A good guide is key for tours of Sicily by college kids on break

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STONEHAM, Mass. -- Richard Durgan, head of Durgan Travel Service here, sends more than 3,500 customers to Sicily each year, a figure that qualifies his agency as a top producer .

Customizing tours for college students is a fairly new market for Durgan, whose specialty is affinity group tours.

"Our biggest market is retirees and church groups," Durgan said. "They require more sightseeing and hand-holding than younger groups."

When Rick Newton, who teaches a travel writing/photography class at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, approached Durgan three years ago to package an eight-night spring break program. Durgan grabbed the chance.

Since his firm was already hooked into Sicily, "it was a matter of tailoring a program to student needs, and it was a lot of fun," Durgan said.

In addition, the departure date coincided with Durgan's preference for group travel to Sicily in the shoulder seasons.

"The best time to visit Sicily is late winter/early spring and late fall," Durgan said. "Sicily is too hot in summer, and we can offer lower prices at the other times of year."

A key element in the tour arrangements then, as now, was Rosa Rizza, the guide and escort in Taormina who handles Durgan's groups. Rizza is well-suited to coddling her senior clients, but her personality, spirit and manner of presentation perfectly complemented the 20-year-old set.

"A good tour guide is critical, and with Rizza, we have the best," both men said. The students on the spring tour that I joined as a guest travel journalist agreed. So did I.

Anyone who can maintain the attention of 30 high-energy-level college kids seated in a 15,000-seat amphitheater from the third century B.C. and weave the story behind the archaeological site that is Siracusa gets my vote.

She also talked straight about Italian men in a girls-only meeting on our trip. "Be wise, be careful and use your head," she advised them. "Don't make eye contact and don't flaunt your assets."

Our group size was 30 students and four adults plus Newton and Rizza. How to tailor an itinerary to appeal to the age group was the challenge facing Newton and Durgan.

We stayed at the Ariston Hotel in Taormina for eight nights which eliminated the hassle of daily packing. The tour rate covered hotel meals. On the full-day tours, we ate in family-run trattorias, or Rizza herded us to pizza joints.

This was an unconventional tour with unplanned stops, so we were able to pile off the bus to photograph sheep in the fields or laundry on balconies.

We tramped through several vineyards, but it was the wine tastings after the treks that everyone enjoyed best.

On a full-day excursion to the fishing village of Cefalu, we were let loose for the afternoon after a 30-minute guided tour.

Evenings in Taormina were free time, which benefited several bars and clubs immediately taken over by our group.

But here's a look at the students' gripes, for those planning to serve this market:

  • The students objected to the long bus rides, the lack of Frosted Flakes at breakfast and the early departure times.
  • They complained about the cost of film, batteries and phone calls, and about ATMs that ate their bank cards.
  • They were frustrated because they did not speak Italian and indignant that they were not old enough to rent scooters- minimum age is 21.
  • They were quickly bored by too much history; cautious regarding new foods, and intolerant of adults who did not find them fascinating. They wanted more beach time in Cefalu and more free time, all the time.
  • On the upside, the students were fascinated by Mount Etna, wrote in their journals, peppered Rizza with questions and even asked me how to become a travel journalist.

    Durgan said that "we learn from each tour. On the upcoming March program, we'll fly Alitalia from JFK into Palermo, spend three nights in Cefalu, one in Agrigento in the south and four in Taormina."

    Although the moving around means packing and unpacking, "they'll see more of Sicily on a diverse itinerary," he said.

    Durgan has been in the business since 1969 when he ran the group department at the former Crimson Travel in Boston. He opened his agency in Stoneham, a Boston suburb, five years ago.

    His staff totals 28 employees, four of whom handle retail sales. Although the week-long Sicily program is Durgan's signature tour, the firm customizes group tours throughout Europe.

    Durgan Travel Service


    Phone: (800) 234-9959

    FACT SHEET:

    Siciliana

    Size: 9,629 square miles, about the size of Vermont. Largest island in the Mediterranean.

    Location: Three miles from Reggio di Calabria on the toe of Italy's boot.

    Geography: Bounded by the Ionian Sea on the east, the Mediterranean on the south and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the north. Home to Mount Etna, Europe's highest active volcano.

    Population: 5 million.

    Language: Italian, but English is usually understood in cities.

    How to get there: Transatlantic flights to Rome or Milan with rail or air connections to Palermo, Catania and Birgi. Ferry services from Genoa, Naples or Reggio di Calabria.

    Documents: Passport.

    Best time to go: Glorious green countryside from February through April; grape harvests, sunny days, cool evenings in September and October. Diabolically hot in summer.

    Currency: Italian lira. ATMs are numerous.

    Credit cards: Majors.

    Electricity: 220 volts. Need adapter, converter.

    Web sites:www.italiantourism.com; www.sicilian.net; www.itwg.com; www.bestofsicily.com

    Guidebooks: "Cadogan's Sicily" was in my backpack. Others worth a mention: "Sicily, The Rough Guide" and "Michelin Green Guide to Sicily."

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