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

We all have our obsessions.  Obviously, travel is one of ours, and along with that goes our obsession with personalizing our holidays.  Gone are the days of pre-arranged group shore excursions from cruise ships, and gone are the days of European bus tours with 42 other well-intentioned travelers for us (but we did have a wonderful time all those years ago on a whirlwind tour of Europe with a ten-year-old  – maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime!).

In our quest for personalization, we’re becoming experts on finding tour operators who specialize in bespoke experiences, and finding those tour companies online – a tricky and anxiety-inducing prospect as you lighten your wallet by a considerable sum before even setting foot in the country to which you are traveling.  For what it’s worth, then, we offer you our five tips for finding that perfect (for you), private, personalized dream tour.  First, the story of how we discovered these tips.

It all started a few months before when we began our search for a bespoke tour of the countryside outside Paris.  That search led us to À Paris Travel and a wonderful woman named Sue Lillie.  With considerable trepidation, we had started an online search for tour companies specializing in European travel, and soon found that there were too many to wade through with any degree of certainty about their quality.  So we narrowed our search to specialists in visiting France and stumbled on this wonderful company.  But we didn’t know that it would be wonderful at that time.

We decided that we’d focus on one of our obsessions – champagne – and more specifically in Patty’s case Veuve Clicquot champagne.  This led us to create a tour of the champagne district that would include a visit to the Veuve caves and a champagne tasting or two.  Before we were willing to pay the complete upfront amount, however, rather than conducting all of the transactions through email and the web site, we decided that a chat with the proprietor might put our minds at ease.  And so it did.  After a very pleasant conversation with US-based Lille (late of Montreal as it turned out), we felt quite comfortable paying in advance for the tour (which is required for most of these companies).  Then all we had to do was hope that a car and driver showed up on the appointed day at the appointed time.

Moet & Chandon in Epernay, France.

Early one gray morning in Paris we made our way to the front door of our hotel on the Champs Elysees to find Pascale leaning against his car awaiting our arrival.  And so we were off.

After a few brief questions about our interests, Pascale was quite sure he know just where to take us.  He’d take us to one champagne house, and then make arrangements for the other.  First, we’d visit Épernay where we would take a tour and tasting at the venerable Moet & Chandon, and then we’d venture to Reims, the largest city in the Champagne district and home to the Veuve caves.  Between the two, Pascale would drop us off at a favorite lunch spot where we’d join the locals for a bite to eat.

Patty at the champagne-tasting bar at Veuve Clicquot in Reims, France.

With just the three of us on board, we had all the freedom that a group tour just doesn’t offer.  The itinerary was ours alone and if we decided to veer off course at any point during the day, we could.  It was another of those days that you mark down in your memory as ‘perfect.’  In fact, it was so perfect that we relaxed a bit about the second tour we had booked during that trip (yes, we took a chance and booked two).  When tiny Caroline picked us up in her massive Mercedes in Villefranche on the French Riviera two weeks later, we knew that we were in for the time of our lives thanks to À Paris Travel and our willingness to take a risk.

Tip # 1: Be specific about exactly where you want the tour to take you.

We were quite clear that we wanted to visit Champagne, rather than simply saying that we’d like to take a day trip out of Paris which is the thought we had initially.

Tip #2: Decide what kind of experiences you’d like (follow your obsessions for example), and then keep an open mind.

We had other ideas when Pascale picked us up that morning, but other than the visit to Veuve, we were open-minded and let him guide us.  These kinds of open-minded approaches have led us to many wonderful experiences over the years.  And these guides are truly wonderful resources.  Use them!

Tip #3: Do your online research carefully and consider it to be part of the experience.

This is so important.  You need to do a lot of research, and you should consider not thinking of it as work; rather you might see it as part of the learning experience that travel ought to be.  We actually consider research prior to a trip a part of the trip resulting in a much longer experience than the week or three that are actually away.

Champagne, vintage 1906, in the caves.

Tip #4: Do your due diligence.

