Ten cultural travel bargains for 2007

ByMolly Feltner, SmarterTravel.com

— -- Fewer travelers these days seem content to visit destinations just as "tourists." The demand for "authentic" cultural travel—travel that puts you directly in touch with a people and their arts and history—has created a boom of cultural tours, learning vacations, and living-history programs.

From cooking vacations and folk arts classes to language-immersion programs and visits with indigenous tribes, there are now more ways than ever to get in touch with new cultures or reconnect with your own heritage. Because learning and people-to-people interactions are at the center of most cultural tours, these experiences can be quite affordable.

To get an idea of the possibilities, here's a look at 10 vacations that deliver authentic culture and are a good value for the money.

Learn to cook gourmet Italian meals at a Tuscan wineryProvider:Badia a Coltibuono Price:from $212 to $3,418

Let's face it, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings are inspiring and Puccini's operas can move one to tears, but it's the handiwork of nameless Italian chefs—the texture of homemade pasta, the subtle flavor of extra virgin olive oil, the taste of vegetables so fresh they're still warm with the afternoon's sun—that often stands out foremost in the memories of visitors home from a trip to Italy. To prepare dishes so simple yet flavorful and exquisite in presentation, all paired with the perfect wines, now that is cultural expression worthy of more advanced study.

Cooking schools and tours are cropping up all over Italy, but if you really want to learn in style, you can book a cooking lesson or multi-day course at Badia a Coltibuono organic winery and estate in the Chianti region of Tuscany. A 1,000-year-old former abbey on the property serves as a B&B and cooking school where you can stay and take cooking lessons with Chef Guido Stucchi-Prinetti. Over the course of one, three, or five days, you'll learn how to prepare and pair wine with full four-course meals.

"We prepare all sorts of regional Italian dishes according to the season and the availability of fresh ingredients, always keeping an eye out for well-balanced meals," says Stucchi-Prinetti. "In each lesson students learn to prepare a whole menu with hands-on experience. A sample menu might include Tuscan flat bread with rosemary, spinach and Ricotta gnocchi, roast loin of pork with crackling and roasted sweet peppers, and pears cooked in spiced wine and served with a light crema pasticcera." Dishes are made from historic recipes but designed to translate into meals you can modify and cook at home.

One-day courses feature a cooking lesson, lunch with wine, tastings, and a guided tour of the estate. Multi-day courses include accommodations in the abbey, tastings of Coltibuono wines and olive oils, guided excursions to nearby medieval towns, dinner at private villas owned by prominent local families, breakfast and lunch with wine at the estate, and transfers from Florence.

The detailsDay courses can be arranged on Wednesdays and Fridays between May and October. Three- and five-night courses are scheduled on select dates from April through October. Badia a Coltibuono is about an hour's drive from Florence. Late-summer and fall round-trip flights from New York to Florence are priced at $350, excluding taxes, on Alitalia.

Take a Spanish immersion course in colonial MexicoProvider:Cuernavaca Language School Price:$200 to $290 per week

There's no better way to learn a new language than total immersion and no better way to immerse yourself in a new culture than to converse with the locals in their native tongue. Combining the two on a vacation seems only natural, and one that has proven attractive and effective for the countless students who have traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to study Spanish and live with local families through the Cuernavaca Language School (CLS).

One of Mexico's oldest and most respected language schools, CLS offers travelers of all language abilities a very affordable way to learn Spanish, and the chance to live like a local in a colonial city near the center of the country. While there are dozens of Spanish language programs throughout Latin America, CLS has earned a loyal following of students who credit the school's quality teaching and excellent staff as the reason they return year after year.

"The courses have exceeded my expectations," says Darald Hanusa, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin who has taken courses at the school on four separate occasions. "The curriculum is very well developed and planned. The instructors are well trained and very serious about the learning process."

Courses can last anywhere from one to 16 weeks, with classes held five days a week. Every day you'll take part in four 50-minute immersion classes with no more than five other students. There's also a daily lecture covering topics such as indigenous cultures and Mexican art. Weekly field trips to notable sites in and around Cuernavaca are also part of the curriculum. There's plenty of free time to explore in the afternoons and on weekends.

You'll be encouraged to take part in the school's homestay program, wherein you'll live and eat meals with a local family, so as to continue your immersion in Spanish and learn more about the culture.

The details Tuition for one week of classes costs $290. Prices for subsequent weeks of study decrease to $200 after four weeks. The cost covers classes, a weekly field trip, and access to the school's media lab. Homestays cost extra and start at $22 per night with breakfast included or $30 per night for three meals. Textbooks are extra. Classes start every Monday year-round. Cuernavaca is 50 miles by bus or car from Mexico City. Fall travel from Houston to Mexico City starts at $197 round-trip, plus taxes, on American.

