Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Exploring Italy's Hidden Gem, Emilia-Romagna

"Go to Bologna," Casey encouraged as we strolled up to the 15th green under the surprisingly warm Seattle summer sun. I received news during our round of golf that "Italy" won in our poll for which country people wanted to visit on our next food tour. Being that (a) Casey is a well-traveled food lover with trustworthy recommendations, and (b) I was playing poorly, I spent the balance of the game badgering her for advice about the must-see, off-the-beaten-path places in Italy.

The name of this Italian city sounded oddly familiar even though I didn't know it. After pecking a few letters into Google it dawned on me I knew this city baloney has a first name it's...from BOLOGNA. Yes, Bologna is the home of Mortadella sausage which is the root of what we know as baloney in America. 

I am, admittedly, not the biggest fan of baloney. Thankfully, even though Bologna, the capitol of the Emilia-Romagna region, didn't tantalize my taste buds with its namesake meat treat, there was plenty more in store from neighboring cities in the region. Parma won me over me with its Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and its Prosciutto di Parma ham. You noticed a theme, didn't you? Call a food by where it's from.

During a hot August day, I met Alessandro from Italian Days Food Tours. We strolled through old streets of Bologna while he picked out cured meats, cheeses, and a baguette and then navigated us to Osteria del Sole. We settled into a back deck table while Alessandro unrolled the snacks from their protective papers and gave me the history of the bar which opened in 1465. Older than 'Murica. Like...way older. They were drinking at that bar before we were even a country. I digress. While I debated whether Alessandro was going to be admonished for unfurling our snacks at the bar, he casually mentioned the bar didn't serve food so patrons should bring their own. BYOF. I can dig it. You order a bottle of Pignoletto (a local, sparkling white wine) and chow down on whatever delicious grub you've rounded up from nearby vendors.

Then and there, I knew this guy was legit. Alessandro oozed excitement for his treasured Emilia-Romagna. He was the food ambassador of Bologna to the world. And he was there to teach me their ways. 

As he shot a quick glance around the room he produced a small glass bottle from his pocket, asserting in a hushed tone, "This is the real stuff. Real Italians bring their own balsamico." He slowly tipped the bottle over a piece of cheese as the balsamic slowly crept out in a thick, syrupy consistency. It was nothing like the "balsamic vinegar" I'd seen at home. The sweet and sour taste of the balsamico combined with the rich, nutty flavor of the Parmigiano-Reggiano balanced each other perfectly. I mopped up every last drop of the liquid gold balsamic with bread as Alessandro contently surveyed his new found faithful follower. He didn't need any further words. Emilia-Romagna was my heaven.

Days later I returned with Angela from Savor Seattle Food Tours to indulge in a food excursion unlike any other. Alessandro swept us up in his world dazzling us with personal stories about families and producers as we visited a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, a Prosciutto di Parma factory, and a farm where they aged Balsamico in Modena. We were then spoiled with a lavish pasta meal served family style with views of the vineyards, and we finished by climbing into the countryside hills to hunt for truffles.

With full bellies and happy hearts, Angela and I sat silently whizzing by picturesque views on our fast train back to Florence. My mind recalled Casey's worthy recommendation as I pondered how this magnificent region had flown so far under the tourist radar, clearly playing second fiddle to its neighbor Tuscany. 

In merely one year since my delightful first experience with Emilia-Romagna, it has garnered significantly more publicity. I now see it regularly mentioned on food blogs (pot, kettle, black), Instagram feeds, and travel and food shows. Our little gem is becoming more and more popular, thanks in part to passionate locals like Alessandro. 

Travel meetup in London. Good to see the king of cheese-pushers. I'm an official follower - fork bracelet and all.

