Escorted tours are on the up across the US, reports Katie McGonagle
Some destinations are perfectly suited to escorted tours: a different language, unfamiliar culture or anxiety about how to get around can all be assuaged by the reassuring presence of a local guide and like-minded companions.
So why are escorted tours so popular across the pond, where the language, culture, food and just about everything else are almost as familiar as our own?
The US is a self-drive staple, but for clients who lack the confidence to drive abroad or don’t want the stress of navigating, guided tours offer a hassle-free way to get around. Then there are those off-the-beaten-track experiences only a local would know, plus the chance to pack in as many major sights as possible without having to worry about the details.
Peter Traynor, UK general manager for Collette Worldwide, reports strong US sales. He says: “The favourable exchange rate helps, but really the appeal of the US’s many sights is timeless. There are long distances to cover and an escorted tour means someone else takes care of driving while clients can sit back and enjoy the scenery. There is also great scope for tours that really get under the skin of specific regions such as those in the Deep South or New England.”
Best for… music
The US has spawned some of the most influential musicians of all time, so it’s no surprise Brits who grew up listening to the greats are keen to see the places that shaped them.
Chief among those pilgrimage sites, and featured on almost every music-focused tour, is Graceland, home of Elvis Presley.
The Memphis mansion is the keystone in Cosmos Tours & Cruises’ Southern Sounds itinerary, which also takes in the king of rock ‘n roll’s birthplace in Tupelo, then Sun Studio where he and equally-iconic Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded landmark tracks.
After that, travel to Nashville for a private performance with Johnny’s son, John Carter Cash, plus the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry. The eight-day tour starts at £1,695 including flights.
Add New Orleans, birthplace of jazz, to Memphis and Nashville, and you’ll have Collette Worldwide favourite America’s Music Cities, which takes in New Orleans’ French Quarter along with backstage tours of the Grand Ole Opry and RCA Studio B in Nashville (from £2,074 with flights).
Many tours beat a broadly similar path around the Deep South, albeit with slight variations, but Travelsphere’s new Chicago,Mississippi and all that Jazz starts in home of soul Chicago with a champagne reception at the 1,000ft-high John Hancock Observatory, followed by a night in a Chicago blues club, a southern gospel church service, and stays in Memphis and New Orleans (from £1,699 for 12 days).
Best for… food
Music is the food of love, but it seems the two go hand-in-hand on some tours. Insight Vacations’ Rhythms & Flavours of America and sister brand Trafalgar’s Tastes & Sounds of the South each combine jazz, blues and rock ‘n roll, with Cajun, Creole and French-influenced flavours, plus a tipple or two at Budweiser’s Anheuser-Busch brewery on the former, or at Jack Daniel’s Distillery on the latter.
Outside the Deep South, Trafalgar’s San Francisco and Wine Country Delights prefers wine to whiskey. Start with the Bay Area’s best artisan foods at a tasting tour in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, then see fortune cookies being made in Chinatown, before toasting your health at winery tours in Sonoma and Napa Valley (from £2,725 including flights and seven nights’ accommodation).
The east coast has its share of foodie highlights too. Intrepid Travel has added an 11-day New York to New Orleans tour for 2014, which uses only public transport and includes a cycle tour of Charlotte’s foodie neighbourhoods plus good old gumbo and jambalaya in the Big Easy (from £1,675 land-only).
Best for… family
The recurring motif among family-friendly tours comes in the shape of a Stetson: cowboys are clearly a big hit with little kids.
That’s why Grand American Adventures’ Cowboys & Indians Family trip features a ranch stay, with Western-style horse riding, backroads tour of Monument Valley guided by a Navajo Indian, and visits to three National Parks, including the spectacular Zion Canyon. Parents can also tick seeing sunrise at the Grand Canyon and driving down the Las Vegas strip off the bucket list. The 10-day tour costs from £1,499 excluding flights.
Into the Wild West, from Explore, also traverses the deserts of Arizona and Utah, spending a night camping under the stars in Monument Valley. The 13-day tour also features spectacular Bryce Canyon and Lake Powell, the natural arches and Native American pictograms around Moab, a drive along Route 66, and the chance to add white-water rafting, mountain biking or jetskiing along the way. Prices start at £1,993 per adult, £1,729 per child, departing in July and August, and include flights and most meals.
