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Savor the Tastes of Local Culture in Retirement

In a new twist, some travel companies are adding exercise and culinary lessons to travel expeditions aimed at older foodies.

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Don Kagey, 59, and his wife, Julie, 60, of Okemos, Mich., consider their bicycle trip through Sicily this past spring as the best vacation of their lives. “Having a deep food experience is very important to us,” says Julie. Her family comes from Sicily, so the Kageys signed up for a tour led by celebrity chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Traci Des Jardins.

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“While we were riding our bikes, the chefs kept a watchful eye out for wildflowers, fruits and edible vegetation, such as wild mushrooms, to forage along the roadways and put on our dinner plates that night,” says Don. The couple also watched local farmers turn goat milk into ricotta cheese, sampled sandwiches made from cow spleen and lungs that resembled (but didn’t taste like) Chicago Italian beef sandwiches, and went on a fishing boat and caught tuna that was later turned into a red-sauced pasta dish.

Eating great food, especially the kind that can’t be found at home, has always been an important part of travel. According to the nonprofit culinary education and research group World Food Travel Association, 93% of travelers create longlasting memories based on their experiences with a region’s food and beverages.

But in a new twist for many travel companies, consumption is taking a back seat to providing a closer look at where food comes from, cooking traditions and the cultural forces that shape local cuisine.

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“We design trips to use food as the lens for understanding and connecting to local traditions,” says Jim Kane, founder of Culture Xplorers, which specializes in trips to South America and the Iberian Peninsula. “I’m on a quest to connect travelers with local people, culture and traditions. There is no better catalyst than food. It encompasses learning about ecosystems, ancient traditions, art and history.”

Most of Kane’s clients—about 90%—are ages 50 to 80, and they typically take nine-day trips that cost $5,000 to $8,000 per person plus airfare. One of the most popular itineraries is the 10-day “Chile: Farms, Fjords and Flavor,” which for 2019 starts at $5,995 plus airfare. Travelers visit the fjords and farms of Chiloé Island in southern Chile. The group participates in cooking a curanto. They go clamming at low tide, “then dig a pit and cook on superheated rocks, covered with wild rhubarb plants,” Kane says. Another highlight is visiting the private rural cabin of a chef who raises rabbits and ducks.

“Roots, Revolutionaries,” another Culture Xplorers tour, includes a visit with scientists at a research station near Belém, Brazil. Travelers learn about native bees, including the stingless Amazonian honeybee, and taste wild honey straight from the hive.

Add Exercise to a Foodie Expedition

A culinary tour can be combined with adventure travel. Heather Dowd and husband Beppe Salerno, co-founders of Tourissimo, combine biking with food tours of Italy, so travelers such as the Kageys can enjoy local gastronomy and still fit into their clothes afterward. “We offer true insider access. Beppe and I spend half the year in Italy scouting new locations and connecting with local producers,” Dowd says.

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Their newest offerings are chef bike tours, led by chef-riders to explain a region’s history, climate and culture, as well as aspects of local gastronomy. For example, an eight-day trip, including six days of riding through Sicily, is scheduled for May 4 to May 11, 2019, and costs $4,995 plus airfare. Led by chef Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins, a former Top Chef contestant, the tour group will cycle through rural Sicily, where olive, orange and almond trees grow, and ride south through the landscape of saline, which are artificial ponds where salt is collected. Travelers will discover how the volcanic soil of Sicily is ideal for growing vegetables and grapes and learn about cannolis, the ricotta-filled pastries that originated there.

In the Kageys’ group, all 18 travelers were age 50 to 65. They biked 30 to 60 miles a day on hilly terrain. Electric bicycles are available, and a support van follows the route, which is handy “if someone gets tired or drinks too much wine at lunch,” Dowd says.

In the U.S., Alaska adventure company Within the Wild, based in Anchorage, runs two rural lodges and combines activities, such as heli-skiing, snowboarding and bear-viewing by plane, with a cooking school located on a repurposed crabbing boat, which was formerly a World War II–era troop carrier. “The boat looks like Noah’s Ark,” says co-owner Kirsten Dixon. Led by staff foragers, guests seek wild edible herbs, flowers and mushrooms; learn how to make their own sea salt from seaweed; and board fishing boats to catch, fillet and cook local salmon.

Even if you aren’t booking a culinary tour, you may find local culinary experiences while you travel on your own. NOSHtrekker helps travelers experience how families eat in Singapore by matching diners with locals who share common interests, such as wellness, art or history. The local hosts prepare a meal that is served in their home. “The meals have a strong storytelling aspect, and the hosts serve food that is not widely found in restaurants,” says co-founder Sarah Tan. For example, one host, the former fire chief of Singapore, spoke to his dinner guests about life before Singapore’s 1965 independence. The cost to attend a dinner: $85 to $280 per person.

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Choosing the right kind of culinary travel requires research. Don Kagey advises asking questions to determine whether the trip offers the right balance of travel, culture and activities. “I’m used to riding 50 to 60 miles a day. My wife isn’t,” Don says. But because the tour offered electric bikes and a van for those who wanted a rest, he says that evened things out. He also recommends vetting the experts. “Our guides at Tourissimo and the chefs knew the terrain literally, gastronomically, culturally and linguistically,” he says.

Linda Williams, 62, of Liberty, Mo., has gone on two culinary trips with Culture Xplorers to Portugal and to Spain. “I could determine quality before signing up by looking up information about the locations and the guides leading the trip,” she says.

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Williams returned home with memories that a “casual tourist could only dream about.” For instance, she toured a small sheep farm in the hills near Tolosa, Spain, that produced award-winning Idiazabal cheese, and she watched a dog herding a flock of Latxa sheep. Her tour group also met a farmer who was instrumental in saving a nearly extinct breed of heritage floppy-eared pigs. “In their centuries-old farmhouse, his wife prepared a lunch of local meats, fish caught and cured by the farmer, and homemade wine,” she says. “We ate at big wooden tables in a rustic room with a large hearth. It was a delicious experience.”