On a sun-dappled terrace in California’s wine region, a restaurateur brings guests flutes of sparkling wine and a platter gracefully arranged with triangles of chalky white cheese and slices of strawberry and apple. “Now,” he says, raising his own glass, “prepare to taste the terroir of Northern California. The sparkling wine comes from the vineyards just behind me. This chevre is from the cheesemaker down the road. These strawberries? The farm over the hill. And these delicious apples? They’re from my friend’s orchard 20 miles west of here.”

A decade ago, it would have been rare to hear a restaurateur speak to guests about both “taste” and “terroir,” the first word so common and plain, the second so fancy and foreign—and normally reserved for wine cognoscenti. But today, their union expresses a trend among travelers, who increasingly seek distinctive culinary experiences to understand and enjoy the character of a place.

“Food is the skeleton key to great travel. If you follow the food, you’ll find whatever else you’re looking for—the people, the adventure.”

— James Rigato, chef at AAA Diamond restaurant Mabel Gray

The ever-expanding menu of culinary experiences offer many ways to savor the essence of a travel destination. Now, ardent connoisseurs and casual road trippers alike routinely trace off-the-beaten-path apple trails in North Carolina, cheese routes in Wisconsin and chocolate roads in Connecticut. Parents plan their spring breaks around food festivals, from chicken wings in Chicago to maple syrup in Indiana.

On an Alaskan cruise excursion, couples dig in at an authentic salmon bake, learning about a custom every bit as iconic to the Last Frontier as barbecue is to Texas. Elsewhere, overseas adventurers get paired with a master chef to learn the art of preparing restaurant-quality sushi. Travelers in cities from Seattle to Seville sample the wares of street-food vendors, hungry for insight into local tastes.

Another telling example of this trend: food markets. Traditionally, travelers flocked to museums and monuments to gain an appreciation of a place. The new culinary travelers veer toward the local market, finding a real-world classroom that not only sensuously showcases regional and seasonal fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl and meat, but also offers a slice of everyday life: They can watch the perfectly coiffed Parisian housewife heft a melon, sniff it, then haggle over its price with the neighborhood greengrocer; or the eagle-eyed sushi chef banter with a fishmonger in Tokyo’s tumultuous Tsukiji fish market, while evaluating the tuna, yellowtail and snapper with a Zen master’s calm.

In some cities, you can even spend a day with local residents, shopping in the market with them, then bringing the delectable ingredients home to dice, slice, simmer, stir-fry and eat together.

Dishing About Dining

Social media plays an important role in culinary travel, providing digital display cases for the selfie-worthy spectrum of foods that fellow travelers are consuming on their adventures. Mouth-watering and mind-bending Instagram shots and Facebook posts are familiarizing edibles that were once unimaginable.

The results of the culinary travel trend are, well, delicious: Whether near or far, culinary experiences enlarge our understanding of the world’s diversity in taste and in tradition. They link us anew to the water, air, sun and soil that sustain us all, and they seed deep-rooted connections that nurture both body and soul.

Bon voyage—and bon appetit!

Hungry For More?

A local AAA Travel Advisor can help you find and book tours, cruises and more that are chock-full of the culinary experiences.