Italy: The Big Three & Hidden Gems April 23, 1998 Share 1 -- If your clients are first-time visitors, they probably want to see Italy's classic big three: Rome, Florence and Venice. If they've already been there and done that, they may prefer to head for the hills of Tuscany and Umbria, filled with towns and small cities with centuries of history, art and architecture. Or to increasingly popular parts of southern Italy such as Puglia and Sicily. Specialized independent programs designed for repeat visitors remain high in popularity and enable tour operators to show endless creativity.The following is a sampling of tour operators to Italy and their 1998 programs. Prices are per person, double, unless otherwise noted. (Note that "Apulia" and "Puglia" are alternate spellings for the same region in southern Italy.)AutoVenture, Seattle, Wa. Since 1971, this family-owned operator has been specializing in FIT self-drive and chauffered tours. Renaissance Road: eight-day tour through Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como and Milan. Price: From $1,995 self-drive and from $5,190 chauffered. Departures: Year-round. Call: (800) 426-7502.Avanti Destinations, Portland, Ore. "People are looking for culturally enriching experiences. They don't just want to sightsee. They want to interact; to be a participant, not an observer," said Avanti's president, Harry Dalgaard. Cooking Program: In response to this trend, Avanti's three-day cooking programs are offered at the villa Fattoria di Vibio in Todi for a minimum of four people. The program features three afternoons of cooking classes. Two mornings are free for self-guided wine and olive-oil tasting excursions. Price: From $549, including three nights' accommodations at Fattoria di Vibio and four days' car rental. Departures: Through June 30 and from Sept. 1 through Nov. 30. Call: (800) 422-5053.Central Holidays, Jersey City, N.J. There is still a great interest in all-inclusive, motorcoach packages, according to Fred Berardo, president of Central Holidays. "The combination of hotel, air fare, transfers and other features makes a package both economically attractive and a one-time shopping convenience." Apulia On Wheels: This flexible fly/drive program, to a region of southern Italy new to most visitors, includes a rental car with unlimited mileage and seven hotel vouchers. A suggested itinerary features Bari, Foggia, Monopoli or Torre Canne, Torre San Giovanni and Lecce. Price: $1,655, including air fare, daily breakfast and local city and highway maps. Departures: Daily. Call: (800) 935-5000.CIT Tours, New York. CIT is making news this year with its Project Return, but it also offers more traditional programs. Sicilian Carousel: An eight-day tour, Sicilian Carousel departs from either Palermo or Catania and includes visits to Cefalu, Tindari, Messina, Taormina, Catania, Mt. Etna, Ortiga, Agrigento, Selinunte, Erice and Monreale. Price: From $973, including hotels, all meals, motorcoach transportation and sightseeing. Departures: Weekly through Oct. 24. Call: (800) CIT-TOURCollette Tours, Pawtucket, R.I. The two major markets to Italy are first-timers interested in seeing the country's classic cities, and repeat visitors who want an in-depth cultural experience and a visit to the smaller cities, said Manuel Paulo, Collette's product manager for Europe. Enchanting Italy: The 12-day tour begins at Stresa in the Lake District and includes visits to Genoa, the Italian Riviera, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Montecatini Terme, Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, Orvieto and Rome. Price: From $1,549, including hotels, 18 meals, motorcoach transportation and sightseeing. Departures: Weekly through November. Call: (800) 225-6290Donna Franca Tours, Boston. Donna Franca Tours offers a custom FIT and group service, as well as independent resort vacations; castle, villa and apartment rentals; self-drive packages, and combination packages of Rome, London, Venice and Madrid. Preferred Independent Vacations: Options include an 11-day Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Florence and Venice package, and a nine-day Amalfi Coast and Sicily vacation featuring Positano, Taormina and Palermo. Price: $1,499 for the Lake Como vacation, $1,279 for the Amalfi Coast trip. Both include hotels, daily buffet breakfast and bottle of champagne at the first hotel. The company can also arrange for car rental for transportation between cities. Departures: Daily through October. Call: (800) 225-6290.Europe Express, Bellevue, Washington. A leader in independent travel to Europe, Europe Express has enhanced its product line with the addition of hiking and biking tours. Treasures of Tuscany: This seven-day biking tour explores the Tuscan countryside, from Chianciano Terme to Florence. 