5 great gastro getaways

The key to unlocking the true essence of a destination is through its local cuisine and culinary traditions. Here are five fab holiday options where luxury meets flavour.

Galle, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, while a popular hotspot for ancient temples and tropical beaches, also has a culinary tradition that is equally interesting, drawing on influences from Portugese and Dutch colonists, as well as India, its closest neighbour. Curries and spices are a staple of Sri Lankan food, where cinnamon, cardamon, curry leaves and turmeric are all grown in abundance, giving the local cuisine a unique identity.

For a true Sri Lankan gourmet experience, head to Kahanda Kanda, a chic boutique retreat in the south of the island, surrounded by tea plantations and with amazing jungle views over Koggala Lake. There are just eight private suites, beautifully designed with Asian antiques and contemporary Sri Lankan furnishings, and the emphasis is on friendly, personalised service. With fruit, vegetables and herbs all grown on the estate, and seafood and meat bought daily at the local market, it offers an upscale epicurean experience. While the laid-back approach means you can choose to eat where you want, when you want (breakfast by the pool? No problem! Dinner in your suite – why not?), you are ensured fresh, healthy and delicious food each time. The gorgeous open-air shaded dining pavilion provides the perfect setting for contemporary Sri Lankan and Thai-inspired dishes that are served up, such as pumpkin and lemongrass soup, pan fried Mahi Mahi on a bed of Wasabi mash, and banana tarte tartin served with homemade ice cream.

Whatever you do, don’t miss the local specialty, egg hoppers, made with pancake batter, coconut milk and with a fried egg in the middle, for breakfast. So renowned has the food become at Kahanda Kahanda, they now offer private cookery classes on request.

While there, make it a point to venture out to the ancient fort town of Galle nearby, where you will find a variety of restaurants and quirky cafes, from Harry’s Bar at The Sun House set high up on the hill, to Amangalla’s fine dining cuisine. Or for a more relaxed meal, try Wijayu Beach Club for delicious thin crust pizza, or Kingfishers in Unawatuna, which is famous amongst locals for their ‘devilled’ seafood and secret spicy sauce.

Need to know:Suites are priced from US$304 (around Dhs1,100) per night. Visit www.kahandakanda.com.

Cape Winelands, South Africa

Blessed with beautiful and diverse landscapes, and the most fabulous food, South Africa is a gastronomical gem waiting to be discovered. The Cape Winelands are a hot house of fabulous restaurants and some of the world’s best vineyards. Just a 45-minute drive from the bustling city of Cape Town, you can find yourself at Bablyonstoren, a boutique hotel with a remarkable restaurant Babel, which should be on any foodie’s bucket list.

This stunning Cape Dutch farm and elegant cottages are surrounded by beautifully landscaped organic gardens with scented herb beds, citrus orchards, and brightly coloured vegetables. Guests can wander in and pick their own fruit, veg and herbs (there are over 300 types of edible plants) and each cottage boasts a designer kitchen equipped with all the gear any master chef would be happy to have.

While self-catering is definitely more glamorous here than anywhere else, the fresh farmhouse style cuisine at their glass-enclosed restaurant Babel is what has earned the resort its culinary credentials. Food reflects the colours of the season and salads are colour-coded ‘green’ (with cucumber and courgette), red (with beetroot, radish and guava) or yellow (with butternut squash, corn and papaya). The fresh Franschoek Trout is phenomenal, as is the dark chocolate terrine with olives and toasted walnuts.

If you feel the need to work off all the feasting, simply hop onto a mountain bike for a ride around the farm and enjoy the magnificent African sunsets across the valleys of vineyards.

Need to know: Room rates from ZAR4,500 (around Dhs1,800) per room per night, including breakfast. Visit www.babylonstoren.com.

Florence, Italy

There are few foodie destinations as well known as Tuscany, and there is no better place to learn classic Italian cooking than in the luxurious surroundings of Villa Mangiacane. Set just outside Florence, the majestic 15th century villa is nestled within 600 acres of vineyards, olive groves and landscaped gardens brimming with roses and lemon trees, and exquisitely decorated with priceless antiques, artwork, frescoes, and the finest fabrics. No two rooms are the same, and the sumptuous bedrooms and suites can be rented separately, or as an exclusive villa rental.

