Vacations take a culinary turn as fliers set out on food tours

Corkscrew Selections from Brother Timothy's corkscrew collection, on display at the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
Source: Culinary Institute of America.
Corkscrew Selections from Brother Timothy's corkscrew collection, on display at the California campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

Granted, everyone needs nourishment when they're out on the road, but a growing number of U.S. travelers are planning their leisure trips around food.

Instead of museums, sports events and family gatherings being the ultimate destination, more people are decamping for food festivals, special meals and even cooking classes and workshops.

"The attraction to culinary tours in the U.S. is that people don't have to travel far or for a long period of time to get away for a vacation," said Beth Whitman, founder of destination tour company WanderTours. Culinary travel is becoming so popular that Whitman has found Airbnb hosts elbowing into the business.

On a recent visit to California's Napa Valley, "our Airbnb owner not only hosted a group of 10 of us in his home, but he prepared a gourmet dinner complete with lobster, oysters and enough Napa Valley wine to satisfy everyone," she told CNBC recently.

Read MoreWhy one town is pinning its hopes on ... Spam?

A 2013 report from Mandala Research on culinary (or gastronomic) travel classified 77 percent of all U.S. leisure travelers, or about 131 million, as culinary travelers. That was based on their participation in food-related activities during trips away from home over a three-year period.

The report also noted a marked increase in culinary-focused travel: Half (51 percent) of all leisure travelers said they travel specifically to learn about or enjoy unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences. That was up double digits from 2006, when 40 percent surveyed at that time said they traveled for these reasons.

'Very intensive boot camps in baking, cooking'

Some of those culinary travelers make their plans around reservations at award-winning restaurants with famous chefs. Others seek out specific cooking classes and demonstrations or head to seasonal food festivals, such as California's Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival or the annual National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan.

Then there's the Culinary Institute of America, which has become a lure for an increasing number of traveling foodies.

The noted culinary college boasts celebrity chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora and Todd English among its alumni, and has campuses in three destination-worthy U.S. locations: the historic Pearl Brewery site on the River Walk in downtown San Antonio; Hyde Park, in New York's Hudson Valley; and St. Helena, in California's Napa Valley.

Each location offers cooking classes, tastings and demonstrations and a chance to dine in award-winning student-run restaurants and cafes.

"Classes can be several hours or several days and cover everything from grilling and baking to coffee and chocolate-making," said Traci Dutton manager of public wine and beverage studies at the institute's Napa Valley, California campus in St. Helena.

"We even have longer, very intensive boot camps in baking, cooking and wine-tasting. You have fun, but you work hard too," she added.

CIA boot camp: Food enthusiasm programs offered at the Culinary Institute of America.
Source: Culinary Institute of America
CIA boot camp: Food enthusiasm programs offered at the Culinary Institute of America.

Laura Mandala, president and CEO of Mandala Research, told CNBC that "culinary travelers are more likely to have experienced local or regional cuisine and tried locally brewed beers and local wines. That bodes well for (an institute) that is using the local and regional ingredients in new and interesting ways."

Great meals — often served at below-market prices — are also a big attraction for the institute.

"It's a great way to taste great food, interact with people who are interested in learning the business, and not spend a lot of money in the process," said David Ransom who, with his wife, Melanie, hosts the Connected Table LIVE! on iHeart Radio.

"Dinner entrees at American Bounty in the Hyde Park Campus range from $19 to $29," Ransom said. "So the cost can be a third to a half less than a comparable meal in a stand-alone good restaurant. And the setting is beautiful."

As an added bonus, each institute campus offers some extras. On weekends only, an outdoor kitchen at the institute's Nao Latin Gastro Bar in San Antonio serves up unusual drinks and tacos on the River Walk plaza.

In addition to three noted restaurants and cafés, the institute's California campus at Greystone, the former site of the Christian Brothers winery, is home to large cookbook and cookware shop. It also has an exhibit of hundreds of corkscrews from the collection of noted Christian Brothers winemaker, Brother Timothy.

And at the institute's Hyde Park campus in New York, there are four student-run restaurants and an 800-seat theater featuring performances from the local year-round Half Moon Theater Company.

"It expands the access of high level culinary offerings to broader audiences," Mandala said.

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.