Normally, Americans by the millions are enjoying summer vacation travel right now, but thanks to the pandemic, people who would normally be on cruises, overseas trips and road trips are at home watching pre-pandemic hosts enjoying other cultures around the world.
The late Anthony Bourdain was considered the Michael Jordan of travelogue hosts. He was the food expert able to merge his own open-minded curiosity, his inherent humanity and his trenchant intelligence into multiple shows that won Emmys galore. He was so well respected, he managed to corral President Barack Obama into sharing noodles with him in Vietnam on his CNN show “Parts Unknown.” Sadly, he died in 2018.
While Bourdain was one of a kind, there is no shortage of other entertaining travel shows worth watching. Here’s a sampling of eight available now on streaming services.
“Down to Earth With Zac Efron,” Netflix
Efron, better known as an actor in films ranging from “High School Musical” to “The Greatest Showman,” is also an ardent environmentalist. So he joins wellness guru Darin Olien to seek healthy, sustainable solutions for the planet. He studies Iceland’s renewable energy efforts, visits an eco-village in Costa Rica, ponders diet and longevity on the island of Sardinia and explores London’s strategies to reduce pollution. The pair are perpetually fascinated by what’s happening, saying, “Gnarly!” and “Dude!” while spouting pop culture references. In Iceland alone, they quoted “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Lord of the Rings.” And Efron fans won’t mind seeing a topless Efron during hot and cold stone massage.
“Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted” Disney Plus
Better known for cursing at frightened chefs on “Hell’s Kitchen” or fixing broken restaurants on “Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon Ramsay decided to hit the road searching for what he calls “culinary inspiration.” Over the first season, he hits Peru, New Zealand, Morocco, Laos, Hawaii and Alaska. He purposely tackles rough terrain, rock climbing at high altitude in Peru, kayaking in Laos or free diving in New Zealand. He learns about the local cuisine and then attempts to replicate them. It doesn’t always work and his well-crafted ego is often taken down several notches.
“Gaycation with Ellen Page and Ian Daniel” Hulu
Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page (“Juno”) and her friend Ian Daniel, both gay, visit different countries with a lens on the LGBTQ community including Brazil, Japan, Ukraine and India. Each episode covers a lot of ground. In the Japan episode, they party it up in the gay district in Tokyo and partake in a symbolic same-sex wedding at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Page’s sardonic sense of humor shines through, as does the complexity of the issues they often broach.
“Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi” Hulu
Padma Lakshmi, the elegant Indian-American host of “Top Chef,” traverses cuisines across the United States, sampling burritos in El Paso, Texas, hot dogs in Milwaukee, dosa in New York City and pad thai in Las Vega Vegas. As an immigrant herself, Lakshmi gives voice to immigrants whose ethnic cuisine is often filtered, distorted and watered down for white unsophisticated customers. She then finds millennial chefs who seek to bring back authenticity into their native food. She also delves into the complications of immigration policy from the ground level. For instance, she meets a Syrian immigrant who runs a car wash/eatery in El Paso. He whole-heartedly embraces Donald Trump while saying he loves Mexicans, many who work for him. Lakshmi doesn’t push him on the contradictions, later explaining on Twitter: “I was never going to change his mind. I wanted to listen, to show.”
“Somebody Feed Phil” Netflix
The “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator and producer Phil Rosenthal travels the world, consuming food from Morocco to Saigon, London to Tel Aviv, with the infectious enthusiasm of a 12 year old 12-year-old on a sugar high and enough corny jokes to fill a Borscht Belt variety show. Unlike Samantha Brown or Bourdain, Rosenthal is not a historian or chef, so his viewpoint is comparable to that of a hungry tourist, eager to immerse himself in whatever culture he’s visiting. He gets great joy eating with families and goofing around with locals. “That’s where the magic is,” he says at one point.
“Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” Netflix
Award-winning chef David Chang, following the success of “Ugly Delicious,” takes some of his celebrity buddies on trips around the world. He cuts it up with Seth Rogan Rogen in Rogan’s Rogen’s hometown of Vancouver. Chrissy Teigen brings her cutting wit to Marrakesh, Morocco. Kate McKinnon and Chang find gastronomic joy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The spirited, empathetic Chang picks the brains of the celebrities while making pottery in Morocco, visiting monks in Cambodia and getting a pedicure in Los Angeles. It’s lighthearted and easy to take in. The first season is four episodes.
“Scam City” Amazon Prime
This show originally aired on NatGeo for two seasons from 2012 to 2014 but retains its charms. Irish host and journalist Conor Woodman unveil how scammers try to rip off travelers. He often uses hidden cameras. “I get scammed so you don’t have to,” he says. Taxi drivers hand out fake money for change in Buenos Aires. Strip bars in Bangkok entice tourists in with $3 beers, then charge $100 and threaten them if they don’t pay up. Back room Backroom gambling dens in New Orleans guarantee the odds are against the tourists. Woodman says he has been roughed up at times when the scammers figure out what he’s doing. Some of the “crimes” were staged, but it’s still entertaining.
“The Kindness Diaries” Netflix
Leon Logothetis, a former London broker, gives up his comfortable life, takes off on his motorbike and embarks on a social experiment: with no money, no food and no place to stay, he seeks the generosity of strangers for all of the above. Netflix only has season two available, where he starts in Alaska in the dead of winter and drives in a vintage yellow Love Bug Beetle all the way down to Argentina. “Goodness flows through us, and it’s up to us to share it with as many people as we can,” he says. There is a surfeit of hugging and the occasional rejection. At the end of each episode, Logothetis surprises a kind stranger with a gift.
About the Author
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years.