Photo: Flickr/Michael Gwyther-Jones
One of the most memorable experiences in my travelling life was to be shown around the Prado Museum in Madrid by a curator of Spanish paintings from the National Gallery.”This,” he said, pointing to a streak of light across the canvas of Velázquez’s great painting Las Meninas, “is my favourite white line in the whole of art history.” He went on to describe the extraordinary visual power of that simple stroke of white lead paint and how it illuminated and unified the image.
For the small group of us clustered in the gallery, he brought the painting to life in a way that no audio tour or museum guide can usually get close to. That’s the difference that a real expert and enthusiast can bring to a guided tour. And I don’t seem to be alone in appreciating this.
The number of expert-led, small-group tours that focus on art, architecture, history, music, military history and other cultural themes has grown sharply in recent years. Small, specialist tour operators such as Martin Randall, Holts Tours and ACE Cultural Tours have massively expanded the range and variety of their programmes, and they have also begun to introduce more exclusive arrangements.
Many of the better tours now include admission to houses and collections not usually open to the public, after-hours visits to the more famous ones, or the chance to meet curators. Meanwhile, the bigger operators of escorted tours have been developing their own range of cultural tours – often with bigger groups and a more general approach, but just as appealing for those who prefer a bit more variety and a little less academic focus.
Whichever approach you prefer, such holidays can be a great opportunity to learn and enjoy the culture and history of a destination, and they can also be great fun. After all, you will be among fellow enthusiasts – often a mixture of couples and singles, and of course you will have plenty of time to chat to the guide while travelling, eating and drinking on the tour.
Below we have picked out 50 of the best cultural tours for 2013, most of them of the more specialist expert-led variety, but also included is a selection of more general introductory itineraries (selected by Sally Howard). We have focused on overseas trips, though many of the companies listed also offer British-based tours.
See the bottom of the article for more tips and advice on choosing a cultural tour.
It’s a big year for art anniversaries, exhibitions and major museums on the Côte d’Azur, in Amsterdam and in Oslo, and three of my selected tours reflect this. There’s also a particularly original tour to China on behalf of the Royal Academy.
1 Art on the Côte d’Azur
This is a well-structured tour following key artists associated with the region, including Chagall, Picasso, Matisse, Cocteau, Miró and Léger. Gallery visits, a coastal drive, boat trip and walking tours of Nice and Menton combine with lectures by Colin Bailey, an art historian.
March 18-25, £1,895. ACE Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk )
2 Amsterdam; The Rijksmuseum Revealed
Offering a chance to be among the first to see the restored Rijksmuseum (which opens on April 23), this tour is arranged by Tate Travels (in partnership with the Ultimate Travel Company). It includes two visits to the museum in the company of Robert Uterwijk, an artist and lecturer, who will explain the renovation and show the newly displayed collection of Dutch paintings. The itinerary also includes the newly reopened Van Gogh Museum, and a reception at the privately owned Huis Van Loon.
May 11-14, £1,368. Tate Travels (020 3582 1283; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk )
3 Munch in Oslo
Celebrating the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth, this is built around exhibitions at the Munch Museum and in Norway’s National Gallery. Dr Frank Høifødt, former curator of the Munch Museum, leads the tour, which includes a visit to the artist’s studios, where he died in 1944. These are at Ekely, on the outskirts of Oslo, and access is by special arrangement.
June 26-29, £1,660. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com )
4 China: A Journey Through Chinese Imagery
This is part of a collection of expert-led tours arranged for the Royal Academy of Arts by the tour operator Cox & Kings, often with access to artworks that aren’t open to the public. The itinerary focuses on the influence of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism on China’s art and includes a special visit to the Chonghua Palace in Beijing.
October 6-19, 2013 and April 27-May 10, 2014, £3,995. Cox & Kings (0845 154 9073; coxandkings.co.uk )
5 New York: The Performance of Style
Inspired by Tate Liverpool’s Glam! The Performance of Style exhibition, this tour includes an exclusive early morning private visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to view Glam movement artists including Hockney and Allen Jones. Subject to confirmation, there’s also a private visit to Palazzo Chupi, the artist Julian Schnabel’s extraordinary, bright pink residence, built above a former horse stable.
