Thursday, October 27, 2011

Culinary Excursions

A large part of travel is, of course, food. And it makes sense, because most of the time, the places we visit have cuisine that is completely different from our home town, especially if you venture to a different country. Personally, I don't feel I have truly experienced a place until I've eaten one of its local specialities. If you can find a trip that not only offers unique delicacies, but also an opportunity to learn about the culinary process of making it, then you've really got something special.
I have had the privilege of partaking in some of these activities, and I highly recommend them. If you happen to go to Sienna, Italy, I suggest signing up for a personal cooking class. I, along with my family and friends, got the chance to cook with a Tuscan-style chef right in the comfort of her own kitchen. We chopped, sliced, seasoned, sipped and tasted our way through the afternoon, enjoying classic dishes like bruschetta, chickpea soup a four herb pasta. We ate each dish as it was prepared, heading back into the kitchen after each one to dive into the next, all the while drinking glass after glass of Italian wine.

Being from Colorado, I know a number of quality brewery tours that give you a first-hand glance at the beer-makign process...but these can usually be found in any city nowadays, especially with the popularity of craft beers in our culture. However, I recently stumbled upon a new business in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood called Brew & Grow, where home brewers can buy all the supplies they need to make beer on their own. Not only that, but it offers beer making classes, where you can make your own stout or ale, learn about flavors and consistency, as well as what food is best to pair with it. It's a great way to learn about a local activity while experiencing a city that is becoming a big player in the craft brew arena.

I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that covers a couple more food getaways for the upcoming harvest season. One in particular that caught my interest--and this should be no surprise to my readers--was the Grape Education at Blackberry Farm in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. In mid-November, the farm hosts its Wine Geek 101 event, where guests learn all about wine tasting, selection and pairing. You can also partake in cooking demonstrations and tours of the farm. It's relatively pricey ($1,200 per person) but if you have the time and funds, I think it would be a magical trip.
Of the other suggestions, I think the next one I would pick is the bread making in Bath, England. Not exactly the easiest location to get to, but for fresh Italian and French bread, I think it's worth it. The five day course costs $300 a day, with one- and three-day courses available, too. An award-winning chef leads the class, where you learn how to make a vast array of different breads, and at the end, I'm pretty sure you get to eat some, too.

For the autumn season, when cooking and comfort food reign supreme (how many days until Thanksgiving?), it seems appropriate to indulge in a culinary excursions. The best part about them is that they can usually be squeezed into a quick weekend trip, making it super easy to enjoy another location on short notice.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Chocoholic Adventures

As I stepped off the train this morning, my nose caught a whiff of that ever familiar scent that drifts through the area of River North around Merchandise Mart: Chocolate. Fresh chocolate. The Blommer Chocolate Company, the largest cocoa bean and chocolate manufacturer in North America, is just a few blocks west of my office, and when they start cooking up their confectionary masterpieces, the whole neighborhood can smell the decadent treats.

It's common knowledge among those who know me that chocolate is a weakness of mine, a vice, if you will. I have cravings--at least three or four a day--for chocolate, and I never get sick of it. I could have chocolate every day for the rest of my life, and I would die happy. You can deem me a true chocoholic.

So, in honor of Blommer's latest batch of goodies, and the fact that this is Chocolate Week (no I didn't make that up) in Europe, I found a list of explorations specifically geared toward travelers who love chocolate. October for Europeans is all about chocolate, but luckily you don't have to go on these trips during this month only, because this sweet should be celebrated all year round.

While a couple of the trips are more about enjoying the spa-benefits of cocoa (the two-hour Symphony in Chocolate in Austria, and the Mayan chocolate massage in Mexico) most of them are all about eating! Which is something I am all for. Of the tasting adventures, participating in the chocolate making process in St. Lucia sounds like the most exciting, simply because it's a hands-on experience that takes you through every step of chocolate making--from picking the beans from the plantation to taking that first satisfactory bite. Another one that caught my eye was the all-you-can-eat chocolate bar in Boston. Not only is it close enough that I could make a quick weekend trip of it, but it's also in one of my favorite cities in the country--plus my best friend lives there! And, let's be honest, how could anyone turn down something that combines chocolate and all-you-can-eat? Probably my third favorite trip is the chocolate and wine pairing at the Hahndorf Hill Winery in Australia, which is known for its pairings. The ChocoVino Experience is my ideal activity, because it brings together chocolate and my other vice, wine. Totally meant for me.