Learn traditional folk arts and crafts in the Appalachian MountainsProvider:John C. Campbell Folk School Price:from $384 to $940

While the trend of educational vacations has exploded recently, John C. Campbell Folk School has been way ahead of the curve, having offered such experiences in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina for more than 80 years. The school was originally started in 1925 to preserve and pass on the Appalachian arts and culture, but it has grown to encompass an annual schedule of more than 800 classes in traditional and contemporary arts from around the world.

Year-round, you can attend three- to seven-day courses and stay in dormitories, private rooms, and campsites on the school's 300-acre wooded campus. Course topics range from historic crafts such as blacksmithing and scrimshawing to more contemporary arts like digital photography and modern jewelry design. Of course, Appalachian arts and crafts are still the school's specialty: Try your hand at playing the mountain dulcimer or clawhammer banjo, make crafts like Appalachian baskets and wooden toys, or learn about North Carolina cooking and folklore.

While crafts classes are an important part of the curriculum, the school's overall goal, says Director Jan Davidson, is to promote non-competitive learning and community life. Thus, in between and after classes, students are encouraged to participate in community dances, watch craft demonstrations, attend evening music performances, and eat homemade meals with other students in the school's dining hall.

"I hope the Folk School will go on forever to give folks the same opportunities we've had to learn and enjoy," says South Carolinian Jack Smoot, who's been taking classes at the school since 1992. "The information is passed on in quite a true folk tradition. It's a face-to-face, people-to-people experience."

The detailsClass prices are $250 for weekend courses, $399 for Sunday-to-Friday courses, and $442 for Sunday-to-Saturday classes. Accommodations in the school's dorm and three meals per day range from $134 to $498 per person, depending on the length of stay and room category. Camping is also available. Some courses may have an additional materials fee. The school is within a two-hour drive of Asheville, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee.

Volunteer in an indigenous rainforest communityProvider:Yanapuma Foundation Price:$140 per week

The Yanapuma Foundation is a cooperative NGO that focuses on Ecuador's Amazon rainforest and mountain regions. Yanapuma helps traditional communities that are threatened by thoughtless development and outside economic pressures to create sustainable tourism programs and encourage the preservation of their natural and cultural resources.

As a volunteer, you'll live in one of six different communities and help them develop and refine sustainable businesses. You'll stay and eat your meals with a local family and, during the day, help out with projects such as replanting forests, teaching at a local school, or constructing visitor facilities. And if you're low on time, these cultural exchanges can be as short as a week.

The primary purpose of your service, however, will be helping the locals adjust to foreign visitors and providing feedback on how they can improve their tourism offerings. "The focus is more on spending time with members of the community and sharing cultures, learning about theirs and allowing them the chance to learn about yours," says Foundation President Andy Kirby.

"Being welcomed into a community and learning about family life in a different culture were highlights for me," says Jeanne Kearsley, who recently spent time in two Yanapuma villages. During her time in Ecuador, Kearsley got the chance to test out a horseback riding program in the mountain town of La Chimba and give feedback on a small museum and zoo being developed in the rainforest community of Chichicorumi. "The program is really a great opportunity for people short on time to learn about the daily lives and challenges affecting people in a developing country," says Kearsley.

The details A fee of $140 per week covers rustic accommodations, meals, some guided tours, and support from Yanapuma during your visit. Yanapuma will provide preparatory information and explain in detail how to get to your village from Quito, Ecuador's main international gateway. Currently, you can choose to participate in Cultural Exchanges in four different rainforest communities and two different sierra communities. Potential volunteers should have at least a basic knowledge of Spanish and come with an open mind and willingness to be flexible. Visits can be arranged throughout the year. Round-trip fall flights from Miami to Quito start at $320 plus taxes on American.

Hear Ireland's folktales and historyProvider:Irish Folk Tours Price:$55

Many travelers, especially those of Irish heritage, head to Ireland in search of "untainted" Irish cultural experiences and a window into how their ancestors lived. Upon arrival, however, some might be surprised to see how the country has been modernized and transformed by one of the strongest economies in Europe, earning itself the nickname "Celtic Tiger." There are lots of historic attractions and tours available to visitors, but most present the stories of famous revolutionaries, authors, and politicians, not the common people from whom most Irish immigrants descended.

Luckily, there are still a few caretakers of Ireland's fascinating folklore and history. One such authority on Irish storytelling and fairy lore, Johnny Daly, recently started a new cultural program in Dublin, An Evening of Food, Folk, and Fairies.

