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Play tourist for an afternoon with a culinary city tour. 

What just may be the best lobster roll in Portland, Maine, isn’t on any of our menus. It’s made with swimmingly fresh lobster, a touch of mayo, a squeeze of lemon, and a secret ingredient- Harissa mustard from Vervacious, a stylish shop on Commercial Street specializing in handcrafted seasonings from around the world.

The only way to sample this sheer delight is to go on an excursion with MaineFoodie Tours—one of a growing number of businesses that put exploring a city through comestibles front and center.

“It’s just a wonderful way to get the taste and feel of a town or city,” says Pamela Laskey, director of Maine Foodie Tours. When Laskey launched the venture in 2009, not many people were offering culinary tours, she notes. Now Maine Foodie Tours is seeing growth of about 50 percent every year, with tours of Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, in addition to several options in Portland. Each one strives to feature the best of Maine—and to move expectations past lobster and blueberries (though you’ll try both on the Portland Culinary Walking Tour).
“There’s a lot going on in the local food scene, and I love to share it with people,” says Maine Foodie Tours guide Randy Judkins. The Maine native and vaudeville stage performer is a font of knowledge about the history of Portland and its edibles, expounding on Portland’s great rum riot of 1855 and about the protests that Colonial indentured servants staged over being fed too much lobster.

Tastes along the Portland Culinary Walking Tour may include anything from delicate scones at Stonewall Kitchen to a Dean’s Sweets chocolate truffle made with Maine potato vodka, not to mention a diverse selection of locally produced artisanal cheeses sampled at K. Horton Fine Specialty Foods. With 75 artisanal cheesemakers, Maine is the fastest growing handcrafted cheese state in the country, second only to New York in the number of small cheese producers.

Laskey says Maine Foodie Tours attracts some guests who only vacation where they can go on a food tour, but these tours also attract their share of locals seeking a new way to see their hometowns, entertain out-of-towners, or indulge in a mini-vacation. That’s certainly the case with City Wine Tours in Boston. With several options around town, and a new venture into New York City, these tours invite an afternoon of indulging in good wine at some of the city’s best restaurants.

“We have tons of Bostonians, or people who live within driving distance of Boston, join us,” says Dan Andrew, CEO, who launched City Wine Tours with some partners in 2011. “Locals come on the tours again and again, they bring friends, and then spread the word about how much fun it was to drink wine in Boston.”

 Several locals—and a couple from distant Perth, Australia—were among the imbibers on a recent City Wine Tour of Boston’s South End, meeting up at the handcrafted zinc bar at cozy Gaslight Brasserie. To start, Judy Lebel, “wine ambassador” as City Wine Tours calls its guides, welcomed guests with generous pours of a delightful rosé sparkling wine and explained how the wine got its pink hue.

For participants who were interested in wine education, Lebel talked about regions and bottle shapes, then walked them through the different steps involved in tasting wine. Each tour stops at three restaurants, sampling two wines at each location. Wine and food pairings are chosen by the restaurant—the wine ambassadors don’t get an advance heads-up on the selections. That means guides have to think on their feet, and have a deep knowledge of oenology. Lebel, who holds a Certified Wine Specialist designation from the Society of Wine Educators, worked with luminaries like Robert Mondavi before joining City Wine Tours, and also runs her own agency representing small wineries on the East Coast.

While City Wine Tours does offer small bites to pair with the free-flowing wine, guests will probably leave hungry— and that’s a good thing, says Andrew, at least in the eyes of the restaurants. “We work with several restaurant partners who’ve dropped their food tours and now work exclusively with us,” he says. “Why? Our guests go back and make dinner reservations. For some reason, that isn’t often the case with the food tour patrons.”

 You won’t leave a Portsmouth Eats restaurant tasting tour hungry if Colleen Westcott has anything to say about it. “I like to make sure everyone is topped off,” says Westcott, who started Portsmouth Eats in fall 2012 with her 16-year-old son, Jonathan Carrigan. “I want people to feel they got huge value for their money.”

Westcott also wants customers to have a great time, so she chooses restaurant partners with care. “Of course, they have to have fabulous food, but they also have to be friendly,” she says. “When people come to Portsmouth, this is what they are seeing. I want them to come away feeling welcomed.”

 With as many restaurant seats as residents, Portsmouth is a serious dining out town, with a plethora of options to suit every taste. Portsmouth Eats reflects that diversity, with a White Tablecloth Tour, a Sweets and Treats tour, guided by Carrigan, and a Welcome UNH tour, for college students and their parents. On that tour, Westcott brings the adults to some of the best restaurants in town, while Carrigan takes the students to all-you-can-eat buffets and other spots for the top “bite for your buck.” But their most popular tour is the “Best of Portsmouth,” which focuses on eateries featured on TV. The Blue Mermaid Island Grill, for example, is a favorite of Rachel Ray’s $40 a Day, and Gilley’s PM Lunch, a 100-year-old hot dog stand, has been discussed on just about every TV foodie show airing, including the Phantom Gourmet and Man vs. Food .

Westcott says she thinks the excitement over food tourism is driven by the explosion of televised cooking shows. “Cooking shows fill the networks,” she says. “Food tasting, preparation, and cook-offs have all become [forms of entertainment].” While a brush with a celebrity may be the gateway, from there, Westcott says patrons are hooked. “Having traveled for food [once], you may find that there is no better way to get to know an area and the people who live there than to visit their kitchens and taste their food.” 

City Wine Tours
(Boston and New York)
Maine Foodie Tours
(Bar Harbor, Portland, and Kennebunkport)
Portsmouth Eats