Travel Story Tours that go deeper

Photo of Niall McIlroy

Today's Trafalgar tours are really guided holidays with much more free time.

It’s not likely that Trafalgar Australia managing director Matthew Cameron-Smith ever envisaged dressing as a gladiator and battling his kids under the watchful eye of a Roman instructor. 

But it’s exactly the sort of essential and sometimes surprising experience that is enriching the company’s guided touring holidays.

“Don’t forget, many years ago they made a movie If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium — there was a stigma attached (to coach tour holidays),” Mr Cameron-Smith says.

“We don’t think of them as tours, we think of them as guided holidays because these are holidays where you’ll have an expert travel director with you the whole time who’ll show you all the little local secrets that they know about.”

Notions of hours spent trundling down anonymous motorways arriving just in time for a hotel dinner then bed can be thrown out of the panoramic windows used nowadays on Trafalgar’s air-conditioned luxury coaches. With reclining seats, lots of leg room, on-board toilets, wi-fi and video screens, these coaches are built for comfort.

There’s none of the stress of getting lost, running behind, struggling to be understood, even finding (and somehow paying for) parking.

But ironically, given the comforts, there’s rarely more than two hours at a stretch on the coach, allowing more time for what Mr Cameron-Smith says is one of the most important inclusions on a guided holiday — “nothing”.

“Free time — people don’t want to be led around by the nose, they want to be able to explore, wander, discover these amazing cities at their own pace,” he says.

Less time travelling means more time exploring and Trafalgar has hand-picked immersive experiences in each destination treating travellers to activities not open to tourists. 

“Going to the Vatican Museum is almost a rite of passage when you go to Rome but we go there after hours when it’s closed. It’s not just a private tour, we actually have dinner in there. That’s the kind of experience that keeps us excited about travel,” Mr Cameron-Smith says.

“The same goes for dining. Food is often a window into a culture and the dining table, a place where stories are told and experiences shared, so rather than just go to a restaurant, our Be My Guest concept means you’ll actually have dinner in someone’s home with someone’s family — perhaps at a vineyard or an olive grove and this gives travellers a really local experience.” 

He says these events also spread the tourist dollar wider so that small family-owned farms, wineries and orchards see the benefits.

“Recently I went to a cherry farm and vineyard in Sorrento. We tasted the cherries off the tree, met this amazing family and they cooked for us. It was a terrific night — not one that travellers could have just turning up at the front door.” 

Trafalgar has sought to pepper its programs with complexion rather than cliche. Rather than waiting in line to kiss the Blarney Stone, travellers on an Ireland tour, for example, get a feel for the life of a farmer.

“We meet some incredible characters that run this working sheep farm, watch the dogs round up the sheep and then have dinner at the farm — again, the sort of things that you wouldn’t normally have access to.”

By getting to live a bit of the life, travellers feel more in tune with a destination rather than fleeting visitors.

Mr Cameron-Smith has more than 25 years of experience in tourism, both here and abroad, taking him from Dreamworld on the Gold Coast to senior roles with Rydges Hotel and Resorts and Tourism Australia, with postings in the UK, Europe and the Middle East.

He says Australian travellers can smell a fake, so it’s important that each episode on an itinerary is a worthy experience, reflective of a region, tactile and real rather than put on for visitors.

Trafalgar’s product development team finds these hidden gems the old-fashioned way. 

“The travel directors are local, so they might know someone who knows someone who has an awesome pastry shop, restaurant or vineyard but in some parts of the world it literally means knocking on the door to talk to the farmer or business owner.”

Sometimes an existing venue has a story that sees it stand out; an attraction becomes an experience. In the case of a Budapest vineyard run by two brothers, the enormous barrel at the entrance was once used by their forefathers to hide prisoners of war. 

Trafalgar publishes unedited reviews (more than 20,000) on its website and, despite a 97 per cent satisfaction rate from returned travellers, there’s been no resting on laurels.

“If we see a review that’s, let’s call it ‘constructive’, it’s a gift because we can tweak things, maybe change a route or vary the pace,” he says. 

WHAT’S HOT

“Iceland is hot at the moment,” Mr Cameron-Smith says, and there’s more interest in Scandinavia, Japan, regions and individual countries such as Italy, England, Croatia and the southern States of the US as well as Texas. 

“Travellers are combining shorter trips back-to-back, going away for the same length of time, getting an in-depth experience.

“Almost every day we have more guests booking the Best of Devon & Cornwall — it’s one of our most popular trips,” he says. 

HAVE LEISURE AND EXPLORE

New itinerary styles have also evolved to match changing tastes, with Trafalgar adding At Leisure holidays — longer, two-three night stops without early departures and with plenty of free time. 

On seven-night City Explorer itineraries, travellers can get a feel for the likes of Paris, Rome, London or Amsterdam again with the benefits of local knowledge and exclusive access. 

“These are cities travellers really need time to explore,” Mr Cameron- Smith says, “but to know how to do that well can be a challenge so we provide an expert who can take you to Stonehenge or behind the scenes at Windsor Castle, for high tea at Kensington Palace and to our Be My Guest on the London trip — Gordon Ramsay’s Heddon Street Restaurant.”

The mention of notoriously combative chef Ramsay reminds me of the high jinks at gladiator school on that holiday in Rome — it was part of one of nine Family Experiences tailored to engage parents and their children. 

“The kids talk about it to this day,” Mr Cameron-Smith laughs, “but those photos may never see the light of day.”

Picture at top: Iceland is a hot destination at the moment. Picture supplied.

Fact File

For more, see Trafalgar or phone 1800 002 007.

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