Luxury cocoon: Travel operators redefine guided excursions: Travel Weekly

Luxury cocoon: Travel operators redefine guided excursions: Travel Weekly

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. 

A pasta-making class at a villa in Tuscany.

A pasta-making class at a villa in Tuscany.

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. 

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