For us that means that as often as possible, getting these tour operators on the telephone.  Even if it’s as simple as booking a limo drive from a cruise terminal, try to speak to someone in person once you’ve gathered all the information you can from the web.  You can learn a lot by that more personal contact.  If you have a gut feeling that this isn’t for you, you are very likely right.  Sue Lillie put us very much at ease as she told us about how her company had developed and her own passion for French travel.

You can also use online travel forums such as TripAdvisor (we’re contributors to this one), but remember that everyone is different.  Read the contributors’ pieces carefully and note the outliers – in other words, is it the only one that had a problem with the tour operator, or the only one that didn’t.  In either case, that one might not provide you with as helpful information as you might think.  Also, read reviews to see if they are specific, or if they are just subjective assessments (e.g. It was wonderful! Terrible!  etc. without concrete descriptions of exactly what made it so wonderful or terrible letting the reader then decide.).  In the end, a traveler review on a site such as TripAdvisor is based largely on the contributor’s expectations going in.  If we were to review some of the hotels that others find wonderful, we’d find them barely acceptable for a variety of reasons all based on what we’re looking for.

Tip #5: Make your decision, pay your money, and don’t look back.

Don’t second guess yourself.  After you make a decision, go with it.  File away other interesting information about other tour companies for the future, but don’t keep comparing what one might have offered.  You’ve made a decision, and it is very likely that if you did your homework, it will be the right one for you.

If you’ve hit on a truly terrific one, perhaps you’ll do what we did and book again with that tour operator.  We’d love to know how people make out with personalized tours.  If you have five minutes, come along with us as we follow our obsession with Veuve Clicquot from the caves in France to the Veuve bar aboard the Queen Mary 2.

The discerning shopper: The fun of consignment & vintage shopping on vacation

We had a wonderful shopping experience at Recycled Rags during a recent trip to Corona del Mar, California

It’s finally here!  The first day of spring, not a cloud in the sky and we’re dreaming of spring cleaning – cleaning out the closets, that is.  And thinking about that reminds us of the fun we’ve had searching out the best consignment shops in various places throughout the world, most recently in California.  It’s true that thoughts of shopping leave some travelers cold; but for us, we prefer to leave our shopping to vacation time – all the better to work hard, avoid the shops while at home, and spend hard-earned money on travel.

The fun of shopping on vacation lies not in the actual shopping itself (although occasionally we have what we refer to in our family as a real “shopping experience” wherein the excitement of the find is almost too much to bear); rather the fun is in the search for the shops themselves, searches that often take us to parts of cities that we might not otherwise visit.  Those searches have often resulted in great city walks and serendipitous discoveries of fabulous restaurants.  .

First, a bit of background:  We are decidedly not antique people, and would not go around the corner for a dusty piece of old furniture (apologies to antique aficionados among our readers – but that just leaves more great stuff for you).  We would, however, venture into shops that carry vintage clothing to poke about looking for a ‘find.’  Not necessarily what you would term a bargain.  Sadly perhaps, we are not bargain shoppers.  We look for value and a true experience.  A discerning shopper knows that a bargain is often not truly ‘a find.’   Webster’s dictionary defines a bargain as “an article bought or offered at a price favorable to the buyer…”  Well, a bargain is not good enough for it to be ‘a find’ in our view.  The price has to be what we are willing to pay for the feeling, the experience, the emotion that the piece evokes.  If it’s also a bargain, then so much the better.

Three recent experiences serve to illustrate the experience that can be had with just a little bit of planning.

We happened upon Caprice by accident the first time, but have returned several times since.

Our first real vintage find came in Nice, France.   Just as you might expect, Vieux Nice [Old Nice] is home to a variety of interesting and off-beat shopping that includes vintage clothing and antiques.  We happened upon this particular find as we wandered through the labyrinth of narrow streets that are now more often home to tacky tourist shops filled with snow globes and cheap T-shirts.  However, this is France we’re talking about, and some of the streets are lined with quirky artists’ studios and galleries, scrumptious bakeries and wonderful shops that sell vintage clothing and handbags.  This little one beckoned.

