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]

Intrepid Travel Offering 20 Percent Off All Food-Centric Trips Through August 31

vietnam
Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel – known for its cultural and food-focused trips to remote corners of the planet – is now offering 20 percent off over 350 of their trips, including the newly-launched Food Adventures. The discount is good for all trips departing before August 31, 2013.

Last fall, Intrepid partnered up with The Perennial Plate, which documents these culinary adventures in bi-weekly video clips. If that’s not inspiration enough, check out these “Summer of Adventure” trips on offer: Northern Spain (Barcelona to San Sebastian), India (Delhi to Goa), and Vietnam (Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City).

The trips run from four to 14 days, and have been designed in collaboration with renowned chefs, cookbook authors and other food experts, including Susan Feniger and Tracey Lister. Trip prices include accommodation, ground transportation, a local guide, activities listed on the itinerary and, in many cases, cooking classes, meals with locals and trips to local markets.

[Photo credit: Intrepid Travel]

Gadling’s Annual Team Summit: Behind The Scenes In Washington, DC

lincoln memorialAs our daily roster of posts and rigorous travel schedules can attest, we work hard here at Gadling (really; it’s not all lying on beaches, slurping pastel-hued cocktails…in fact, it rarely is). We’re a small team of freelancers who mostly have day jobs to help pay the bills, whether or not writing is our primary occupation.

As part of AOL, we also have a pretty intense set of goals, including budgetary and company requirements to meet. That’s one of the main reasons our intrepid, workaholic Editor-in-Chief, Grant Martin, plans a yearly team summit for us. It’s a way to talk shop, brainstorm, work on improving our effectiveness and skill as travel writers, bond with one another, and get a working vacation in a city that for many of us is a new destination.

In the last four years, team summits have been held in Chicago, Austin, New York and, most recently, Washington DC. From May 4-6, sixteen of our contributor crew of 20 headed to the nation’s capital, coming from as far away as Northern Spain (Sean McLachlan, who none of us feel sorry for), Maui (Kyle Ellison, ditto) and Northwest DC (Melanie Renzulli). We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott Dupont Circle, right across the street from the infamous Hilton where former President Reagan took a bullet. There’s history on every corner in DC, let me tell you.

Read on to learn more about the cultural sights and flavors of DC, how many travel writers it takes to name the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot, why DC cops are the greatest, and when to use “dollar” as a verb. Names have been changed where indicated to protect…myself (from retaliation).

DC row housesMay 4
With most of the team not arriving until late afternoon, our summit officially kicks off at 7:30 p.m. with an extended Happy Hour at 701 Restaurant, a downtown lounge with live jazz. Two early DC arrivals, however, had taken advantage of a “2 for 1” happy hour at a nondescript establishment across the street from the hotel – let’s call them “Jane” and “Bob.” Jane, who’d suggested going in, thought it was a dive bar but Bob was well aware it was, in fact, a sleazy strip joint. Jane was reportedly quite embarrassed, as she’d just met Bob five minutes prior, but a good drink special is hard to pass up.

Like Jane and Bob, many of us are meeting for the first time – an occupational hazard. The evening is casual, and most of us catch up on gossip, get to know one another and talk shop. Several enjoyable hours later, we splinter off into groups: those of us who want to call it a night and enjoy the balmy weather by walking back to the hotel, and those who want to tear it up. Sweet dreams.

May 5
11:30 a.m. Noon: Most of the team gathers at DC’s Eastern Market, a historic public food hall, for a walking “Food Tour of Capitol Hill.” Led by DC Metro Food Tours, which also offers cultural culinary visits to Little Ethiopia, Adams Morgan and other neighborhoods and nearby cities, it’s a way for us to get our writerly juices flowing, as well as learn a bit about the area. It’s also a potential means of generating income, whether we write it up for Gadling or try to sell a story to another outlet. Travel writers: always working.

We have an abbreviated tour due to time constraints, but spend an interesting two hours learning the history of Capitol Hill, particularly Barracks Row, an enchanting micro-neighborhood of tree-lined streets and sweet little row houses. Historical points of interest include the birthplace of musician John Philip Sousa, the Marine Commandant’s home and the Navy Yard.

DC is well known for its ethnically diverse cuisine, which is due to both its immigrant history and the number of embassies located within the city. Capitol Hill, the largest Victorian neighborhood, has, over the past 200 years, been occupied by laborers, craftsmen, members of Congress, the military and significant populations of African American, Latin American and European immigrants.

The three restaurants we visited were chosen for their ethnic significance and popularity. We begin with North Carolina BBQ and soul food (candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and sweet tea) at the famed Levi’s Port Cafe (beloved by politicos). Our guide explains that DC is considered a bit of a Southern city due to its geographic location and the number of residents who originally hail from the South.
las placitas
We move on to delicious Greek mezze at Cava Mezze, and finish up with fried yuca and manioca, carnitas and margaritas at Salvadorian restaurant Las Placitas. By the end of the tour, all of us have a better understanding of DC’s historical roots, and how they’ve developed its culinary scene.

