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Private tours: A discerning travel choice

November 14, 2014
Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.

Art enjoying a tour of the ruins at Ephesus with our private guide.

We’re just back from another wonderful travel adventure that took us from London to Istanbul with many fabulous experiences in between.

We began with three exceptional days in London to visit our son, then flew from Gatwick to Rome where we spent three days on self-guided walking tours.  After Rome, we boarded an Oceania ship and set sail for various islands – Crete, Sicily, Santorini – then Athens and Turkey, ending in Istanbul.  Along the way we did some touring on our own, a few of the dreaded “shore excursions” (we’ll tell you about the good and bad of those in the upcoming posts) and several private tours.  There is little doubt in our minds that when you need to be guided around a new-to-you city where there is a significant language barrier (and sometimes even when there isn’t) you cannot beat a private guided tour.

We’ve had private tour experiences in places like Costa Rica, Tahiti, England, France and Ireland among others, but our recent sojourn in Turkey reiterated for us the myriad reasons why for us it’s one of the very best ways to experience a culture.

Arriving in Istanbul by ship.

Arriving in Istanbul by ship.

The tour really began months before as we searched online for the ideal tour.  We had used several tour companies previously – with great results – but this time those ones didn’t really have what we were looking for.  During the research we discovered a company called Tours By Locals.  Based in Vancouver, this Canadian-owned company has local guides seemingly all over the world.  We zeroed in on Istanbul and found that their presentation of the guides was fascinating. Each guide was showcased by personally-written biographies, a listing of credentials and the all-important feedback and ratings from previous customers.  We zoned in on a young man named Emre Ozkara and contacted him to see if he could accommodate our needs in Istanbul.

This company permits you to make the arrangements directly with the guide thereby eliminating communication barriers and allowing you to get to know your guide through email.  Then, when you have come to a decision about the tour, the guide prices it for you, uploads it to the company, and the itinerary is sent to you via the company’s web site.  You pay the company who then pays the guide after the tour is over.  For a discerning traveler, knowing that you have third-party recourse is comforting should anything go wrong.  We were happy with this layer of security, so we booked the tour.

Emre did his homework and emailed us to let us know that he had noted that our ship would actually be docking in Kusadasi down the coast from Istanbul several days before our final disembarkation and private tour days in Istanbul.  A home-town boy from Kusadasi, Emre indicated that he would be visiting his family at the precise time we were there and did we want to add a day tour to the ruins at Ephesus to the Istanbul days?  We had already booked a small-group tour of the ruins through the cruise line, but the price was almost identical (!) and we thought that we would, indeed, prefer a private tour.  Since it was early enough to cancel the group tour and get a refund, we went ahead. We were very glad we did.

Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.

Seven Sages Winery & boutique hotel near Ephesus is worth a visit.

Just as promised, Emre was waiting for us at the cruise terminal in Kusadasi where he whisked us off in a BMW 4X4 to Ephesus (more about that in a later post).  While we were driving to Ephesus, he got to know us a bit better discovering that in addition to history and culture, we are also interested in food and wine.  After finding that we would be happy with lunch at a boutique winery (we were not aware that Turkey had such places), he made a call and the arrangements were complete.

To say that our day with our private guide was fabulous would be an understatement, but we didn’t’ know at that point how fabulous our time with this guide would be.

Three days later, as arranged, we were picked up at the cruise port and had a general orientation to Istanbul before checking into our hotel.  The next morning, Emre and his brother who was to be the driver arrived at the hotel to begin our in-depth two days touring the magnificent city of Istanbul.

What can we say?  He is among the best private tour guides we have ever had.  What makes a great tour guide? Here’s what we think.  A guide should demonstrate…

  • A commitment to determining our personal interests;
  • Deep knowledge of the history and culture;
  • Passion about sharing the culture; and
  • An extraordinary ability to tell a story – not relay facts.
Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.

Deraliye Restaurant in the old city in Istanbul.

This is what we got.  Imagine sitting on the carpet at the back of a quiet mosque in the heart of Istanbul (after visiting the bigger tourist magnets like the Blue Mosque) and listening to a story about the Muslim way of life and how this religion is a part of but doesn’t define the Turkish culture.  Our understanding of Islam now goes far beyond the front-page stories we see on a daily basis in the media.  Emre knew that we were interested in this story: not everyone would be, but he had gotten to know us and we asked the questions. He also arranged two wonderful lunches including one at Deraliye, a new Ottoman food restaurant that had searched out and presented twelfth and thirteenth century dishes.  What a great experience!

