I don’t want to sound too millennial here because have you heard? We’ve ruined everything from flat sheets to shitty, chain restaurants but OMG, how did anyone travel before Airbnb? I stayed in my first Airbnb in Los Angeles, California, almost two years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since, which is why I was pretty excited to try out Airbnb Experiences next. On a recent trek across Western Europe, I booked a Parisian chocolate tour through Airbnb and let me tell you, it was an Experience.
For me, much of Airbnb’s appeal stems from their efforts to offer travelers a more local, immersive trip than they might have otherwise had in a hotel or with a large, commercial tour group. In fact, in order to have an Airbnb Experience approved, hosts must submit a proposal outlining exactly what makes theirs unique — something travelers might not have done or even known about on their own.
A walking, chocolate tour through the cobblestone streets of Paris with an experienced chocolatier? “Sounds unique to me,” I thought. To be fair, there are quite a number of similar tours offered through Airbnb so, unique lifetime experience, sure. Unique Parisian experience? I’m less convinced. Nevertheless, when I signed myself and a guest up to check out four to five chocolate makers and retailers at 10 a.m. the next day, I was ready to indulge. There were a few hiccups, though.
The Airbnb description boasts of a native French host who is “passionate about the history and architecture, streets, avenues, roads, boulevards, and trains of the beautiful city of Paris.” But our host was decidedly American and barely spoke any French. He wasn’t even sure of the name of the building we’d agreed to meet in front of — the Opéra Palais Garnier. The signage on the iconic building reads, “L’Opéra National,” which is how we ended up circling it for 45 minutes after he’d convinced us that we were probably at the wrong spot. The primary host and presumably the author of the Airbnb experience communicated with us via text that we were not.
Once we found our guy — for the second time, since we actually stopped and asked him for directions mid-search and he shook his head no — we were on our way. He graciously offered to include a bonus stop at Lindt to compensate for the confusion and explained that he was giving tours while on the go with his girlfriend and operating his online chocolate business. “OK,” I figured, “that explains it.” On one hand, I was disappointed to find out our tour wouldn’t be led by a local but, on the other, I was sympathetic to his millennial path. I mean, if we’re being honest, wouldn’t we all like to backpack across the world while finding truly the most millennial means to finance our indecisiveness and overall aversion to commitment (read: wanderlust)? I know I would. Plus, he really did know a lot about chocolate if not so much about France.
Our first official stop was at the Jean-Pean Hévin Opéra boutique located inside Lafayette Gourmet, a large, fine foods shopping center. Without enough context from our host, it was difficult to get a clear grasp of this place, its layout, and purpose. Since Jean-Pean Hévin’s boutique is located on the first floor (and not the lower ground floor), it’s a straight shot from the street entrance, which helps. The display is exquisite with immaculately crafted chocolate desserts displayed beautifully in glass cases. We spent most of our time in the self-service area of the boutique gawking at chocolate bars, chocolate candies, macarons, and pastries, though the boutique’s website highlights a separate, personalized experience with a team of professionals.
It was here on our first stop that our host purchased a chocolate bar produced with cocoa sourced from Trinidad, which is where I call home. The chocolate itself had hints of floral and fruity flavors, which compensated for the usual bitterness of dark chocolate. Because Trinidad is such a small island, I was delightfully surprised to find a bar like this all the way in France but our host explained that, on the chocolate market, Trinidad is a lot better known than I thought. Now, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never actually toured a Trinidadian cocoa estate despite living absurdly close to a number of them but I have made an effort to purchase more locally made bars since my return.
After this brief return home on our tour, we stopped at three more chocolatiers: Sébastien Gaudard — Pâtisserie des Martyrs, the Henri Le Roux Chocolatier, and La Mère de Famille. Each felt more authentically Parisian than the last, which makes sense since it’s unlikely I would have ventured out to the Sébastien Gaudard pâtisserie without a guide. It’s not that the store is particularly intimidating or anything (although we did get to meet Sébastien Gaudard), it’s just that it was quite a ways from the bustling streets of downtown Paris where our tour began.
Despite not being from France, our host was indeed knowledgeable about cocoa farming and chocolate production. I mean, he definitely schooled me on chocolate from my own country so who am I to discredit him? He also talked about his online business, which operates primarily out of Hawaii, and how he’s managed to navigate the transition from in-person management to online management while traveling the world for pleasure and research.
The beauty of this tour turned out to be how casually and openly we got into discussion with our host — all three of us presumably in our mid-twenties, trying to get our shit together miles away from our hometowns. We talked about the cities we’ve lived in, the degrees we’ve earned that have little to do with our actual pursuits, and even WeWork. Mostly, we talked about the globally recognizable millennial identity (ugh, I know) while snacking on gourmet chocolate. And I quite enjoyed that. I’m no chocoholic but I’m convinced our host has carved out a pretty sweet life for himself and I’m thankful he took the morning to share it with my guest and me.
No need to skip the croissants and the wine next time you’re in Paris but hey, try the chocolate, too, while you’re at it. Bon appétit!