3 p.m.: Business and Technical session at HuffPost offices downtown. The core of our visit, this team meeting is dedicated to the year’s goals and objectives, brainstorming and new media and travel industry trends. It’s also a chance for us to ask questions and get feedback from Grant on our individual and team performance and address any concerns.

One of the things Gadling is being more meticulous with this year is improving standards. We recently acquired our very own copy editor, the wonderful Robin Whitney (so if you see a typo, blame her…just kidding, Robin!).

7:30 p.m.: We meet for dinner at Station 4, a new, modern American restaurant near the Southwest Waterfront. I grab a cab with “Victoria,” her husband, Sean McLachlan, and Chris Owen. Our driver was a dapper West African gentleman clad in a funky-ass suit. He possessed a distressingly advanced vocabulary and knowledge of global politics and geography, and kept us in hysterics the entire ride. In his lilting accent, he’d ask us questions and quiz us on trivia like, “Name all of the countries in Africa that have four letters in them,” “What is the only autonomous country never to fire a single gunshot?” and “Name all of the world’s countries located within a country.”

He had no idea we were travel writers, which is good, because we were stumped most of the time. Victoria secretly videotaped the entire episode only to delete it after viewing. She explained that the shame was too great and it read like a bad joke: “A former archaeologist, a musician, a photographer, a food writer and a cruise expert get into a cab…”

After dinner (and a few too many glasses of vino), it was determined by someone that we were all going to take the Metro to a bar in Adams Morgan. We set off in clusters – keeping a posse of 16 together is damn near impossible when cabs and mass transit are involved, alcohol or no.
gadling
Thus began a new Gadling summit activity, what Pam Mandel dubbed, “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Adventure One entailed having your ATM card digested by a Metro ticket machine and being trapped underground for an hour waiting for an employee to resolve the issue. Adventure Two utilized DC’s popular Capital Bikeshare and involved a scenic tour of the city’s historic sites, culminating with a dramatic finale at the Washington Monument.

Led by a team member I’ll call “Ulysses,” it was by all accounts a weekend highlight. Especially when Ulysses, distracted by the wonder that is the Lincoln Memorial, slammed at full speed into the back of a parked police car, denting it. Fortunately, he wasn’t injured, and the tolerant officers only issued him a ticket for reckless pedaling.

A number of team members congregated at a popular watering hole called The Big Hunt, holding court until closing. Over on Adventure Four, Bob and Jane got into a debate in the cab over the name of the strip club, which piqued the interest of their fellow passengers, an angelic-looking blogger we’ll call Tiffany, and an esteemed member of the team whose identity shall heretofore be known as “Paul Theroux.”

A trip to said club ensued in the name of research. Readers should note that DC gentleman’s clubs are to be avoided on Cinco de Mayo eve because of the vast numbers of tequila-saturated frat boys in residence, rowdily “dollaring” (a term invented by Tiffany, blowing her “America’s Sweetheart” cover) the girls on stage. Bob and Jane were surprised to note that they’d already achieved “regular” status, and they’d like to go on record as saying that DC gentleman’s club staff, in their limited experience, are some of the friendliest folks you’ll ever meet in the, ah, service industry. Paul Theroux smiled inscrutably while watching the Greeks, and remarked that the evening had developed into quite the “sociological experience.”

Day Three
All rise and power down copious amounts of caffeine for the 11:30 Noon 12:30 p.m. behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (post coming soon, so I’ll dispense with the details other than to say it was spectacular and an absolute must on your itinerary if you’re planning a visit to DC – and it’s free).

1:30 p.m.: Minus a few early airport departures, a final gathering at the HuffPost offices to hear travel writing gurus/team members Don George and David Farley do a presentation on how to craft more effective narrative travel writing. It was inspiring and interesting, even for those of us who are veterans of the genre, and made all the more enjoyable by the arrival of six pizzas ordered by Grant (Upper Crust on Pennsylvania Ave. NW does it right).

Sadly, most of us had to depart for our respective airports within the hour, but hugs all around, and promises to visit one another soon are made. All kidding aside, it was a truly memorable weekend for both work and play. I can only speak for myself (and what I gleaned eavesdropping on others) but the camaraderie and enthusiasm amongst our current team is something that’s very rare. I feel blessed to have such a fun, talented, diverse group to work with, as well as the leadership of an editor like Grant.

I should also add that it’s the first time I’ve enjoyed DC, despite eight prior visits. It’s true what they say: it’s not where you are, but who you’re with.

Special thanks to McLean Robbins and Jeremy Kressmann for their help in arranging assorted venues and activities for the summit.

[Photo credits: Lincoln Memorial, Flickr user pochacco20; row houses, Flickr user flickr-rickr; rest, Melanie Renzulli]

Unique Food And History Tours Available On The Re-Launched Rama App

Rama App
Going on a guided tour is one of the best ways to get to know a new city. But sometimes we just can’t fit it into our itinerary. Perhaps the cost doesn’t work within our budget, the timing doesn’t fit with our schedule or the tour is already full. For these reasons, guided tour apps have become a favorite tool for traveling smart phone users.

