing four-day conference. What mysteries make sparks fly, turn piazza dialogues into life-changing detours and dreams? Whatever was in the air at this year’s conference, it begat five days of exploration and exhilaration – of the word and the world — with soul-mates old and new. The defining Book Passage moment for me came at the end of the conference, and I have already described it here, but there were many other moments of magic as well, perhaps none so potent as midnight on Saturday, when a hardy band of writers and revelers gathered around five ukulele yogis, whose plangent plucks transported me to Hawaii, France and beyond – and then back to that midnight moment in a bookstore in northern California, which suddenly seemed to contain all the world.

This five-day close-to-home odyssey reminded me once again that both travel and travel writing are vital arts, stewards of the global heart, that even in your own backyard, you can wander far-flung paths of the imagination and the soul, and that the best travels and travel writings realize a redemptive goal: to piece the inner and the outer journey, the interlocking whole.

Beached in Bali

My ten-day sojourn on Bali presented a batik of bountiful moments. I have written about two of them here, questing for indolence and discovering unexpected gamelan gifts in Ubud, but I have not yet written about the two delightful dinners on two beautiful beaches that bookended my stay.

On my first night on the island, when everything still seemed a bit surreal, I met a wandering writer friend who serendipitously happened to be on Bali at the same time. We sat at a table literally on the beach at Jimbaran Bay, our toes squiggling into the sand, swigged Bintang beers, and feasted on marvelously messy platters of grilled shrimp. We talked about books and blogs and world-weaving paths under the stars, by the susurrous sea, as music lilted down the beach on a smoke-scented breeze. Ten days later, we met again for a final dinner on a beach in Seminyak. This time the music was a pop playlist (highlighted by Adele serenading us with “Someone Like You”), the food was delicious grilled fish and beef rendang, the beach spread invitingly to the rose-tinted waves, and the oceanic sky gradually turned from bluish-red to cobalt-purple to depthless, star-splashed black.

As the hours passed, I felt like a character in a story, simultaneously in time and out of it, willing the world to slow down and in the same breath abandoning myself to the ineluctable flow. All the Balinese bounties of the week seemed to converge, and the spirit of the island – the joy and compassion and reverence for the everyday that emanated from virtually everyone I’d met – merged with a shared awe at serendipity’s mystery and wonder. Maybe it was the spell of the Bintang, but my sense of the preciousness of life – and of the opportunity that travel bestows to lose oneself to special places and people, and to grow ever bigger therein — seemed to expand and expand and expand, until it filled the phosphorescent night.

Continuities in Connecticut

For Thanksgiving, as I have every year since my dad passed away in 2008, I went to Connecticut to spend the holiday with my mom. You have to be a New Englander to appreciate the bleak beauty of Connecticut in November. The tree branches are bony and bare, the air thin, brittle, laced with winter. Yet these annual journeys are a special kind of pilgrimage for me. My parents finished building the house where I grew up, in Middlebury, just before I was born. I lived there for the first 21 years of my life, before setting off for Paris and Athens and points beyond, and they lived there for more than 50 years. My mom thrives in an assisted living facility in a neighboring town now, but as we do every year, we drove to Middlebury to see “our house” and reveled again in its spare, simple, classic Connecticut-clapboard style and in the expansive woods and fields and memories around.

For Thanksgiving dinner, my childhood best friend invited us to his home, coincidentally five minutes from my mom’s new home. It was glorious to re-immerse ourselves for a night in the footloose past – somehow symbolized for me by the image of the two of us driving in his convertible on a sultry summer night for soft ice cream, me staring at the stars as the wind whipped by and wishing that the ride could last forever. The woods were limitless then and so were the summer nights; it’s only later that we realize there were houses on the other side of the trees, and jobs and mortgages on the other side of the ride.

But still, these Thanksgiving journeys are a gift to cherish, an opportunity to honor, connect, and reflect. Like Brigadoon, Middlebury springs to life for me once a year: the rolling hills and uncut forests, white Colonial houses with black shutters, lush lawns and gardens and sheltering trees, the high-steepled Congregational Church and round town green – and the landscape of love that nurtured, and nurtures still, me and my youthful dreams.

Easter Island, Among the Moai

I returned two weeks ago from my final trip of the year – the realization of one of my oldest travel dreams: to visit Easter Island. For years this almost inconceivably remote place – the most isolated inhabited island in the world — seemed inaccessible, but I was finally fortuitously able to make the pilgrimage this year.

I spent a week wandering the island on foot, tracing old trails, talking with the guardians of sacred sites, watching traditional dances, exploring caves and coves and cliffs. I observed as a local elder instructed a half dozen Rapa Nui (the indigenous people’s name for the island and for themselves) teenagers in the stories of the island, the traditions and the taboos, the legends and the landscapes that had special mana. I learned the different theories about the moai and wondered at the great toppled figures that seemed to be everywhere. Many people have developed definitive explanations for what happened on Easter Island – which means, of course, that no one has the definitive answer. On the flight back from the island to Santiago, Chile, I serendipitously sat next to a Dutch scientist who has been studying the island for two decades and who told me that he and a colleague are going to publish a book next year that will refute the currently advanced theories. And so it goes.