Located at 12, rue droite, Caprice had a welcoming vibe, in spite of its apparently chaotic displays.  Don’t be fooled.  There are some very real finds in this little store and the shop girls know where everything is – and often their provenance. .

As Patty made her way down the steep, narrow stairway to the basement level, Art found himself contemplating a red leather jacket he saw hanging over the stairwell.  He asked the clerk if he could have a closer look at the item.  She was more than willing to oblige, and brought the jacket to him.  It turned out that it was an original Christian Dior from the mid-1970’s in the style of a blazer – soft red leather piped with white, a design that never goes out of style.  But would it fit?  There was only one way to find out.

Art beckoned Patty to return to the main floor to don the jacket.  It fit as if it had been made for her.  We were able to get a slight reduction in price for paying cash.  Fortunately, we were carrying a bit of a wad of Euros!  But, we were hooked on the idea of doing a bit of vintage and/or consignment shopping.

Sure, you need to see all the landmarks - but the addition of some consignment shopping can add another fun dimension to your travel. Washington D.C. is more than monuments!

In Washington D.C last year, we made it a point to research the consignment shops before leaving home.  After all, we reasoned, what better place could there be to find clothing that might have been worn only once or twice to a diplomatic ball or cocktail party? We had our map and were easily able to find Secondi on the second floor of a building in DuPont Circle.  If you’re in the market for some real upscale design pieces, this is the place.  We came out with a mint-condition Dior handbag and a great story to tell.

And just last month, on a day trip along the tony coast south of Los Angeles, we researched the consignment shops in Corona del Mar.  We visited several, but our favorite was Recycled Rags.  What a fabulous place.  Crammed with well-displayed and only slightly pre-loved clothing, the store is a treasure trove of labels and ‘finds.’  The shop staff was friendly and knowledgeable, chatting away while working feverishly to help.

With our 23-year-old son in tow, we were obviously hoping to find a place that also carries men’s clothing – and this one does (although Ian who loves nothing more than to browse the consignment shops especially in London, didn’t find anything in his size).  We also shy away from pre-loved shoes; however, we pounced on several pairs of Tod’s women’s shoes that looked as if they must have been someone’s grand mistake.  If they had ever been worn, it must have been only while the wearer was sitting or lying down.  They were in new condition.  And they fit!  We happened upon another Dior bag (this time a little one) and happily exited the store with our finds.  These Tod’s shoes that retail for over $400.00 were around $130.00.  Heaven!  And a terrific afternoon’s experience.

The Discerning Travelers’ Tips for Happy Consignment Shopping on Vacation

  • Do your homework.  Part of the fun of traveling in general is preparing and dreaming about what’s to come.  In the case of consignment shopping, the web is your best friend.
  • Find the names of shops in the general area where you want to visit and scour their web sites.
  • Read some reviews.  What are people saying about the shops?  What kinds of merchandise do they carry?  Which ones resonate with you?
  • Map the location and incorporate some of the other attractions you’d like to see along the way so that you can put it on a walking tour.
  • Keep your expectations low.  That way you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised.
  • When you get there, take your time and think of it as a museum experience.
  • If you’re looking for pieces of clothing, remember that if the piece is actually older than the last couple of years, the sizing was different.  In any case, try everything on!

Here are a few more tips from a professional shopping consultant:  Five Tips for Shopping at Consignment Stores.

Christmas shopping in Nice: It’s better on the Riviera!

Nice dressed for the festive season

Travel memoirist Bill Bryson once wrote: “We used to build civilizations.  Now we build shopping malls.”  And for many of us who celebrate the festive season by exchanging gifts, the shopping mall becomes a second home at this time of year.

But for us discerning travelers who would rather save our money for an Executive-first class ticket than buy one another something that will end up at the Salvation Army thrift shop in six months, we take a slightly different approach.  The fact that we rarely spend Christmas at home (as discussed earlier in reference to a Christmas cruise!) does give us a bit of a distraction.