After our days in Istanbul, we were dropped at the airport as we requested in the tour package.  We were truly sorry to say good-bye to our guide who had made us feel that we had shared a bit of his culture and his home.  What a way to go!

You can visit Tours by Locals at http://www.toursbylocals.com/

You can visit Emre’s own tour company Delightful Istanbul Tours web site at http://www.delightist.com/

You can visit Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine at http://deraliyerestaurant.com/

You can read about other places we’ve taken private tours and the companies we’ve used in the past:

Stonehenge: Mystical or just mysterious?

Costa Rica: It really is as terrific as they say!

Five tips for finding your perfect, private, personalized, dream tour

A bespoke tour of Ireland: Custom-made for a discerning traveler (or two!)

Finding our way in exotic Tahiti

 

It’s “cooler” along the coast: Day tripping in Halifax

July 23, 2014
We boarded our neighbor's boat on the Halifax waterfront.

We boarded our neighbor’s boat on the Halifax waterfront.

For those of us who live along Canada’s Atlantic coast, weather reports in the summer always tell us that it will be “cooler along the coast.”   But we just think that everything is cooler along a coast!  If you have yet to spend any of your travel time along Canada’s Atlantic coast, come along with us – yesterday we spent a wonderful afternoon on the water in Halifax harbor, seeing our city from that different point of view – it’s so much cooler to see things from the water!

It was fabulously sunny and breezy as our wonderful neighbors picked us up at Cable Wharf on one of the floating docks beside Halifax’s Murphy’s on the Water and we were off.  Murphy’s itself is a restaurant, event space and water tour company all wrapped up in one.  For discerning travelers who aren’t as lucky as we are to have friends with (large) boats for touring, you can book a tour at Murphy’s on any one of a variety of boats.  We had the private experience – and we were off!

Once onboard as we shared sandwiches and a bottle of wine, we were reminded momentarily of our perfect day on the Med a few years ago.  But we didn’t have to travel to Monaco for it.

Halifax's waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy's Wharf office towers beyond.

Halifax’s waterfront: Historic Properties, the Marriott Hotel and Purdy’s Wharf office towers beyond.

If you’ve traveled widely and have had the good fortune to see other harbors around the world, Halifax might seem diminutive by comparison to, say, Sydney, Australia (click here to see our entry into Sydney Harbor by cruise ship last winter), but there is something about the very compactness of the city and the elegance of the two suspension bridge spans that join the two sides of the city.  The air is clear and clean, and the other water traffic varied and interesting.

Just off the dock and we motored past Theodore Tugboat of television fame.  It might surprise travelers with children who love Theodore to know that he is a product of Halifax.  Indeed, the harbor where this children’s TV celebrity plies his trade on any given foggy day is a replica of this very harbor.  (If you don’t know Theodore, read all the way to the bottom and then watch him in action!)

You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.

You can even tour the harbor on Theodore Too.

Then, of course there are the varied tour boats.  The first one we see is a large sailing vessel, followed by the inevitable amphibious vehicle that tours locals and tourists alike not only on the harbor water, but also on the city streets.  In Halifax it’s the Harbour Hippo.

Just past the waterfront Historic Properties , the Marriott Hotel and the casino, we motored past numerous naval vessels (Halifax is home to Canada’s Atlantic fleet) and pleasure craft of various kinds and sizes.  We motored under both bridges and around what’s called Bedford Basin then back past the downtown and around into what is known as the Northwest Arm.

The main downtown portion of the city is on a peninsula that runs between the harbor and the Arm which is home to waterfront mansions and the Yacht clubs where dozens of tiny sail boats scurried across in front of us – ten-year-olds at the helms as they learned the fine points of sailing.

The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?

The Harbour Hopper: need we say more?

Motoring into "The Arm."

Motoring into “The Arm.”

 

The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.

The best bargain way to see the city from the water is to hop on the Halifax-Dartmouth ferry for a return trip.

 

A "mansion" on the Arm

A “mansion” on the Arm

The "Dingle Tower" & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.

The “Dingle Tower” & looking back out to sea from the Northwest Arm.

Coastal cities have a vibe that’s different from the land-locked variety.  Maybe it’s the salt air and the ubiquitous seagulls.  Maybe it’s the way the sun sparkles off the water creating a sheet of diamonds.  Or maybe it’s just that there’s a kind of romance to a coastal life.  We just think it’s ‘cooler.’

Now, if you’d like to see how Theodore Tugboat sees Halifax…

Cruise industry advertising: Smoke & mirrors?

May 27, 2014
Perhaps it's time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.

Perhaps it’s time the ultra-luxury cruise lines started rolling out the red carpet before booking.

