Getting fit to burst

Posh nosh plays havoc with your waistline, says Peter Conchie. So how do you visit the world's top foodie venues without piling on the pounds? Hold dessert and swap the doggie bag for the kitbag

Taking a holiday in one of the world's culinary hot-spots sets up a tricky dynamic. While it is undoubtedly good for the palate, the spirit, the tastebuds and the soul, a vacation that centres on the consumption of food and drink can have unfortunate consequences for the figure.

Consuming in moderation would be one solution, but that's easier said than done when faced with regional temptations such as tagliatelle with pumpkin and truffles, spiced wild rabbit, Tuscan lemon sorbet and first-rate bottles of Madeira. The only sensible approach for those who like to give their appetite free reign is to take a holiday that combines both a significant quantity (and quality) of calories with some perspicacious physical endeavour.

Not that your correspondent is recommending an earnest, health-conscious approach. Far from it; think of it as a pragmatic way to work up an appetite. Being in the Liguria region of Italy or in California's Napa Valley and not being hungry or thirsty doesn't bear thinking about.

There are at least two ways to take this type of holiday. The more expensive is to book with one of a growing number of companies at the top end of the market offering tailored breaks for active foodies. The alter-native is to travel to a specific region known for its food, its sport or both, and book your own supplementary activities.

Active Gourmet Holidays is an example of the former. It was started in 2002 by a Kentucky-based American, Jo-Ann Gaidosz, and employs local agents in Europe to offer esoteric combination holidays tailored to clients' specifications. For instance, Active Gourmet markets supported bike tours along ancient Tuscan pathways, with clients rewarded at the end of a hard day's cycling - along, say, the wine roads of Vernaccia - with dinner at decent local restaurants. Dehydrated pedallers can also visit the Badia a Coltibuono, an 11th-century former abbey where the monks produced some of Chianti's earliest wines, and where Lorenza di Medici's famous cooking school is located.

It's a canny piece of marketing. Let's face it - and the statistics back me up on this - wealthy Americans with a taste for rich food need all the exercise they can get. Perhaps with this in mind, Gaidosz offers reassurance. "There's always a van following close behind for when the going gets tough," she says. "But the tours can be customised and are intended for all ages and abilities; people like me, who love to hike, cook, eat and drink red wine."

But how will all those rich dinners affect your performance? Jeff Archer, director of The Tonic, a fitness and lifestyle consultancy, explains: "The body's energy system works most effectively with simple, fairly plain food, primarily carbohydrates. If you eat richer, more complicated food, the body will have to expend a certain amount of energy in digestion, which will leave you less energy for the activity. For example, if you have a fry-up for breakfast before going out for a bike ride, you won't feel as energised as if you'd had a bowl of porridge."

Aside from burning off the calories you consumed at breakfast and dinner, Archer reveals that nutritionally there are other benefits from a hard day in the saddle. "The added benefit is that your metabolism is boosted, so when you eat you will burn off the calories faster, and use the calories as energy rather than store it as fat."

Archer adds that the benefits of exercise depend in part on how hard you push yourself. "Recreational cycling on flat ground will burn around 200 calories an hour. If it's hilly and you're pushing it, then this could increase to more like 350-400."

Other combinations include cooking and hiking in Piedmont or cooking and Hatha yoga in Tuscany, while a tour of South-west France entitled "The Outdoor Gourmet" is a catch-all trip that can combine horse-riding, kayaking and cooking classes in a 17th-century chateau.

The Ski Club of Great Britain advises training for between eight and 12 weeks before a skiing holiday. The stamina acquired will also be useful for travellers facing an onslaught from rich food and fine wines. Chalet-holiday companies have long recognised that guests come home ravenous after a long day in the mountains. But nowadays there are more sophisticated alternatives to (the admittedly often very pleasant) plates of fresh cakes and pots of boeuf bourguignon served up by gap-year students.

The French resort town of Megève has been a favourite with Parisians since a fashionable crowd including Jean Cocteau, Charles Aznavour and Brigitte Bardot patronised it in the Fifties and Sixties. Since then it has built on its reputation for good food and has as many Michelin three-star restaurants as the whole of London (one). Chef Marc Veyrat's La Ferme de Mon Père is the top table in town, while those lacking the contacts or the money to secure a table might try the same resort's single-starred Flocons de Sel.

