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To me, every vacation is a culinary experience - the more exotic the location and the more diverse the food the better. The essence of travel is immersing yourself in the local culture, so indulging in its cuisine and delicacies is the perfect place to start. Okay, so I wasn't too wild about trying guinea pig meat in Peru or even thinking about that morsel of raw horse meat in Japan, but I have had the distinct pleasure of savoring some of the most tantalizing dishes in the world in their places or origin.

If you live to eat, then a culinary vacation seems a sensible and delicious, albeit often pricey option. Most tours are land-only and run at several hundred dollars per day.

Cooking Vacations (tel. 617/247-4112; www.cooking-vacations.com) specializes in culinary trips in Italy featuring tours and classes in 12 different regions - each including the unique tastes and flavors of the area. Travel to Piedmont, the land of truffles and chocolate, for the "Six-nights at Palazzo Cuneo" vacation. Executive Chef Marc Lanteri invites you to experience the Piedmont's unique food and wines as he offers his hands-on cooking classes at the prestigious Michelin Star restaurant property in Cuneo. This four star property is a 16th century noble palace, once the playground for the King of France Francis I and Pope Pio VII. Recently refurbished, it is now host to many cooking classes and wine tasting dinners! This complete culinary experience includes wine tastings, a one-hour wine lesson, featuring the wines of the Langhe area, an epicurean guided tour of Cuneo, and instruction on how to prepare several of Northern Italy's specialty dishes. Included in the $2,625 price is six-nights accommodation, round trip transfers from Turin train station or airport, English speaking guide for excursions to places like Castello di Neive and an excursion to Monte Carlo and the Cote d'Azur, elaborate lunches and dinners daily (sometimes cooked by you) and personalized cooking classes as specified.

Another offer by Cooking Vacations is "Organic Cooking Vacation in Bologna," offering insight into the best produce and recipes of the Emilia Romagna region. Included in the $2,295 price is six-nights accommodation (based on double occupancy) at an estate near the Salvarola spas in the Sassuolo area, breakfast daily, round trip private transfer from Bologna airport, four cooking lessons (three hours each), four lunches or dinners following the class, a half-day guided tour of balsamic vinegar and Parmesan cheese producers, a half-day guided tour to Modena and the market, a half-day tour to a wine cellar near Bologna with tastings and a visit to Vignola Medieval Castle. Single supplement is $250. Both Cooking Vacations tours take place throughout the year.

Oaxaca is considered the culinary capital of Mexico. The 11th annual Food of the Gods Festival (www.food-of-the-gods-festival.com) will take place from October 7 to 14, 2006. Festival packages (land only; no airfare included) include hotel accommodation for seven nights, arrival transfers, Festival Get Acquainted breakfast; and six daily breakfasts at your hotel, three evening dine-arounds and two afternoon dine-arounds: a variety of delicious meals at some of Oaxaca's finest restaurants, lecture and presentation on Oaxaca's Chiles, botanas (snacks) and bebidas (drinks). Prices start at $689 per person staying at the Holiday Inn, $889 at the Hotel Victoria or $1279 at Camino Real (all based on double occupancy). Optional cooking classes as part of the festival program are $70 per person, $45 for an empanada class or $35.00 for a salsa class. Guest chefs include Alejandro Ruiz, Reyna Mendoza and Iliana de la Vega. The festival also features traditional chocolate making demonstrations, market tours, food tastings, and mezcal tastings.

If you are traveling to Hong Kong and want to do more than just eat the food (that in itself is a full time job), try one of their cooking classes, especially designed for visitors. Rather than enroll in an entire program, there are a number of culinary schools that open their doors and their kitchens to tourists.

The Chinese Cuisine Training Institute (tel. 852/2538-2200; www.vtc.edu.hk) in Pok Fu Lam, on Hong Kong island, runs a two or four hour cooking class geared towards those seeking to better understand Chinese cuisine and its background. Classes include a brief introduction on the history and culture of Chinese cuisine, the characteristics and cooking methods of various regional cuisine types, chef demonstrations, hands-on cooking of three dishes, certificate and souvenir and of course a Chinese luncheon. Classes are held daily Monday to Friday (except public holidays) and the cost is $80 per class including lunch.

The Chopstick Cooking Centre (tel. 852/2336-8433) runs a $100 per person two-hour class every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Ho Man Tin area in Kowloon. The Towngas Cooking Centre (tel. 852/2576-1535; www.towngas.com) has a budget two-hour demonstration class every Wednesday for $13 to $17 per person in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Reservations must be made at least three days in advance.

Gourmet Safari (tel. 800/839-5795; www.gourmetsafari.com) offers a "Moroccan Culinary Adventure" priced from $1680 for seven days. This intimate cooking experience is based at Villa Bourdoud, a converted private residence, that has six bedrooms with shared facilities on each of the three floors. The hands-on cooking classes take place in the heart of the villa - the kitchen. Staying in the villa with and being immersed into family life in Morocco, you'll learn the intricacies of Moroccan cuisine and get to savor your creations. Children are more than welcome and children's programs can be arranged for any age. Brush up on or start learning Arabic in individual or mini-group classes that can easily be added to your week-long itinerary. The villa is located in Harhoura near Rabat, approximately one hour from Casablanca, two and 1/2 hours from Fes and five hours from Marrakech. Culinary vacations are available all year round upon request except June 1st through to September 1st.

Bon App├ętit!

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