21 JUN 2017: I admit it. I used to think tours were for travel neophytes, people who want to be led, who are comfortable being fed information in pre-digested quips from a guide facing them on the bus, microphone in hand.  

This attitude, I must say, came from pop culture clichés ("If it's Tuesday this must be Belgium"), and from friends bragging about their tours. I remember a neighbour who would describe what sounded banal to me as an enviable over-the-top experience. There was the week-long bus tour of five countries in Europe, ending up in Paris, where a few busloads of people disembarked at the Folies Bergere for a show and dinner. I could just imagine the superficial way they experienced the multiple countries on the itinerary, and the mass tourism mediocrity of the dinner - in a city with some of the best restaurants anywhere. Not for me.

What reinforced my prejudice was a 3-day train ride I took on a travel writing trip. I was alone, and the idea was to give me the experience that other non-travel writers would have. Everyone else on the multi-car train was there with a friend or partner. No big deal. But then there was the intolerable, loud non-stop narrative, complete with a corny twist for each fact. We stopped each night in mediocre hotels, and I was glad to be able to escape the group for an evening. By the end, I was thrilled to escape what seemed like a prison on wheels.

Of course, as a travel writer, I have to admit that I do, in fact, go on tours, whether with colleagues or alone. Often we are privileged, not only because of the fine hotels (in which we spend such a frustratingly short time) and top-notch meals. Sometimes we get to meet people we never would otherwise get to talk to. When these trips are problematic (I once wrote something on FAM trips for Dummies), it is usually because we are shown things we are not writing about and not shown things we are. (This is a story in itself, one I won't get into here).

When and why did my opinion change about tours? I think it was during unstructured time on travel writing trips. First, I got my feet wet on city tours. When you have a half-day or even less, what better way to see a city than a narrated bus tour? What makes it even easier is that hotels can often help you sign up.

And that's the essence of it: maximizing your time to see the highlights of a place, while noting what you'd like to see next time. You could do that on your own, but who wants to have to learn a whole new subway/bus system when you're in town for a day or less? Not me. That is why the hop-on hop-off buses changed my travel life. Example: deciding at the last moment to hop off the bus in Dublin to see the Guinness Museum, even though I don't much care for the stuff. What I saw was a well-designed multi-leveled building, with scientific exhibits on how the brew is made; there was also the impressive Guinness gallery of paintings.

Another last minute hop off was in New Orleans, at the WWII Museum. During another leg of the trip I was treated to a guide's description, in an evocative southern drawl, of the history of cocktails in New Orleans. It was funnier because it was delivered deadpan, with none of that reaching for laughs that so many guides attempt.

For me, tours are still a half-day or a day. But what I have found is that rather than show me what is on the usual tourist trail, many are running on the inside track. This is especially true when it comes to food. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a company called Edible Excursions will take you on food journeys and offer experiences that you would otherwise have missed.

Recently I toured the Berkeley Gourmet Ghetto with Edible Excursions with people who knew their way around the culinary scene. I used to live in Berkeley. But on the tour learned about the early contemporaries of famed Chez Panisse founder, Alice Waters (how many stars began in the space of a few blocks). And the"tastes" from each stop - a deli, a pizza place, a bakery, a smoothie store - were delicious, and more than enough food for the day.

It was the same with the Le Food Trip, a company started by a few Parisians in their 20's. This is the ultimate tour snob tour, a self-guided excursion to a handful of food stores specializing in cheese, olive oil, pate and other French staples. You buy a passport for €35 ($52) and get it stamped by the store owner. Part of the charm is talking to the passionate purveyors, who are always ready to explain their wares and recommend local restaurants.

Paris, like many other cities, offers dozens of tours, from architecture to perfume. Many are listed in the useful booklet, www.parisinfo.com.

I think it's not just that I have warmed to tours, but that tours themselves that have changed. There is an enormous variety (and length), and some are now geared to the well-travelled and to people with specific interests. There are cultural tours, wildlife tours, volunteer tours. On many of these tours, solo travellers don't feel like aliens, athough the "single supplement" is still an unfair penalty. That aside, tours are increasingly the way to go.

 

Berkeley Pizza Cheese Board Collective, a stop on the Gourmet Ghetto tourSwartz 

 

 

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