November 7-12, £2,702. Tate Travels (see above)
6 Emperors and Artists, Italy
A great option for those new to the cultural treasures of Italy, this tour promises all the show-shopping Italian moments, from gondola rides in Venice to gelati in the Roman sunshine. It also offers a snapshot of Italy’s artistic legacy, including an expert-guided tour of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery; and the many artistic riches housed in the Vatican City at Rome, including that famous paint-job by Michelangelo.
July 8 and 22, from £4,489 (0845 485 1525; abercrombiekent.com )
7 Arts and Delights in Vienna, Austria
Vienna offers something for culture vultures of all stripes, with its plenitude of imperial architecture, classical music, and food and fine-art traditions. This five-day tour introduces you to Austria’s artistic and cultural legacies, from the architecture of Otto Wagner to the shimmering artworks of Gustav Klimt. Digest what you’ve seen in style, over coffee and Sachertorte, at the famous Hotel Sacher.
September 8 and October 13, from £895 (0845 166 7003; vjv.com )
The distinction between art and architecture tours is often blurred, with many covering both aspects of a destination. Those selected below focus primarily on buildings and monuments rather than artworks.
8 Norman Might, Baroque Splendours: Puglia Across the Ages
The historian Charles Freeman leads this “leisurely” exploration of Puglia, the heel of Italy. It includes visits to a wide range of monuments from medieval and later periods, and time to absorb the magnificent Baroque architecture of Lecce and the much lesser-known Norman cathedrals and castles of the regio.
September 23-30, £1,995. Ciceroni Travel (01869 811167; ciceroni.co.uk )
9 French Gothic Art & Architecture
In pursuit of the sublime, this tour explores the development of Gothic style, ranging from the 12th-century Abbey of St Denis , near Paris, to the great cathedral at Reims. The eight-day trip is led by Malcolm Oxley, an art history expert, and includes a full-day excursion to Chartres.
October 13-20, £1,990 including rail travel. ACE Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk )
10 Painted Palaces of Rajasthan
Often straying away from the well-worn tourist track, this 12-day tour combines the great Rajput forts and palaces with the lesser-known, colourfully painted merchant homes of Shekhawati. It is led by Dr Giles Tillotson, an expert in the region’s architecture and history, and includes time spent exploring the gardens and shrines of Jodhpur, Nagaur and Mandawa.
November 4-15, £5,170. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com )
11 Florentine Palazzi
A new itinerary focusing on Renaissance palaces and allowing access to several that are normally closed to the public. These include Palazzi Corsini, Lanfredini, Pandolfini and Capponi all’Annunziata. Special arrangements also allow entry to the Uffizi’s 16th-century Vasari Corridor. The leader is Dr Joachim Strupp, an expert in Italian art.
November 6-10, £1,920. Martin Randall Travel (see above)
12 Art Nouveau Brussels
Be prepared for plenty of walking during this in-depth study of the city’s period façades and interiors. Professor Werner Adriaenssens, curator of the Musée du Cinquantenaire, will give a private introduction to an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of the architect Henry van de Velde. Colin Bailey will conduct the tour, and accommodation will be at the fin-de-siècle Hotel Metropole.
November 8-13, £1,375 including train travel. ACE Cultural Tours (see above)
13 Heritage of America, Western & Oriental
From the luminous palladian façade of the White House in Washington, to the gleaming skin-and-bones skyscrapers of NYC, the architecture of the commercial and political capitals of the US bespeaks the confidence that made America great. Western & Oriental’s Heritage of America Escorted Tour explores the two cities during a 10-day itinerary that also takes in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and a night among the Amish in Lancaster.
April 12, May 31, June 21, September 6 and 20 and October 11, from £2,029 (020 3504 1714; wandotravel.com )
14 Beautiful Bruges, Belgium
Behind the politicking and EU directives, there’s another Belgium, with a history as rich as the mayonnaise served with the country’s defining steak-frites. Leger’s four- or five-day break introduces you to the charming canals and cobbled streets of Bruges, the august palaces and Grand Place of Brussels, and the piers and esplanades of Ostend, the “Queen of Belgium’s seaside resorts” where the Belgian royals once spent their leisurely summers.