What I have taken away most deeply from Rapa Nui is this: On the second full day of my stay on the island, I decided to get up before dawn to commune with the moai at Ahu Tongariki, a spectacular seaside platform where 15 statues have been restored to standing position. I was dropped at the site well before dawn, when the night was still so inky that I couldn’t see the ground in front of me, much less the moai in the distance. I stumbled slowly towards the platform, looking vainly into the dark, and then in an instant I sensed the presence of the moai so palpably that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I stumbled forward some more and suddenly the head of the tallest statue leaped into looming silhouette before the stars. The power of that statue was almost magnetic: It pulled me towards it, but not in a frightening way, more like a benevolent force.

As I got closer, the heads of the statues appeared more clearly, silhouetted presences hulking into the sky. I could feel the sheer immensity of the figures, and the power that they must have emanated over the villagers who lived under their gaze day and night. I tried to imagine waking up every dawn to their stony presence, and retiring to sleep as they loomed into the sky. Their role as a force in everyday life became clear to my core. Their mana was undeniable.

As time passed and dawn’s rays illumined them in a buttery light, their hold on me softened. Dozens of photographers arrived, setting up their tripods, seeking the perfect perspective. The site was no longer mine alone. But it didn’t matter. I’d already found the perfect perspective – and it looms within me still, a hulking silhouette of pure Rapa Nui mana in my mind.

At the end of these reflections, the theme that resonates with me is this: Anything is possible. Each one of these magical moments forms a piece of a picture-puzzle that shows the potential of life, wherever we are literally and metaphorically, to be transformed, re-inspired, completed – for the mind to stretch, and the soul to soar, and the heart to expand.

I relearned this year just how full of marvel our mundane world is. And I learned again that life follows a mysterious and serendipitous map, that confluences and convergences abound all around, and that we can choose to open ourselves to them – to leap through the door, set foot on the road — or not. I learned again that passion is the best signpost, honor the best staff, and kindness the compass that illumines the path. And that however we wander this human race, the love we give returns to us, boundless with each embrace.

[Photo Credits - Book Passage: Spud Hilton; All others: Don George]

Cruise Line Adds Photography- And Biology-Themed Sailings

Photography And Biology

Travelers can know more about biology and photography by sourcing knowledge in a variety of ways. Online research leads to entire websites devoted to teaching us both. Locally, area colleges and universities will have lab-grade biology experiences as well as hands-on classes on photography for all ages and abilities.

Still, nothing quite beats the thrill of capturing an image of a bear in the wilderness.

This winter, adventure travelers into marine biology or photography can choose a themed cruise catering to their interests aboard 36-guest Safari Explorer or 86-guest Safari Endeavour. InnerSea Discoveries and sister-line American Safari Cruises has added themes to ten Un-Cruise sailings in the Hawaiian Islands and Mexico’s Sea of Cortés.

“Themes bring together people with common interests and adds one more benefit for booking these dates,” said Tim Jacox, executive vice president of sales and marketing.

Themed cruises come in every shape and size, bringing together like-minded travelers to spend up-close and personal time with a star of their shared addiction.

The new Un-Cruise photography- and marine biology-themed cruises come with an expert guest host along for the ride. Special presentations will be held on the ship or ashore and passengers are free to interact with the host throughout the voyage.

Kids in Nature departures are for families traveling with kids 12 and younger. The expedition team gears the program to a variety of ages and activity levels with a focus on educating. Hiking excursions, kayaking trips, skiff explorations and snorkeling all provide hands-on learning in a fun environment. Active explorations in nature and wildlife sightings engage all ages.

2013 Theme Cruises in Hawaii
Jan 5 – Photography and Whales with Flip Nicklin, highly-regarded whale photographer.
March 9 and 30 – Kids in Nature, a focus on spring break departures for the whole family.
April 6 – Photography with professional photographer/world traveler Peter West Carey.

2013 Theme Cruises in the Sea of Cortés
Jan 12 – Marine Biology with La Paz resident Rodrigo Rocha Gosselin, a local with passion about conservation and nature.
Feb 16 – David Julian, a 30-year veteran professional photographer.
March 16 – Ellen Barone, traveler, freelance writer and photographer.
March 30 – Marine Biology with Giovanni Malagrino, an oceanologist and professor of marine biology.
March 9 and 23 – Kids in Nature, spring break departures for the whole family.

Safari Explorer sails seven-night cruises between Hawaii, the Big Island and Lana’i with two days of activities on Moloka’i. Flexible yacht itineraries focus on explorations of four islands: Lana’i, Moloka’i, Maui and Hawaii.