Every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from May through October, Daly offers an evening of storytelling and Irish cuisine in The Brazen Head, Ireland's oldest pub (it dates to 1198). Over a four-course candlelit traditional Irish meal, Daly tells stories of how ordinary Irish people lived in the past, including their superstitions about fairies and other mystical beings. Afterwards, you can watch traditional music being played in the pub downstairs.

"Johnny really fleshes out and goes beyond what you get from the more traditional historical tours," says Dale Lang of Toronto, who attended the program with her family this June. "We were in Dublin briefly and if we had not done the Food, Folk, and Fairy program we would have missed the personal experience of learning more about the Irish people through one delightful Irish storyteller. There's nothing like a good meal and good stories to make you feel like you've really been somewhere."

The detailsThe program's cost covers the meal and storytelling. To learn more about accommodations and other attractions and tours in Dublin, check the Dublin Tourism website and SmarterTravel.com's Dublin Travel Guide. Flights from New York to Dublin this fall start at $297 round-trip plus taxes on American.

Go on a gourmet food and culture tour of JapanProvider:Intrepid Travel Price:$2,990

There's way more to Japanese food than raw fish and rice. From exquisite vegetarian dishes prepared with 1,200-year-old recipes to beef so prized it costs $100 per pound, the Japanese treat cooking as an art form. Every region has its own specialties and preparation methods, so the only way to really experience the diversity of Japanese cuisine is to go there and try it all for yourself.

"There is so much variety in Japanese cuisine that you could eat something different and delicious in every town you visit," says Natalie Placko, who went on a culinary tour of the country with her employer, Intrepid Travel. "Japanese food really is all about a mixture of subtle textures and presentation—the food is presented beautifully and sometimes you don't want to eat it as it looks so special."

On Intrepid's two-week tour, you'll eat your way around many of Japan's top destinations and visit some of the country's iconic attractions along the way. You'll start in Tokyo with a soba noodle making class and a trip to the famous Tsukiji fish market. Later, you'll sample sake varieties in Takayama; meditate and eat shojin-ryori Buddhist cuisine during a stay at a monastery in Koya-san; and, in Osaka, dare to eat one of Japan's most notorious dishes, fugu, a blowfish that can be lethal if prepared incorrectly. After an excursion to Hiroshima, the trip ends with a cooking class in the ancient city of Kyoto.

The detailsPrices include accommodations, some meals, ground transportation, tours and attractions admissions, and cooking lessons. Optional activities and airfare are extra. The rail pass used to get around on this tour should cover your journey back to Tokyo from Kyoto. Tours are scheduled in September and October 2007; and March, April, May, and June 2008. This fall, round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Tokyo start around $663 plus taxes on American.

Experience a 'hidden gem' of cultural travelProvider:G.A.P Adventures Price:$1,345

Here's a fascinating cultural destination for you: It's the site of a Biblical kingdom said to have been ruled over by the Queen of Sheba, where Orthodox Christians worship in monolithic stone churches carved from hillsides in the 11th century. Its people, many of whom still adhere to ancient customs and dress, are as diverse as you'd expect in a country which has served as a cultural crossroads between three continents for thousands of years. No, it's not Egypt or Greece, nor Israel or Turkey. It's not, in fact, anywhere in Europe or the Middle East.

The country of Ethiopia, for decades beset by war and famine, has finally been "discovered" by travelers again. With its mosaic of indigenous cultures and often lush, green landscapes, Ethiopia even surprises seasoned travelers.

"The history and culture superseded my expectations," says Diane Molzan, who visited more than 65 countries before traveling to Ethiopia with G.A.P Adventures, her employer. "Many travelers who had 'done it all' were asking [me] about Ethiopia so. .. I knew I had to place it on my 'must visit' list. I'm glad I did as it didn't disappoint. I'm always looking for those hidden gems of undiscovered beauty."

G.A.P's new 11-day Cultural Ethiopia trip takes you on a tour around Rift Valley to experience some of the country's many different ethnic groups including the Arbore, Karo, Ari, Mursi, Konso, and Dorze peoples. You'll see how different tribes live as nomads, herders, and farmers, and how they practice religion and express themselves artistically. The detailsRates for this tour cover accommodations, some meals, ground transportation, guide services, and numerous tours and excursions. The trip starts and ends in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Departures are scheduled in October, November, and December. November flights from Newark to Addis Ababa start at $1,636 round-trip on Northwest. Taxes are extra.

Attend classical performances in Europe's music capitalsProvider:Allegro Holidays Price:from $2,076

If you think Mozart sounds glorious on your iPod, try listening to one of his operas at the Estates Theatre in Prague, where he premiered Don Giovanni in 1787. For classical music aficionados, there's no better trip than a pilgrimage to Central Europe's capitals, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, where many pillars of the genre lived and composed their famous works.