While these three are at the top of my list, all the others sound interesting and delicious. I mean, who wouldn't enjoy a chocolate tour through Bruges, Belgium, one of the most famous places for world-class cocoa. Or what about a cooking class in France to learn how to make your own delectable chocolate dishes? It all sounds so incredible, and perhaps one day I will get to experience each of these chocoholic adventures.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Win a Free Flight to Japan

Japan's tourism has been struggling the last six months after an earthquake and tsunami struck the country in March, causing millions of dollars in damage and lingering concerns over exposure to nuclear radiation. As a result, many people have opted out of visiting Japan, and the tourism industry is desperate to attract travelers.

So, in an effort to lure more visitors, Japan's board is hoping to get a plan approved to give away up to 10,000 free flights to Japan. It could cost the country over $10 million to do, but the hope is that it will encourage people to plan more vacations there and help boost the economy.

So, what's the catch?

Well, in exchange for free airfare, Japan is asking travelers to share their (positive) experiences via blog posts and social media outlets. It doesn't seem like too much to ask, in my opinion, since I love to write about my travels already. Also, visitors still have to pay for their own lodging, food and other necessities once they get there, but more often than not, airfare tends to be the most expensive part of a trip. It's probably not that difficult to find a decently priced hotel in Japan, and with some savvy budgeting tricks, paying for food and transport should not be that bad.

If the Japanese government approves the plan, the tourism board could start accepting applications as early as April 2012. And if that happens, I fully intend on submitting one.

Who knows, I could end up winning a free flight, giving me the chance to see a countrry I've been dying to see for years.

Pan Am: A Glimpse of Travel History

Pan Am is a new fall show that premiered on ABC a couple weeks ago and follows the lives of stewardesses and pilots working for the largest international airline during the 1960s. The women live a privileged life, jetting off to exotic locales each week, like London, Paris and Berlin, experiencing some of our country's most significant historical events.

While the storyline is clearly embellished for dramatic effect--and to please viewers--there is some truth in the series. The uniforms, daily attire and plane design are extremely accurate, proving that the shows' producers did their homework. Another aspect of the industry's history that the show touches on is the high standards that stewardesses had to meet, especially when it came to their appearance. They had to be a certain size--and that wasn't because the planes had a weight requirement--and were weighed every week to make sure the numbers on the scale did not inch up. Stewardesses were more than crew members who brought travelers meals and assisted them in boarding, they were objects to be looked at, especially from the successful business men sitting in first class. They had to be classy, sophisticated and always prepared, beacuse at every moment they were in uniform, they were representing Pan Am.

Apart from the period-appropriate outfits, settings and behaviors, the show also gives viewers today a glimpse into a completely different time for our country, when planes were considered a luxurious way to travel rather than just another commute to get through; when the Cold War and Communism were the main terrorist threats to America; when there was no such thing as a cell phone and people still wrote letters and postcards to stay in touch.

Perhaps my infatuation with the show is that each week they get to go somewhere else, somewhere new and exciting. It makes me envious of the stewardess lifestyle, because they get to see all these places I may never visit. Obviously, the life of flight attendants today may not be as glamorous as it was back then, but that's what I love about it, I can escape to another world for an hour each Sunday night, exploring the world with these women as they deal with their own personal dilemmas. I will admit, it has become my new guilty pleasure.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Observations in the Travel World

I have been chained to my desk as of late and, as a result, travel excursions have been limited. However, the number of travel stories I have read has been quite abundant, and my thoughts have been reeling all day--let's face it, the last few days--about everything that has been going on. So, in an effort to get my thoughts out there--and to finally post something after a long absence--I've decided to discuss some of my observations.

