That food is one of the greatest things about foreign travel is obvious; that it is now one of the primary reasons for it and often the ultimate highlight of a trip says something about the world’s current obsession with food as well as the improvements that have been made to accommodate travellers’ tastes.
There’s something visceral about both food and travel: together, they are a potent combination and no matter how many TV shows, Instagram pictures or Facebook posts we see, we just never seem to get tired of it. Perhaps this is because the variety is endless and, in today’s increasingly superficial world, food offers us a chance to stop and reflect and, on a genuine and corporeal level, connect, however briefly, with the places that we visit. The best examples of this offer a crossover between ourselves and the cultures and ways of life we’ve worked so hard and paid so much to get to; to an extent, good food even validates our holiday choices.
A recipe for well-being: What's inside
Bad holiday-food experiences are a wasted opportunity and detract from the overall experience. These range from having to resort to a Starbucks or McDonald’s, to getting ill. Yet don’t let fear of becoming sick – say from eating street food in India – stunt your experience. Do your research and trust your instincts and you will find incredible food, often at very cheap prices, that elevates your experience from good to sublime. I’ll never forget my first experiences of travelling in Spain, where I worked at an international work camp deep in the Alpujarras in Andalusia. The days were long and dusty and the accommodation spartan, but the simple, fresh taste of the tomatoes, onions and crusty bread delivered by a local farmer – combined with fresh air, scenery and friendly faces – made it all worthwhile. Or Thailand, where healthy, fresh, fiery curries can be had for as little as Dh10, or drinking fresh coconut water in Bangladesh and India for just a few fils – and how good it made me feel. Probably my all-time favourite food experiences have been in Italy, walking the Cinque Terre and eating in local restaurants every day, and in Sardinia, where, in the main town Cagliari, I was fed a sensational seafood lunch by an elderly husband-and-wife team in their small, traditional restaurant. They didn’t speak a word of English, but it didn’t matter. Their food spoke for them.
In much of the world, where traditional ways of life still prevail, food is prepared properly and from scratch – sometimes the full process can take days. From handmade tofu and mung-bean noodles in China to home-made mezze and fresh-baked bread and barbecued meat in Jordan, cooked Bedouin-style in a firepit, food is also, often, an unexpected bargain. Knowing a local is always a good place to start, but, if you do a bit of research, there’s the added satisfaction of finding a great place, by yourself, that isn’t in the guidebooks.
Of course the wrong sort of food, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, is also the source of many of today’s health problems, and a multitude of health spas have developed to cater to people who wish to use their holiday time to detox, or simply find out what is wrong with them. Here, we look at the many options.
Many factors have led to the current profusion of organised, food-based trips: a dislike for the hit-and-miss meal potential of a do-it-yourself holiday, a demand to have top-quality food experiences at every turn, an increasing number of travellers with special requirements, or limited time. While many group trips that employ a local guide will, by their very nature, offer great meals, smooth communication and safety, some tour operators have gone one step further in offering itineraries or even just accommodation where food is central to the entire experience.
The best meals are made with seasonal, local produce, so, for a broad-based search, Responsible Travel is a good place to start. Its website features 89 "cooking and food holidays and tours", in Europe, India and the Americas. On offer is everything from a small, rustic agriturismo in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus to more far-flung foodie adventures. Booked through Responsible Travel, a three-night gastronomy break in Catalonia, Spain, costs from €480 (Dh1,910) per person, excluding flights.
While most of the world's major tour operators now offer food tours, one company that stands out is Intrepid Trave. It offers 21 "Real Food Adventures" in countries including Vietnam, Peru, Morocco, China and India. Its two-week India group trip involves a tour of north India, Mumbai and Goa and includes street food, cooking classes and demonstrations, visits to markets and even some normal sightseeing; prices from US$2,070 (Dh7,600) per person, excluding international flights.
If cooking is your primary interest, make sure you book an even more specialised trip. On the Menu promises that you will "learn to cook sensational food in spectacular locations". These include France, Italy, Jordan and Morocco. Its seven-night Jordan holiday is based at a dedicated cookery school close to Petra (accommodation is at Taybet Zaman, a renovated village that has been turned into a hotel). Prices are from $2,879 (Dh10,574) per person based on two sharing, excluding flights to Jordan.