Safari Endeavour sails Luxury Adventures round trip to La Paz, Baja, Mexico. While the sailing may be themed, an unstructured itinerary explores hideaways such as Isla Espíritu Santo, Isla San Francisco, Bahia Agua Verde, Los Islotes and Loreto.

In the Hawaiian Islands and the Sea of Cortés, guests can be as active as they like and activities include trekking, kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and skiff excursions. On-board naturalists provide interpretation on guided excursions ashore and at sea. The unstructured itinerary allows time for viewing wildlife such as whales and dolphins.

Sound like fun? Passengers aboard the Safari Explorer got the opportunity to jump in and swim with a whale shark last week as we see in this video:


[Photo Credit- Flickr user FelixR]

Halloween Costumes For Travel Lovers

harajuku girlIs your love of travel part of your identity? Have you trawled every Southeast Asian backwater, and explored the twisting streets and alleyways of little-known European cities? Whether your adventurous spirit takes you abroad for work or pleasure, chances are you’ve seen enough of the planet to know that certain stereotypes exist for a reason.

This year, Gadling decided to come up with some Halloween costume ideas based upon our collective experience as world travelers. Don’t take offense: We’ve all been guilty of travel crimes or attire that make our country of origin painfully obvious. Just remember, there’s a fine line between funny and racist. Don’t cross it.

Trustafarian Backpacker in Southeast Asia (gender-neutral)
Your costume consists of dreadlocks, “indigenous” necklace and bracelet, Lao beer T-shirt, Thai fisherman’s pants, and at least one tribal/Chinese character tattoo (mistranslation optional). This is my variation on Pam Mandel’s “Chiang Mai Blogger,” which includes “a MacBook Air, Nikon DX000 (one-year old, bought at bugout time), fully-stocked 401k, and crumpled-up absentee ballot, because ‘it hardly matters.’”

Euro Trash Guy
Super pointy, expensive leather shoes, douchey scarf, and tight pants n’ high thread-count tee are de riguer. Style a fashion mullet, don your trendy shades, and talk about your last holiday on Ibiza. Chain smoke, and offer mints to fellow partygoers, telling them it’s Ecstasy. Eek!

Harajuku Girl
Striped thigh-high socks, baby-doll dress or plaid school girl skirt, choppy blond or colored wig, outlandish eye makeup (or try mega-size false lashes), and crazy-high platform shoes. Don’t forget the “Hello Kitty” accessories.

hippyLas Vegas Bachelorette Party Chick
“A sash, saying, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” says McLean Robbins. I suggest adding a tiara, and perhaps some type of phallic paraphernalia as accessory.

Travel Writer (gender neutral)
Do not shower for several days prior. Wear whatever clothes you can find crumpled up in your dirty laundry, and carry an overstuffed daypack filled with coffee- and -wine-stained notebook, decrepit laptop, tattered guide book, and much-abused passport. Look stressed. Mutter about deadlines and bus schedules. Feign confusion, and ask partygoers what city/country you’re in. Scary.

Hawaiian Honeymooners
An easy costume for couples: just wear matching his n’ hers outfits, leis, sparkly wedding bands, and big smiles. Carry a camera and mai tais garnished with orchids. For a group, go as “Midwestern Family on Hawaiian Vacation,” and have everyone wear matching Hilo Hattie attire and leis. Before I get angry comments, allow me to note that I’ve lived on Maui twice and yes, these are both a thing.

Ashram Girl
Yoga pants, kurti blouse, hemp necklace, handmade sandals (barefoot optional), bindi, and glazed eyes. Refer to your spiritual leader by name, often. Cue ghostly sounds.

Canadian (gender neutral)
Sew the national flag on a backpack, deploy lots of “eh’s” and “aboots” in conversation, and you’re good to go. Ask partygoers if they can spare a loonie.

Ugly American (gender neutral)
If under 30, wear Greek letters/house party shirt of choice, or opt for a tee with an obnoxious saying (“Diva,” “Princess,” “Where’s the Beer?” “I’m with Stupid”). Add inappropriately short-shorts (if female) or saggy pants (male). Carry a copy of a Let’s Go guidebook, spendy tennis shoes, and spanking new backpack. Talk loudly about how hungover you are, how much all of your material goods cost (the more expensive, the better), and complain about how no one speaks any English. Shudder.
t-shirt
Older folks can wear a favorite sports team or logo T-shirt (baseball cap optional) or something comparably lacking in style, with khaki shorts, dark socks, and sandals. Carry a map and camera, and in your “outdoor” voice, ask where you can find the nearest McDonald’s, or “why no one in this goddamn country wears deodorant.” Spooky!

Aussie-on-holiday Guy
Bring lots of beer (not Fosters!), a wandering eye, and a good attitude.

Happy Halloween, fellow travelers!

[Photo credits: Harajuku Girl, Flick user Leishangthem; hippie, Flickr user madaboutasia; with Stupid, OneHorseShy.com]