Private tours: A discerning travel choice

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

 

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

Bespoke…the very word conjures up images of the rich and famous standing in front of a mirror as they are measured for their custom-made suits and dresses.  It seems like anything that is custom-made for you must, by its very nature, be expensive and out of reach.

bespokeBut what if you were able to work with a travel professional who was an expert in her field to create for you that customized trip that would fulfill your dreams of seeing some places that have long been on your bucket list?  And what if you were picked up at the airport by an immaculately-clad driver who led you to a shiny black Mercedes to take you on an orientation tour of the city before ensuring that you were well taken care of at your hotel?   And what if this whole experience didn’t cost you nearly as much as you’re beginning to think as you read this?

Well, welcome to the world of bespoke travel – and we’re just back from another customized tour, this time created for us by world-renowned Kensington Tours.

It all began at the Dublin Airport last month when we were that couple being escorted to the Mercedes by the impeccable driver who then proceeded to not only drive us to our downtown hotel, but act as our guide.  An expert in Irish history, he was an amazing font of information that we capitalized on the next day as we explored Dublin on our own (after following his spot-on recommendation to dine at Trocadero that evening).

Our Irish drive parked outside Ashford Castle.
Our Irish drive parked outside Ashford Castle.

Although it had been the plan to have the same driver from the very beginning to the bitter end, our scheduled driver was ill and was replaced while we were still in Dublin by Kevin – and he was as wonderful as the first driver.  We were soon to find out that his extensive knowledge of Ireland and all things Irish, coupled with the fact that he seemed to know everyone in the country (and we do mean everyone), were designed to make this trip a flawless experience of a lifetime that will go down in our travel books as the only way to go!

While still in Dublin, Kevin took us on a half-day trip to Newgrange to visit the stone-age passage tomb that pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids.  Never hovering over us, he provided us with important clues to maximizing the experience and then left us to take advantage of the venue on our own with the expert guidance of the tour leader.  (One important tip he gave us was to buy an Irish Heritage card that would give us access to many heritage sites throughout the country for one small price.  No more buying tickets!).  This passage into ancient history is not to be missed while in Ireland!

Picking us up at 10 am the next morning, Kevin slightly modified our planned itinerary to improve our experience.  We are always open to suggestions from those who know better and we were not disappointed.  As a trio we reviewed each day’s itinerary in advance to ensure that what we experienced was not only the best of Ireland, but the things that were of most interest to us as individuals.  This attention to personalization is one of the things that we seek as discerning travelers who are focused on service and value.  And we received both.

The back garden at Hayfield Manor in Cork.
The back garden at Hayfield Manor in Cork.

Although we had chosen to book our own hotel in Dublin, we allowed Kensington’s Ireland specialist to select our deluxe accommodations for the rest of the trip.  We were not disappointed on this front either.  We spent the first night in Cork at Hayfield Manor, a wonderful property at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering on the University of Cork.  The service at this highly-recommended hotel is outstanding, as is the dining.

We then spent two nights at Killarney Park Hotel in County Kerry, a surprisingly special place.  Purpose built as a hotel only 20 years ago, this property imbues you with the feeling that you’d been transported into a centuries-old country manor.  Its location downtown Killarney allowed us to spend a wonderful evening exploring the tiny streets, eating at a restaurant recommended to us by Kevin, and then spending an hour at a pub with a beer in hand humming along with the Irish singers.  It was reminiscent of our university days when Irish music was all the rage on Canadian university campuses.  But that was a long time ago!

The lounge at Killarney Park Hotel, County Kerry.
The lounge at Killarney Park Hotel, County Kerry.

Our last two nights on the road were spent at Ashford Castle.  What a wonderful experience.  To describe our experience at this castle would take an entire blog post – and we’ll do that next week, so come back if you want to know more about it.

Every moment of the trip was an experience to be remembered for a lifetime.  From our visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells in Dublin, to Blarney Castle, the Irish pub night, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, the monastery ruins, and everything in between, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to travel.

We have already begun to plan our next bespoke trip with Kensington.  Now all we have to do is decide if it will be South America, a safari in Africa or the Great Wall of China!  Stay tuned.

Now if you a few minutes, come along with us on our tour of Ireland.

 

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.

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.