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]

Gifts From Estonia

gifts from Estonia
When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Sweet New Hotel Trend: On-Site Beehives And Honey Programs

honey Going local, consuming natural products and being kind to the environment is becoming more important to people as they try to lead healthier lives. Luckily, many hotels are recognizing this, and trying to bring this philosophy to guests. It’s for this reason I find myself on the 20th floor rooftop of the Waldorf Astoria New York, wearing a beekeeper’s suit mere centimeters from 360,000 active hives.

“You probably won’t get stung,” assures Andrew Cote, the hotel’s resident beekeeper as well as an advisor for the bee initiative and leader in the NYC movement, who isn’t wearing any protective clothing. “If you do, though, know the poison from a bee sting is very good for you. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to have stingers placed into their skin.”

Not only is their poison good, but so is their honey. The roof has six hives in total. They look like small dressers, containing different compartments and drawers. Andrew sprays the hives with burlap as the smoke calms the bees, which tend to more aggressive in the fall when their hives are dying. One by one, we pull out wooden frames containing honeycombs. They’re tasty works of art, as the different honey varieties, wax and eggs form colorful patterns and designs. To keep the eggs out of the top frame where the pure honey is extracted, a “Queen Excluder” screen with tiny holes is used to keep the queen bee out. The result is pure honey produced from local wildflowers.So, why are the bee hives beneficial?

“It is great for the environment. Bees help pollinate flowers, trees and all kinds of flowering plants helping to further the greenery in NYC and purify the air we breathe,” explains Chef Garcelon of the Waldorf Astoria New York, who is very involved in the program. “… Best of all, it provides great quality honey that we can use in soups, salad dressings, savory dishes, pastries, baked goods and cocktails. In addition we can highlight the source of the honey on our menus and tell the story to our array of guests from around the world.”

beesThe Waldorf-Astoria isn’t the only hotel jumping on this sweet new trend. Hotels all over the United States are employing professional beekeepers to maintain onsite hives and work the delicious product into their dining and amenity programs.

At the Fairmont San Francisco, honey beehives are installed in the hotel’s culinary garden. About 800 pounds of honey is harvested, which is used to make dishes more organic and sustainable. For example, the honey is used in soups, salad dressings, pastries and as an accompaniment to their afternoon tea service. Most recently, the honey has also been used to create a “Fairmont San Francisco Honey Saison,” a handcrafted Belgian beer that infuses the pure honey from the rooftop.

“We were already using the honey in various dishes and our afternoon tea at the hotel, but wanted to offer guests something even more unique,” explains the hotel’s Executive Chef, JW Foster. “… We partnered with the local Almanac Beer Co, which shares a passion for the environment and makes a great product.”

According to the hotel, guests love it. In fact, it is their number one selling beer on draft.

Additionally, the Brown Palace Hotel & Spa in Denver, Colorado, implements a “Royal Bee Initiative” into their hotel programming. Originally a small honey program, it was expanded in order to enhance the food and beverage program, grow the spa menu and educate people about how bees are in peril and how we can help.

The luxury hotel uses their on-site bee colony to offer a number of innovative experiences to guests in terms of food, beverage and relaxation. In terms of drinks, the Brown Palace works with local breweries and distilleries to offer a “Brown Palace Rooftop Honey Saison,” honey-infused bourbon and signature cocktails like the “Brown Palace Bees’ Knees” and the “Honey Brut.” During their high tea, honey is used to sweeten guests’ teas and scones.

spa Their spa also incorporates the pure rooftop honey into treatments and products. The “Queen Bee Body Scrub” combines organic brown sugar and in-house honey to exfoliate, hydrate and balance the skin’s pH levels. Furthermore, “Bee Royalty Signature Products” like lip balms and soaps make for artisanal gifts, and a portion of the proceeds generated go toward helping the Denver Beekeeper Association.

“There are a total of four bee hives, with more than 200,000 bees,” explains the hotel’s resident beekeeper Matt Kentner. “It would be great to continue with the work we’ve been doing – we’d love to continue to grow our hives; but most importantly, we want to continue to educate the public on the importance of bees, and how we couldn’t live without them.”