And although I sing Alessandro's praises (if Parmigiano-Reggiano is the king of cheeses, Alessandro is the king of cheese pushers - I can hear him now shouting, "Mangia! Mangia!"), a little piece of me is sad that this beautiful region which offered me a respite from the constant sea of tourists will soon be swarmed by the crowds. Regardless, Emilia-Romagna will remain a gem in my heart...and hopefully yours too.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Adventuring in the Andes - Machu Picchu and Beyond

We stopped once again, closed our eyes, and slowly inhaled and exhaled five times as I counted on my fingers with each breath. After a mutual check of, “good?”, “good?”, “good”, Katie and I continued on, pointing toward the next small step or corner of shade where we could stop for a “breathing break.” Despite having conquered the “Condor’s Pass” summit just the day before at 14,000 feet, our bodies were taxed and pushing ourselves up Machu Picchu Mountain, at a lower altitude, still wasn’t coming easily.

Looking down on the ruins from Machu Picchu Mountain

My best friend, Katie, and I had long been awaiting the day to check Machu Picchu off the top of our bucket lists. And here we finally were.  After a 3-day trek through the Sacred Valley we spent one night in Aguas Calientes (often referred to as the town of Machu Picchu) before rising early for the buses which take eager travelers to the Incan ruins.

We stood perched overlooking the ruins as the morning sun rose over the famous site, taking every cliché Machu Picchu tourist picture we could think of. Then our guide, Tio (uncle) Wilson, took us on a tour back in time around the ruins. At every turn there was an architectural feat or a design stroke of genius. At which point Katie and I pondered how we would have survived as Incans given our near failure of our high school physics class. We’ll just say we got “a lot of support” from Katie’s dad on our partner projects. Thanks, Jim.

Although our day trip to Machu Picchu was fascinating, and should be on every traveler’s list, in the end it was not the highlight of my adventure to the Andes. Instead, my most fond memories will be the ones that are not sites to see or places to visit, rather moments of joy and connection.
  • Building a bond with our new “familia” of trekkers, tour leaders, and porters on the Lares Trek.

  • Gently telling Katie that although she hated me taking pictures of her suffering altitude sickness against the most beautiful background, one day, she’d laugh looking at them and thank me. I don’t think she’s quite there yet. One day
I know...I'm an evil friend.

  • Feeling elated that we made it successfully up and over the passwhich we all stared up at during breakfast the second morning gawking, “THAT’S where we’re hiking?!”

  • Playing hide and seek with the cutest little boy at our second campsite as he giggled hysterically. I’m not sure why this is a magic gamebut it breaks every language barrier for children.

  • Waking up to the most beautiful sunrise over a small lake high in the Andes while llamas roamed free around us.  Llamallamallamallamallama.

  • Struggling up the mountains as school kids stormed pass us with ease on their daily 8 km + hike from their school bus stops to their villages.

  • Sharing these extraordinary experiences with Katie and her boyfriend Chris, who was a happy go-lucky addition to our traveling crew. He definitely needed that light-hearted spirit to survive an international trip with the two of us.

  • Paying respects to Pachamama (Mother Earth) on our final day in Lares, with a reminder from Tio that whenever life gets challenging, think back to this peaceful, blessed, and thankful day.

Often after the laborious part of planning a trip we most look forward to the events, but it’s the small moments that we stumble upon serendipitously which end up being the most memorable. Remember when you’re traveling that not everything goes as planned all the time (unless you work with me – shameless plug). But when things go sideways, take advantage of the unexpected memories that may result.

Just ask Katiewellmaybe give her a few months first. But I’m sure she didn’t want to get sick on the trip. But I guarantee she’ll remember the small, funny things that happened like the mule Trueno who helped her up the mountain and her very limited ability to speak with the horseman, Nestor, who ended up being a great motivation with his constant smiles and happy demeanor.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

When Should You Buy Travel Protection?

(Originally published in The Table Less Traveled Newsletter, April 2016)

As a general rule I forego the optional protection & insurance that comes with electronics, car rentals, etc. However, while traveling abroad I don't skimp on my travel protections.  And there's good reason.

Check out this Huffington Post article about what you should know about travel protection. Note there are different premiums and benefits for the following coverage:

  • Emergency Medical Assistance
  • Trip Cancellation & Interruption
  • Baggage Delay/Loss

Many travel protection packages are comprehensive and include coverage for each of the three above categories which can make a bi difference in your premium.  for example, notice that on our optional group protection plans a full coverage plan for a $5,000 trip has a $319 premium, in contrast to a plan without Trip Cancellation & Interruption (using a $0 trip cost) which has a $21 premium.

