Imagine visiting Andalucía in spring, when the Penibética Mountains are suffused with the scent of new orange blossoms and jasmine. For two weeks, you're living in a centuries-old farmhouse in an olive grove. You can walk to town for fresh meat and produce and cook them at home, or you can hop in your car and drive through rugged, wildflower-covered hillsides to Seville or Granada in a matter of hours. The total cost of this idyll is $1,899 a person, for roundtrip air and two weeks accommodations and car rental, including taxes and fees. What's more is that your vacation is helping to finance low-interest mortgages and business loans for individuals struggling to get by in Mexico, Vietnam, Brazil, and other impoverished regions around the world, including parts of the United States.
This fortnight in Seville is just one of many European "untours" offered by Idyll, Ltd. (tel. 888/868-6871; www.untours.com), a family-run vacation packager in Media, Pennsylvania, which donates 90 percent of its profits to charity. In 1999, Paul Newman called Idyll Ltd. "the most generous company in America." Owner Hal Taussig founded it in 1976 in the aftermath of a sabbatical he spent in Europe on the cheap in 1967, when he was a history professor at Penn State University. He says, "It was such a profound experience to live in European communities that I decided to start a business that would be effective education -- not learning in a classroom, but confronting different ways of life. I wanted to bridge cultural gaps, out of concern for a more open and just world."
"When the company made more money than I had ever imagined," he continues, "I vowed to donate profits to a foundation that would lend money to people to help them become self sustaining." True to his promise decades later, the eighty-year-old, retired professor lives in a modest house, rides his bike to work, lives off his social security check, and gives away everything else. What he gives clients, through Idyll Untours, is two-week stays in furnished apartments and houses in some of Europe's most culturally rich locations. Accommodations range from modern urban studio apartments in Paris and Switzerland, to historic flats in Prague's Gothic Old Town, to a 14-century castle in Bavaria. All have cooking facilities and afford access to an English-speaking liaison who lives nearby. Package prices are very reasonable, and the fact that you can cook your own meals helps offset the dollar's declining value abroad.
This spring, Untours is offering $100 to $200 discounts a person on packages to numerous destinations, including Paris, southern Tuscany, Umbria, Provence, Budapest, Rome, and Venice. Marketing Director Kim Paschen says the cheapest deal for spring is Switzerland in May: Two weeks in either the Alpine heartland, the Vernese Oberland, or Ticino are $1,519 from New York JFK, Newark, or Boston. All tours include roundtrip air, airport transfers, two weeks accommodations, and Swiss rail passes. Alternate departure cities are available (Chicago, for example, is an additional $145; Los Angeles is $210).
On the heartland tour, travelers stay in apartments in three-story Swiss chalets at the base of the mountains, where you can hear cowbells and still walk twelve minutes to a train station. Paschen says, "We have clients who go back year after year; one client finally decided to live there, after taking numerous repeat trips."
"The efficiency of the trains, the great cuisine, and the scenery are not to be replicated anywhere. And you can do lots of hiking in spring, with detailed books on hikes our staff members have taken," Paschen adds.
Paschen says the trips that deliver the biggest rush for the money are the Spain or Prague untours in April. She says, "Both places are fabulous, and they're not as expensive as other western European destinations once you're there."
The apartments in Prague are historic, in the heart of the Old Town, near the Charles Bridge. English-speaking Czech landlords live in the building. With a $100 discount, the trip is $1,739 for two weeks, including air, accommodations, a two-week rail pass, and transfers. And you've already heard about the digs in Spain, which are located in a small town called Fuente Tojar. The owner of the old, Andalusian farmhouse is the town mayor, so travelers have a most competent, English-speaking advocate should they need help or advice.
Idyll began with the Swiss Heartland Untour, which is still the most popular destination, near Lake Lungerne, in the Swiss Alps. The company's roster now includes more than 15 trips in 10 countries including Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Hungary, Greece, Switzerland, and Spain.
Though all the destinations are in Europe, you don't have to worry that the dollar's rapid devaluation there will alter your trip price. Paschen says, "We buy our Euros in advance, in bulk, and get a fixed rate, so you don't have to raise prices when the dollar declines." The only hidden cost is a potential fuel surcharge of up to $50 a person.
Spaces for spring travel, however cheap, are also limited; the Greece trip, for instance, has already sold out. So don't hesitate to plan for the sort of getaway that helps enrich the world as well as your own life and understanding. See the Web site for a full list of destinations, trip details, departure dates, and prices.
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