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New tastes of the Old South

Courtesy Miami Culinary Tours

There are many ways to get to know the South, but the most enjoyable might be to eat your way through it.

Nothing epitomizes the southern United States more than its signature flavors. From the Cajun and Creole dishes that define New Orleans to Charleston’s fresh seafood and the Cuban culinary traditions that permeate Miami, food has become one of the most beloved hallmarks of Dixie.

In recent years, culinary experiences have also become one of the hottest tickets in tourism. Enterprising individuals in cities throughout the South have developed guided food tours that give visitors a literal taste of their destinations. In addition to the classic cuisine destinations, groups can experience the unique flavors of North Carolina on culinary tours in Asheville or explore the bounty of farm-fresh produce on food-themed tours of Virginia’s Hampton Roads region. And Alabama has declared 2012 the Year of Alabama Food, with a host of culinary experiences and events designed to celebrate the state’s food.

For groups visiting the South, culinary tours make great ways to get some exercise, learn about local history and culture, and taste some unforgettable food. If you have epicureans in your group, be sure to treat them to one of these food tours.

Miami Culinary Tours
With a population that is both ultrahip and cosmopolitan, Miami offers combinations of flavors unlike anything else you’ll find in the South. Miami Culinary Tours offers groups two options in exploring the city’s food: Guests can take a South Beach overview tour or focus specifically on the area’s Cuban heritage.

“We call the South Beach tour the United Flavors of the World,” said Grace Della, founder of the company. “Within three hours, we take people to eight different restaurants, different cultures and different cuisines. We do Columbian, Argentinean, French, Peruvian, Italian, Cuban, Spanish and Jewish food.”

Though South Beach is a trendy neighborhood, the tour takes participants to smaller restaurants outside of the limelight where they’ll sample high-quality foods that don’t come with a South Beach price tag. The tours also highlight the architecture in this high-profile district of Miami, which features more Art Deco buildings than any other city in the world.

The second tour takes place in Little Havana, an area famous for its Cuban cultural influences. Visitors experience some of the area’s iconic art and music and are treated to five culinary stops that introduce them to some delicious foreign flavors.

“It’s all about Cuban cuisine,” Della said. “You’re going to eat fried plantains, guava, mamee ice cream and other Cuban food from people who have practiced the art of Cuban cooking for the last 30 years.”

Asheville Food Tours

Beautiful mountain scenery, the historic Biltmore Estate and a thriving, eclectic arts scene combine to make Asheville one of the most popular mountain destinations in North Carolina. A company called Asheville Food Tours is now adding cuisine to the mix, taking visitors on a number of different tours that highlight local culinary traditions, as well as diverse food cultures from around the world.

“We do everything from Southern cooking to Mediterranean, Indian and Latin American food menus,” said owner Chris Ortwein. “We also throw in a lot of different types of food, like olive oil, chocolate and dessert places. That helps to break it up so we’re visiting different places besides just restaurants.”

The company offers three different tours in downtown Asheville, as well as a tour of an area called Biltmore Village. Each tour lasts about two and a half hours and includes seven or eight stops at various restaurants and other food purveyors. At restaurants, the owner or chef will often welcome the tour group, give an introduction to the establishment and serve a small plate or trio of dishes for guests to taste.

Ortwein tries to give guests a good overview of Southern classics, international flavors and the variety of Asheville’s culinary scene.

“We get some high-end restaurants, as well as some smaller places that really show what Asheville is about,” he said. “People from all over the country love to see the city from this perspective. Asheville never tasted so good.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.