If you're going to take an escorted tour, and sacrifice freedom for so-called guidance, it can pay to put your trip in the hands of the most seasoned experts -- even if it costs a bit more. The Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic Society offer an impressive roster of trips to the most culturally and geographically complex locations, many of them well off the standard travel routes. Their docents are of the highest caliber and will steer you clear of tourist traps. And although traveling with the Smithsonian isn't going to get you into the coolest dive bars, it will afford you special access and treatment at many museums and government properties around the world.
Smithsonian Journeys offers a range of far-flung, historically rich destinations for two price categories: one for the inexhaustibly wealthy, and other, more bare-boned, gristy itineraries for adventurers who want intelligent instruction without five-star lodgings or lavish modes of transport. While Smithsonian's standard guided tours are expensive, with luxurious flourishes that sometimes verge on silliness, their "Value-Priced Learning Vacations," or Smithsonian Journeys Travel Adventures (tel. 800/528-8147; www.smithsonian.org) are also excellent, with accommodations in four-star hotels and meals served in fine restaurants. Even for travelers with budget constraints, they're a smart option.
The "Spanish Heritage Tour," for instance, aims to draw you back in time through Moorish Spain, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted peacefully in Iberia. For 11 days, historians and art specialists will lead you through Madrid, Toledo, Andalusia, and other destinations, for only $1,849 ($2,289 with airfare from New York; alternate departure cities are available at extra cost). This price includes 16 meals and requires departure in early November. And the rate for spring travel, in 2006, when Andalusia is abloom in all its glory, is only $50 more, at $1,899 ($2,499 with airfare from New York).
Each route is more fascinating than the next. Other strong values (not including airfares) include:
- "The Wonders of Iceland": 11 meals and 8 days spent exploring this island-nation's geological enigmas, starting at $1,149
- "Splendors of the Nile": 12 days and 22 meals starting at $1,899
- "Italian Masterpieces" of Rome, Florence, and Perugia: 11 days and 15 meals starting at $1,899
- "Imperial Capitals of China": 15 days and 35 meals starting at $1,999
- "England's Castles, Palaces, and Countryside": 10 days and 13 meals, starting at $1,999
- "Russian River Cruise," a journey along waterways that link Moscow and St. Petersburg, with a tour of each city's riches: 14 days and 35 meals for $2,847
Smithsonian's standard tours are just as compelling (sometimes even more so), but at times they seem exploitative of travelers who reckon that money can buy the most "authentic" journey. On the "Treasures of Turkey" tour, for instance, participants cruise the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey in a gulet (a traditional, wooden Turkish yacht, with private cabins, each with its own bath), with a Turkish national steeped in his country's explosive history, rendered in impeccable English. For 16 days, travelers pass through Cappadocia, Konya, Antalya, the 1st and 2nd-century remains of Perge and Aspendos; explore the ruins of Olimpos; swim amid the submerged Byzantine city of Kekova; and spend three days among the treasures of Istanbul, wandering and exploring many other sites along the way. The price, however, is $5,995, not including airfare, for September 1st departures.
If you're willing to pay this kind of money (or more), you'd do better to consider National Geographic Expeditions (tel. 888/966-8687; www.nationalgeographic.com/ngexpeditions); their study tours seem to be the very best. National Geographic's guides have the most impressive qualifications, with professional archaeologists and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists among them. Many of their tours are geared to family travel, and it seems fairly easy to distinguish the ridiculously deluxe trips from the more reasonable adventures, though even these rarely go for less than $6,000 or so.
Like the Smithsonian, National Geographic offers a number of tours that announce themselves as wallet gougers. For instance, you can travel "Around the World by Private Jet" for 24 days, to the tune of $44,950. The "Family Dinosaur Adventure," on the other hand, is also excellent and sensibly priced: For seven days in July, including 13 meals, you and your family can scavenge for fossils and clues to dinosaur remains in Colorado's red rock country, ultimately rafting the Colorado River through Ruby and Horsethief Canyons. The tour is led by Jonathan Cooley, who studied geology and paleontology and developed a field technique course for the Museum of the Rockies paleontology field school. With his hands-on guidance, the trip price is only $2,690 per adult, $2,125 per adolescent, and $1,580 for children under seven. Airfare is not included, but cheap fares to this part of the world are usually available from Southwest Airlines and America West.
National Geographic's "Rail Journey Through China" also looks wonderful -- and pricey, but for a good cause. The docent for this trek is Lew Simmons, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who was in Tiananmen Square when the People's Republican Army massacred hundreds of peaceful student protesters. Lew has reported on the region for 30 years, for the Associated Press and The Washington Post, and for two weeks, he will lead travelers through his beat: Hong Kong, the sugarloaf mountains, the Himalayas, the Yellow River Valley, the steppes of Inner Mongolia, the Great Wall, and ultimately Beijing. What's $8,490, for this sort of insider guidance, if you can afford it? Airfare is an additional $975 if you book through National Geographic. The trip doesn't depart until October 30, though, so you'd have plenty of time to find a lower fare.
Many of the itineraries sound equally dreamy, and prices are only occasionally nightmarish. For twelve days, in the company of two practicing archaeologists, you can explore the ruins of Rome, Pompeii, Naples, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Stromboli, Taormina, and Palermo for $6,290. You can ride the Trans-Siberia Railway from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg and Moscow for $7,995; visit the incomparably serene, Shangri-La-like Himalayan Buddhist temples embedded in the mountainsides of Bhutan for $5,995; or cruise the Baltic from St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Helsinki, Stockholm, Riga, Gdansk, Denmark, Lubeck in Germany, and Copenhagen for $9,350.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation (tel. 800/944-6847; www.nationaltrust.org) also runs historic study tours. They seem comparable in price, however, to National Geographic's, and comparable in content and quality to Smithsonian's. It's worth scanning their itineraries, but in general, the slightly older, more experienced institutions of learning seem to offer more, for a broader range of travelers.
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