Small Group Tour­ing

Kristie Kel­la­han vis­its Provence with a small group of big-hearted trav­ellers.

Travel Bulletin - - CONTENTS -

The sense of ca­ma­raderie in our group was first ig­nited, as of­ten hap­pens, with a good laugh. Gath­ered on the sunny ter­race of Grand Ho­tel Nord-pi­nus, in the charm­ing Provençal town of Ar­les, we had come to­gether as 12 strangers who were about to em­bark on a week-long Back-roads tour of Provence.

Es­corted by guide Erik Je­linek and driver Rachel Watkins, we were as­sem­bled for a meet and greet, just a few steps from the spot where post-im­pres­sion­ist painters Vin­cent Van Gogh and Paul Gau­guin had once lived and worked.

Of the 12 pas­sen­gers, seven were Brits and five Aus­tralians; two men were out­num­bered by 10 ladies; ages ranged from 40 to 80 and four birth­days were to be cel­e­brated dur­ing the cruise week. In­tro­duc­ing our­selves to our fel­low trav­ellers, a pat­tern emerged: one Sue, two Sues, three Sues... and a Mrs Su­sans. The ran­dom­ness of our Sue sur­plus was enough to cue laugh­ter all round.

Ex­plain­ing the Back-roads’ phi­los­o­phy as ‘or­gan­ised in­de­pen­dence’, Erik ran us through what to ex­pect of the seven-day tour. The unique sights of this strik­ing re­gion of south­ern France are well-known: lavender fields, pad­docks of sun­flow­ers, el­e­gant pink flamin­goes, me­dieval vil­lages and sunny mar­ket squares. We would have am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to see and pho­to­graph them all dur­ing the week; in ad­di­tion we would be ven­tur­ing off the well-trod­den tourist trail to en­joy au­then­tic lo­cal ex­pe­ri­ences in­clud­ing a visit to a bull ranch deep in the Ca­mar­gue and small-batch olive oil and jam tast­ing on a fam­ily-run farm. Surely one of the most valu­able ad­van­tages of sign­ing up for small group travel rather than go­ing it alone is the ease with which lo­gis­tics are taken care of by some­one else, leav­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers with noth­ing more to do than sit back and en­joy the ride.

Of­fered as an all-in­clu­sive pack­age, Back-roads fares cover trans­port, meals, drinks, ex­cur­sions and the ser­vices of tour guides. Our home base was on­board the Croisieu­rope barge, the MS Anne-marie. A much more com­pact ves­sel than most avid river cruis­ers will be ac­cus­tomed to, the barge ac­com­mo­dates 11 twin/dou­ble cab­ins, as well as liv­ing quar­ters for the crew who would be keep­ing us fed, wa­tered and on course. A spa­cious roof deck and jacuzzi hot tub were at our dis­posal.

Our char­iot was a 20-seater Mercedes lux­ury coach, with ca­pa­ble driver Rachel at the helm. Some days we would cover hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres, in hot pur­suit of un­for­get­table sights, rang­ing from snow-white Ca­mar­gue horses to the stun­ning pink salt flats of Aigues-mortes. Each night we would re­turn to a wel­come aper­i­tif on­board the MS Anne-marie.

Back-roads has been offering small group tours in Europe since 1990. The com­pany, a joint ven­ture of Flight Cen­tre and busi­ness­man James Nathan, op­er­ates 44 small lux­ury coach tours in regions in­clud­ing the UK, Scan­di­navia, France, Morocco and Italy.

Barge-and-coach hol­i­days in France are a re­cent ad­di­tion to the Back-roads cat­a­logue. Com­bin­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of slow cruis­ing along ru­ral canals and lesser-known water­ways with scenic back roads tour­ing, pas­sen­gers ex­pe­ri­ence the di­ver­sity and depth of famed French wine regions.

This year, itineraries will be of­fered in Provence, Bur­gundy and Cham­pagne, all wine-grow­ing regions of world-renown. Did we men­tion the trip tar­iff in­cludes wine?

As guests of Back-roads, we could do as much or as lit­tle as we liked. A Clay­ton’s tour for peo­ple who wouldn’t nor­mally think of them­selves as the type of trav­ellers who join es­corted group tours.

For our group, with vary­ing de­grees of mo­bil­ity and en­ergy, that would mean the flex­i­bil­ity to go our own way at times. One sunny af­ter­noon, when most of the group drove to Pont du Gard, a spec­tac­u­lar an­cient Ro­man aque­duct, oth­ers stayed be­hind on the boat to en­joy some bub­bles in the jacuzzi.

On the day we vis­ited the de­light­ful vil­lage of Pezenas, we each ex­pe­ri­enced it in our own way: some peo­ple grabbed the op­por­tu­nity to shop the sprawl­ing Satur­day mar­ket, while oth­ers vis­ited the me­dieval church, and a few chose to sit and en­joy a cof­fee in the sun­shine.

With all the choose-your-own-ad­ven­ture flex­i­bil­ity, there’s an em­pha­sis on mix­ing and min­gling – guests are en­cour­aged to get to know each other by sit­ting with dif­fer­ent peo­ple each night at din­ner, and pre-din­ner drinks are a shared af­fair – and as the week pro­gressed, the small group bonded in a way that a larger group may not have.

Shar­ing cheese and Côtes de Provence Rosé on the deck af­ter din­ner, as the sum­mer sun dipped slowly, I learned of a fel­low guest’s am­bi­tious plan to build a home near Rome, and was touched by the ro­mance still ev­i­dent in the mar­riage of two el­derly trav­ellers, al­most 60 years af­ter they first met.

Laugh­ing, chat­ting, toast­ing new friends’ birth­days and shar­ing sto­ries over a glass or two of good French wine... surely these are some of travel’s sweet­est plea­sures.

For more in­for­ma­tion visit back­road­s­tour­ing.com

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