Holiday gifts for food (and drink)-loving travelers

gifts for food loversHoliday shopping is easy if the people on your list like to eat and/or imbibe. If they’re into travel–be it armchair or the real deal–the options are endless This year, think beyond the predictable bottle of wine or pricey “artisan” cookies and give reusable, portable, eco-friendly gifts or small-batch edibles that are the taste equivalent of a trip abroad.

As for where to get these items, look at farmers and flea markets, street fairs, specialty food shops, wineries/distilleries, and boutiques. One of my favorite spots to shop: foreign supermarkets.

For the green at heart

An inflatable wine bag is ideal for wine and spirit-loving travelers. They’re multi-use and work equally well for olive oil, vinegar, or other fluid specialty products.

A logo tote bag (preferably made from recycled materials) from a specialty food shop, winery, etc. is great for practical recipients. A co-worker recently brought me a signature navy blue number from Neal’s Yard Dairy, a famous cheese shop in London. In two months, it’s traveled to South America and across the U.S., doing time as a souvenir satchel, laundry and grocery bag, and all-purpose carry-on. When I don’t need it, i just roll it up and stash it in my duffel bag or day pack. Love it.

Gift a wine key (opener) salad tongs or bowl, chopsticks, or other kitchen utensils made from local, sustainable materials such as wood, antler, bone, bamboo, or shell. Do a quick online search or ask (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: phrasebooks) about the origins of said object. If you have any qualms about the eco-aspect, don’t buy it and let the shopkeeper know why.

[Photo credit: Flickr user noramunro]gifts for food loversDrink coasters are always appreciated. I’ve picked up woven palm versions in Indonesia, as well as purchased colorful Portuguese azuelos tiles for this use. If the country or region you’re visiting is famous for its leather, woodwork, ceramics, or even recycled metal handicrafts, you’ll probably find a nice, inexpensive set of coasters. Again, be sure they’re made from sustainable materials.

Vintage kitchenware–even if it’s not functional–can be a great gift, especially if your intended is a collector. Salt-and-pepper shakers, wine openers, cheese knives, a set of Melamine bowls: hit up antique stores or street fairs, because you’re sure to find treasures at affordable prices.

For the adventurer

A pocketknife or plastic folding knife from a famous cheese shop or winery is indispensable to hikers, campers, foragers, and DIYer’s who enjoy a good picnic while on the road. Just make sure your loved ones aren’t the type who don’t check their bags when they fly. A mini-cutting board of wood/bamboo or slate is also a nice gift.

Know someone who’s into mountaineering or other high-altitude pursuits? Coca leaf tea (or for a less effective but more entertaining option, caramels or hand candy) really works, and it’s legal.

For the locavore

If you have a friend of the “Eat local/Support family farms” variety, a gift from your travels can still fit the mold. Whenever and wherever I travel, I make a point of purchasing local, handcrafted foodstuffs: jam or other preserves, honey, cheese, candy. What I buy depends upon where I am and whether or not I have to abide (cough, cough) by customs regulations or have access to refrigeration.
gifts for food lovers
If customs and temperature aren’t an issue, consider a gift of cheese, charcuterie, or even some spectacular produce (A would-be suitor once presented me with a tiny disc of goat cheese and one perfect peach before I departed on a flight; I wasn’t into the guy but loved the thoughtfulness of his gift).

If you you’re looking for a shelf-stable product, some suggestions: leatherwood, manuka, or tupelo honey (from Tasmania, New Zealand, and the Florida Panhandle, respectively); sea salt (I love the red alaea salt from Hawaii); Argentinean dulce de leche; drinking chocolate; real maple syrup; dried chiles or posole from New Mexico; palm sugar from Indonesia; spices from India or Morocco; Spanish saffron or paella rice–look for Calasparra or Bomba from Valencia; Provencal chestnut cream; Italian tomato paste or canned sardines (canned tuna from overseas is very often not from a sustainable fishery); barbecue or hot sauce; heirloom dried beans; stoneground grits…

I particularly like to buy items grown/produced by farmer co-ops but unless they’re manufactured for export or are a dried good, beware. A jar of manjar (the Chilean version of dulce de leche) I purchased from a tiny bakery wasn’t sealed properly, and was contaminated with mold when opened. Botulism or other foodborne illness is not a thoughtful gift (although I suppose it’s better to give than receive…), so make sure you’re getting professionally packaged goods.

[Photo credits: wine opener, Flickr user corktiques; honey, Laurel Miller]

On a tight budget this year? Make your own edible gifts based upon your recipient’s interests, favorite holiday spot, or ethnic heritage. Check out the below clip for an easy holiday recipe; bonus points if you know where Moravia is.