18- to 21-speed hybrid/mountain bikes are provided. Breakfast and dinners are provided at accommodations. Daily distances range from 20 to 40 miles over a four to six hour period. Price: $1,380 for self-guided tour; $1,740 for guided tour. Departures: Self-guided tours leave daily April through October. Guided tour is on October 4. Call: (800) 927-3876.Perillo Tours, Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Besides showcasing Italy's classic cities in their tours, Perillo Tours has also been successful with combined tour/cruise programs. This year it has introduced two new ones in conjunction with Costa Cruises, said Perillo. The land tour visits Rome and Florence, followed by clients' choice of an eastern or western Mediterranean cruise. Italy Tour/Mediterranean Cruise: The seven-day land portion, featuring Rome and Florence, is followed by a seven-day cruise. The western cruise, leaving Genoa aboard the CostaRomantica, calls on Naples, Palermo, Tunis, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Marseilles. The eastern cruise, departing Venice aboard the CostaVictoria, calls on Bari, Katakolon, Kusadasi, Istanbul and Piraeus. Price: From $3,559, including air fare, hotels, daily breakfast and dinner on land and all meals aboard ship, sightseeing and excursions. Departures: Weekly from May 5 to Oct. 20. Call: (800) 431-1515.Stay & Visit Italy, Washington, D.C. Started in 1993 with the intention of allowing visitors to experience a specific region, Stay & Visit Italy offers day trips from local hotels. Wine & Ceramics Tour: 13-day tour of Tuscany and Umbria including stops in Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Assisi and Gubbio. Tour includes guides, all meals and accommodations in two four-star hotels. Price: $2,400, land only. Departures: June 11, July 23, Sept. 8 and Oct. 17. Call: (202) 237-5220.TourCrafters, Libertyville, Ill. TourCrafters has a variety of programs geared to adventurous and repeat clients, said president Mauro Galli. These mostly FIT programs focus on both off-the-beaten track destinations and activities like cooking and biking. Among these is "Puglia in Farmhouse," a group program last year that is now available to FIT clients. The program features stays in masserie, historic farmhouses converted to hotels. Clients choose from special interest itineraries including ceramics, cooking lessons and archeological training. First-time clients can enjoy the "Italian Touch of Class," a deluxe escorted tour featuring luxury hotels and gourmet dining. Italian Touch of Class: This 13 day-tour features Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi, Capri, Caserta, Canalicchio, Assisi, San Gimignano, Florence, Rivarotta and Orvieto. Price: From $3,595, including air fare, deluxe hotels, daily breakfast and eight gourmet meals, motorcoach transportation and sightseeing. Departures: May 2 and 16, June 6 and 20, July 4 and 18, Aug. 22, Sept. 5 and 19 and Oct. 3 and 18. Call: (800) 621-2259.Touritalia, Chicago, Ill. Gino Di Nallo, Touritalia's president, said the company specializes in independent programs, helping agents create flexible packages customized to their clients' needs. Among these are special interest, hotel, rail and self-drive packages. Tuscany and Umbria are particularly hot destinations now, and self-drive packages are the ideal way to see these regions, according to Di Nallo. City Treasures -- The Italian Riviera: The program allows agents to tailor a client's trip by choosing the hotel and length of stay and adding a variety of sightseeing tours. Hotels are featured in Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, San Remo and Genoa. Price: Examples are from $79 per person, per night at the Cenobio Dei Dogi in Camogli, and from $137 per person, per night at the Royal in San Remo. Daily buffet breakfast is included. Departures: Year-round. Call: (800) 848-6276.Tourlite International, New York: Valerie Athans, whose father, Nicholas Athans founded Tourlite in 1970, said they are both very excited to be re-including Italy among their offered destinations after a 13-year hiatus. Of the seven packages which include Italy, four include visits to Greece and Turkey or Croatia. Greco-Italian Breeze: An 11-night tour including two days in Venice, a seven-day cruise of the Italian and Greek islands and two days in Rome. Package includes a daily buffet breakfast, all meals on the cruise portion of the trip and a half-day sightseeing tour in Rome. Price: From $2,389 including air and rail fare. Departures: June 3 to Oct. 21. Call: (800) 272-7600.Travel Bound, New York. Travel Bound has been operating since 1982, specializing in FIT, custom groups and trade fairs. Introducing Italy: An eight-night tour starting in Rome and traveling by rail to Florence, Venice and Milan with a half-day excursion to Pisa. This package is offered in four categories: superior tourist, first class, superior first and deluxe. Price: From $699 per person, double occupancy, including rail. Departures: April 1 through Oct. 31. Call: (800) 456-8656.