Leaving the house in the good hands of our house-sitter, we take very little in the way of gifts with us: we’ll do our shopping when we are on the ground in the south of France, and that shopping will be minimal.  It’s the experience of shopping in Nice that we really like!

Nice is the closest thing to a ‘city’ that is within a reasonable taxi drive of where our son works in Monaco.  About 30 minutes by cab from Monte Carlo, Nice has a population of fewer than 400,000 making it large enough to have shops, services and hotels in abundance, and small enough to be happily walkable.  Add on to that its charming old quarter (Vieux Nice), its Christmas market and its fabulous festive decorations, and you end up with an experience that puts you in the Christmas spirit like nothing else can.

Le Palais de la mediteranee: Our home base in Nice

When we arrive in Nice, we’ll check into the hotel Palais de la mediteranée on the Promenade des Anglais that stretches about six kilometers along the beachfront.  Then we’ll spend a day wandering the shopping streets and lunching at a pizzeria near the market.  We’ll watch the Nice residents stroll on the boardwalk (it’s actually paved) and we’ll visit the local Galleries Lafayette, the famed department store.  It’s not quite like its Parisian sibling, but it has three floors of ‘stuff’ that isn’t readily available in North America.

Then we’ll do some strolling of our own and watch the local residents pick up their Christmas trees from the lot on the waterfront, and wander among the snow-covered trees all around the place.  Does it snow in the south of France at Christmas, you ask incredulously?  No, it actually doesn’t.  The snow is fake; those of us who reside in more northern climes always find it hilarious how snow seems to be worshipped as the very essence of Christmas.  It’s clear no one along the French Riviera has ever had to spend a morning shoveling to get a car out of the garage.

After we pick up one present for each other and a few for the son, we’ll leave Nice behind us to head to Monte Carlo and a ballet premiere.  When we get back, no doubt we’ll have more stories to tell!

Christmas tree lot along the Promenade des anglais
Art surrounded by "snow" covered evergreens in Nice.

One perfect day – on the Med

The stern view from the perfect perch

I was sitting in our charter boat, sipping a glass of champagne and trying to see if I could bottle up the memory of this one perfect day so that I could take it out once in a while and relive it when I needed to.  Being able to do that takes really being in the moment – and a great still and video camera doesn’t hurt!

So, how did we get there that day?  It was last July and we were visiting our son in the south of France (we’ve often said that the main purpose of having children is for their entertainment value – and we have that in spades with our son who is a dancer with Les Ballets do Monte Carlo – yes, that Monte Carlo, Monaco).

We had seen along that part of the Riviera from Roquebrune just bordering Monaco to the east, as far as Cannes in the west as we visited from time to time on foot and by car.  Now, we wanted to see it all from the water.  So, as any discerning travelers would do, we started our research online.  We usually find that asking our friends is a recipe for disaster – many of them, as well-heeled as they might be – are unwilling to pay a bit more to get a bit more.  We are not.

To say that there are a lot of boat charter companies operating on the French Riviera would be a considerable understatement.  We narrowed the search down and emailed several.  The most personalized service, with the most interesting possibilities for planning our perfect day came from Boatbookings.com.  They were efficient and knew exactly how to provide us with what we were looking for (and they all speak English which made it so much easier!).  We settled on a 35-foot cruiser with a captain and catered lunch for an eight-hour cruise.

A glimpse of Monte Carlo -- from the harbor.

The young captain picked us up at the pier in Cap d’Ail where we always stay, and off we went for the day.  We stopped to anchor twice during the day – once for swimming off the boat, and once for our picnic lunch on board.  Of course, part of the perfection of the day was a result of the stellar weather – it could not have been nicer – or more luxurious.

In our continuing search for those luxurious experiences, this is one that will go down in our books as worth every penny (and euro) we spent.  It’s an experience that we’ll remember forever.