Coach and ferry tour, departures May to December from £229 (0844 846 0808, leger.co.uk )
History and battlefields
The tour to Istanbul with the historian John Julius Norwich, though expensive, stands out this year (see below). While this is a quiet year for battlefield trips, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World World War falls in 2014, and the bicentenary of Waterloo and the 600th anniversary of Agincourt in 2015, so you might want to start planning now for the next couple of years. Holts Tours is the leading battlefields specialist.
15 The Ancient Greeks and Romans of Naples
Rupert Smith, a classicist and teacher, brings the stories of ancient Greece and Rome to life on this week-long Easter holiday tour aimed at families with children aged 11 and over. Boat rides and a stay on a mozzarella farm combine with trips to Naples, Pompeii, Amalfi and Paestum to provide a good balance of fun and education.
April 4-11, £1,630 excluding flights. Cazenove and Lloyd (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com )
16 In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great
A new tour for 2013 that splits the previous 20-day Alexander tour in half, with part one launched first. It will retrace his footsteps across Turkey from Istanbul to Bodrum. The guide is Peter Sommer, who in 1994 walked 2,000 miles across Anatolia, from Troy to the battlefield of Issus, retracing Alexander the Great’s march in Turkey.
April 29-May 9, £2,650 excluding flights. Peter Sommer Travels (01600 888 220; petersommer.com )
17 Dambusters 70th Anniversary
Led by Major Alan Thompson, both an expert on the Dams raid and a pilot who has flown the attack routes, this five-day tour will include sites in England, Belgium, Holland and Germany associated with the heroics of Barnes Wallace and 617 Squadron.
May 15-19, £925 including coach travel. Holt Tours (01293 865 000; holts.co.uk )
18 The Normandy Landings
A four-day trip that includes visits to some of the most evocative of the D-Day sights: Arromanches, where one of the Mulberry harbours was established, Omaha Beach, Pegasus Bridge and the British cemetery at Bayeux. The guide is Rhydian Vaughan, formerly of the Welsh Guards and a member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.
September 16-19, £1,095 including ferry travel from Portsmouth. Ultimate Travel Company (020 3582 1283; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk )
19 Istanbul with John Julius Norwich
This tour, led by a historian with a talent for bringing the subject to life, includes special access to city museums and two dinners in private houses. He explores the legacy of the Byzantines, and the itinerary includes visits to the Hagia Sophia basilica and the Topkapi Palace. Note that £1,500 of the tour cost will be donated to EORTC, a European cancer-research charity.
September 27-October 2, £4,989 excluding flights. Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553; finearttravel.co.uk )
20 Lost Cities of Caria & Lycia
With accommodation and travel on a traditional Turkish gulet, this is a relaxed and sociable cruise, though energetic walking is needed to reach some of the ruins. These include visits to many lesser-known sights such as the theatre of Kyaenae; the temple and fish-oracle of Apollo at Sura; Aperlae, with its well-preserved city walls; the pillar tombs at Apollonia; and Oinoanda, as well as Patara and Tlos. It is led by John Penney, Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.
September 14-27, £2,900, excluding flights. Westminster Classic Tours (020 8286 7842; westminsterclassictours.com )
21 Taste of Turkey Tour
The Peninsula of Gallipoli, located in the northeast of Turkey, four hours from Istanbul, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the Great War. Today it bristles with monuments to the men who fell in Gallipoli’s brutal battles. This eight-day tour takes in the Anzac Cove, where Australian and New Zealand forces landed in 1915, the Gallipoli memorials and museum, and the tunnels used during the war. For light relief, there are two nights in Turkey’s ancient and atmospheric capital, as well as a stop-off at Pamukkale, with its calcium terraces and hot thermal pools.