Some other U.S. hotels with on-site bee hives and honey programs include The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton, The Royal Sonesta Hotel Harbor Court, Baltimore and Ohio’s Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, among others. And, as the trend continues to catch on, more and more hotels are continuing to adopt beekeeping programs.

honey drink Festivals

Along with staying at select hotels, travelers can experience the honey trend by attending honey-focused festivals. From September 29 to 30, the Arizona Honey Fest will debut at the Boulders Resort in Carefree, Arizona. The event will focus on the health and culinary benefits of the product, as well as the history. Cooking with honey demonstrations, honey spa treatments, beekeeper demonstrations, a Gala Honey Dinner, honey-infused cocktails and an outdoor marketplace will be featured.

Also coming up on September 29 and 30 is the annual Honey Harvest Festival in Cockeysville, Maryland. Beeswax candle making, a honey basket raffle, honey wine making and hive demonstrations are all part of the weekend lineup.

Each fall, New York City holds their annual Honey Festival. Honey-themed events are put on throughout the five boroughs, like honey tastings, honey-themed menus and drinks, city beehive tours, film screenings and speakers.

What do you think of the beehive hotel trend?

[Images via Shutterstock]

Samos, Greece: The Land Of Wine And Honey

samos greeceMy introduction to the island of Samos was a trunk infested with thousands of tiny, prowling insects, feasting on an open bag of fertilizer. We had just arrived in Pythagorion, a port city named after Pythagoras, the famous mathematician who was born there, and the owner of the hotel we were to stay in had come to pick us up. But just as I was about to hoist our bags into the trunk of her car, I noticed all the insects and thought better of it.

I ended up putting the suitcases in the back seat and walking to the hotel, an inauspicious start to our visit to say the least. After a glorious week in Patmos, Pythagorion seemed unimpressive, despite its attractive harbor area, so we dropped our original plan to base there for a week and rented a car to explore the island’s wild and beautiful south and west coasts.

As soon as we had our own wheels, we fell in love with Samos. It’s a place worthy of any superlative you can conjure. I found the island’s largest towns to be mostly forgettable, but almost everything in between them was magic, especially on the west side.The name Samos means “high” in the ancient Ionian dialect of Greek, and historians assume the island was thus named after its mountainous interior. By mid-summer, the island’s terrain is mostly brown, but in early June, it was still delightfully green and punctuated with wild flowers and aromatic pine trees.

%Gallery-158855%

samos honeyAs we drove west on a dizzying, but scenic, road from Pythagorion towards Kambos, the base we chose in the southwest, we passed a slew of stands selling honey, one of Samos’s best exports. I didn’t indulge at first, but after seeing so many of the places, my curiosity got the best of me and I spent the remainder of my week drizzling honey on anything that moved.

Near our base in Kambos, a pleasant enough one horse town that serves as a convenient base for exploring the beautiful west end of the island, we fell in love with a psili ammos beach. I say “a” rather than “the” because psili ammos means “fine sand” in Greek and you find lots of beaches with this name all over the Greek isles, including two on Samos.

beach in samosBoth are great, but the Psili Ammos beach just outside Kambos may be the best beach for kids I’ve ever experienced. It’s a lovely beach with unbelievably shallow water, so even my 2- and 4-year-olds could comfortably wade very far out from the shore.

From Kambos, take a drive out to Kalithea and Drakei to see one of Europe’s last great, undeveloped coasts, filled with stunning cliff top panoramas of the blue Aegean and the surrounding islands. Around every curve, you’ll want to pull over and get our your camera. Western Samos has the feel of a wild, virgin paradise. There are no tacky souvenir shops or much of anything, save the odd taverna here and there but the natural beauty is astounding.

Just as interesting as the coastal drives are excursions into the mountainous interior. We drove up to the enchanting mountain villages of Vourliotes and Manolates for stunning views and a taste of village life and stumbled across a group of drunken seniors celebrating a religious festival on a Monday morning.

monastery in samosYou could easily idle away a week on a beach in Samos but the most rewarding part of my ten days on this addictive island were hikes I made up to Panagia Markini, a 13th Century cave church near Kallithea, and the 10th Century Evangelistria convent, near Kambos. Both are fairly strenuous but the views are astounding and the icons behind the curtain in the cave church are haunting and beautiful.

If you look at a map of Samos, you’ll see little black dots with crosses, signifying churches and monasteries that were built all over the interior of the island, many of them in hard to find locations to ward off invaders. Working monasteries like Panagia Vrontiani and Megali Panagia have beautiful frescoes and are well worth a visit.

samos wineSamos also boasts good, sweet wine that can be bought straight off the back of a small vintners pickup truck for a song. I feasted on grilled souvlaki, calamari, octopus and other treats, always for about 7-9€, and I never had a bad meal. We experienced remarkable hospitality wherever we went and even our buggy car owner turned out to be a gem. We disliked the small rooms in her hotel but rather than pout or blame us, she helped us find a more suitable place to stay.

