Yes travel is all about novelty, adventure, pressing back the boundaries of our ordinary lives, meeting new people and discovering new things. Why isn’t that possible within the safety of an air-conditioned coach? It doesn’t have to be all umbrella wielding guides, generic food and fifteen countries in nine days. There are some tremendous experiences to be had within the confines of an organised schedule.
Small is delightful
|A suspect gaggle of tourists in Macau
When researching our Canadian holiday, my cousin and I honed in on the phrase ‘small group’. Twelve max. Great. A personalised, four-wheel drive around British Columbia. We waited patiently to be picked up on the first day, were warmly greeted by our jovial guide and led to a van. An empty van. ‘Are we picking up the rest now?’, we asked timidly. ‘Nope! It’s just you two this time round. We’re going to have a whole lot of fun’. Big grin. Teeth. My cousin and I looked at each other a tad nervously – was this perhaps a kidnapping instead? Should we ask for ID? And we were also a tad disappointed too. This concept of ‘small’ just seemed a little too small.
It turned out to be one of the finest tours I’ve ever experienced – back roads, introductions to locals, getting to know whole families, and dinners and movies that weren’t part of the program. It was very much like driving around the countryside with well informed and well connected friends. We were eventually joined by two other Australians from a rival state. The lovely and easy going Canadian guide was constantly taken aback by our light hearted by ruthless and scathing banter about football. And I don’t even follow football. It’s just the Australian way.
Walking tours are like therapy in the sunshine. Hours of meandering along, getting to know yourself, each other and plenty of time to confront the big questions of life. There’s bonding and a slow focus on every hour of the day. Lovely. Of course, that’s the ideal. That was the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains for me – I read books on my white washed, wrought iron balcony, danced around my cool tiled lounge room and ate mulberries and cherries right off the tree. Sangria, sunshine and good fresh food. Bliss.
I confess, it wasn’t ideal on the day it was 38 degrees Celsius, when I struggled up a shale covered mountainside and severely burned the backs of my legs. It definitely wasn’t ideal. There was little dancing after that. But overall, walking tours are slow and intense – in a good way! You don’t see a lot of a country but what you do see is authentic and concentrated.
Short and sharp, this is the perfect way to politely acquaint yourself with a city fast. It only takes up a couple of hours in your day, you learn a bunch of stuff and sometimes they’re free. Travelling on my own it has been the perfect way to meet folks. From one such two-hour tour of Chinatown in Singapore I met a fellow Australian, who invited me to lunch and introduced me to a fascinating American cancer survivor/writer/actress, and later another friend of hers who lives in Singapore. The next day we visited other sites, hung out in my suite at the Marina Bay Sands, went to high tea at the Raffles, cocktails at the Fullerton and then, finally, for dinner on Clarke Quay. And I thought I’d be on my own for my birthday!
The “noble” solo travel experience can be a quiet and lonely one. When you’re travelling on your own, the day tour gives you a chance to talk to people without making any commitments. This opportunity to flirt a little, to go out on a date but not give your phone number at the end is perfect for commitment phobes.
If you’re going to be herded like a gaggle of sheep, it might as well be in a rural setting.
(Sierra Nevada mountains, Spain)
Failing all other civilised options, you can fall back on the tried and true – the debaucherous, raucous, clichéd, obvious and tactless Contiki or Topdeck.
Yes, you have to get up at the crack of dawn and eat stale bread rolls with jam. Yes, you have to slouch in a coach, half asleep and bored for hours each day. Yes, you will have to stay close to a loud and fearless guide who carries some sort of beacon (umbrella, flag, etc etc) and herds their flock of sheep safely through piazzas and churches, markets and museums. There’s petty but tearful arguments about the front seats, there’s ruthless time keeping to stay on schedule and, in that big crowd of people, there is, without doubt, going to be someone who irritates the crap out of you.
But you can also be anonymous and blend in with the crowd. You can let your hair down and really revel in that anonymity – be someone else for a little while. You can still challenge yourself and you will definitely learn something about yourself. You can meet people from many different countries and background and if you ask enough questions, you’ll learn something cultural and thought provoking. But you will only get bite-sized, pre-packaged pieces of countries – high in sugar and fat and alcohol.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with this. Will you have a great time? Probably. Will you remember Ireland? I certainly don’t.