Unwrapping the Package Tour No longer are group tours just for losers, spinsters and Chevy Chase. Here's how to let an expert plan your vacation.
(MONEY Magazine) – Okay, you'd like to travel overseas. And you're weighing the exotic appeal of exploring a foreign country against the daunting task of planning such a trip. You want to get the most out of your vacation and not simply traipse through some two-bit ruin before downing a mediocre meal at the cafe your out-of-date guidebook suggests. But who has time to investigate, plot and book a satisfying tour through, say, Italy or France? The more you think about it, the more tempted you are to just sign up for one of those package tours. But you quickly reject the thought. Those tours are for losers, right?
Well, not necessarily. If you choose carefully among the growing number of specialty tours, you'll find all sorts of opportunities to delve into foreign cultures--without having to endure the Chevy Chase-movie scenes of goofy families, spinster sisters and ugly Americans that you might expect to find.
It so happens that food-and-wine tours can be an especially rewarding way for travelers to reach beyond the usual tourist traps and capture the flavor and history of a region. Most include visits to local markets, vineyards and restaurants, and offer access to people and venues an ordinary traveler might never find. We're not talking about cooking school, and we're not suggesting the kind of exhaustive trip only a vintner or a chef could appreciate. But a good food-and-wine tour can offer an experience no guidebook can deliver.
Be forewarned, however: These tours aren't cheap. Most run from $3,000 to $5,000 for one week abroad, and those prices may not include air fare. To make sure you get the best deal, it's important to keep two things in mind: Know exactly where you're going and who's going to take you there. "The trip should involve you in lots of local goings-on," says Mitchell Davis, director of publications for the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit culinary organization. "You want access and exposure to people and places you wouldn't get to on your own, and that's a function of the operator's connections."
Larger, more established operators often have better connections that guarantee greater access. But don't rule out smaller outfits. They're often started by people with a specialty in the region, and they may provide more personal attention. Most consultants advise that you stick with tours of 24 people or less, but the smaller the group, the more you'll pay.
Ask about your guides. "Make sure," warns Julie Lemish of Rex Travel in Chicago, "you're not stuck with some college kid who speaks a little French."
There's no rating system or seal of approval specifically for these tours, so ask questions and check with the Better Business Bureau. Publications such as The Educated Traveler, which is based in Chantilly, Va., or the Shaw Guides (www.shawguides.com) can provide some background. But nothing beats firsthand information: Talk to those who have taken the trip or other trips offered by the same company. And while referrals served up by the tour operator will no doubt be enthusiastic, these individuals will probably answer questions honestly, and you can gauge the tour accordingly.
The more a country is known for its food and wine, the more specific the tours are likely to be. While a food-and-wine tour of all Italy might be overwhelming, even given a month, a tour that focuses on one region can give you a deeper understanding of the place, as well as a more relaxed experience. Take, for example, the tour that celebrated New York City restaurateur Lidia Bastianich designed, "Discovering Undiscovered Sicily," which features the best of Sicilian cooking. Created for IST Cultural Tours (800-833-2111), located in New York City, this tour ($3,950 for seven nights) will treat you to a visit to the Duca di Salaparuta estate, producers of Corvo wines, where you'll enjoy wine tasting and a sumptuous multi-course dinner with matching vintages.
You'll also explore sites such as the Temple of Venus in the preserved medieval village of Erice. You'll see how marzipan is made at a famous pastry shop and learn about the evolution of Sicilian cooking. You'll stay in four- and five-star accommodations, including a renovated 13th-century villa. Travel is by deluxe motorcoach, and you won't be on a tour with more than 25 people. Each day features cultural visits and talks with local chefs and vintners, all guided by art historian and food connoisseur Tanya Bastianich, Lidia's daughter.
Similarly, GPSC Charters (800-732-6786), based in Philadelphia, takes the traditional Greek island cruise a step further with its "Staff's Choice Gourmet Flotilla" for boat lovers ($2,695 for 14 days, air fare included). The group, which varies depending on the size of the yacht but won't exceed eight, will sample the village cooking of the Aegean islands. Skippers trained and steeped in the tradition of Greek cooking are provided. (Yachting aficionados can arrange for their own boat and serve as the crew themselves.) After an afternoon in Rhodes, you'll hop a few islands and enjoy a feast of just-caught fish and fresh salads. As you spend the next 14 days exploring Simi, Paros, Hydra and other islands, you'll eat in mountain villages and local tavernas. There are plenty of hands-on activities too. You'll learn how to throw a Greek beach barbecue and to prepare mezedes--hors d'oeuvres. And if you'd like to burn off those calories, you'll be able to snorkel and swim the clear waters of the Aegean.
BIKING IN BURGUNDY
It also pays to investigate tours that may not market themselves explicitly as food-and-wine-oriented. "Burgundy: Biking the Cote d'Or Vineyards and Villages," the flagship tour of Toronto's Butterfield & Robinson (800-678-1147), for instance, includes wine tasting and fine dining as part of a bike tour. The seven-night trip ($3,975 includes use of a customized Cannondale bicycle) features three days in Beaune, one of the few towns in France still surrounded by its medieval ramparts. In addition to a private walking tour, you can wander the cobblestone streets, sampling the rich pastry, or take a leisurely bike ride to the outlying farmlands and vineyards. Two days in Beaujolais will feature a sumptuous meal (most meals are included) in the cuvage (where the wine is fermented), as well as all sorts of wine-tasting opportunities as you pass through villages such as Pommard, Volnay and Meursault. Your group will stay and dine at the Michelin-starred Chateau de Bagnols, a 13th-century castle. Guided tours are available at the historical sites and vineyards, or you can explore on your own.
FOR THE ADVENTUROUS
Some travelers may want to skip the obvious choices and opt for more daring destinations. These trips cost more and usually last at least two weeks, but they may also take you places you'd never go on your own. Many offer stays that are quite comfortable, if not downright lavish. For instance, "The Jewel in the Crown" tour of India ($6,450 for 15 days), arranged by Cox & Kings in New York City (800-999-1758), combines the cultural history of the Rajasthan region, such as the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, with visits to village spice shops and food markets. In addition to your tour guide, a local culinary expert will meet you at each stop. No more than 18 people will travel from New Delhi to Bombay, by air, train and air-conditioned bus. Although it's not simply a food tour, this trip does provide ample opportunity to learn about the country's cuisine and local brews. You'll dine at the Bukara Restaurant in New Delhi; meander through Chor, an Islamic market; and attend a gala farewell in Bombay's Taj Mahal hotel, feasting on exotic meals created just for you.
Try to plan that with a guidebook.