There's no question that food-focused vacations are a trend that's been on the rise for a few years now. As a central aspect of any country's culture, food is a point of entry into experiencing and beginning to understand another place when we travel, and practically everyone in the travel industry recognizes this, from travel agents and tour operators to hoteliers. When it comes to travel, food sells: These days, your vacation is as likely to involve foraging wild edibles and then taking an intensive cooking class with a famous chef as it is indulging in a tasting marathon on a street food or market tour or booking the chef's table at a top restaurant.
But what are the best food-focused vacation options for parents raising foodie kids? The question occurred to me while staying at the W Retreat Resort & Spa on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, last year. My four-year old daughter (who loves cooking and baking as much as she loves eating) took a cooking class with the resort's executive chef and without question, it was a highlight of the trip for her, even more than the beach and the pool. Since then, my husband and I have been on the look-out for special places–especially in Latin America–where we can give her a repeat experience or something even more immersive and memorable. Here are a few of the spots that have made it onto our list of possibilities for a family foodie vacation.
The Place: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
The Hotel: Grand Palladium Bavaró Suites Resort & Spa
The Experience: This resort, located in Punta Cana, has three kids' clubs that are tiered by age: the baby club for 1-3 year olds, a mini club for kids between 4 and 12, and the junior club for kids 13 and up. Among all the usual fun and sun activities the kids' clubs offer, there are also cooking classes and cookie decorating sessions for kids in the mini club program. While cooking classes have become fairly standard activities in kids' clubs at all-inclusive resorts, what we like about the Grand Palladium's class is that it focuses on traditional Dominican food. Move over, mini pizza; my kid has graduated to mofongo and mangú!
Other pluses: This resort has eight on-site restaurants and 15 bars. Cuisine ranges from Asian to Mexican, so on a week-long vacation, you can have a different food experience every night if you don't plan to spend much time off-property. And while we love some of the foodie offerings at the nearby Paradisus Resort (including sushi-making and fruit art classes, as well as the resort's partnership with Michelin-starred Chef Martin Berasategui), its restaurants are not family-friendly; kids on vacation with their parents have to go to an evening camp or their parents have to arrange babysitting service. At Grand Palladium, kids are welcome at any restaurant.
The Place: Los Cabos, Mexico
The Property: Culinary Cottages at Flora Farm
The Experience: The twin towns of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas on the southern point of Mexico's Baja California peninsula have long drawn vacationing families, many of whom are repeat visitors. They come here for the weather, the beach, and the abundance of outdoor activities, which range from dune-buggying in the desert to snorkeling, swimming, and deep-sea diving.
Most of the region's top resorts, including Esperanza, an Auberge Resort, and the One and Only Palmilla, offer standard cooking classes for kids (a pastry class at Esperanza and a pizza-making class at One and Only Palmilla), but the recent addition of the Culinary Cottages at Flora Farm ups the wow factor considerably. The working farm and top-ranked farm-to-table restaurant recently debuted 10 “culinary cottages,” each with master kitchens. Guests, including kids, have “picking rights” to gather their own food from the farm; they can also take cooking classes on-site. When you're not stirring a pot, you and your kids can take a dip in the community pool or relax farm-sore muscles in the hot tub. Future plans include installing a bocce ball court and a spa with a yoga and Pilates studio.
The Place: Machu Picchu, Peru
The Hotel: Sumaq Machu Picchu Luxury Hotel
The Experience: As one of Latin America's top foodie destinations, it's no surprise that a growing number of high-end hotels in Peru offer a range of options for guests who want to have an immersive food experience. One of them is Sumaq Machu Picchu Luxury Hotel, located on the banks of the Vilcanota River near Machu Picchu. In addition to on-site cooking classes where guests learn to create traditional Peruvian dishes with fresh ingredients typical of southern Peru, families can also choose to participate in the Pachamanca cooking class and ceremony. Working with local chefs, guests learn ancient Incan cooking methods, such as building and cooking in an underground stone oven, as well as more about Incan culture in general; it's a fun, hands-on way for kids to learn a bit of history. Other options include cooking classes themed around Amazonian ingredients, learning to make the perfect ceviche, and–for parents–perfecting your pisco sour.
The Place: Otavalo, Ecuador
The Hotel and Outfitter: Hacienda Zuleta – VIP Tour Group
The Experience: My family could really use a vacation that's off-the-grid, and Hacienda Zuleta sounds like it fits the bill. This 4,000-acre working farm, which belongs to the family of a former president, is located in a cloud forest about one and a half hours from Quito; the closest town is Otavalo, which is renowned for its arts and crafts. In addition to harvesting organic vegetables, many of which are used in the on-site restaurant (ensuring you'll all eat well), families can learn about and participate in the process of making artisanal cheese. And when you're not in the kitchen, the hacienda has a host of activities to keep you and the kids immersed in nature, including horseback riding and carriage rides, observing their Andean condor rehabilitation program, mountain biking, and watching artisans embroider textiles in the on-site workshop. Organize your trip through VIP Tour Group, which also offers food-focused vacations for families in several other Central and South American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile.
The Place: San Sebastian, Spain
The Outfitter: Langua Tours
The Experience: San Sebastian is a no-brainer of a vacation destination if you're interested in food; the city is home to five Michelin-starred restaurants and, for families, it's hard to find a place where kids are more welcome-- at practically every pintxo bar you'll see little ones running around while parents enjoy croquetas and txakoli.
Those features alone would be plenty to draw me there for a family vacation focused on food, but when I learned about Langua Travel's cultural immersion programs that combine language learning AND cooking, the city quickly moved to the top of my “Where to Go on Our Next Family Vacation” list. Langua coordinates intensive cooking classes at San Sebastian's Basque Culinary Institute; over the course of nine hours of training, you and the kids can learn how to prepare Basque classics. The outfitter can also assist you with selecting and booking accommodations if you so choose; options include the four-star Hotel Londres or a homestay with a local family.
The Place: Costa Rica
The Outfitter: Wildland Adventures
The Experience: Costa Rica has long attracted families interested in active, outdoor vacations; increasingly, nature immersion activities are also being complemented by culinary experiences. Wildland Adventures is the outfitter to hire here; it offers several different family-friendly trip options that incorporate meaningful food experiences into your travel itinerary.
One of them is a visit to Vida Campesina, in Arenal, where kids get to harvest vegetables directly from the garden, learn how to make tortillas by hand, and turn fresh sugarcane into juice. They'll also get to meet a local farmer and have lunch with him and his family before learning about how to convert organic waste into biogas and fertilizer.
Wildland has itineraries for nearly every region of the country and tours geared to match a range of interests. If you're particularly interested in chocolate or coffee, for example, there are hands-on experiences where you and your kids can learn more about each. Every itinerary involves farm time and hands-on cooking in the kitchen with knowledgeable locals.
The Place: The Open Sea!
The Outfitters: CLIA-member cruise line, Oceania Cruises
The Experience: I'm not entirely sure my family is the cruising type, but if we were to try a boat-based vacation, we'd likely opt for Oceania Cruises' foodie sails around the Caribbean or Central America. Oceania is the only cruise line that has a Bon Appétit Culinary Center, a cooking school at sea. Available on select ships, sails with culinary centers that feature itineraries to Spanish-speaking destinations include the Explore Marina, which visits Peru, and Explore Riviera, which pulls into port in Barcelona. Each culinary center features a robust roster of classes, some general and some specialist; options include “Mastering Fish,” the Caribbean-focused “Tropical Breezes,” and “Viva España,” among many others. Courses, which are taught by master chefs, may also include a market tour in the port of call.