Only occasionally do we find ourselves in the position of feeling a travel rant coming on.  This week is one of those weeks.

For many years we’ve been dividing our travel time among various adventures: resorts, road trips, private touring, and often cruising.  Since we’ve both been very busy in in our work lives, when we are choosing a cruise we have to book far in advance at whatever price is on offer for the itinerary and suite that we know will make us happy.  Notwithstanding the exorbitant prices that we’ve often found ourselves paying over the years, we have been completely happy with our choices after the fact.  Unlike many people we know who search for bargains, we have never returned home complaining about accommodation, service or overall experience.  You get what you pay for, we’ve often opined.  So why are we complaining now?

We have moved into a phase of our lives when we don’t need to plan so far in advance.  This means that we’d like to be able to take advantage of at least a few of the copious numbers of offers that find their way into our real and virtual mailboxes every week.  God love the cruise industry: if it weren’t for them, we’d hardly have any real mail!

We have often wondered if the cruise lines really think that we’re dumb enough to believe that what we are paying are two-for-one prices.  For example, every single piece of material that comes to us from our favorite lines (ultra-luxury Silversea, Seabourn, Regent and recently Oceania) tells us that we will be paying essentially half fare.  The fare is always listed in two columns: “brochure fares” and “savings fares.”  Brochure fares are always (at least) double the savings fares.  Indeed, they never seem to be charging brochure fares at all which leads us to believe that they don’t have to adhere to the usual advertising laws that force retailers to actually offer the merchandise at the full price for a minimum period of time before they can advertise it as being on sale.  And, just who in their right mind would pay some of those fares anyway?

DSC00628Two recent examples:  Just over month ago, we tied to book a Regent cruise from Athens to Turkey for the fall on the day we received in the mail a brochure indicating special past-guest savings for the itinerary we wanted.  We immediately emailed our travel agent who, within minutes went to work on the booking.  When she contacted Regent to book it, the offer was not being made available to us.  Sorry, they said, they should have booked earlier.  We had the brochure right in front of us.  According to our travel agent, Regent told her that the offer had changed and referred her to the asterisk that indicated subject to change without notice.  We could only conclude that that would kick in about one minute before a past-guest actually called to book.  We even attached a screen shot of the newly-arrived brochure to a return email to our travel agent.  Regent would not budge.  We are now booked for almost the same itinerary on a different cruise line and are feeling very sour about Regent on which we have sailed three times before.   So much for perks of being a past guest.

The second example was just this past week and was what set us off on the rant.  We received another tempting offer last Friday and contemplated taking advantage of this advertised fare in a Seabourn brochure.  We were considering booking a veranda suite aboard the Quest for 35 days in South America this coming winter.  We were delighted to see that this category of suite was on a promotion: a savings fare from $10,999 down from a brochure fare from $36,500.  Let’s ignore for a moment that we wouldn’t even look at such a fare for this small suite even on a Seabourn ship (and the fact that they never really offer it at that fare because no one would pay it) and concentrate on the asterisk that followed the word from.  Yes, of course we see the asterisk and expect that if we are not planning to sail on the asterisked date (October 25) we will pay more for February 24.  However, given that this is being promoted as a great saving, we expect a reasonable sum more.  We would be wrong.

When our travel agent tried to book this for us, she found that indeed the price we would have to pay would be $14,999 per person not including taxes which would bring it up over $16,000 per person.  We called Seabourn to inquire ourselves with the brochure in front of us.  They simply reiterated what she told us and pointed to the asterisk. This is a difference of over 25% and is unacceptable as a hidden piece of information.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk protects them from liability for false advertising, but as a customer (and past guest of this cruise line) we think it is disingenuous and this kind of advertising needs to stop.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection of the US American Trade Commission’s guidelines for truth in advertising are contained in a document titled: Big Print. Little Print. What’s the Deal?[1]  which clearly lays out the expectations for truthful advertising as follows:

Your ads should clearly and conspicuously disclose all the information about an offer that is likely to affect a consumer’s purchasing decision. Disclose the most important information – like the terms affecting the basic cost of the offer – near the advertised price.

Print advertisers should not attempt to hide the real cost or the critical terms or conditions by:

  • Putting them in obscure locations, such as the border area on a print ad;
  • Burying them in numerous, densely packed lines of fine print; or
  • Including them in small-type footnotes.”[2]

 

The Advertising Standards Council of Canada is equally clear in the first clause of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards as follows:

“…(b) Advertisements must not omit relevant information in a manner that, in the result, is deceptive.

