Deeper local: Tour operators double down on authentic experiences: Travel Weekly

Deeper local: Tour operators double down on authentic experiences: Travel Weekly

The agenda for our visit to South Africa looked fairly standard. Cooking class, check. Tour of Robben Island, check. Visit to winery, check. Visit to ecoresort, check. And finally, of course, a safari.

But on one of our very first stops, cooking classes with Cass Abrahams, considered the doyenne of Cape Malay cooking, it became clear our itinerary put together by African Travel would offer much more than your average trip.

Before heading to the kitchen for our lessons, Abrahams sat us down at her dining room table. There she wove tales about the origin of the local cuisine, which was developed by Indonesian slaves in Dutch kitchens. Her narrative was spiced with fascinating personal stories from her own 70-plus years as a mixed-race woman growing up and working in a society where complicated apartheid laws set the rules governing interactions among ethnicities and skin tones

She also relayed stories about her fight to get Cape Malay cuisine — long considered food that was only eaten in “colored’s” homes — recognized by the country’s culinary elite.

Food, she said, is one of the best ways to learn “about the history, geography and economy of a country.”’

Indeed, I think I learned more in 30 minutes at her kitchen table about the real history of South Africa than during my entire life of reading news reports.

The next day, we got an in-depth and private tour of Robben Island from Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela’s jailer, who became a close friend of the anti-apartheid leader and went on to work for Mandela after he was released and became president.

Nelson Mandela’s prison guard-turned-close friend, Christo Brand, gives private tours of Robben Island for African Travel. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Nelson Mandela’s prison guard-turned-close friend, Christo Brand, gives private tours of Robben Island for African Travel. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

While escorting us around the now abandoned prison famous for housing political prisoners, he shared personal stories about Mandela, including the time he and other guards helped Mandela’s wife sneak one of his new grandsons into the prison under her clothes for a visit.

Brand also talked about why he became a prison guard at 18. The white child of a farmer, he said he grew up with mostly black friends. So when it came time to choose between fighting against the black “terrorists” or working for the prison, he chose the latter.

Local experiences key to African Travel tour
A recent South Africa trip showcased the historical and cosmopolitan sides of Cape Town and its nearby wine region.

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The interactions offered by African Travel with people who played such pivotal roles in South African history underscore how, a decade since a focus on authentic and experiential travel became mainstream, upscale travel companies continue to raise the bar, particularly as it relates to people-to-people interactions.

“We want to have our guests touch culture and heritage in a destination in a meaningful way,” said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, a portfolio brand of the Travel Corporation.

“So it’s been a big concentration for us,” Banda added. “When you met Cass Abrahams, food was the vehicle for the conversation. It’s about the history and the influence of her people, how it has shaped South Africa.”

Cass Abrahams, left, leads a Cape Malay cooking class at her home on an African Travel trip in South Africa. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

Cass Abrahams, left, leads a Cape Malay cooking class at her home on an African Travel trip in South Africa. (TW photo by Jeri Clausing)

The goal in seeking out partnerships with people like Abrahams and Brand, he said, is to help people become “transformed by the travel journey.”

It’s a concept that is increasingly being adopted across the Travel Corporation’s brands.

For instance, the Chairman’s Collection offerings from Luxury Gold add interactions with notables including royalty, famous authors, winemakers, even athletes. On its Majesty of the Rockies trip, the Chairman’s Collection includes a reception in Whistler, British Columbia, with Olympic athlete and legendary alpine skier Rob Boyd, who was the first Canadian to win a downhill world championship on Canadian soil. In England, guests can get a private tour of Alnwick Castle, a stand-in for Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” movies, from Isobel Jane Miller Percy, the current Lady Percy, whose forebear with the same title was the wife of Hotspur in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.”

But the Travel Corporation is far from alone in seeking deeper, more personal local interactions for its guests. From adventure operators to river cruises, companies are increasingly tapping experts and locals with special histories, famous art or literary works and other unique achievements to meet demand for more local and authentic excursion options.

Tauck, for instance, on its Savoring France sailing along the Rhone, offers guests a chance to lunch with the Laurent family on the ranch where they raise champion racing bulls in La Camargue.

In the U.S., it has a long-standing partnership with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns that includes special itineraries with exclusive video presentations from Burns and his partner, Dayton Duncan, as well as occasional trips to places that have been the focus of their films and where guests can meet and mingle with the filmmakers.

In Asia, Abercrombie & Kent has combined two popular options, cooking classes and in-home meals, to give guests a deeper dive into local culture on some of its itineraries.

In Hue, Vietnam, for instance, guests can hop on a Vespa for a ride to a family home where they learn how to make banh bao savory cake, fried spring rolls, fig salad and bun bo (spicy beef noodle soup) and then sit down to eat with their hosts.

Similar options are available on their Bhutan and Nepal trips.

People-to-people connections are also a driving principle behind the growing trend of women-only trips.

Intrepid was among the first to offer female-focused journeys with Jordan, Iran and Morocco itineraries built around connecting travelers with Muslim women who delve into the details of their day-to-day life. As part of their Jordan trip, travelers dine with the female members of an extended family in their home, get traditional henna tattoos and meet with one of the country’s leading matchmakers.

Since launching the first round of women-only trips in 2018, the company has added itineraries to India, Kenya, Turkey and Nepal.

Likewise, Natural Habitat Adventures this year launched its first women-only expedition that focused on the female explorers who braved the Canadian Arctic.

The trip included “tales from the tundra” with Katie deMeulles, who shared stories about her mother, Myrtle deMeulles, a respected elder and storyteller who grew up on a trapline and went on to receive the Order of the Metis Nation for her art.

Katie deMeulles shares “tales from the tundra” as part of  Natural Habitat Adventures’ first women-only trip that focused on the female explorers who braved the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Natural Habitat Adventures)

Katie deMeulles shares “tales from the tundra” as part of  Natural Habitat Adventures’ first women-only trip that focused on the female explorers who braved the Canadian Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Natural Habitat Adventures)

The demand for intimate exchanges with local experts has also spawned a rise in travel startups such as Vacation With an Artist.

The company, launched by New York designer Geetika Agrawal two-and-a-half years ago, connects travelers with nearly 90 artisans in more than two dozen countries.

Agrawal said she developed her company during a year-long sabbatical where she traveled the world in search of these types of connections. The idea, she said, was to offer others the type of travel she enjoys.

“I just always loved this idea of going to a place and just hanging out with the creative masters, artists and designers of that place, because they are a great representation of that culture,” she said. “I almost see them as ambassadors of a culture. Also, instead of running around all day chasing things to do and see, I could be in their studio learning new skills, getting to meet their friends. At night, if they were going out with friends, I would tag along with them.”

American traveler explores photography on a Vacation With an Artist experience on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. (Photo courtesy of Vacation With an Artist)

American traveler explores photography on a Vacation With an Artist experience on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria. (Photo courtesy of Vacation With an Artist)

Her trips are mostly one-on-one, she said, and are generally four-to-seven-day itineraries that guests tack onto other trips. Guests have the option of staying with the artist or booking their own accommodations.

Another startup, Uncovr Travel, launched nearly three years ago in Atlanta by former art gallery owner Jason Wertz, offers what he characterizes as “deeper travel” to lesser known locales in southern Europe, including Puglia and Sicily in Italy, Croatia, Catalonia and Portugal.

Wertz says he travels the countries himself to find more remote destinations with artists, winemakers and other locals with compelling backgrounds to give his groups, which range from six to eight guests, “their personal perspective of what it means to live in these places.”

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