But, what makes a stay here truly unique are the renowned Tuscan cooking classes, conducted by Francesca Maria Boni, an engaging Florentine cook. Each class starts with selecting fresh ingredients for cooking from the on-site herb garden, after which, you learn to prepare dishes like handmade gnocchi or risotto, and traditional meat or fish recipes using seasonal Tuscan ingredients – such as traditional Bistecca alla Fiorentina, T-bone steaks from the best butcher in Tuscany – in the three-hour session. You do, of course, get to enjoy the meals you’ve prepared too, along with a glass of Villa Mangiacane’s Chianti Classico wine and the hotel’s own olive oil made from handpicked Frantoio, Moraiolo, Leccino and Pendolino olives. With the historical and cultural sights of Florence just a 15 minute drive away, you can work up an appetite by wandering along the Arno and exploring the greatest collection of Renaissance art on earth, before heading back to the villa for another sumptuous Italian meal.

Need to know: Flavours of Chianti three-night package costs from E1,500 (about Dhs7,150) for two people, and includes a three-course welcome dinner, cooking lesson, plus olive oil and wine tasting. Visit www.mangiacane.com.

Domaine de Bel Ombre, Mauritius

In the middle of the Indian Ocean lies an island paradise, known for its white sands, rich marine life and multicultural soul. A mix of Creole, French, African and Indian inhabitants has greatly influenced and infused the island’s cuisine – where else can you enjoy exotic dishes such as bourgeouis fillet in a spicy sesame seed crust with saffron rice?

The Heritage Resorts complex in the Domaine de Bel Ombre estate, set in the unspoilt south of the island, is an excellent choice for gourmet travellers. Consisting of two five star beach resorts and a collection of luxurious colonial-style villas, their new all-inclusive Gourmet Bliss Package offers a fantastic choice of 11 restaurants including pan-Asian fare at Gin’ja (they have the freshest sushi you’ll ever taste), authentic Mauritian cuisine at their 19th Century Chateau de Bel Ombre, and African evenings dining on fresh game around a campfire at Boma. You can also try their hand at recreating a traditional Mauritian dish with a cooking course held at Annabella’s Kitchen, using fresh produce from the local markets. For those days when you want to be pampered, follow up a luxe spa treatment with a meal from a personal chef in the privacy of your own suite or villa. There’s plenty to keep the whole family occupied while you’re fine-tuning your culinary skills, whether it’s complimentary unlimited green fees on their 18 hole championship golf course, or water and land sports.

Need to know: Prices start from 277 Euros (around Dhs1,300) per room per night including breakfast, visit www.heritageresorts.mu.

Hoi An, Vietnam

The picturesque, old spice trade harbour of Hoi An is an exciting destination for foodies, teeming with options whether it’s upscale eateries, or bustling street food markets serving the best bowls of pho bo, Vietnam’s unofficial national dish of beef noodles. Check in at the romantic Nam Hai Hotel, a GHM property set on a pristine beachfront. Overlooking the Cham islands, the all-villa resort is designed with influences of a traditional Vietnamese garden house in mind, with each villa featuring unique luxury touches such as a lacquered eggshell bath, and some fitted out with private kitchens. Three different restaurants offer gourmet cuisine both Western-style as well as local delicacies. But for the ultimate Vietnamese culinary experience, make a beeline for the Green Bamboo Cooking School, where lovely resident chef Van offer a detailed tour of Hoi An’s lively food markets – to shop for exotic ingredients like star anise, banana flower and lemongrass – before heading back to the school to learn a range of delicious Vietnamese recipes. You can then sit back and enjoy your cookery efforts with a memorable group lunch and a souvenir goodie bag to take home. And when you’re not cooking or eating, there is plenty to explore in the UNESCO heritage site with its narrow streets crammed with colourful markets, ancient buildings, chic boutiques and bespoke tailors.

Need to know: Asia-based luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel design tailor-made Vietnam itineraries with a culinary focus, visit www.lightfoottravel.com for more info. Room rates at Nam Hai start from $550 (around Dhs2,000) per night, visit ghmhotels.com. Prices for Green Bamboo cooking classes start from $30 (Dhs110), visit www.greenbamboo-hoian.com.