(c) All pertinent details of an advertised offer must be clearly and understandably stated.

(d) Disclaimers and asterisked or footnoted information must not contradict more prominent aspects of the message and should be located and presented in such a manner as to be clearly visible and/or audible…”[3]

As far as we are concerned, these advertisements are misleading doing more than putting pertinent information in “obscure locations” and contain “disclaimers and asterisked footnoted information” that contradicts the main message.  The cruise line may believe that the asterisk provides legal protection (which is arguable), but it certainly doesn’t provide them with moral protection.  Shame on them.

Our bottom line is that we are a bit sour on Seabourn now and will reconsider our winter cruise plans.

 

[1] http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[2] Don’t bury the details, http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus44-big-print-little-print-whats-deal

[3] Accuracy & clarity, http://www.adstandards.com/en/Standards/the14Clauses.aspx

So many beaches, so little time: The travel dreams of many

April 29, 2014
The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

The deserted beach ringing the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda just coming into view as we approach from Antigua via fast ferry.

What is it about beaches?  When we want to conjure relaxing thoughts, we often find our minds wandering to the sounds of the waves rolling in and out, the wind, the seagulls.  There’s just something about them, and this world is full of extraordinary swaths of sand that beckon travelers.  Our recent return from the South Pacific and Australia with the plethora of beaches inspired us to pause and consider beaches we’ve walked – because, make no mistake about it , we prefer to walk a beach rather than lie on one – and beaches we’ll walk in the future.

Our most recent beach experience was Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, the subject of our most recent video.  An urban beach, it really does go for miles and the boardwalk is a magnificent way to see it in its entirety.  And Manly did remind us a bit of Waikiki, which for all it has to recommend it, is not one of our very favorites.  So, we started to think, what were our favorite beaches?

Barbuda

Barbuda

A few years back we spent some time at the St. James’s Club, a wonderful resort in Antigua.  With its crescent-shaped beach within a lagoon, it offered many of the beach-side amenities everyone craves.  However, it wasn’t especially long, had little wave action and was bordered by the resort.  That trip, however, did take us to a beach that holds some our best beach memories.  We decided to take a trip to Barbuda.

We embarked the fast ferry, known to us now as “the vomit comet” (we were thankfully among the few who did not…well, you know) that beached itself along the deserted shores of the tiny island of Barbuda.  Although there are a couple of small, low-rise hotels along the beach, for the most part it was completely deserted.  We walked for kilometers in the sun listening to the sea roll in and out.  It was heaven.  Even now, years later, as we think about that day at the beach, we relax and breathe deeply.

Another of our favorites is the beach along the Condado in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Stretching for several kilometers along the high-end neighborhood of the Condado, it is long, wide and sparsely populated – or at least it has been on the several occasions we visited San Juan.  Despite the hotels along this beach being a drive from Old San Juan, their proximity to this beach (just walk out the back door) makes them our choice when visiting Puerto Rico.

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

The beach in Philipsburg, St. Martin

Two other beaches that are among our favorites are on that list for a different reason.  Rather than a day-long beach walk, they both offer interesting perspectives.

The beach at the Crane Resort on Barbados is often listed among the best in the world.  Well, that is clearly a subjective assessment, but it is beautiful and its location on the wild Atlantic side of the island does make its roaring waves mesmerizing.  Add onto this the fact that you reach it via either a steep staircase or the elevator (!) and you can get a sense of the kind of beach it is.

The other interesting one that brings a smile to our faces is the beach in downtown Phillipsburg, St. Martin.  The locals have built a magnificent boardwalk that divides the beach from a string of shops and restaurants.  Many of the restaurants offer beach chairs and buckets of beer for a lazy day taking in the activities in the harbor.  The sand is soft and the sun is hot.

Speaking of sand, our final two memorable beaches are memorable both for their locations and for their sand – we use that word loosely!

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France

In the south of France, the grains of sand on the beaches cannot really be described as grains at all.  They are pebbles.  The beachfront in Nice is wonderful for a variety of reasons.  It is bordered by a several-kilometers-long walkway where people stroll, cycle and roller-skate, as well as some of the most interesting beach-front restaurants where you can sit on a lounger and sip champagne to while away the day.

Finally, if you ever have a chance to visit Canada’s most easterly province, grab a sweater and take a trip to Topsail Beach just outside the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador.  Sit for a moment in the bracing breeze and pick up a few beach rocks to skim into the waves.  Listen to the seagulls and remember what Dennis Wilson of Beach Boys fame once said:  “On the beach, you can live in bliss.”

Have a few minutes, come along to Manly Beach with us.

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