Our car rental experience seemed to sum up the island’s laid-back charm. We picked up our car in Pythagorion, in the island’s southeast, but later on decided that we wanted to drop it off in Karlovasi, where our ferry was to leave up in the island’s northwest.

A branch of National car rental, which also offered by far the lowest rate for an automatic transmission car at 30€ per day, told us not to worry about making the 1.5-hour drive back to Pythagorion to return the car, even though they have no location near Karlovasi.

“Just leave it at the ferry, and put the keys under the mat, we’ll go get it,” said Alex, the young man we dealt with who told us there was no extra charge to leave the car anywhere on the island.

“But is that safe?” I asked. “I mean, what if someone steals it?”

“This is Samos,” he said. “Things like that don’t happen here.”

If there’s no bill for a four door Hyundai on my next credit card statement, I’ll know he was right about Samos.

If you go: We arrived in Samos via a ferry from Patmos, which takes about three hours, but you can also fly directly to the islands on a variety of European discount and charter airlines, or take a ferry from Athens.

If you want a very lively place with some nightlife or don’t have the budget to rent a car, Pythagorion might be a good base, but I much preferred Kambos. We stayed at the Sirena Village where we had an early season steal – a two-bedroom villa with breakfast and access to a lovely pool for just 55€ per day.

If you like to hike, definitely make the treks up to Evangelistria and Panagia Makrini. And if you have time, you can also hike from Kokari up to Panagia Vrontiani.

Definitely check out the honey stands west of Pirgos. There are all kinds of good places to eat but I absolutely loved the souvlaki at the little Vraxos restaurant in Vourliotes.

(Photos by Dave Seminara)

A Honey Crawl In Samos

jar of honeyI’ve never been a big honey consumer. Sure, I usually have a messy plastic jar of the stuff somewhere in my kitchen, gathering dust, but it usually only comes out when I have a sore throat and want a cup of tea. But shortly after we arrived in Samos, a verdant, breathtakingly gorgeous Greek island in the eastern Aegean, I heard that the island was famous for its excellent honey.

The first time we drove on the dizzying road leading west from Pythagorion out to Kampos, in the island’s west, we passed a slew of small shops and stands selling honey. My interest was piqued but I didn’t bother to stop. Honey is honey, and since I’m used to the gloppy, factory produced cheap stuff that has the consistency of glue, I was doubtful that it could be any better than what I’m used to.loukoumades greek donutsBut the next morning, I changed my mind after trying some loukoumades (right), a delicious Greek treat that resembles a small fried donut, but comes drenched in delicious Samos honey. I realized that I needed to get a jar of the stuff post haste.

“I saw some in the supermarket,” my wife said. “Just go get some.”

But I didn’t want supermarket honey, even if it was the same kind of locally produced stuff sold on the side of the road. I wanted the whole roadside honey experience. So we set off the next day back on the same carsickness-inducing route, which traverses a nice chunk of Samos’s pretty, mountainous green interior, and I stopped at every honey stand I could find.

%Gallery-157646%

At the first shop, we were given only a small taste on toothpicks, which was a bit of a tease, but it was enough to make us want more. It was lighter, sweeter and far tastier than any honey I’d ever had before.

At the second shop we visited, just west of the village of Pirgos, the honey tasted even better, and the owner let us take samples by the spoonful from a big jar of the stuff. While my wife distracted him with questions, I kept dipping into the stuff like an addict, as my children looked at a collection of trapped bees in the shop.

When I couldn’t reasonably sample any more without feeling like a thief, I grabbed a big jar of it and pulled out my wallet before my wife objected.

“We’re only here for a week,” she said. “How much honey can you eat?”

As it turns out, an awful lot. I loved the stuff so much, that I started planning all my meals and snacks around things that I could pour honey on. And I burned through the four honey-drenched sesame bars I bought in less than 48 hours. One afternoon, I asked my wife how some honey might taste on my ham and cheese sandwich, and she tried to set me straight once more.

“Dave,” she said. “You can’t put honey on everything.”

Maybe not, but when in Samos, you can certainly try.

(All photos and videos by Dave Seminara)