Moravian Spice Cookie Wafers

Ten real budget travel tips

budget travel tipsDo you continually feel wanderlust’s pull but fear that you don’t have enough money to see the world?

Your fears, thankfully, are misplaced. Despite the mainstream travel media’s concerted, ongoing effort to make you think that travel is solely the domain of the rich, it is actually possible to travel well for surprisingly little money–and not just in those places where good deals are plentiful.

If saving money is your first goal, always do advance research by perusing published articles and guidebooks covering your intended destinations. Also be sure to take a look around the budget-oriented travel media. The Guardian’s budget travel guide is very likely the best English-language newspaper for budget travel advice. The Guardian does an especially great job of focusing on budget travel itineraries and showing readers, step-by-step, how to travel well while remaining on a tight budget.

Following are ten general tips to help you travel for far less than you think you’ll need to spend. Later this week I’ll look at some local budget travel techniques that are little-known outside of their home territories, which will provide a useful supplement to this post.

1. Hostels and low-price hotel chains. Increasingly these days, hostels boast individual rooms, some with their own toilets and showers. So even if you’re no longer interested in early morning dance parties, don’t write off hostels. Many of these new hostels are also quite stylish, which means that in many locales ratty, filthy hostels are finally facing price point competition. Also of note are the newish budget hotel chains, like Tune Hotels (Indonesia, Malaysia, UK) and easyHotel (UK, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus, United Arab Emirates). With advance booking, these no-frills hotels can be huge money-savers.

2. Empty university dorm rooms. Many universities offer their rooms for very affordable rates during those stretches of time when there are no students around. Some of these rooms show up on booking sites and others can only be reserved through the universities themselves. During the summer of 2007, I stayed in a university dorm in Vienna for €19. My private room was clean and spacious, with appealing modernist touches.

3. Private home stays. Airbnb is the newest and slickest arrival on the scene, a well organized and very attractive listings site that allows proprietors and guests alike to comment on each other’s performance as hosts and guests. This social media function makes Airbnb especially useful for quality control. In many destinations, tourist boards organize private home stays; in some others, guest rooms are advertised by locals. Guidebooks should help you figure out the best way to go about securing reservations in private rooms. As always, use common sense.

4. Volunteer tourism, or Voluntourism. This tourism/volunteering hybrid has taken off in the past decade. To give but one example, Andaman Discoveries’ volunteer gigs in southern Thailand charge around $210 for a week of on-the-ground volunteering. That charge includes accommodation, many meals, and airport transfer. Check out VolunTourism.org for more information.

5. Couchsurfing. This free accommodation option is the ideal recession-era budget travel trick. It’s a free and very popular way to bed down. Though there are a number of couchsurfing sites, CouchSurfing is the granddaddy of the movement. Couchsurfing fans get starry-eyed when discussing the practice, which depends on peer review and typically prompts guests to contribute something (like meals or a service) to their temporary hosts.6. WWOOF. This strange acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is a fantastic organization that pairs up farm hands with work opportunities on farms, providing room and board in exchange for labor. WWOOF currently lists farms in 100 countries and territories around the world. Many people get involved with WWOOF in a kind of quasi-apprenticeship manner, though the organization is open to travelers.

7. Social media. Travel bloggers are notoriously friendly and forthcoming with their tips and their time. Reach out to travel writers whose articles you’ve liked and strike up a friendly rapport. Approach them respectfully and you’ll usually find that travel writers love to share their knowledge. Scour Twitter for interesting people in the destinations on your itinerary. Be friendly and make contact. The likelihood that you’ll meet someone who will give you some tips for interesting local action is high. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone who will show you around, treat you to a meal, and drink a cheap bottle of something or other with you.

8. Supermarkets and street food. You don’t have to eat in restaurants while you’re on the road. Supermarkets, public food markets, and street food can all help you save money while traveling. In many places, you will find fresher produce in markets than in restaurants. Public food markets and street food provide a route into local culture and are usually quite inexpensive. Follow the crowds for the freshest and tastiest grub.

9. Hitchhiking. All the caveats apply. Be prepared, be careful, use your judgment, and embark on your hitchhiking adventure with a friend. Beyond the shared cost of fuel, hitchhiking is more or less free. It is a great way to meet locals and learn about the places you’re visiting.

10. Home exchange. Swapping your residence with another is far easier than it sounds. Home exchange networks charge an annual membership fee, which allows a place of residence to be listed. Once a listing is in place, members organize exchanges with each other. The net result? Free accommodation. And sometimes intercontinental friendships. Home exchange networks include HomeExchange.com, INTERVac, and International Home Exchange Network. See this article (written, to be fully forthcoming, by my first cousin!) for one family’s experience with home exchange.

[Image: Flickr / ArchiM]