Whole Journeys' Kathy Dragon on Food, Locals, and Playing it Small
Last fall, Whole Foods Markets announced the launch of its guided travel program, Whole Journeys, which takes travelers around the world to experience unique cuisine at the hyper-local level. From Tuscany to the tea route of China, Whole Journeys' itineraries are focused on being active and delving deep to learn about culinary traditions near and far.
At Whole Journeys' helm is Kathy Dragon, executive director and a 20-year veteran of the touring industry. She's led groups of Whole Foods executives on trips around the world since 1996, and floated the idea behind Whole Journeys past the team a couple times. In 2011, she got it to stick with company CEO John Mackey.
"We were hiking together in Scotland," says Dragon, "and I brought up the idea again of Whole Journeys and said I think it's the right time. Whole Foods Market is such a leader and more much of a lifestyle brand than a grocery store. Telling the stories and traditions of food along the trail is a key part of something that can be really exciting for consumers."
Dragon is passionate about hyper-local experiences, especially when it comes to touring and food. In the past that meant a lot of tours to village markets, as well as grape harvests in on custom tours through Argentina (that's right, her clients picked the grapes alongside the farmers), and even cheese-making in Switzerland.
"When I travel I'm not as interested in restaurants that everyone else has gone to," she says. "I'm really interested in through-the-back-door experiences."
She brings that sensibility to Whole Journeys, whose clients shouldn't expect to see the inside of a tour bus. This is active travel, meaning small groups and lots of hiking and cycling to promote a healthy lifestyle and reduce impact on the local destination. When it comes to the food, expect insider knowledge from her team of local tour guides (all friends of hers), like China tour guide Jeff Fuchs, the first westerner to traverse the entire Yunnan-Tibet Ancient Tea Horse Road (and literally write the book on it).
"We are able to get deeper into a culture and tradition by walking into the vineyards and cycling into the villages and approaching people and their farms and their restaurants in a different way than pulling up and getting off [the bus]. You're much more approachable to the people of that area when you meet them along their own trails."
Dragon stresses that her tours will focus on experiences travelers might otherwise never experience on their own, like, you know, underground supper clubs in Siena, Italy. "There's a purpose to why we're doing the activity," says Dragon. "We're not just hiking or biking and then transferring to a Michelin-starred restaurant. If we are, it's because we know the owner, and we're spending time with him before, and we're doing something private."
So far, Dragon has 19 trips planned in eight countries this year alone as she learns where clients, returning and potential, want to go. The first, a hiking trip through Turkey from Alacati to the Ilhara Valley, runs from April 13-21 and costs $4,395/person, with a maximum of 16 participants. Trips through Tuscany, Ticino, Switzerland, the Basque country, the Dolomites, China, Provence, and Idaho follow. Nearly all itineraries fall under the "Active Foodie" level of exertion, though there is one "Hands-On Cook" trip in Tuscany focused more on learning to cook the food of the region. Custom trips are also available through the company.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Whole Journeys
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