For trips where food is a major part of the trip, Emirates Holidays has started offering various specialised packages, including a six-night self-drive gastronomy tour of Scotland, which focuses heavily on seafood and takes you from the east coast across the Highlands to Loch Lomond. The trip costs from Dh8,200 per person, including return flights from Dubai, B&B accommodation, two dinners, car rental, visits and all taxes.
Vegetarians will delight in VegiVentures, a company offering very reasonably priced trips to the UK, Turkey, Peru and the Caribbean. Prices currently start at £240 (Dh1,300) for seven nights' half board at the Yuva Eco Holiday Centre on a beautiful stretch of Turkey's Lycian coast (price excludes flights and transfers). Far from being spartan, the food is mostly traditional and organic, prepared by local chefs, reflecting the local environment.
HEALTH/LIFESTYLE-BASED FOOD HOLIDAYS
The health spa industry is huge, and companies offering to transform your life can whack a massive premium onto what would otherwise be a very cheap holiday. Unless you have really pressing health concerns, always weigh up (no pun intended) the corresponding costs – and, frankly, discomfort – of going on a specialist holiday versus a few do-it-yourself days – in Turkey or Thailand, say, with pure food, no alcohol, meat or caffeine, a few massages and an hour of yoga each day.
Yet while eating well abroad is one of life’s greatest luxuries, it’s also true that a holiday provides a great opportunity to try out or kick-start a lifestyle change. Away from the office and released from your usual chores, out in the fresh air and with someone else doing the catering, it’s much easier to let go of toxic habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating processed food. Away from your usual stress triggers, you can find out what diet may suit you better, and also have time to deal with the often painful withdrawal symptoms you may suffer as a result of any detox.
Many health programmes will focus on digestion, and it’s these kinds of breaks that will make you realise the true cost of poor eating habits.
The austere but highly praised FX Mayr Health Center in Austria emphasises the importance of chewing and fasting, and lays down strict rules on what and when you can eat or drink. Its most basic week-long programme, consisting of medical examinations and a handful of treatments, costs from €1,200 (Dh4,780) per week, excluding accommodation.
It’s a similar set-up at the Palace Merano in Italy’s Alto Adige, a beautiful, German-influenced part of northern Italy. The minimum regime is six days, and, as at the Mayr, the whole philosophy of fasting and its benefits are explained, to sweeten the medicine. Hydro-aromatherapy, phyto-mudbaths and cold plunges are par for the course. A six-day, seven-night programme including accommodation, compulsory medical assessment including blood tests, and a complete detox programme costs from €5,300 per person (this price is based on a single room).
Many participants of fasting programmes report becoming irritable, sleeping poorly and even feeling depressed before they begin to feel better, lighter, fitter and more mentally clear, so make sure you set forth enough time and clear your diary.
In Hua Hin in Thailand, Chiva-Som is famous for its spa cuisine, which harnesses local ingredients and traditional cooking methods, such as lightly steaming vegetables, to create great-tasting, super-healthy food. There is an enormous range of highly tailored medical and non-medical programmes on offer; these tend towards the easy rather than harsh. Prices from 66,000 baht (Dh7,440) for three nights, including a basic programme, food and accommodation, but without flights
If you want to combine sensible eating with exercise, a good choice is Wild Fitness, which also forbids alcohol, caffeine and most carbs, but serves up delicious local foods in their place, and offers talks on nutrition. Its trips run in Zanzibar, Spain, Greece and the Isle of Wight in the UK. Its two-week "revitalise" course in Zanzibar (next departure May 2 to May 16, 2015), costs from £3,816 (Dh20,860) per person, including all meals, classes, assessments and workshops.
Also more holistic is Kamalaya in Thailand's Koh Samui. Its "comprehensive detox and rejuvenation programme" starts at 230,000 baht (Dh26,000) per person for seven nights. Included is accommodation, all food, a detailed prescribed programme (a huge choice of Ayurvedic and other approaches is available), airport transfers, consultations and a handful of spa treatments.