American Airlines

As many of you may or may not know, American Airlines is not doing so hot. In fact, its stock prices fell to their lowest point since 2009 last week, and there have been rumors that it will file for bankruptcy. American is the leader in declines among major airlines, and investors said they think the airline will run out of cash reserves. What's worse? Other airlines saw a drop in their stocks after news of American's poor performance, causing many of them to cut capacity and, possibly, raise fares--two things that are never good for travelers. So what does this mean? Well, it could lead to the downfall of one of the largest airlines in the U.S., a company that felt it was too big to fail back in 2008 when the recession started and was the only big name that did not file for bankruptcy protection at that time. It certainly is not a promising sign for the airline industry, especially since analysts expect air travel demand to slump at the end of this year, even with the busy holiday season ahead. I, personally, have only flown American a couple times in my life, and I've never been all that impressed with it. I usually opt for UnitedContinental or a budget airline like Frontier. In all honesty, this kind of failure may be exactly what American Airlines needs to turn things around. But bankruptcy is, for now, only a rumor, and there is no telling if it will actually happen.

New Planes, New Seating

After a three year delay, Boeing finally delivered its first 787 Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways a couple weeks ago, and UnitedContinental said it will fly the jet in 2012. The new jet uses technology like lightweight composites and advanced propulsion that are said to increase fuel economy and environmental sensitivity. While I may not get the chance to fly on one of these jets in the near future, it is still exciting to see something so innovative come on the scene. I can only imagine the passenger experience these new planes will provide. Since UnitedContinental plans to use them on only two international routes--Houston to Auckland, New Zealand; and Houston to Lagos, Nigeria--I guess I will need to save up as much money and vacation days as possible in order to book a ticket.

In other plane news, Lufthansa reconfigured the seats in its jets, allowing it to add more rows while still providing passengers with plenty of legroom. I know what you're thinking, it doesn't seem to add up. How can you squish seats together, adding at least two to three more rows, and still give people more room? Well, you install thinner seats. The airline replaced thick foam padding with strong mesh and placed the magazine pocket at the top of the seatback to give passengers more room for their knees. I think this is a trend we will be seeing more often, since many airlines are being forced to cut flights due to financial woes and are trying to find more ways to bring in revenue. Adding extra seating will help make up for money lost from other cuts. Plus, the seats still take into account passenger comfort and satisfaction, meaning everyone wins!

The Airbus A380 is a double-decker jet that seats about 500 passengers, but Korean Air has rolled out its own layout with 407 seats. It has three sections: first class, prestige or business class, and economy class. The entire top deck is for prestige class and the first class suites have 24-inch HD screens. Also, it will have a duty-free shop at the back of the plane, as well as three bars: a self-serve bar on each deck and a "Celestial Bar" in the back of the top deck. Um...I think the description says it all.

Cheap Tickets/Giveaways

LAN Airlines, a Chilean carrier, selected a Latin American-themed restaurant in New York City where it gave out free vouchers for round-trip tickets to South America. Yeah, that's right. If you were at Nuela last Thursday night, you were one of the lucky diners who recieved a free flight. It doesn't seem fair that those people should get that kind of prize just for being in the right place at the right time, but it's all part of a larger marketing campaign for the airline. And let's be honest, I wouldn't complain at all if my dinner was interupted by a woman handing me a free flight to a foreign country. In fact, that would make my meal even more enjoyable.

Even though I didn't get a flight for free, I was able to take advantage of a limited-time holiday sale from Southwest Airlines. I had been scouring the travel websites the last couple weeks trying to find a reasonable price for a flight home for Christmas. However, I was not having much luck finding anything for under $300, so I figured I would hold off the search for another week, and lo and behold a deal came along. I was able to snag one-way tickets on Chicago-Denver routes for $99! And over Christmas...a definite steal in my opinion. So now I've booked my holiday trip home and I am so excited that I get to spend the money I saved on more gifts for my family! (Or on a new pair of shoes for myself, but I'm not that selfish.)

In Closing...

Those are the travel stories and experiences that have been on my mind lately. I apologize for not having anything more exciting, but I do hope to follow up with some destinations pieces in the coming days. So feel free to chime in on these topics and leave comments and opinions. I love reading them!