February to December, twice-monthly departures, from £759 (0800 088 6002; encounterstravel.com )
22 Royal New Zealand tour, New Zealand
Today considered the founding document of the New Zealand nation, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, between Maori chiefs and the British Crown, was one of the most peaceable agreements between expansive 19th-century colonial powers and native peoples. On this 27-day Royal New Zealand itinerary a Maori guide will illuminate the events that led to the signing of the treaty and its controversial implications. The tour, which covers North and South Islands, also takes in the country at its majestic natural best, from scenic vineyards to glinting lakes, greenstones and glaciers.
Monthly departures from Oct 13 to May 14, 2014, from £5,995pp (0161 236 2444; scenictours.co.uk ).
As with art and architecture, a fine line separates history and archaeology tours. The leading archaeology specialist is Andante Travels which has a very wide range of group tours, as well as some cheaper, self-guided itineraries all focusing heavily on interpreting sites. Because of the major exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum which opens at the British Museum on March 28 ( britishmuseum.org ), several operators are offering trips to both sites during 2013.
23 Pompeii, Herculaneum & Classical Campania
A chance for special, behind-the-scenes access to some of Pompeii’s private monuments and buildings is why this tour is among Andante Travels’ most popular options. Spring and autumn departures are led by a range of expert lecturers including William Manning, Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology at Cardiff University.
Seven departures March to May and September to October, £1,365. Andante Travels (01722 713800; andantetravels.com )
24 Art and Archaeology of Sri Lanka
A 13-night tour taking in important Unesco sights, notably the colonial city of Galle, first-century BC rock temples at Dambulla and the frescoes at Sigiriya Fortress, dominated by the 660ft-high Lion Rock. The trip, led by Hilary Smith, a cultural historian, offers a chance to get to know the island’s Buddhist temples, royal capitals and beautiful botanical gardens.
September 8-20, £2,715. The Traveller (01285 880931; the-traveller.co.uk )
25 Crete: Island of King Minos
Less-visited western sites, alongside the famous Minoan palaces of Malia and Knossos, are included in this particularly thorough, 10-day itinerary. Led by Dr Christina Hatzimichael Whitley, the tour spends three days in Chania taking in the Archaeological Museum, the site of Aptera and an excursion to the Samaria Gorge.
September 18-27, £2,100. Andante Travels (see above)
26 Jordan: The Land of T E Lawrence
Jordan is an excellent touring destination and many companies offer fairly standard “highlights” itineraries of the Roman and Biblical sights, Petra and T E Lawrence’s desert camp at Wadi Rum. This tour covers similar ground but is led by a highly knowledgeable guide, Dr Neil Faulkner, who has overseen excavations for the Channel 4 series Time Team and is best known for his long-running archaeological project at Sedgeford in Norfolk.
October 28-November 5, £1,979. Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com )
27 Nile cruise with Kate Adie
Explore the best temples, ruins and tombs in the company of the veteran BBC correspondent, who will host the tour alongside a local Egyptologist. You sail from Luxor to Aswan on the Nile Lily, a replica of a 19th-century dahabiya, combining period furnishings with modern bathrooms and air conditioning.
November 26-December 3, £2,490. ACE Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk )
28 Taste of Peru
Arising from the Highlands of Peru at some point during the 13th century, the Inca Empire, at its height, commanded much of the west of the land mass that’s now South America. Some of the world’s best-preserved archaeology stands testament to the Inca’s might. Explore the highlights of the extant Inca ruins on this eight-day tour from Kuoni, from the terraced town of Ollantaytambo at Sacred Valley, to the magnificent Inca fortress of Sacsayhuamán at Cuzco and the legendary citadel of Machu Picchu, perched on a mountaintop and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
April 13, June 8, July 6, September 14, October 12, from £2,285 (0844 488 0326; kuoni.co.uk )
29 Man Fears Time, Time Fears the Pyramids, Greece to Egypt
In the millennia since humans first put down root in the lands that border the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, many civilisations have risen and fallen on these fertile and sun-blessed soils. This 19-day ocean cruise, from mid-market leader Titan, covers 5,000 years of human travail and triumph. You’ll see the imprint of the Greek and Roman Empires on Turkey, the Holy Land in Israel and the rose-red city at Petra in Jordan. The tour concludes in Egypt, with the pyramids at Giza and the spare beauty of the Valley of the Kings.