When evaluating travel protection you should take the following steps:

  1. Identify your costs - Including the non-refundable trip costs as well as the value of items you are packing (like electronics, etc.).
  2. Determine what coverage you already have - Contact your existing health insurance provider, credit card company, and homeowners/rental insurance provider to find out what is currently covered while you're traveling overseas (including pre-existing medical conditions and medical evacuation).
  3. Compare plans & read the fine print!!! - The coverage you need varies from your neighbor. For example, your neighbor might be sky-diving and need coverage for extreme sports while you may have concerns about work or family life that could necessitate cancelling your trip last minute. Not all plans cover both and it's critical to know what yours does - including definitions of "reasons for cancellation", "travel partners", and activities where medical is covered in the event of an accident.
At The Table Less Traveled we prefer working with Travel Insured, which has over 25 years in the travel protection industry. We offer optional group plans on our small group tours and individual coverage when journeying on custom itineraries. It's easy to get a quote online in minutes or call us for a custom quote.

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Trusted Traveler Program Better Than TSA Precheck

(Modified from the original article published on The Table Less Traveled Newsletter, April 2016)

TSA Precheck, they say. Skip the lines, they say. $85, they say. WAIT - $85?!

In a confusing exchange between programs through the US Customs & Border Patrol and Canadian Customs & Border Patrol, it turns out the best option is to apply for NEXUS which is less expensive and which automatically enrolls you in Global Entry and TSA Precheck. 

Nexus is essentially Canada's equivalent to Global Entry and with it you receive expedited processing when entering the USA and Canada, in addition to TSA Precheck privileges. All for $50.

View the Department of Homeland Security's chart below which details the differences between the programs.

It is important to note that in order to apply for Nexus there are a limited number of enrollment centers where you can visit for an interview, so check before applying whether you will be able to access one of the centers.

For people living in Washington, there is an enrollment center in Seattle, however the waiting period for an interview can be months.  There is also an enrollment center at the Blaine border crossing which typically has shorter wait periods. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

3 Must Pack Items for International Travel

(Modified from an original post on The Table Less Traveled Newsletter, March 2016)

Let's just be is amazing and wonderful and sparkles and unicorns and whiskers on kittens. But if we're being really honest there's also the side that's tiring, uncomfortable, and annoying. For me - that's packing and preparing for travel. But there are a few things that are always, without a doubt, going in my travel bag...and that makes it a tad bit easier.

Over the years I've tried lots of travel-friendly products which help me build custom packing lists for clients.  Here are a few of my favorites that I would never leave home without!

  1. Inflatable Travel Pillow - I'll admit I used to make fun of people with travel pillows...and then I became one. My favorite Eagle Creek pillow deflates to a compact size, you can remove and wash the cover, and it's far more comfortable than airline pillows.
  2. RFID Blocking Wallet - You've certainly heard about the risk of identity theft through RFID. This Articulate wallet/purse is my favorite tool for storing my passport and cards while on the go. It has multiple compartments and has interchangeable straps.  There is also a men's wallet available.
  3. Compact Backpack - It's a pain to carry a backpack on the plane in addition to your other luggage. Having a backpack that folds up has been a life saver on hikes, in markets, and on day trips. My favorite is the Eddie Bauer Packable Daypack which has lots of pockets and *bonus* you can secure zippers to other zippers and hooks using an S-biner.

Friday, July 1, 2016

4 Restaurants in Italy Not to Miss!

(A similar blog post was originally published by our friends at Utrip on their blog. Utrip is an online travel planner that uses your interests and budget to sort through millions of options to deliver you a personalized itinerary in minutes.)

“Waitthis is fresh made pasta, right?” I asked as the waiter shot me a look of severe discontent. 

