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Foodie cities and scenes

A culinary focus commands travelers’ attention (and appetites)
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posted April 3, 2018
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Remember the days when travel was all about the destination and the sightseeing it offered? Do you recall when food was just something you partook of between museum visits … or when travel was all about feeding your intellect and your craving for adventure—and not your stomach?

Well if so, then you’re remembering travel before the advent of the slow food movement, the farm-to-table evolution or even the farm-to-fork renaissance. These days, destinations are often selected—at least in part— for their commitment to unique food and drink experiences as essential travel components. 

These five NTA-member destinations have plenty to offer tour operators whose clients are a hungry and thirsty bunch.


Napa, California: We’ll take food with that wine 

It’s no secret that, with 400 wineries, Napa Valley is one of the premier wine destinations in the world. But what some don’t know is that the long, slender valley has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any of the world’s other wine regions. 

Your group can eat and drink to their hearts’ content on specialty tours such as True Taste of the Napa Valley. If tour operators book by May, they can work with a Napa food and wine expert who will curate an experience designed just for their group. 

“Walk. Taste. Sip,” is the slogan of the Napa Culinary Crawl, offered every other month starting in February. Groups can enjoy downtown Napa’s wine tasting rooms and restaurants, with each stop featuring specially prepared bites paired with specialty drinks.

Napa Harvest Table
Calistoga's Harvest Table (Photo by Tim Carl)

Two fall events showcase the best of the valley. Celebrate September harvest with Calistoga’s Harvest Table. A 1,000- foot long table is set up in the center of Lincoln Avenue, offering bounty from 20 of the valley’s top restaurants, and libations from 40 of its wineries and breweries. 

After the grapes come the olives. Bring your group in November, and you can experience the olive harvest. One of the best places to do so is at Round Pond Winery, where guests can taste the estate’s hand-crafted olive oils paired with seasonal bites. 

If you want an experience you can get nowhere else, book your group on the Napa Valley Wine Train, which offers a range of tours including a six-hour journey that features a four-course meal as well as tours and tastings at three wineries. 

Finally, you can arrange a cooking class at the house conceived by two legends—Julia Child and Robert Mondavi. Greystone in St. Helena, once home to the Christian Brothers Winery, is now part of the Culinary Institute of America, and it offers classes for the serious cook and informative tours for the rest of the group. 

For more information, contact Visit Napa Valley’s Corbie Smith or go to visitnapavalley.com


Asheville, North Carolina: America’s Foodtopia 

What can you say about a smallish city in the Smokies that has more than 250 independent restaurants (six of them with James Beard-nominated chefs); 14 farmers markets, including the nation’s first wild foods market; and 1,000 family farms in the surrounding area? 

You can say that Asheville’s vibrant and robust food scene makes it deserving of its moniker, Foodtopia. That is, when it’s not being referred to as Beer City, the result of having the most breweries per capita (1 per 41 residents) in the United States. 

Naturally, a city with this kind of food cred has a lot to offer groups. For starters, Eating Asheville offers walking tours to give foodies an inside look at Foodtopia. You can book your group on the High Roller Tour to sample the creations of the city’s award-winning chefs, or the Classic Tour, where they can enjoy up to seven restaurants in a single afternoon. And if you prefer, the company can tailor a private tour for your group.

Asheville Rooftop Bar
Montford Rooftop Bar at the Hyatt Place hotel, Asheville (Photo by C2 Photography)

Smaller groups (a maximum of 12 people, including the driver) can take advantage of a discounted farm-to-table van tour. These guided tours visit farms specializing in produce, cheese, chicken, beef, lamb and flowers, and they include an opportunity to meet the farmers. Most tours culminate with a farm-driven meal prepared by a local chef. 

If farm-to-table is too tame for your group, book them on a forage-to-table adventure with No Taste Like Home, the only company of its kind in North America. These tours take guests “off the eaten” path into fields and forests to learn about wild foods. Groups can opt to cook their own foraged foods or take them to one of the company’s partner restaurants for a “find dining” experience. No Taste Like Home also offers private, customized tours for groups, with an option for a wild foods cooking class. 

Foraging can be thirsty work, so you might want to include a guided walking tour that takes your group behind the scenes at some of those 41 breweries. Led by a certified beer expert, the walks focus on how brewers shape raw ingredients into their individual vision, and tours include a lot of tasting along the way. 

For more information, go to exploreasheville.com or contact Beth McKinney


Huntsville, Alabama: A food scene that’s out of this world 

Huntsville may be better known as home to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center than for its reputation as a city for foodies, but according to Kristen Pepper, marketing manager for the Huntsville CVB, the culinary scene has taken off in recent years with … well, the speed of a rocket. 

With a number of excellent restaurants in the historical downtown area, your group will be spoiled for choice. A good way to maximize their experience is to book them for Dine and Dash. Held the second Wednesday of every month from April through October, this event includes visits to four downtown establishments for exclusive, specially designed tastings. You can book a large group for a private experience, or if your group is smaller, you can join locals for a true taste of Huntsville. 

Ashley Ryals, owner and founder of Homegrown Huntsville, which coordinates Dine and Dash, explains why this is the perfect group activity. 

“It’s an exciting opportunity to visit several restaurants and to interact with locals,” she says. “However, if your group is 30 or more, we can host private tours and progressive dinners tailored to your specific needs.” 

