The food on a trip is just as important as the sights, says Bellingham resident Michael Guelker-Cone, who chronicles many of his travels on his blog, "A Fork in the Road" (http://guelker-cone.blogspot.com).
"It's part of the culture of a place," he says. "If I wanted to eat American food, I would stay home."
Guelker-Cone, 60, is retired after 35 years of teaching fifth and sixth grade in Mount Vernon. He has been a traveler since he was in a college choir that journeyed across the United States and overseas. He now travels for leisure with his wife, Leslie, and accompanies her on travels as director of the concert choir at Western Washington University.
Despite having visited six of the seven continents, he still has a "bucket list" of trips to take, including Ireland, Iceland and Greenland. And he still needs to visit the last two of the 50 states he hasn't visited yet: Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as a few northern Canadian provinces.
For their trips, planning their food adventures is just as important as planning the hotels they will stay at and the museums they will visit.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
The Internet is Guelker-Cone's main tool for researching food, restaurants and the food scene at their destinations.
Tripadvisor.com, Yelp.com, Urbanspoon.com and a few other food blogs help him narrow down a list of places unique to where they're visiting, whether in the United States or abroad.
He also visits roadfood.com, the website of Jane and Michael Stern, to find regional restaurants in the United States with food that can't be found anywhere else. The website led him to great barbeque in Kentucky; a unique breakfast sausage, Goetta, in Cincinnati; and the home of the original hand-dipped corn dog just outside of Indianapolis.
Splendidtable.org, the website from the creators of a weekly National Public Radio show, is also an inspiration for eating on the road, Guelker-Cone says.
ABOUT THAT QUEASY FEELING ...
Guelker-Cone says there's no way to completely avoid Montezuma's revenge. Still, he only drinks bottled water when traveling in developing countries. And he cautions travelers to check for the factory seal on water bottles, because some overseas sellers refill bottles with tap water, or worse.
"Listen for that familiar cracking sound when you unscrew the cap," he warns.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, he and his wife fell in love with iced coffee drinks from sidewalk vendors. But not all vendors use filtered water, and they suffered the consequences.
Guelker-Cone says people who have health conditions that would make a stomach bug life-threatening should avoid street vendors and stick to high-end restaurants that are more likely to follow food-safety practices. Still, he has eaten from many street food vendors across the world and has had only a few incidents that upset his stomach for a day or two.
TRY SOMETHING NEW
Guelker-Cone says he has had numerous memorable meals on the road, many of which can't be lifted from a travel blog or a Rick Steves guidebook.
He says a meal they had in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow, was like traveling in a time machine to pre-World War II Poland. A klezmer band played during dinner and the food was amazing.
He says people shouldn't be afraid to admit to being a tourist. "Locals can spot you a mile away," he says. Confessing that you can't speak the language fluently is an opportunity to find new friends who can help, and who may welcome the opportunity to practice their English and maybe offer a great tip on a restaurant, he says.
Still, stay safe. Guelker-Cone says you should always carry a card from your hotel so a cab driver, bus driver or shopkeeper can guide you home. And a money belt, not a wallet, is a requirement.
NO NEED TO SPLURGE
Guelker-Cone says no matter where you travel, there is wonderful food on a budget. Food is a great place to save money on a trip, and to save for future travels, he says, especially if you do your research ahead of time and avoid pricey tourist traps.
Some of the most mundane meals can be the most expensive when you travel, so knowing about food costs in the area ahead of time can be a cost-saver.
"A beer and a slice of pizza for each of us in Finland cost $40," Guelker-Cone says. "That was a shock, even though we knew the food there was expensive."
Since they are foodies, they love to walk the aisles of foreign grocery stores looking for unique ingredients to take home, or to find picnic ingredients with locally baked bread, fruit and sausage and cheese.
Researching local farmers' markets is another good way to save a buck and experience the food culture of the area. Market purchases are also great for snacking on a train or in a rental car while en route to your next destination.
CARRY SNACKS FROM HOME
"We usually stuff a few granola bars in our bag when traveling for those occasional moments when you feel peckish," Guelker-Cone says.
BRING YOUR TRIP HOME THROUGH FOOD
Guelker-Cone says he and his wife often return from trips with a bottle of spices or a condiment to recreate some of the flavor of a trip well-traveled. (Regulations vary, so be sure to check the rules about bringing food into or out of a foreign country.)
After a trip to Ecuador, Guelker-Cone and his wife brought back packaged snacks and treated friends to a cocktail party. On other occasions, they've hosted a dinner with a meal inspired by their trip.
"We like to bring back a little party with us from the trip," he says.
Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.