When Tauck invited me to experience one of its special Ken Burns American Journeys in Yellowstone, I jumped at the chance. Not just because I'd never been to the park, but because of the potential for wildlife sightings.
What I was surprised to discover, however, was how much I enjoyed the educational components.
I'm not sure if it was the topic or the delivery, but for possibly the first time in my life, I enjoyed every minute of our guided excursions, lectures and viewings of vignettes recorded exclusively for Tauck by Burns and Dayton Duncan, co-producers of the "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" documentary.
That's not to say I haven't been on plenty of enjoyable group trips and guided excursions. But anyone who knows me knows, in addition to being animal-obsessed, I also have what Travel Weekly editor Rob Fixmer once described as "the attention span of a gnat." Hence, with most lectures or tours I usually tune out and prepare to move on long before everyone else.
An elk in Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
The "Wonderland: Yellowstone in Winter" itinerary is one of Tauck's small group "culturious" tours. We started in Pray, Montana, near Bozeman, at the Chico Hot Springs Resort, a classic Western lodge with surprisingly outstanding cuisine that included options ranging from Beef Wellington to curried sea scallops and bison ribs.
Although the accommodations were basic (but clean and with all the necessary amenities), as Tauck noted in our itinerary, they were chosen not because they pretend to be luxe but for their special locations.
We had two days to soak in the resort's outdoor pool with its supposed healing hot mineral waters while getting an introduction to the park from the Burns and Duncan vignettes, learning about dog sledding from musher Mark Nardin, and getting some great shooting tips from wildlife photographer and naturalist MacNeil Lyons before heading into Yellowstone.
Old Faithful erupts at Yellowstone National Park. Photo Credit: TW photo by Jeri Clausing
We spent three days and two nights in the park, staying at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful and traveling the closed roads via special snow coaches for sightings of -- even one very up close and personal encounter with -- bison, elk, red foxes, coyotes and bald eagles. We also visited and learned about the park's unique thermal features from expert guides and an incredibly knowledgeable tour director, Zack Pennington.
While the only hotel that qualified as luxury was our final stop at the historic Wort in downtown Jackson, Wyoming, the experiences and attention to detail by Pennington and our park guides from Xanterra certainly satisfied all the definitions of modern luxury.
From the hot soup and drinks pulled out on stops in the largely closed park's warming huts to extras like a private tour and dinner at Jackson Hole's National Museum of Wildlife Art, never having to bother with things like check-ins and finding out that a late-check out had automatically been secured for those us leaving later in the day made it clear why many of my fellow travelers were repeat Tauck loyalists.