When it comes to travel,
doesn’t think big.
Instead, the founder of boutique travel company Cheema’s Travel favors intimate trips that spotlight nooks, backstreets, and local characters in the cities she visits. The focus: “Gastronomic adventures” with carefully vetted groups and no single supplements for solo travelers.
One of her goals is broadening the base for group trips to people who never felt comfortable on them. “The idea is that you’re independent, you like to have your own room, and you like free time,” says Cheema, 37. “I have a lot of clients who identify as transgender or nonbinary. It’s not my business why you want your own space.”
After a pandemic slowdown, the Oakland, Calif.-based Cheema’s roster of trips will keep her aloft this year. In September, she’ll lead a group through northern Portugal. A wine-focused tour of Galicia, Spain, follows in late September. October brings a South Korea trip—“Picky Eaters Be Warned,” flashes a cheeky warning on the Cheema Travels site. And in November, an eight-day coffee tour of Japan—“where coffee is mastered and treated like an art”—will visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
Even if travelers have visited the destinations she promotes, Cheema promises they won’t see them the same way. “Overcrowding and over tourism are huge issues. We try to spread the tourism economy beyond the big cities,” she says. “I try not to book Western chains in places like Japan, where there are so many family-owned properties. In Lisbon, we’re taking public transit. In Japan, we’ll eat in convenience stores, not department stores. And we’ll visit a farm with a chef for a dinner.”
A onetime art director at The Food Network who took work breaks in Italy, Spain, and Bangladesh, Cheema launched her agency in 2017. The business mostly ran curated trips to Korea; Cheema had planned 2020 as a breakout year.
The pandemic paralyzed business, she says. But once vaccines rolled out, “people started reaching out about late-2021 travel,” Cheema says. “Covid was a chance to rebrand my business as small-group culinary trips. I got to start from scratch.” This year, her company will escort more than 60 travelers on group trips.
By her own admission, Cheema did not have an adventurous palate as a youngster. The daughter of a Punjabi father and a Puerto Rican mother, “I grew up with everything cooked well-done and al dente, so that’s how I ordered my food.” Her father moved to Greece when Cheema was young, “so I’m more familiar with Greek food. I didn’t eat Indian food until I was 17.”
Staff meals at The Food Network changed that. “I asked for lamb well-done at one lunch, and the chef wouldn’t do it,” she says. “He made it rare, and I loved it. That’s when I learned what I was missing.”
While Cheema Travel remains independent, it’s an affiliate of tour giant Tzell, Cheema’s longtime employer before going solo. And while prices for her tours stray into luxury territory—the Japan trip tops out at $9,000, excluding air—Cheema prefers calling them “boutique. The word ‘luxury’ is triggering for some people. We do stay in 4- and 5-star hotels, but we also stay in a monk’s home in the mountains of Korea. It’s a zero-star stay, but an 11-star experience.”
Cheema shared a few of her favorite things and travel tips with Penta.
The best advice I ever got about travel was… go where locals go. Eat where they eat. That’s where the good food is. That’s where there’s community. It doesn’t always work, though. I went for Chinese food in Rome, to a place where locals go. It was terrible.
The biggest mistake most travelers make… is not getting travel insurance. You’re not psychic. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. Travel insurance is there to cover the unforeseen.
If I was running a food trip through New York, I would take the group to… [century-old dumpling spot] Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown. [Iconic appetizing/deli shop] Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side—but we’d get there early, when they open, to avoid a two-hour wait. And pizza in general. Everyone has a favorite, and you can get great pizza all over the city. I love Joe’s, the classic. I grew up with it in Queens. I have never had bad pizza in NYC.
My dream group to take on a trip would be… [
Award-winning chef and TV host] Samin Nasrat—she seems like a great traveler, and so much fun, just based on her show. The new editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit,
I am loving what she’s doing with the magazine. I’d love to travel to Korea with her. And I would have loved to travel with
He was a big influence. I was always afraid to eat things. Watching him indulge and eat, be open, and explore made me feel less scared about eating overseas.
One place I haven’t visited that I want to see is… Kenya. I’ve sent so many clients there. South Africa is magical and life-changing. But Kenya is a great starting point for the rest of Africa, and the food is wonderful. You can visit multiple countries all at once. You can easily get to Tanzania, Zanzibar, Seychelles, or Mauritius.
For the rest of 2021 into 2022, I predict that travel will be… busy. No one will stay home. Everyone will use vacation time. Travel is picking up so intensely. You have to plan so much sooner. In most of Italy, there’s already limited availability. The whole world wants to travel. It’s already busy, and 2022 is going to be intense.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.