The Rama app, which is known for quirky, focused history tours such as the Guillotine in Paris, America in London and Detroit’s Skyscrapers, has re-launched with 31 unique food tours from around the world. A few I’d like to check out include Istanbul in Berlin, which explores the Turkish food scene in the German capital; Newcastle by Breakfast, which scopes out five of the best places in Newcastle for a full English breakfast; Little India Insider, a guide to South Asian eats in Jackson Heights, Queens; Dim Sum Stories, a food tour through Hong Kong; and Free Tapas in Madrid.

Local experts write all of Rama’s history and food tours and many include offline maps for easy touring in places without a dependable 3G/4G of Wi-Fi connection. Tours are available as in-app purchases ranging from free to $2.99 and each comes with a useful introduction to let you know what you can expect before purchasing and embarking on the tour. For example, the food tours provide information on how much money you can expect to spend when sampling the local fare while the history tours give a time and distance estimate.

One refreshing aspect of the Rama app – at least for this writer – is that it gives users the opportunity to connect with the tour writers. Each “About the Author” section provides details on the writer’s personal blog, background and provides his or her email address and, where applicable, Twitter handle. Imagine being able to contact your tour author with additional questions as you follow his tour! Sure, there’s room for abuse here. But I think the personalization is a nice touch.

Rama is free in the iTunes store. Download it here.

Eating historically in New York’s Chinatown and Little Italy

little italy As a native New Yorker, I’ve spent many afternoons wandering the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy, stopping to get some dumplings or some pasta and wine. While I had always kind of thought of these places as tourist hubs with delicious food, I never realized just how much history belongs to these areas, and how much of this history is still alive today.

After going on a walking tour with Ahoy New York Tours and Tasting, I now look at Chinatown and Little Italy with a new appreciation. Alana, the tour guide, led the group through each area, speaking about how the regions came to be and letting everyone sample from historical eateries.

As Alana likes to say, “If a restaurant has been around for 40 years or more, you know it’s good because it has stood the test of time.”

Around the time of the United StatesIndustrial Revolution, southern Italians began coming over to get away from high taxes and low wages. In order to help ease their culture shock they began importing foods from their homeland and opening restaurants that reflected their heritage. Lucky for us, a lot of what was created back then is still around today.cannolis The first stop on the tour was Alleva Dairy to sample prosciutto and homemade mozzarella. Opened in 1892 by the same family that runs it now, this is the oldest Italian cheese shop in America. Fun Fact: Mozzarella originated in Naples, Italy, when a monk accidentally dropped a cheese curd into a pail of hot water.

Ferrara Bakery & Cafe was the next stop, where the group got to taste their world famous cannolis. My grandmother, who is from southern Italy, actually used to swear by these, and my father still refuses to eat cannolis from any other bakery. This eatery was opened in 1892, and during WWII many Italian families would purchase Torrone, a nougat confection, from here to send to their loved ones who were fighting because the treat wouldn’t spoil.

After our sugar indulgence, the group traveled to another continent and headed over to New York’s Chinatown. People first started to notice the Chinese coming into the United States in the 1840’s. While they first tried to settle in California, they were not socially accepted there and so they came to New York in an attempt to better assimilate. While the original Chinatown was made up of only 3 streets (Mott, Doyers, and Pell) and consisted of mostly immigrants from southern China, today the area has grown to encompass 2 square miles and 200,000 Chinese-Americans from diverse backgrounds.

orange chicken chinatown A family-style lunch at Pongrsi Thai Restaurant, the oldest family-run and operated Thai restaurant in New York City, allowed the group to sample 40 years of delicious hard work with rice, Orange Chicken, Pad see ew, and a spicy Chicken Pra Ramm.

In order to let the group digest, Alana took us to visit Columbus Park, a cultural hub for the Asian community where people go to play Mahjong and checkers, practice Tai Chi, and relax. Standing there today, you would never know that the area was once considered the worst slum in the history of the U.S., and possibly even the world.

No tour of Chinatown would be complete without eating some dumplings. What many people don’t realize is that dumplings aren’t just delicious, they’re an important part of the Chinese New Year as they symbolize wealth with their ancient silver and gold ingot shape. If you’re looking for taste, try Tasty Dumpling on 54 Mulberry Street. However, if you want a front-row view of how they are made, go to Fried Dumpling on 106 Mosco Street. Hint: It’s actually a lot more complex than you probably think.

everything frostedTo end the tour, the group was taken to a place that isn’t known for its history but for its flavor. Everything Frosted sells cupcakes with an Asian flair with choices like Lychee, Red Bean, Jasmine Tea, and Black Sesame.

While the tour tells a lot about food and its historical significance, you will also see a lot of other notable points of interest, such as the Transfiguration Church, which services the most Chinese-Americans than any other church in U.S., the former Bloody Angle, which is said to be where the most murders in America have ever occurred, and the oldest tenement building in New York at 65 Mott Street.

For more information or to make a booking with Ahoy NY Tours & Tasting, click here.