It started with a gift certificate for a North End food tour. Shopping the neighborhood delis and pastry shops of Boston’s Italian district gave Martha Mayo a taste for food travel. She later took a cooking class in Paris, followed by a hands-on demonstration of Beijing duck in China.
"I love traveling in old cities, I love food, and I love art. I've always put those things together," said Mayo, director of the Center for Lowell History at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "Even if you are taking a cooking class in someone's house, you're making a more personal connection to that city."
For many baby boomers such as Mayo, food has become as central to their travel planning as scenery and culture. Whether simply sampling authentic cuisines, getting a behind-the-scenes look at famous eateries, or taking cooking classes with celebrated chefs, adding culinary components to their travel agendas makes for a richer — and tastier — experience.
"There has been an evolution of baby boomers who look at food not just as nutrition. They buy food as art and see food as culture," said Stacie Fasola, a spokeswoman for Road Scholar, the Boston-based travel company formerly known as Elderhostel. "The Food Network made all kinds of cooking classes popular with boomers."
The group has scores of trips that it organizes with eating and learning local cuisines as the central activities, from visiting an olive press in Tuscany to a sugar house in Vermont.
When Pat Bagg and her husband moved to Portland, Maine, a few years ago, the 66-year-old became a guide for Maine Foodie Tours, leading groups on Saturday mornings through the streets of the Old Port to sample mead, cheese, lobster, and beer.
The tour starts with sweet, golden libations from Maine Meadworks, which makes a modern version of the ancient drink using honey and other ingredients from local producers. Next is fresh lobster from Harbor Fish Market, then strawberries infused with espresso balsamic vinegar from Vervacious, a speciality foods store on Commercial Street.
As the moveable feast wends its way through the city, Bagg shares tips on snagging reservations at Portland's coveted bistros and which tavern serves the best seafood chowder.
"It's nice to have the input of someone who really lives here and is really interested in food," said Bagg, who also teaches cooking classes.
Maine Foodie Tours was created by Pamela Laskey after Portland was named "America's foodiest small town" by Bon Appetit magazine four years ago. Clients can sample the city's robust locavore culture by foot, bicycle, or trolley, and she recently added tours of Kennebunkport.
Her top demographic are clients 50 to 70 years old. Laskey said her older, more experienced travelers in particular appreciate being able to talk directly to the purveyors — the lobsterman, cheese monger, and brewer.
"There is an appreciation for that level of expertise," said Laskey.
Such tours are now common throughout New England, from Boston's North End and Chinatown, to Newport and Providence in Rhode Island. Run by former chef Michael Martini, Newport Gourmet Tours takes foodies into the kitchens of the tastiest addresses of this city "to give folks a glimpse at the restaurant business," said Martini. Most of his clients, he said, are 50 and older.
A tasting at Newport Wine Cellar is followed by a cheese course at Le Petit Gourmet. But nothing trumps the truffle tasting at La Maison De Coco. Local specialties such as lobster macaroni and cheese, penne with marinara, and tiramisu keep boomers fortified as they walk the Colonial streets of this harbor town.
Just like preferences in cuisine, food tours abound to suit all tastes. Before boarding a plane, Mayo visits sites such as Chowhound and VirtualTourist for restaurant recommendations. When seeking an out-of-the-guidebook experience, "I Google and Google and Google."
That's how she found Passport Delicious, a blog on the food scene in London. Its editor volunteered to give Mayo and a traveling companion a tasty trek through the upscale neighborhood of Islington that she won't soon forget.
Unlike younger generations, who have a tendency to Facebook every moment, boomers are less likely to whip out their smartphones at the sight of the next savory. For them, a cooking demo or food tour is a real-life experience.
"I watch and eat. That's my job," said Mayo. "It's part of feeling in the moment."