On my first luxury European coach trip, the company was not a tour operator, the vehicle we rode in was not a bus, we were not clients, and our host was not a guide. It was a portal to privileged travel.
View of faraglioni rocks and the Bay of Naples from the Gardens of Augustus on Capri.
View of faraglioni rocks and the Bay of Naples from the Gardens of Augustus on Capri.
A few days before I headed off to Italy this summer with Luxury Gold, officials with the Travel Corporation, the parent company, sent me some background documents about their brand and its values, which included a list of “today” versus “yesterday” terms.
The company is not a tour operator, the briefing materials said. It offers guided, or escorted, journeys. We would not be traveling on a bus but rather on a luxury coach. Fellow travelers were guests, not clients, passengers or customers. And our onboard host for the 12-day Ultimate Italy itinerary was our traveling concierge, not a tour guide.
Semantics, my (jaded) editors would say.
But semantics are important — as travel agents proved in citing their changing role from ticket sellers to travel experts in winning the battle to be known as advisors.
Luxury Gold promised a new generation of European group travel with stays at some of Italy’s finest boutique hotels, spacious coaches, top-notch service and exclusive and VIP access to a few of Italy’s most popular sites, mixed with a healthy dose of local experiences away from the throngs of summer tourists.
And it was clear from the moment the private car picked me up at home to take me to my business class flight that this trip, sponsored by the Travel Corporation, was not going to be anything like my parents’ European vacation.
A mixed party
Our first stop was Rome, where I was greeted by private car and whisked to our first boutique hotel, the Palazzo Montemartini, where I met our traveling concierge, Lynne. For the next 12 days she would make sure we needed to do nothing but sit back and follow her lead as she took over every detail of our travels, including checking us in at hotels and making sure our luggage was always picked up and delivered, ensuring that any roadside stops avoided places crowded with other coaches and making recommendations for dinner and other outings during our free time.
As we gathered in our hotel lobby that evening for our welcome dinner, I was pleasantly surprised to find that no, I wasn’t the youngest person on the trip, as so many had laughingly warned. In fact, I was older than at least half a dozen of my 20 soon-to-be new friends.
Although there was one young couple in their 20s traveling with her retired parents, the bulk of us were working professionals in our 50s. And those who were retired, including the 80-something Australian woman traveling with her 50-something daughter, were as young at heart and nearly as active as the 20-somethings.
Many were doing their first group trip and their first trip to Europe. They said they chose Luxury Gold specifically to be able to see the highlights with ease.
Still, I sensed some hesitation as everyone was sizing each other up, trying to figure out what we all had committed to for the next 12 days.
There was definitely some skepticism on night two as we headed out for our first “local experience,” a dinner of traditional Roman lasagna in the home of Debora and Max Lanini.
The mood changed immediately, however, once Max, an Alitalia pilot, turned on the karaoke program and belted out — what else? — “Come Fly With Me.”
Then, to everyone’s delight, the family dog made its entry, and by the time the evening was over, we were all on our feet, waving napkins and singing along to Dean Martin and Neil Diamond songs.
It was a key bonding dinner, and as we left, everyone was clearly more relaxed and excited about heading out in the morning for Pompeii, Capri, Florence, Venice and points in between.
The miracle of private access
In the age of overtourism, an increasingly important cornerstone of group travel is VIP and private access. And while avoiding lines and crowds is the obvious benefit, I didn’t realize until we had more than an hour alone in Venice’s famed Doge’s Palace what a truly different and immersive experience a private tour affords.
We were on the final leg of the trip, on which we’d had special access to some of Italy’s most popular attractions, including Vatican City, the Colosseum in Rome, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the ruins of Pompeii and the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
While we avoided all the lines and the big crowds, there were always other people around us.
And I would be lying if I didn’t say some of us were a little museum and cathedral weary by the time we arrived in Venice. The itinerary said private tour, but we assumed that meant, as in our other visits, just not open to the general public.
Yet when we walked into the massive courtyard of the grand, Gothic palace that housed the doges, or dukes, of the Republic of Venice at 9 p.m., we discovered that for the next hour and more, we would indeed have this architectural and historical marvel all to ourselves.
It’s hard to describe the awe-inspiring and overwhelming sense of place one gets by walking into such a monumental structure when it is completely empty, to be able to soak in the architectural details, the art and the sheer scale with absolutely no distractions and enjoying the full freedom to wander at your own pace with an expert guide.
In addition to the private tour, I realized how carefully our entire itinerary had been crafted to avoid the worst of the crowds that descend on Italy — in particular on Venice — each summer.
“All of that is by design,” Ulla Hefel Bohler, CEO of Luxury Gold and Insight Vacations, told me after I returned home. “We really take great pride and care in designing the itinerary.”
Indeed, we arrived in Venice late in the afternoon, when only one cruise ship still remained in port.
By the time we checked into our hotel, the Bauer Palazzo, and found time to wander, St. Mark’s Square was surprisingly empty. We easily found tables for an outdoor dinner before our visit to the palace.
The next day, we escaped some of the bustle with a trip to a nearby island for a glass-blowing demonstration, then lunch on the fishermen’s island of Burano.
We made our way back to Venice in time to see just how crowded the streets can get on a summer afternoon. We escaped them immediately, however, by jumping into gondolas that had been reserved for our group to take a leisurely boat ride, complete with an operatic serenade, through the city’s canals.
