#MexicanCookingSchool #SighsoftheBride
Sighs of the Bride, one of the recipes taught by Estela Silva at Mexican Home Cooking School

The older I get, the more meaningful I want my travel experiences. The likelihood of taking a dedicated beach vacation is nil. If I opt for a beach locale, there is surely excellent snorkeling or sightseeing like Mayan ruins nearby.

I’m not knocking beach vacations, everyone needs to relax, but sometimes you want more.

Now that I’ve managed to stay at a company long enough to earn 4 weeks of vacation, I have the luxury of taking different types of trips throughout the year. The days of needing a week planted on a chaise lounge to recover from a year of work are hopefully over.

It might take time to find the type of specialty trip that fits your specific interests, but there are more strategies than ever for locating them. Google is always a very good place to start, and more resources are listed at the end of this article.

Educational and specialty travel is perfect for solo travelers. You will spend time with like-minded people who share your interests. In fact, I often meet married people on these trips traveling without spouses who are off pursuing their own hobbies.

Among my current areas of interest that offer travel opportunities, I’ve pinpointed 3 areas that might appeal to you:

Estela demonstrates chile rellenos

Culinary Vacations and Cooking Schools

Three times in three years, I read about Mexican Home Cooking School near Tlaxcala, Mexico. The third article, written by Arthur Frommer about his daughter Pauline’s trip, sold me. I signed up for the 1 week course, and booked a few nights in nearby Puebla before flying home. Estela Silva and her husband Jon Jarvis offer small group classes in English in a marvelous setting. Most students spend a week, but shorter stays are available.

The instruction is excellent. This gabacha is turning out tamales, guacamole and other Mexican dishes that amaze my friends and family. Dishes I never knew existed, like pasilla sauce, bunuelos and something called Sighs of the Bride. Estela’s mole’ recipe is better than any mole’ I sampled in Puebla, where it originated.  In fact, she was featured on the Cooking Channel’s “Chuck’s Week Off” Puebla episode making mole’.

The school is in their home near Atlahapa; classes are in the morning and they have an arrangement with a friendly cab driver for excursions in the afternoon. Cacaxtla, a ruin with still colorful paintings; Puebla; and major destination haciendas are nearby. The town of Tlaxcala is safe, historical and lovely. There is a luxury bus to Tlaxcala several times a day from the Mexico City airport bus terminal or from Puebla, and the school will make all transportation arrangements for you if you are taking the full week course.

The kitchen is bigger than my entire apartment. The well appointed guest rooms are large with private baths and fireplaces that Jon set every night while we ate dinner. There is a separate cottage accommodation in the garden. My room had a private outdoor patio and a view of the lake. Wonderful breakfasts (chilaquiles! sinchronazada) are made and served on the patio by the lovely Maria, who assists with the prep for classes too. She also makes the best Margaritas every night before dinner, with fresh squeezed limes from the trees outside. In class, we prepared the foods we ate for lunch and dinner.

#Gazates #MexicanDessert
My first pastry making experience – gazates waiting to be filled with cream

I was suffering from major allergic reactions to dairy products and they made every effort to accommodate my needs.

Other culinary vacations:

David Lebovitz – renowned pastry chef, chocolate aficionado, Paris blogger who taught me to cook in college leads occasional chocolate/pastry eating tours in France, Belgium and/or Switzerland.

Los Dos – Merida, Mexico. Yucatecan food specialty with market excursions. I haven’t ever had time to take a class there when I’m in Merida, but they are highly recommended.

Patricia Wells and Susan Hermann Loomis – 2 well known expats offering cooking classes in various locations in France. Susan Loomis also teaches in the US occasionally. My parents and I spent hours driving around the Pyrenees in 1989 to find Chalet Pedro, a restaurant reco’d by Patricia Wells and I’m still dreaming of it. I owe her.

Institute for Culinary Education in NYC. A professional culinary school with a solid program of recreational courses. Many are one day or night but several are week-long. I can’t imagine a more tempting vacation than a week of cooking classes in NYC, followed by nights of eating in some of the best restaurants in the world. These are not full programs with housing but ICE could probably assist you with nearby economical hotel options – and if not, the helpful people on the NYC Tripadvisor forum will. Or, email me here and I will assist.

The Saucier’s Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe. Bob Spitz’s thorough and witty look at the cooking schools of France and Italy.

#Maras #salinasperu #saltflatsperu
Maras salt flats near Sacred Valley Peru – never would have found or photographed this without Jim Cline Photo Tours

Photo Tours and Instruction

Jim Cline Photo Tours, who I also discovered via an article on Frommers.com is the only company I would consider for photo tours. Jim and his colleagues Karl Grobl and Ralph Velasco lead small groups to some of the most photogenic destinations in the world – and they are constantly adding new trips. Places like Peru, India, Cambodia, Burma, Oaxaca for Day of the Dead, Cuba. They get a huge percentage of repeat business because the tours are so well organized, the instruction is so thorough, and they are such wonderful people.

On the Jim Cline tour of Peru, Karl Grobl taught me more about my camera in the first 15 minutes than I ever knew. Years later, I still hear the voice of Karl in my head, every time I take a picture. Of course, he can teach technique, but not style and I don’t hold him responsible for the snapshot-y nature of my photos!

I investigated Peru tours for years before booking this trip with them. Normally, I arrange my own trips, but there is so much to see in Peru that is inaccessible without a vehicle that I knew I needed a tour. Most tours from the outdoors companies are short, very expensive and leave no time for shopping. While I would love to stay at a place like the Monasterio in Cusco for $600+/night, I would never do it. Even if they do pump oxygen into your room. Most of the tours select this level of hotel, making a 6 night trip double what Jim Cline charges for 2 weeks, with no photo instruction.

