Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Art of the Tour: Some Favorite Tours from Around the World

Most of the time we explore new places on our own, but a great tour can help bring context to a place and better organize your explorations. Here are some ponderings on tours and highlights of some favorites from over the years of travels...

We made a good choice contacting Aziz Begdouri (pictured above) based on Rick Steves' recommendation in the Morocco side trip section of his Spain guide. Actually, we initially planned a short bus tour to take us from Denia, Spain down to the Costa del Sol and over to Morocco...but in one of life's more fortunate detours the ferries were canceled due to high winds and we ended up joining the others in the group on the day trip to Gibraltar. We got to enjoy Gibraltar, get a nice refund and ended up with a more personal experience of Morocco.

Being a slow time for tourism, we almost ended up with a private tour but had an even more enjoyable experience with another American couple, swapping questions and conversation with each other about travels and with Aziz about life in Morocco. We had planned on a shorter tour of the markets and old town, while they had wanted a longer tour including a short mini-bus ride to the outskirts and beaches. Aziz was completely fair and kept with his quoted price for our original tour even though we got the extras. And, it was nice seeing the larger context of Tangier and the beautiful beaches. The tour through the markets and tiny, winding streets of the old town was fast-paced and an overload on the senses. We had some downtime over one of the best lunches I have ever eaten and some requisite shopping (minus pressure from our guide). Missing out on any big rug commissions, Aziz was kind enough to help us find the specific souvenirs we wanted...some Moroccan coins for Bryan and a charm for me to add to my travel charm bracelet.

One of my absolute favorite tours was our Old Madrid Wine and Tapas tour, which Bryan found online and booked for us and our friends on our first night in Madrid. Our host was passionate about Madrid, great food and wine. This was where we first learned about Vermut del grifo, which became a favorite treat for the rest of our short time in Spain (we were pained that we had missed out on this for so many months). It was so fun to chat with the other tour-goers and we did not leave hungry (or thirsty) and felt truly welcomed to Madrid.

We also had a wonderful historical walking tour in Granada, with a small group of English and Spanish speaking tourists. It put the city and region in to the context of the history and struggles between the Moors and Christians. The local T.I. (tourist information) offices in Spain and elsewhere often offer good, inexpensive city tours such as this. Other times we have also used Rick Steves' podcast tours to get some background and good information while walking on our own (I particularly liked his Venice tours, especially the one to go along with the Vaperetto ride).

Many travelers will roll their eyes at this, but another favorite for us is the "hop on, hop off" city tour. Some, especially trolley tours in Savannah, GA and Washington, DC, have offered knowledgeable guides and a delightful experience. Other times, we see it more as a means to get oriented and be transported around to spots we get off to further explore. Sometimes the tours aren't that pleasant in places where it is hard to see much (or too cold to go on the top of those double deckers), traffic is clogged and the headphone narration is pretty basic. I still find it worthwhile, though, as you have a sense of where everything is and typically get two days worth of transportation for the fee. You'd really miss out if you didn't get off and explore on foot too, though.

We generally don't take fully-guided trips, but there are times when it makes sense. For example, we had a great trip with Sports Travel & Tours to the Cal Ripken Baseball Hall of Fame Induction (along with several stops at games along the way from Camden Yards to Yankee Field). We did "do our own thing" a few times, such as taking the subway to the Mets game instead of getting back on the bus again. For an event like this where hotels were booked well in advance and there are a lot of logistics for an individual traveler trying to fit in with huge crowds, the tour made life a lot easier. They even brought us ice-dipped towels and cold drinks when we were all sweltering in the audience. I was impressed by their level of organization and the quality of the overall tour-great for sports fans! But, generally I'd rather plan on my own and take some risks, have some adventures and work on our own time table.

I started thinking about this post after reading a book, Too Much Tuscan Sun, recently. It is a funny glimpse in to the world of a Chianti tour guide and his often amusing customers (you can find it in my Amazon favorites on the sidebar of the blog).

I will review some additional tours we have taken in future posts. You will find information within our specific travel posts about additional tours, resources and favorite spots from our travels over the years and we welcome comments and input from others!

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