On the slopes at Megève there are also restaurants offering high-quality food, while those with time to kill between lunch and dinner could always make less than graceful arcs along some of Megève's 450km of runs, or else doze off on its 113 lifts. If you are intending to have a five-course dinner, you might think about earning it by trying some cross-country skiing; this burns up to 900 calories an hour, compared with around 300 for the downhill version.

"The metabolic benefits of downhill skiing really depend upon how good you are and what sort of run you are on," says Archer. "An expert skier flying down a black run will burn lots of calories, while poor skiers inching their way down won't burn as many."

Happily, for the novice skier, the converse is also true. "A great skier on a blue run will burn hardly any calories at all, whereas poor ones will burn a lot more, especially if they are having to haul themselves upright every few yards."

Further afield, the alluring North American resort of Heavenly, on the California-Nevada border, offers a big fat 480km of groomed piste and trails. But more importantly, depending on your priorities, it is the home of The Summit, a restaurant rated in America's top 100. In summer, denuded of snow, the resort undergoes the familiar transformation into a golf, hiking and biking centre and, happily, the chefs keep cooking.

Also at altitude but in a slightly warmer environment, Exodus, an overland-tour company specialising in unusual activity breaks, offers more than the usual cursory nod towards evening meals. After a three-day scramble to the summit of Morocco's Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, followed by a mountain-bike dash across the High Atlas, the company calculated shrewdly that their guests would appreciate some gourmet comforts. Midway through the expedition, guests swap canvas and camp fires for comfort and haute cuisine as they spend a night in a four-star French colonial hotel with a traditional menu.

Closer to home, it is possible to combine a gourmet's greed with a need for speed. In Cornwall, for example, Rick Stein's restaurant in Padstow offers a variety of cooking courses from between one and four days' duration. After you have perfected and - more significantly - consumed a rich hollandaise sauce, the region offers a perfect way to burn them off. Harlyn Surf School, also based in Padstow, offers a range of courses, from one-off "taster" lessons to four-day, full-board, eight-session residential courses.

While the cooking-locally-caught-fish-and-lying-on-a-surfboard combination is still too esoteric for traditional travel agents, for those of that inclination it is possible to organise it yourself and combine the activities, with four days learning how to cook fish followed by a few more keeping them company in the sea.

Like skiing, Archer says that the calories you use up in the surf depend on your ability and the conditions. "You burn off roughly 300 calories an hour surfing," he says. "rising to around 400 if you are a good surfer and the conditions are tough, or you are a novice and continually being knocked off."

The Cheshire company Headwater offers a variety of quirky upmarket activity breaks, including cycling tours through the olive groves of Cyprus and independent walking tours of the Floating Gardens of Madeira, with opportunities to sip the local brew.

Meanwhile, the unforgettably and - let's be frank - appallingly named Wheely Wonderful Cycling Company offers tours in the UK, one of which takes in Somerset Cider Orchards (wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk). This may sound like a pub crawl on wheels, but it does at least have something common with all these types of holidays; an exhortation to eat, drink and be merry. Otherwise you will never be able to justify that second helping of dessert.

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you exercise

Active Gourmet Holidays (activegourmetholidays.com) options include a three-day cookery class in Tuscany from £524 and six nights Biking Tuscan Trails from £1,486, not including airfares in either case. Exodus (0870 240 5550, exodus. com) offers a Hill Tribes and Beaches tour in Thailand from £965, including flights, accommodation and some meals. Rick Stein's Seafood School (above; 01841 533 466, rickstein. com) runs one-day cookery courses from £165 (some late availability this month at £120), with half-day children's courses £65. For details of Harlyn Surf School: harlynsurf.co.uk. Head-water (01606 720 033, headwater. com) organises activity holidays worldwide. A cycling tour of Cyprus in January costs £788, including return flights from Heathrow, half-board accommodation, cycle hire and support. For two-wheeled UK options: wheelywonderfulcycling.co.uk. Details of skiing in Megève and Heavenly: megeve.com, skiheavenly.com. The Tonic (020 8995 1302, www.the-tonic.com) offers customised personal training and advice on lifestyle and nutrition.

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