#PisacPeru #colorfulPeru
Pisac, Peru – Procession of town leaders from surrounding villages at weekly market

I forgot if it was a Wilderness Travel or Mountain Travel Sobek rep who scoffed when I asked about visiting the major markets of Peru. They don’t consider that travel; I don’t consider travel without visiting local markets. Pisac and Chinchero markets are high points of Peru, whether or not you buy a thing. Jim Cline recognizes this, and you overnight at Pisac, to be positioned to photograph the market coming alive in the morning and all the processions of the town leaders in ceremonial dress. We had the benefit of being there for Mother’s Day, when most of the local women had sparkles in their hair.

The Jim Cline tours also immerse you in the location. You are not packing and unpacking daily and spending days on buses. You are more likely to spend 3-4 nights in each location, making sure to be it the right spot at the right time of day for the best possible images.

#FlamingoTongue #GloversAtoll #BelizeUnderwater
The elusive Flamingo Tongue mollusk isn’t so elusive at Glover’s Atoll, Belize

Snorkel and Dive Lodges

Two of my best vacations ever have been spent at private island dive resorts off the coast of Belize – and I don’t dive. While these resorts tend to cater to divers, snorkelers are accommodated and the conditions are often more pristine than closer to the mainland. Bonaire is the exception – the shore snorkeling I did there surpassed anywhere I have ever been, but that’s another story.

For someone who wants to learn to dive in a quality environment, you can’t do any better than a week at a resort like Off the Wall in Belize. Most of the guests are certified, and if I was inclined to dive I could have had a private course with one of the best, in-demand dive instructors in Belize – Dorrith.

Off the Wall is located a couple of hours off the coast of Belize by fast boat. You spend the entire week at this gorgeous island at the end of the world, with a small group of guests and employees. There is another small resort on the island – Slickrock – that was closed for the summer when I was there but in the winter season I would imagine it would be fun to have a few more people on the island.


#liveReef #GloversAtoll #BelizeReef
Best reef condition I’ve ever seen near Off the Wall at Glover’s Atoll, Belize

Every day there are boat trips for the divers and snorkelers. Or you can snorkel from shore in front of the resort or kayak to a nearby reef with a sandbar for the boat. Kendra, one of the owners, also has marked and annotated a nature walk around the island where you can locate different types of mangroves and wildlife.

Meals are served buffet style and made by 1 woman, Therese. Coincidentally, she was the cook at the other now closed Belize atoll resort I visited in 2004 – Lighthouse Reef Resort. She bakes all the bread, all the desserts – and prepares and cooks everything. The food is varied and delicious. All the food is brought on the boat on Saturday, except for locally obtained fish and coconuts. You eat family style with the guests and staff at 2 tables, with huge lazy Susans in the middle, laden with Marie Sharp and other Belizean sauces and jams.

The rooms are a little rustic, but have all the comforts you could want. My thatched “hut” had a large private deck with chairs, a hammock – and a million dollar view of the sea and reef. There was a palapa next to it on the beach with adirondack chairs and a chaise. One of many island resident iguanas, dare I say pet, Stumpy – lives in the rocks by the palapa. Sheets are cotton and the pillows are a selection of down and foam. There is adequate storage – and a plastic tub for snacks and electronics to keep them dry and critter free. Beer and rum are available at very reasonable prices.

Off the Wall isn’t for everyone. If you like luxury high rise hotels with marble floors, this might not be your type of place. Google the words “composting toilet” before you commit. I loved the place, and wouldn’t hesistate to go back if there were more shore snorkeling opportunities. Click here for our review and coverage of Off the Wall, with a side trip to Hopkins.

Other atoll dive/fishing resorts in Belize are Turneffe Flats, Hatchet Caye and Turneffe Island Resort. Glover’s Atoll has a couple of others, but the reviews are mixed. Belize has other smaller islands with good diving and snorkeling like Southwater Caye.

#SantuarioChimayo #HighRoadtoTaos
Santuario de Chimayo, Landmark and Catholic pilgrimage site between Taos and Santa Fe, NM

Other Ideas and Resources

Volunteer Vacations – Sierra Club National Outings volunteerism programs.

Language training focused vacations – Antigua or San Pedro in Guatemala. Guadalajara, Mexico City or Merida, Mexico for Spanish lessons. Cooperativa School on beautiful Lake Atitlan in San Pedro, Guatemala has been highly recommended by 3 acquaintances from Lonely Planet who have studied there. One week of classes for 3 hours per day is $80. A one week home stay and the lessons are $140. If you don’t want the homestay, perfectly acceptable hotels are as low as $7/night! Someday…

Music Festivals – classical festivals in Europe like Bayreuth, Salzburg, Lucerne. The Spoleto Festival in the US. The Isle of Wight, Bonnaroo, Gathering of the Vibes for contemporary music. JamBase lists 100s. The New Orleans, Cayman Islands or Montreal Jazz Festivals.

Art and Film Festivals – Venice Bienniale, Burning Man, Sundance, Tribeca Film.

Food Festivals – Placencia Lobster Festival (Belize); the Hatch (NM) Chile Festival; Food and Wine Magazine’s Food Festival in (Aspen).

Wine tasting and vineyard tours.

Religious tourism – pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago de Campostela from France to Spain. The Shrines at St. Anne de Beaupre’ and the Virgin of Guadelupe. Santuario Chimayo in New Mexico. Israel for momentous occasions like Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.

Brimfield and other major destination antique shows.

Tennis and other sport intensive workshops.

Spa vacations.

National Geographic’s Best Affordable Vacations – categorized by Americana, Into the Wild, Quest for Knowledge and Body & Soul.


Specialty Travel: When You Want More Than A Beach Vacation