Old Town Beer Exchange
Old Town Beer Exchange (Photo by Huntsville/Madison County CVB)

If your (small) group wants to cook what they eat, you’re in luck. Local chef and cookbook author C.C. Fridlin conducts classes throughout the year in various venues. If you’re not exactly Rachael Ray or Gordon Ramsay and would prefer chatting instead of actually cooking, James Beard-nominated chef James Boyce holds special events and meet-ups at his three Huntsville restaurants: Cotton Row, Commerce Kitchen and Pane e Vino. 

It’s not just Huntsville’s food scene that is on the upswing; the city has the largest number of breweries per capita of any city in Alabama. Your group can visit two of the breweries at Campus No. 805, a repurposed middle school that is now a major entertainment complex. 

Another way for craft beer lovers to enjoy breweries, tap rooms and bottle shops is on the Downtown Huntsville Craft Beer Trail. Groups can get free trail cards, and once they visit all 10 stops on the trail, they will receive a special “Trail Boss” bottle opener. 

Huntsville has a number of food festivals spread throughout the year, from the Whistlestop Weekend (celebrating the state’s barbecue heritage) to the Big Spring Crush Wine Festival (Alabama’s first winery competition). Perhaps most interesting is the annual Redstone Arsenal Oktoberfest, a traditional German celebration with an Alabama twist. 

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why Huntsville’s food scene has reached stratospheric heights. 

For more information, email the CVB’s Pam Williams or visit huntsville.org


Tucson, Arizona: The first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S. 

Raise your hand if you knew that in 2015, Tucson was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, joining cities in Brazil, China and Sweden and becoming the first in the U.S. to earn the designation. 

Much of it no doubt stems from Tucson having what it calls “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” this side of the border. It’s not just the Mexican influence, however, as Anglo and Native American cuisines also factor into the area’s rich culinary heritage. 

The best way to experience all three is on one of the many food tours. Tucson Food Tours, the city’s original walking food tour, is included in the book “100 Things to do in Tucson Before You Die.” Specializing in custom tours for small or large groups, the staff will handle all the planning for you. 

Want a side of history with your huevos? Or tall tales dished out with your tamales? A Taste of Tucson Downtown is a guided culinary and cultural tour of the historical downtown area that combines regional food (tastings at five restaurants) with history, art and architecture.

Hot dog
Sonoran hot dog (Photo by Visit Tucson)

Sonoran Tasting Tours provides a good way for your group to experience Southern Arizona’s premier wineries. On the tour, you can sample the grapes, enjoy lunch, and bask in the beauty of the Sonoita Valley and Willcox Wine Country. 

Want to say you’ve been in the kitchen with a James Beard Award-winning chef? Well, your group can earn bragging rights during a cooking class with Janos Wilder at his downtown outpost, Carriage House. 

Other noteworthy experiences: See how local whiskey is made—from grain to glass—at Hamilton Distillers (the difference is in the desert flavor of mesquite); try Tucson’s semi-official dish, the Sonoran hot dog (a James Beard America’s Classic award winner); and visit Mission Gardens, a living museum of the Sonoran Desert’s agricultural history, and the site of its first farm fields dating back 4,000 years. 

For more information, go to visittucson.org or email Jackie Ludwig


Viva España: Magnet for Michelin stars 

There are few countries in the world with as rich a culinary history as Spain. Dating back thousands of years, it blends local, Mediterranean and North African influences into a melting pot that is a magnet for Michelin stars. 

Tour operators taking groups to Madrid should check out that city’s gastronomic markets. Some of the centuries-old food markets in historical buildings have been re-imagined as authentic gourmet street markets, where there’s a mixture of traditional and avant-garde. The most famous is Mercado San Miguel, an iron and glass structure housing 20 different vendors selling everything from fish and ham to olives, cheese, wine and the ever-popular tapas. 

Platea, located in a converted cinema, has restaurants, bars and stalls overseen by three chefs who boast six Michelin stars among them. A hip new addition to the city’s foodie scene is Mercado San Ildefonso, with 18 stalls and bars spread across three floors. 

Tour operators should start planning ahead for next year’s Madrid Fusion Summit, which will turn Spain’s capital city into the world’s gastronomic capital. It has been held every year in January since 2003. 

San Sebastian Gastronomika
San Sebastian Gastronomika (Photo by CC Flickr/Queseria la Antigua de Fuentesauco: bit.ly/2oRr8ns)

If Barcelona is your group’s destination, book them on the Barcelona Gourmet Food Tour. You can join an expert guide on a walking tour of the back streets and narrow alleys of historical districts such as the Gothic Quarter, El Born and the Barceloneta, while tasting dishes ranging from a typical Catalan appetizer to a seafood-rich paella or prime beef from Spain’s northern provinces. 

With San Sebastian as its epicenter, the Basque Country in northern Spain is often referred to as “Michelin Star Heaven,” the result of nearly 40 restaurants with the coveted stars. Couple that with the area’s La Rioja wine region and you have what is often described as one of the world’s best gastronomic destinations. 

Food festivals naturally play an important role in Spain. This year’s 20th annual Gastronomika will be held in San Sebastian from October 7 to 10 and will focus on all things culinary—from tastings to interactive presentations by top national and international chefs. 

You won’t want to miss introducing your group to Spain’s national drink, sherry. From Seville, take a day trip to Jerez, famous for its fortified sherry wines. You can visit wineries where the old traditions have been maintained and production methods haven’t changed for centuries. 

For more information, contact Elisa Sainz of the Tourist Office of Spain or go to spain.info.

Top photo: Calistoga's Harvest Table (Napa, California)
Photo by Tim Carl