Allegro Holidays, a tour company that specializes in arts, music, and other cultural packages, offers an independent tour of the "Magic Triangle," including three nights each in Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. The itinerary allows you to explore these cities on your own, but includes music-themed tours plus tickets to a musical performance in each destination.

'[The tour] highlights are definitely the first-class musical performances," says Eva Berkes of Allegro Holidays. "It is possible to attend operas, chamber music concerts, symphonic music, operettas, organ concerts, choirs, and even pantomimes depending on the program schedules of the different venues."

You choose the concerts that interest you most. Perhaps watch the Strauss waltz Blue Danube performed at the Schönbrunner Palace in Vienna, hear the Czech Philharmonic at the Rudolfinum in Prague, or listen to folk songs written by acclaimed Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály in Budapest.

The detailsTour prices start at ?1,510 per person (about $2,076; see USATODAY.com's currency converter for current exchange rates), which covers nine nights' accommodations, daily breakfast and some dinners, several tours and excursions in each city, rail tickets and an intra-Europe flight, airport transfers, and tickets to a performance of your choice in each city. Prices vary depending on the level of accommodations you choose, and some performances may require an additional charge. Current rates are valid through October. Round-trip October flights from New York to Prague, the tour's start point, are priced around $357 on Iberia. Taxes are extra.

Experience nomadic life in MongoliaProvider:Adventure Center Price:$1,520

The land of Genghis Khan has changed remarkably little since the Mongol leader reigned over it more than 800 years ago. About 40% of Mongolia's population is still nomadic, living in portable gers, or yurts made of willow branches and felted animal hair. Outside of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, there's little development, not even roads in many places. Nomads navigate Mongolia's grassy steppe lands by horse and the Gobi Desert by camel. Their dress and habits have changed minimally over the centuries.

This ancient way of life, preserved on such a large scale (the country is slightly smaller than Alaska), and Mongolia's large tracts of untouched wilderness make the country a magnet for cultural travelers with an adventurous streak. Numerous tour operators run Mongolia trips, but many are quite expensive. However, Adventure Center, the U.S. sales representative for an adventure outfitter called Sundowners, sells a 10-day Mongolia trip for $1,520 that's timed to coincide with the country's most important cultural event, the Naadam Festival.

For three days each July, athletes from all over Mongolia come together to compete in wrestling matches, archery competitions, and horse races. The biggest spectacle of the festival, the horse races, often include hundreds of horses carrying colorfully dressed riders as young as six years old. On Adventure Center's tour, you'll partake in the festival and make a trip to the ancient city of Karakorum, the former seat of Genghis Khan; look for rare wild Przewalski horses in Khustai National Park; and spend time with nomadic families in their gers.

The detailsThe next "Naadam Adventure" tour runs from July 6 to 15, 2008. Rates include accommodations, some meals, guide services, tours and attraction admissions, and ground transportation. The trip starts and ends in Ulaanbaatar, the country's main gateway. Flights from Los Angeles to Ulaanbaatar next July start at $1,515 round-trip plus taxes on United.

Study Scottish arts, music, and languageProvider:Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts Price:$705 to $805 per week

The descendants of Old World immigrants living in the New World sometimes preserve the old traditions as carefully—and sometimes even more carefully— than those who never left. The descendants of 19th-century Scottish immigrants living on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island certainly think that's true of their Gaelic heritage.

"Cape Breton Island is the only remaining Gàidhealtachd (an area where the Gaelic language survives as a community language) in North America," says Rodney Chaisson, director of Cape Breton's Highland Village Museum. "It is the only area in the world where certain traditions of Gaelic song, genres of storytelling, fiddle and piping styles, and dance styles remain. Every year in Scotland there is a festival on the Isle of South Uist where Cape Bretoners teach these traditions, which died out in Scotland several generations ago."

Travelers can also go to Cape Breton to learn Gaelic arts at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, the only institution of its kind in North America, studying disciplines ranging from Highland bag piping and dance to Gaelic language and weaving. During the summer, the school runs week-long beginner- through advanced-level courses. All courses are geared towards serious students. Most pupils take up to five classes per day in two to three subject areas and then practice in their spare time. However, there's also time to attend evening recitals, visit the campus' museum, and tour nearby Gaelic communities.

The detailsSessions for adults and younger students are scheduled throughout July and August. Fees cover accommodations, meals, course tuition, and registration costs. Depending on which subject you choose, you may need to provide your own instruments and dance attire. Round-trip summer fares from New York to Sydney, Cape Breton Island, start at $626 round-trip, on Air Canada.

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