October 26, from £2,500 (0800 988 5823; titantravel.co.uk )
Martin Randall and – more recently – Kirker have been the most inventive specialists in arranging a wide choice of tours – including the major international festivals, private recitals, and visits to the principal opera and ballet houses. This year – the bicentenary of both Verdi and Wagner – there will be the first of a small programme of tours organised on behalf of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
30 San Francisco and Santa Fe Opera
One of the first tours organised for the Royal Opera House (but open to all) begins in London with a performance of Simon Boccanegra, and includes four more operas, notably Figaro at the Santa Fe summer festival, with backstage tours and talks by leading figures at all three opera houses. On the trip will be Marie-Thérèse Hill, a pianist and experienced opera guide.
July 3-14, £5,808, Royal Opera House Tours (020 3582 1283; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk )
31 Savonlinna Opera
Celebrate the anniversaries of both Verdi and Wagner with these performances at Olavinlinna Castle, Savonlinna, Finland. The programme includes first-rate productions of La Traviata, Macbeth and Lohengrin, and the guide and lecturer is Simon Rees, a former dramaturge of Welsh National Opera.
July 16-20, £2,420, Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com )
32 Salzburg Festival
This visit to one of Europe’s greatest classical music festivals includes six concerts over five days, including four by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (one a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Antonio Pappano) and one by the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional Infantil de Venezuela, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The guide is Professor Jan Smaczny, of Queen’s University Belfast.
August 10-16, £4,380, Martin Randall Travel (see above)
33 Bohemian Heartland:
Art & Music in Prague
This is not a purely musical tour, but it’s included because Prague’s musical life is so rich, and the trip includes the chance to book opera, ballet and concert performances. Led by Tom Duncan, an archaeologist and art historian, it includes private visits to important palaces and art collections.
October 22-27, £1,795. Ciceroni Travel (01869 811167; ciceroni.co.uk )
34 Verdi at La Scala, Milan
Kirker is offering several trips to La Scala; given that this is Verdi’s year, the one that includes two of his greatest works in three days looks like the one to pick. The productions of Aida and Don Carlo are conducted by Fabio Luisi, and the trip is accompanied by Sandy Burnett, the musician and former Radio 3 presenter. October 28-31, £1,290. Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com )
35 Music in Seville, Spain
From tapas to bullfighting, many inventions synonymous with Spain hail from Seville. Perhaps chief among its gifts to the Iberian Peninsula is its music: from the stirring strains of flamenco, to the 30 operas and symphonies composed in the balmy Andalusian capital. Noble Caledonia’s tour illuminates the musical and cultural heritage of Seville, Cordoba and Jerez, from the scenes that inspired Bizet’s Carmen, to the bullring where Don Jose committed the murder of his beloved. En route, the London Festival Opera performs works associated with your location, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and a performance of Carmen at Casa Bailen, a private 17th-century palace.
April 30 to May 7, from £2,395 (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk )
36 Elvis and the Southern Sounds, Tennessee
It’s almost 60 years since an impromptu recording session at Sun Studios in Memphis saw a young Elvis Presley jamming with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. In the decades since this “Million Dollar Quartet” convened, the impact of the American South on popular music has been profound. Several escorted tours explore the Deep South’s pop musical legacy. For Memphis soul and New Orlean’s jazz try Travelsphere’s Deep South USA. For the “king” undiluted, opt for Archers Direct’s Elvis and the Southern Sounds, a nine-day tour that takes in the big man’s humble birthplace at Tupelo, the Grand Ole Opry at Nashville and the home that’s as famous as the man: Graceland.
Departures twice-monthly, from March to October, from £1,389; flights from airports across Britain (0800 668 1361; archersdirect.co.uk )
The news this year is the start of a programme of tours organised on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society and run by Collette Worldwide Holidays and Wendy Wu. RHS horticulturalists, garden curators and other senior staff will be among the guides. Sue Biggs, director-general of the RHS, used to be chief executive of Kuoni, so standards promise to be high.
