Whether it's the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in New Mexico, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or some similarly-themed route, culinary trails allow you to sample regional flavors and meet the locals behind them. But, these trails can be overwhelming. After all, how much salsa can you eat in one day on the Salsa Trail in southern Arizona? Here are nine tips for getting the most out of your next food-centric (or booze-centric) adventure.
1. Map it. Themed trails usually require you to drive unfamiliar roads. Don't rely on a website or brochure map, both of which will likely only show the major streets. Before you go, familiarize yourself with the route, and always travel with a paper map just in case your GPS or navigation system fails.
2. Designate a driver. We're not just talking about someone who agrees not to sample the wine, beer, or spirits along the trail; that should be a given. Even if you plan to just spend the day comparing barbecue joints, single out someone who drives safely: No hasty u-turns or lane changes, and make sure they can take directions.
3. Be realistic. There just isn't enough time (or, in some cases, room in your stomach) to visit every establishment on a culinary trail in 24 hours. Decide which ones are a must, and plan accordingly. Also, take into account driving distances and tours.
4. Dress appropriately. Farm and vineyard tours may require you to be outside and to walk on uneven ground. Bring a jacket if it's cold and sunscreen if it's sunny, and wear shoes you can walk in comfortably. You'll also want to ditch strong perfume and aftershave, which can overwhelm your sense of smell and affect your ability to taste.
5. Budget the trip. Each meal you order costs money. Add to that the culinary souvenirs you buy along the way, tastings, and tours, and your trip can get very expensive, very quickly. Try to price out each element before you go, and set a budget. Then, stick to it.
6. Call ahead. Just because the website or trail brochure indicates a listed restaurant serves lunch and dinner doesn't mean it actually does. Or, that it's even open at all. Restaurants and shops go out of business; hours at farms and other seasonal establishments vary. A quick phone call before you go can save a lot of time and frustration.
7. Try something new. You'll have plenty of opportunity to explore new flavors on a culinary trail. That's half the fun. Challenge yourself to sip an unfamiliar style of beer, dip your chip into that fiery salsa (just have some milk on hand), or sample a side you've never tried, like fried pickles.
8. Start a conversation. Ask the waitress serving you about the town; talk to the bartender at the winery about the vineyard's history. You'll learn things about the community and the people who live there that you wouldn't if you focused exclusively on your traveling companions.
9. Take a break. You can only sip so many chardonnays or devour so many ice cream sundaes in rapid succession. Break up the day with other attractions. Tour a museum, shop for souvenirs, or hike through a local park or preserve (if only to work off some of those calories!). Visitors' centers can suggest activities if you're not sure what your options are.