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Giddyap and Get Cooking

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 31, 2008

Q. I'd like to surprise my husband with a trip to the Midwest for horseback riding and a gourmet cooking class. Any advice?

C. White, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

A. You'll have to travel a bit farther than the Midwest to find ranches that cater to both cooks and cowboys. Colleen Hodson of the Dude Ranchers' Association in Cody, Wyo. (866-399-2339, http://www.duderanch.org), said many western ranches offer informal "culinary evenings" where guests learn how to prepare a meal. Some, such as the Home Ranch in Clark, Colo. (970-879-1780, http://www.homeranch.com), encourage guests to hang out in the kitchen with the chefs at any time.

Others offer more formal cooking programs. For example, Smith Fork Ranch in Crawford, Colo., has a four-day culinary weekend Sept. 11-14. Guests learn to cook dishes featuring lamb, elk, rainbow trout and pheasant; visit nearby farms and ranches; pitch in to prepare a streamside picnic; and are served a five-course dinner with suggested wine pairings. Prepare to pony up for this one: Cost is $2,500 for two. For more info: 970-921-3454, http://www.smithforkranch.com.

For something a little closer to home, here's an option in Upstate New York: Take a cooking class at the famed Culinary Institute of America (845-471-6608, http://www.ciachef.edu), then bunk down at nearby Rocking Horse Ranch (800-647-2624, http://www.rhranch.com). CIA "boot camp" classes range from one to five days and cover such subjects as tapas, flavors of Asia and specialty desserts. A two-day hors d'oeuvre class, for example, costs $850 per person. Back at the ranch, plenty of horse-related activities await. Weekend packages this fall start at $370 per person and include meals.

My husband and I want to take a trip to Central America this fall and are considering Nicaragua. We want to be off the beaten path, which seems like a good reason to leave Costa Rica off the list. We'd like the first half of the trip to be adventurous and cultural, and the other half luxurious and relaxing.

April Hatton, Washington

Your choice is a good one, since Nicaragua offers all the appeal of its southern neighbor, Costa Rica, but is not yet heavily traveled. In other words, the country "has not been tweaked, packaged and repackaged to meet the perceived desires of the international traveler," says Richard Leonardi, general manager of Tours Nicaragua (011-505-252-4035, http://www.toursnicaragua.com), a Managua-based outfitter. But if you plan to travel without a guide, it helps to know some Spanish.

As for adventurous and cultural destinations, Leonardi suggests that you visit the country's colonial cities of Leon and Granada, both founded in the 16th century. "Both cities have fine colonial restorations for lodging," Leonardi says. From those bases, he says, you can climb active volcanoes, kayak in Lake Nicaragua and visit native artisan villages.

For the relaxing half of your trip, Leonardi says, head for San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast. Lodging includes options such as Piedras y Olas (866-350-0555, http://www.piedrasyolas.com), a luxury resort overlooking the bay, with lush gardens and infinity pools. Rates start at $140 per night double for a room with a kitchen and private bathroom. For nature lovers, there's Morgan's Rock Hacienda and Ecolodge (011-506-22-32-6449, http://www.morgansrock.com), a 4,500-acre private reserve. The grounds and beach are home to howler monkeys, sloths, giant sea turtles and a variety of birds native to the subtropical region. Rates for a couple start at $219 per person per night and include three daily meals, local beverages (i.e., beer) and some tours.

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