37 Grenada Gardens Tour
An unusual one this, but appealing because it is escorted by the gardener Suzanne Gaywood, who knows the Caribbean island well. She is co-ordinator of the Grenada at Chelsea exhibits. Guests will visit national parks and rainforests and both public and private gardens in Grenada, at a time when the orchids, anthuriums, heliconias and many more tropical plants, as well as spices, will be at their best and in full display.
Nov 21-28 and Nov 28-Dec 5, £1,799. Individual Holidays (01753 892111; individual-holidaysgardentours.com )
38The Beauty of Japan
This intensive 13-day tour, accompanied by an RHS expert, takes in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Jindai Botanical Garden in Tokyo. Also included are the rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto and the great gardens of Kenroku-en (in Kanazawa) and Koraku-en (in Okayama).
June 2-14, £5,249. RHS Garden Holidays (0800 804 8710; worldwide.rhsgardenholidays.com )
39 Brittany – Megaliths to Monet
Half the tour is based in Quimper, with excursions to three contrasting gardens, including the Parc de Boutiguéry to see its rhododendrons on the banks of the River Odet. You also spend two nights on Belle-Île exploring its prehistoric stones, walking the dramatic northern coast and visiting the Jardin la Boulaye. The tour leader is Caroline Holmes, a garden historian.
June 6-12, £1,960. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.co.uk )
40 Gardens of China
This is one of four special itineraries in China offered by the RHS in partnership with Wendy Wu Tours to celebrate the centenary of the Chelsea Flower Show. An expert guide will lead visits to gardens in Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Suzhou. Sept 1-15, £3,890. RHS Garden Holidays (0844 288 2751; china.rhsgardenholidays.com )
41 Eastern Sicily
Private visits to gardens in the company of Robin Lane Fox, reader in ancient history at Oxford University, gardener and occasional contributor to Telegraph Travel. The itinerary includes palaces in Catania and Syracuse, the amphitheatre at Taormina, the Baroque town of Noto and a trip to see the Riace bronzes.
Sept 13-19, £2,985 excluding flights. Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553; finearttravel.co.uk )
42 Colourful Costa Rica
With its “eternal spring” climate and many unique and discrete ecosystems, Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on earth. CTS Horizons’ Colourful Costa Rica tour carves through photogenic countryside, from rainforest jungles to cloudforests and lush nature reserves, during a leisurely 11-day itinerary.
March 3, March 31, Nov 4, from £2,195. CTS Horizons (020 7868 5590; ctshorizons.com )
43 Glimpses of India
The wonders of the Moguls still have the power to captivate, as this nine-day tour of the highlights of northern India proves. On the classic Golden Triangle route, the tour stops off at the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, the red sandstone city built by Emperor Akbar, as well as the restored Mogul Gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
Departures monthly, excepting June, from £1,595 (0844 879 3960, transindus.co.uk )
Food and wine
France and Italy are, unsurprisingly, the most popular destinations, though really good specialist companies using expert guides are fairly thin on the ground. Arblaster & Clarke lead the way with by far the best selection of wine tours, but there are some interesting itineraries from other operators.
44 Classic Alsace & Baden
Alsace wines are under-appreciated in Britain. This tour, led by the wine writer Andrew Jefford, is a chance to get to know them and compare them with German wines on the other side of the Rhine valley. It includes tastings at Hugel and Paul Blanck, and a meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant.
Sept 3-7, £1,675. Arblaster & Clarke (01730 263111; arblasterandclarke.com )
45 Gastronomic Piedmont
Piedmont, centre of the Slow Food movement, arguably takes its food and wine more seriously than anywhere else in Italy. This tour includes visits to Alba, the world’s white-truffle capital, and to several Barolo wineries, plus meals at simple trattorias and Michelin-starred restaurants. It also leaves time to explore the region’s art and architecture – which are also of the highest order. The lecturer is Marc Millon, co-author of Frommer’s Food Lover’s Companion to Italy.
