When you’ve visited a place many times—lived there for over 9 months, actually—you’ve seen pretty much all the touristy places there are to see. That’s the case with us and Seattle. The Space Needle? Yep. EMP? Yep. Pike Place Market? Of course. Whale watching? Need you ask?
So what’s the nomadic travel blogger to do? It’s time to discover some of the lesser-known places. We’ve always liked to tour interesting local businesses; it comes from the nuns taking us throughout elementary school to tour the Colonial Bread bakery…oh, the smells! Some other tours that come to mind are the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Jameson distillery in Ireland, and seeing a cow robotically milked in Scotland.
So when our friends’ son suggested we take the Theo Chocolate factory tour, we were all over it.
The tours are about 90 minutes, so if you’re looking for a day-long diversion, you’ll need to spend a lot of time in the gift shop. Theo Chocolate is a boutique producer of organic chocolate. They’re involved in every step of the process from sourcing the cocoa beans in South America and Africa to shipping the finished products. They’re all about high quality, organic agriculture, stewardship, and fair trade. As they say, “for us, chocolate isn’t just a product, it’s a journey from bean to bar.”
You can expect to pay a premium for their chocolate in the same way you can expect to pay more for a fine bottle of wine over a cheap wine or in the same way you’ve become accustomed to paying more for the coffee at Starbucks than at the gas station. When I was losing weight a few years back, one of my regular pleasures was an 80-calorie chunk of monounsaturated fat (MUFA) rich dark chocolate. The darker the better, I think, and I was savoring 88% cacao (often with a bit of hardy red wine). I rarely eat sweet milk or white chocolate. I felt as right in the Theo Chocolate Factory tour as I do at a wine tasting in California.
Our tour started with an educational overview by our tour guide (who, naturally1, was a marine biologist). Her knowledge and passion of the process clear, she explained not only the “bean to bar” process, but what makes Theo different along the way (this is the hallmark of a great company factory tour, by the way). We sampled cocoa beans as if they were fine wines, differentiating the smoky or earthy or fruity flavors. From there it was on to the factory, a smallish operation in a renovated old Seattle building. Oh, the smells! Our guide pointed out the machines used in the process from start to finish, and passed around samples—of beans and bars. You wind up, naturally, in the gift shop, where we picked up a few of our favorites. Their salted almond bar is positively sinful.
Taking local business factory tours are a great experience while traveling, whether you’ve been to that destination a lot or not. Look for well-known brands that are produced there and Google for visits or search them in TripAdvisor. For example, we’ve been to Amsterdam four times before, so in a few weeks when we visit again we’ll probably, finally, take the Heineken brewery tour (and be seeking out a few other lesser-known museums and sights).
Perhaps most importantly, never forget to ask the recommendations of locals.
We learned a lot about chocolate and the Theo brand, but we also learned about the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. It’s a cool and hip corner north of the city, packed with restaurants and bars with al fresco patios. After our chocolate tour, we headed across the street for happy hour drinks and nibbles at a bar. Note to self: explore the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle the next time we’re there.
Travel Bloggers Chuck and (“cafeteria lady”) Lori
1 – This is sarcasm.