Since when did I become such a pretentious eater that boxed pasta seemed so abhorrent?  Ohsince spending 3 weeks indulging in excellent food from the North to South of Italy. I had officially been ruined for all the Barillas & DeCeccos of the world. After witnessing Italian nonnas (grandmas) laboriously rolling fresh pasta and lingering over fragrant sauces it was no wonder I was appalled by food from a box and a jar!

After settling for his unequivocal reply of, “yes”, I took a deep breath, a sip of wine, and replayed my trip through Italy as I prepared for my last meal before jetting off. As an avid traveler Italy was one place I had been hesitant about visitingnot because I was concerned that I wouldn’t like it, but because I was concerned I would love it too much and never want to leave.

And without a doubt, Italy lived up to all the expectations in my mind. From the first peek of the rolling Tuscan countryside through the airplane window, to winding around the cliff side roads on the Amalfi coast on a Vespa, to this quaint little restaurant in Florence where I was eating my final fresh pasta dish, Italy took my breath away.

There is something so special, so enriching, so passionate, so simple about the way Italians live. And food is a cornerstone of the Italian way of life. On my first night in Italy I made friends with a group of locals who invited me over for a barbecue. I stood awe struck in their Renaissance-period kitchen as one of them nearly apologized to me because, “this olive oil isn’t very freshit’s nearly 8 months old since their family is preparing for the olive harvest this year.” Old olive oil?! Is that even a thing?! At home I drizzled whatever EVOO I could find in my cabinet, purchased from who knows where, who knows when. And that was just the beginning of my education in the way Italians eat, drink, love, and live.

I quickly came to find that traditional Italian dishes are surprisingly simple and that the rich aroma and flavor comes from using extremely fresh ingredients. Italians take great pride in this matter. While learning how to cook in a Tuscan kitchen, the chef asked me, “Do you like lemon thyme?”  Then followed with, “Great, let’s go pick some,” as we trotted out of the kitchen where a few pots of fresh herbs grew. I felt like tapping my Staples’ ‘that was easy’ button.

As a tour operator for international culinary trips, my sole purpose in Italy was to uncover places where any person would fall in love with Italian cuisineplaces that I would be overjoyed to share with other like-minded foodies. With some help from my friends at Utrip I was well connected with local Italian experts who paved the way. And among some of my favorite meals were these 4 gems I highly recommend you check out on your next visit to Italy:
  1. Fried Pizza at La Masardona in Naples
  2. Fried (you’re noticing a themearen’t you) Calamari Salad at Ristoteca Oniga in Venice
  3. Cacio e pepe at Cacio e Pepe in Rome
  4. Arugula salad & tagliolini magnifico at Trattoria Gargani in Florence

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Custom Travel - What You Want, How You Want It

(Modified from an article originally published in The Table Less Traveled Newsletter, February 2016)

"Thank you for helping us put together a great 3 week itinerary in Italy. You took away the uncertainties of planning a visit to a country we have not been to before and replaced it with a well crafted itinerary that was most enjoyable and memorable. The printed itinerary you gave us was basically our bible while traveling through Italy and in it we had all the necessary information for directions, contacts, etc. Thank you again."
-Alan L. & Janet J.

Planning a trip can be overwhelming - where should you go? When? How do you get there? Let us take the guess work out of your trip.  We'll work through a series of questions to find out exactly what you're looking for and once we've designed your dream vacation then we will work our magic - booking everything for you and getting you access to exclusive experiences.  We have expertise in a variety of worldwide destinations from South America to Asia and beyond.


On your private trip you choose whether you'd like to journey solo or be led by our expert guides. Either way, we're available 24/7 during your trip in case of emergency; needing a restaurant recommendation classifies as an emergency in our food-loving world. 


Despite having group journeys in a limited number of countries, we provide custom itineraries to many more destinations.  Let us know where you want to go and we'll put it together for you or recommend experts in the region.  

save time

Your custom trip will be priced as an all-inclusive getaway which includes accommodations, regional transportation, guided activities, and travel planning services. You don't have to worry about making payments throughout your trip for hotels, drivers, etc. since everything will already be taken care of.  All you have to do is enjoy your trip!

For more information on customized itineraries, contact Annie (that's me!) at

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...