Tamar Lowell is the driving force behind Access Culinary Trips, a culinary tour operator specializing in exploring culture through cuisine. As CEO, Lowell personally designs each itinerary to include the perfect balance of exceptional dining, world-class cooking instruction and authentic cultural immersion. She spent much of her childhood and young adult life living in and traveling between Africa, the Middle East and the United States, so it’s no wonder she had her mind set on working in the travel industry. After receiving her graduate degree from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, she was recruited by American Airlines and has never looked back.
Where did you go on your first trip and how old were you?
I’ve been traveling since I was a baby, but the first trip I remember was a bus tour in Italy when I was 7. I recall visiting the Vatican on a Sunday and the Pope coming out onto a balcony to bless the crowd, and I remember the Blue Grotto in Capri. I have not been on bus tour since. I need to interact with my environment, rather than watch it passing by through a window.
What is your most vivid travel memory?
There are so many! But the first one that popped into my mind is spending a month traveling through Vietnam in 1994. President Clinton had just lifted the decades-long embargo, and we were among the first Americans back in the country since the airlift of 1975. We traveled from Saigon to Hanoi and had too many adventures to recount here—many of which are still inside jokes between my husband and me. This trip was when I fell in love with Southeast Asia and I vividly recall deciding that I would work in Vietnam one day. That dream came true when we launched our Vietnam culinary tour in 2012. I also vividly recall knowing on that trip that my boyfriend was forever. We have now been married for 21 years.
What was the “Aha” moment that led you into the travel industry?
In business school I first heard about the Lonely Planet guide books from my housemate and started reading them voraciously. I joined a research tour to Asia with a group of classmates and ended it with an off-the-beaten-path side trip to Singapore and Indonesia, using my Lonely Planet guide to Southeast Asia. I was hooked. When I got back to school I had a job interview with a consumer products company marketing kitty litter. That was my aha moment. As much as I love animals, I had no desire to wake up every morning and think about kitty litter—I needed to do something I was passionate about. That next semester I did an in-depth project on the economics of the airline industry, and was recruited by American Airlines upon graduation.
Where did you go on your honeymoon?
We started in Koh Samui, Thailand for a few days to relax on the beach after the craziness of our wedding. And then we continued on to Nepal where we trekked the Everest trail. I have not spent nine consecutive nights in a tent before or since, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
What was your favorite trip you took last year and why?
I just returned from three weeks in Europe checking in on our operations in Spain and Italy and scouting a new tour in France. I spent my days tasting fabulous foods and wines, touring stunning boutique hotels, and finding unique and authentic experiences to connect our guests with the local people and culture. What could be better? (Being joined by my husband, especially since I was away during my anniversary AND birthday.)
Where would you like to go that you have yet to visit?
Bhutan, Antarctica and Tanzania
Do you always buy a souvenir the first time you visit a destination?
If I have time. I like to get one or two really nice things rather then lots of little tchotchkes. When I look around my house and see the life-sized bronze Buddha in my entryway, the Tibetan cabinet in my living room, and the Turkish rug in my den I feel surrounded by happy memories.
You can tell us—do you collect magnets from the destinations you’ve visited?
No! I collect textiles that I can use at home. Last time I hosted a dinner party I got to choose between gorgeous silk and embroidered tablecloths from Thailand, Nepal, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Morocco and Greece.
What do you do to pass the time on the plane ride to your destination?
I read and watch movies, something I don’t have enough time to do in my real life. But I have to confess, if there is WiFi I often work.
Who is your favorite travel companion?
My husband. We’ve been to over 35 countries together. My teenage daughter is also really fun to travel with, and I would love to take her on my next scouting trip.
If there were one hotel room in the world you could call home the rest of your life, which would it be?
Il Falconiere in Tuscany. It has large, beautiful rooms, unparalleled views of the Tuscan countryside, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a winery, but it’s family-owned and down to earth. I recently spent an afternoon there with chef-owner Silvia Baracchi, and she and her family immediately felt like old friends.
If you were a destination, which would it be and why?
Spain: It’s passionate, down to earth, and outgoing
What is the best food you’ve had on a trip? The strangest?
The best was sushi at Maido, a Nikei restaurant in Lima, Peru, ranked one of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Rather than ordering off the menu, we put our fate in the waiter’s hands, and everything he brought out was unique, delicious and stunningly presented. The strangest is probably sakura niku, or horse meat sashimi, in Japan. I was surprised to find that I liked it.
What can’t you travel without?
My phone. It’s my Swiss army knife.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
Our operations manager in Cuba. He’s an open book and will tell me anything I want to know about Cuba with honesty and humor. He guides many of our tours there, and our guests love him for the same reason.
Tropical beach or snowy mountain?
City or countryside?
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