Oct 5-11, £2,660. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.co.uk )
46 Gastronomic tour of Sicily
Peter Sommer is best known for his cultural cruises in Turkish gulets, but he also offers themed trips to other European destinations. This itinerary in Sicily takes in both gastronomical and historical highlights and is led by Marcello Baglioni, a cultural specialist, and Dr Michael Metcalfe, an archaeologist. It includes cooking classes, visits to local producers of cheese, olives, honey and wines, and numerous tastings, including one of traditional modicano chocolate.
Oct 5-12, £2,495 excluding flights. Peter Sommer (01600 888220; petersommer.com )
47 South Africa’s Winelands
This nine-day itinerary led by Nancy Gilchrist, a Master of Wine, includes visits to some of the Cape’s best and most innovative wineries, and discussions with the winemakers. You will also have time at the Cap Classique & Champagne Festival in Franschhoek and a jazz evening.
Dates and prices to be confirmed, but the trip will depart in November 2013 and cost about £3,000. Original Travel (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk )
48 Bordeaux First Growths
The headline price looks expensive, but this tour might offer one of the cheapest ways to taste first-growth clarets, which have rocketed in price in recent years. It is led by the wine writer and broadcaster Charles Metcalfe, and will include visits to châteaux including Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and d’Yquem. You stay for three of the four nights as private guests at the excellent Château Pichon Longueville. The maximum party size is 10.
November 25-29, £3,899. Arblaster & Clarke (see above)
49 Great Capitals and Vintages of the Danube
Immortalised in literature and art, and in Strauss’s famous waltz, the Danube is one of the world’s most romantic waterways, wending eastward from Germany to eastern Europe, through Austria’s verdant Wachau Valley. This river cruise introduces you to another side of the Wachau Valley: as the region that produces some of northern Europe’s finest (and newly fashionable) white wines. You’ll visit the picturesque Spitz-Grotisch vineyard; and Dürnstein, where terraced vineyards frame the ornate baroque tower of the Stiftskirche (collegiate church). You’ll cruise on to the city of music, Vienna, before docking at Budapest.
Nov 10, 13 and 15 departures, from £2,295. Noble Caledonia (020 7752 0000; noble-caledonia.co.uk )
50 Caribbean Gourmet Chocolate Cruise
Perilous for the waistline, yet fabulous for the soul, Mundy Cruising’s 11-night Caribbean gourmet chocolate cruise offers an insight into the history and provenance of the world’s favourite treat food. The tour is lead by British chocolatier Chantal Coady. It charts the azure waters from the Dutch Caribbean Islands of Curaçao, Aruba and Bonaire, to Venezuela’s Margarita Island and cocoa-bean-rich Grenada, with on‑board talks and chocolate-making lessons en route.
Nov 5, from £3,395. Mundy Cruising (020 7399 7670, mundycruising.co.uk )
Choosing a tour: What questions to ask
Look at the itinerary in detail – does the place look right for you? How much is squeezed into the time available?
Is the “expert” named in the brochure or website? You should be given some biographical details and evidence of expertise in the subject of the tour.
What is the maximum size of the group? More than 15 to 20 and the atmosphere ceases to be intimate.
Be wary of information on tour operators’ websites. I found several to be badly out of date. All the companies listed will welcome telephone inquiries.
Ask about the hotels. Often they aren’t named in the tour description, but a good operator will tell you which they are, and whether they are in the centre.
If you are having to pay a single supplement, get the name of the hotel so that you can check, by looking at the rates published online, that the supplement is a reasonable one.
Which meals are included?
Will you have to pay extra for flights, travel, entrance fees or tips?
Compare offerings from rival companies: the price or timing might be better, or the expert more appealing.
A note on tours and prices
Prices given are the lowest rate per person based on sharing a twin or double room and include return flight from Britain unless otherwise stated. Supplements are nearly always charged for single occupancy (see tips below). Tours usually include most meals, and nearly always admission charges at sights and museums, but check exact board and pricing details before booking. Please note that small-group tours can sell out quickly, but often a similar itinerary is available at a later date. Similarly, tours that don’t attract bookings may be cancelled.
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