Offering a similar sense of exploration, family specialist The Adventure Company has introduced an Alaska Family Adventure for 2014, where youngsters can get to grips with local wildlife on a whale-watching trip, dog-sledding demo, and salmon fishing and brown bear-spotting in Kachemak Bay, as well as camping under the stars, tramping through Wrangell-St Elias National Park, and exploring the glaciers of Prince William Sound (from £2,795 per adult, £2,515 per child, with flights, camping, and most meals).
Best for… nature
Mother Nature has been kind to the US – it has more than enough natural wonders to fill its 58 National Parks – and although it’s impossible to see all of them in one fell swoop, the National Parks Explorer certainly tries.
Part of Virgin Holidays’ Worldwide Journeys programme, this 17-day trip visits an impressive nine National Parks, including Yellowstone, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Teton and Capital Reef, punctuated by the cities of San Francisco, Reno, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Flagstaff and Los Angeles. The tour costs from £2,289 including open-jaw Virgin Atlantic flights and mixed-board accommodation.
Swapping variety for familiarity, Wildlife Worldwide’s new Wild West Winter Wonderland photography holiday is led by award-winning photographer Nick Garbutt, and spends 13 days getting to know Yellowstone National Park in-depth.
With sufficient time to capture unforgettable images – bison ploughing through frosty landscapes, waterfalls frozen as they spill from the rocks, or the eruption of geyser Old Faithful – and explore on skis or snow-shoes to get just the right shot, this trip is sure to fill a few albums (from £4,995 including flights, accommodation and most meals).
Other new tours to look out for include Rocky Mountain Frontiers from Hayes & Jarvis, which takes in Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Bryce Canyon on a route from Denver to Los Angeles, and Travelsphere’s The Great Lakes of America & Canada, which departs Chicago for the spectacular scenery of Lakes Michigan, Superior and Erie and finishes at Niagara Falls.
Best for… adventure
Along with all that open space comes endless opportunities for adventure, which is why 18-35s specialist Contiki combines urban living in San Diego, Las Vegas and San Francisco, with a hot-air balloon ride over the Sonoran Desert, four-wheel-drive through the canyons of Sedona, and hike along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim or rugged landscapes of Yosemite National Park on its 13-night Wild Western tour (from £1,467 excluding flights).
Westerner 2 is a bestseller for Trek America, packed with Pacific Coast highlights including Santa Barbara and Big Sur, plus the giant sequoias of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Route 66, while its new Western Adventure is well suited to those who have already seen the Grand Canyon, instead visiting Death Valley and a host of other highlights.
The operator has also introduced the ultimate adventure – The Great 48 – which takes in all 48 contiguous US states in 80 days.
For those who don’t have that kind of time, Titan’s Grand American – Coast to Coast goes from Los Angeles to the Big Apple in 30 action-packed days. Great Rail Journeys’ newest addition, USA Overland Rail Adventure, also recalls the American pioneering spirit with its railroad tour of New York, Chicago and the Rocky Mountains, plus heritage routes Durango and Silverton Railroad and Grand Canyon Railroad.
Of course, no state is better-suited to adventure than the wilderness of Alaska, which is why Cycle Alaska, new from Exodus, explores the areas around North America’s highest peak, Denali, and the enormous Matanuska Glacier on two wheels.
Best for… culture
One of the most appealing aspects of an escorted tour is getting a feel for a country’s culture and heritage, which is central to Titan’s Charm of Cape Cod with Historic Boston.
It tours tiny seaside towns around Cape Cod before a virtual trip through time to Plymouth, ‘America’s hometown’ where the first colony was founded; then Boston, the starting point of the American Revolution; and Historic Deerfield, where an 18th-century village has been recreated in an outdoor living museum.
Combining colonial and recent history, 1st Class Holidays recommends Historic Highlights, venturing from Washington DC to 17th-century settlements at Colonial Williamsburg, the Civil War Battlefields of Gettysburg, and Philadelphia (from £1,655 for eight days, including four-star accommodation and most sightseeing, land-only).
If clients like their history a little more genteel, immerse them in the full Scarlett O’Hara-style experience with Hayes & Jarvis addition Gone With the Wind. This 12-day circular tour from Atlanta visits Jonesboro, where visitors can see memorabilia and costumes from the film, then embrace Southern culture with stops in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville (from £1,889 including flights, May-September).
Also embedding itself in every aspect of American culture, Great Rail Journeys’ new 15-day trip, The American Pullman, travels from Washington DC to Chicago, then down through the Deep South states on the train before a dinner cruise on a Mississippi paddle steamer then a trip to New York for a Broadway show.
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