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Rancho La Puerta
TODAY contributor
updated 1/23/2008 6:42:24 PM ET 2008-01-23T23:42:24

In recent years, a culinary vacation usually meant traveling to a famous overseas restaurant or to meet with a famous chef and then watching him or her prepare special dishes.

Not anymore. Welcome to the brave new world of up close, participatory culinary travel. It's become one of the fastest-growing trends in the travel industry today.

According to a 2006 study from the Travel Industry Association, about one in 10 American leisure travelers reported that food or wine was a major factor in choosing their destinations. Translation: These are  Deliberate Culinary Travelers. Other travelers took at least one trip where they sought out culinary activities (opportunistic culinary travelers), and then there are the accidental culinary travelers — who stumbled upon the culinary experience while traveling. The culinary travel experience includes everything from visiting a farmers market, sampling artisan products, attending a food or wine festival, going wine, beer or cheese tasting, or driving along a food or wine trail. But almost always, you can choose to have a hands-on experience cooking alongside top chefs.

Veteran cruise ship travelers will warn you there are about eight meals a day. Now, on a number of ships, there are nine — the ninth being the hands-on cooking classes taught on board. And that seems almost counterintuitive, since “cruise food” hasn’t always been synonymous with “gourmet.”

But these days, high-end gourmet restaurants are available on many lines: Crystal is partnering with master chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa to launch the Silk Road and The Sushi Bar on Crystal Symphony. Chef Nobu himself will be on the inaugural trans-Pacific cruise from L.A. to Hong Kong on March 3, 2008.   

On the Princess, onboard culinary adventures include a shore excursion to a chef’s table on its Alaskan itineraries, where you get a five-course tasting menu of regional dishes.

Holland America has one of the most comprehensive culinary programs out there. The Culinary Arts Center program, presented by Food & Wine magazine, includes hands-on cooking lessons with top chefs, kids and teen culinary classes, a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen and wine and cheese tastings.

North America
In Walland, Tennessee (about two hours northeast of Chattanooga), Blackberry Farm is a longtime follower of the local and seasonal food philosophy. It’s a combination of luxury resort and working farm — you can spend a day in the life of a gardener, a cheese maker or a chef. Room rates start at $745 a night (two-night minimum), including meals. 865-984-8166, www.blackberryfarm.com

Cheese making in Texas? In Elm Mott, Texas, the Homestead Heritage School of Homesteading can teach you the fine art of making dairy products such as butter, mozzarella, sour cream and cottage cheese.  Prices range from $75 to $245 for a three-day course. www.homesteadheritage-homesteading.com

Would you rather sit back and enjoy a meal prepared with the freshest ingredients? Try dining on a farm. That’s right, you’ll be eating a meal made out of the very ingredients that surround you. Every summer, an organization called Outstanding in the Field hosts dinners on farms, vineyards and ranches throughout California and parts of Colorado, New Hampshire and New York.  831-247-1041; www.outstandinginthefield.com

Even Canada has its own tradition in culinary excellence. Bet you didn’t know that Canadian cuisine has a heritage of British, German and even Mennonite influences. You can learn all about this firsthand at the Wine Country Cooking School, part of Strewn Winery at Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario. Owner Jane Langdon and her winemaker husband, Joe, will set you up with their capable staff to create a multicourse lunch. Single-day classes are available for $195 per person, and couples’ classes start $340. 905-468-8304, www.winecountrycooking.com

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Just south of the border, Rancho La Puerta’s new cooking school is located in the heart of a six-acre organic farm. You can participate in both hands-on and demonstrative cooking lessons, all using fresh produce straight from the farm. Individual cooking classes run $125 each, a four-class package is offered for $425, and the demonstration classes are $60 each.  800-443-7565, www.rancholapuerta.com

You may be familiar with the famous Thai cooking programs at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and at the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai. Both options are excellent, but there are plenty of less-expensive, authentic experiences throughout Thailand and other parts of Asia.

In Bangkok, a woman named Angsana Andersson operates a cooking class out of her home (she’s Thai and married to a Swedish man). She offers private lessons that include three dishes, which you choose from her own family’s cookbook. This course is about $60; www.thaihomecooking.com

If you’re looking for a really intensive Asian culinary experience, luxury outfitter Kipling & Clark can cater to your specific tastes. For example, a 14-day Tastes of Southeast Asia Tour includes culinary experiences in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. In Hanoi, you can join a local chef on a tour of Hang Be Market, to learn the story behind Vietnamese herbs, spices and produce before going into the kitchen to prepare a multicourse meal. While in Saigon, you may visit the colorful Cai Be floating market followed by a private cooking class at the Hotel De La Paix. These tours are customized, so prices vary. 800-354-3404; www.kiplingandclark.com

What’s a trip to France without an experience in cheese? Check out C’est Cheese Tours, which brings small groups to France to some of the finest cheese and wine regions in the country. You’ll get up-close-and-personal with fromagers and affineurs (cheese makers and cheese agers), and learn how to pair the best wines with cheeses. The price includes your full-time guide, who speaks English and French, visits with local residents and experts, tastings, entrance fees, accommodations and meals. www.cheesetours.com

Or how about some chocolate? At My Chocolate in London, you can work with owner Hannah Saxton to learn all about the fine art of chocolate making. Of course, the most popular class of the bunch is, surprise, more about tasting and less about making — it traces the history of chocolate followed by a lesson in tasting techniques. Not only do you go home with recipes for every delicious treat from vanilla truffles to chocolate fudge, but you’ll have 20 home-made chocolates in hand (though it’s doubtful that they’ll make it all the way back home!). The workshop costs about $100 per person.  44 20 7269 5760;  http://www.mychocolate.co.uk

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Irish food”? If it’s “potatoes,” you’re not alone. But you may be surprised to learn that Ireland is undergoing its own renaissance in culinary tradition — and the center of it all is not in Dublin, but in East Cork at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Founder Darina Allen is a renowned Irish chef, cookbook author and TV personality. The school is located on a 10-acre estate with gardens, four teaching kitchens and two demonstration kitchens. You’ll work with produce, eggs, dairy, meat, and seafood that come from the school’s grounds or nearby sources. A five-day course, which starts at about $1,200, is a mix of demonstration and hands-on classes; a shorter two-and-a-half-day course focuses on how to entertain with minimal stress for about $750. 353 21 4646785, www.cookingisfun.ie


Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com. 

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