By the time we got cleaned up for dinner, the day-trippers were gone, and as we walked to our farewell dinner, it once again felt as if we had this wonderful city almost to ourselves.
Carefully curated luxury
My one and only other guided trip to Italy had been when I was in college, and we spent our days traipsing from one point to another, trying to see and get photos of as many famous sites as possible.
This time, while we certainly saw more than most people could ever hope to organize on their own, we also skipped a lot of museums, churches and other sites in favor of more immersive local experiences and extra free time.
In Tuscany, we went to an old villa and vineyard where we learned to make — and then eat — pasta with pesto, then headed to Pisa to see its famous leaning tower.
Another day, we visited the house and gardens of Renaissance writer and politician Niccolo Machiavelli. After a private tour of the residence and wine cellar, we lounged on the terrace with a wine tasting and appetizers.
In San Gimignano, we visited the Laboratorio Giuditta Brozzetti, a 13th-century church in which three centuries of Italian women (now with the help of a grant from the Travel Corporation’s Treadright Foundation) have been working to preserve the medieval craft of weaving. After a demonstration on original, centuries-old looms, we headed into town to meet World Champion gelato maker Sergio Dondoli — though in that case, we did have to queue up to sample his wares.
In Florence, those who had already seen Michelangelo’s David (or were just museum weary) had the option to take a foodie tour or personal time.
While on the island of Capri, we did the traditional cruise through the Bay of Naples to see the island’s famous rocky cliffs and inlets.
But we skipped lining up for the Blue Grotto, stopping instead for a peek at a miniature version with the same glowing blue waters before heading to town for a walking tour and lunch overlooking the bay at the Michelin-starred Mama.
The restaurant’s ranking was easy to appreciate as we dined on eggplant Parmesan, fish caprese and cuttlefish that was sliced and cooked like tagliatelle and served cold with olive oil and seaweed.
Most important was the built-in free time that, among other things, gave us two afternoons and evenings in Capri to cool off in the pool at the luxurious Capri Palace and enjoy sunset limoncello spritzers in the square after the day crowds had departed.
After a day in the Cinque Terre, we had some more downtime at the Grand Hotel Bristol in Rapallo, where we once again hit the pool, sipping cocktails and having a long debate about which was better, Capri or Rapallo.
Options and free time, Bohler said, are other key elements of Luxury Gold itineraries.
“We are constantly challenging ourselves to give more choices and freedoms,” she said. “For instance, we don’t include all meals. That’s not to keep the cost down; we know people want to do their own things, as well. The concierge will help them, but having that unstructured time is really important.”
Just as important, though, were the well-structured visits. As one traveler who was on his second Luxury Gold trip said, he’s still trying to figure out whether he likes group travel or not. It’s about the balance between total freedom and seeing everything. And he wanted his daughter and her husband to see as much as possible on their first trip to Europe.
On their own, he reckoned, they would be able to see just a quarter of what we had seen, and it would have taken more time.
Personally, I loved not having to think or make any decisions about what to do. And it kept me from just wandering the streets people-watching, which is my fallback to anything that requires too much advance planning or waiting in lines.
Coach tours focused on experiences
The Travel Corporation launched its Luxury Gold brand in 2012 specifically to offer products to travelers who were seeking more exclusive and unique experiences.
Luxury Gold and Insight Vacations CEO Ulla Hefel Bohler said it’s the only brand that company chairman Stanley Tollman puts his name to; its offerings include several Chairman’s Collection itineraries that include experiences built on his many connections, such as a lunch and wine cellar tour with an Italian count at his Tuscan villa.
Luxury Gold’s offerings build on trends that have in recent years transformed the travel industry, specially guided European coach tours.
Abercrombie & Kent Europe product manager Liam Dunch, who redesigned that company’s small-group Europe trips just a few years ago, said, “In the old days, things were very much focused on large groups who traveled in big buses and covered as much ground as they possibly could, because going to Europe was probably going to a be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
While those traditional large-group tours are still available from other companies, he said, many travelers now go to Europe once, even twice a year, “so there’s a lot more appetite now for people to really dig into a smaller area.”
The biggest evolution, he said, is on shifting the focus from “seeing to doing … trying to get into people’s homes, meeting local craftspeople.”
Like the Travel Corporation, A&K no longer uses the words “tours” and “buses.” Instead, they are “journeys” and “motorcoaches.”
“Again, that speaks to the evolution,” Dunch said. “In the old days, you toured, you saw, you went home. Now it’s part of your journey, your life journey.”
Likewise, Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president of Tauck Land Journeys, said the company describes its European trips as “the yellow roads of Europe,” because they don’t use the autobahns. Instead, they travel the secondary roads — the ones colored yellow on maps — where “you can slow down and really connect.”
Just as Luxury Gold has done, Tauck, A&K, Globus and others have made private and VIP access a cornerstone of their itineraries, all of which is attracting a more diverse group of travelers.
Cory McGillivray, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands, said,“There is no question touring vacations are appealing to more travelers than ever before. In fact, touring has never been more popular. The new generation of touring travelers is not only interested in the traditional benefits that Globus tours provide, such as VIP access to must-see sites and the expert services of an on-site tour director, they’re also drawn to touring vacations for the unique experiences today’s tours provide them.”