Experts add knowledge and passion to bespoke tours
Baby Boomers are inveterate travellers and for many, a whistle-stop tour of picture postcard scenes is no longer enough. There’s a real desire to get to know more about the world around us.
University of Queensland researcher Dr Lintje Siehoyono Sie last month revealed that older travellers who engaged in positive and meaningful travels were most likely to recall memorable experiences.
Her findings suggest that there’s a shift from relaxing getaways to deeper cultural experiences – and what better way to achieve that than by combining an existing interest with travel?
That’s just what tour leaders Dominque Rizzo (food, wine and cooking), Penny Hegarty (gardening) and Jennifer Parish and Stewart Cameron (music) are doing.
All are experts in their chosen field and are turning a tour into a deeper experience, whether it’s a cooking class in Sicily, buying orchids in Singapore or a night at the opera in Italy.
What they have in common is that they all lead bespoke small groups that cover everything along the way, so travellers can get under the skin of a destination without having to worry about annoying details.
“All you have to worry about is what to wear,” says Dominque.
As Jennifer puts it, “These are not ‘follow the spotted umbrella’ sort of tours. No early morning rushing to jump on the coach for endless days of whistle-stops.”
And Penny adds, “It’s about making it easy, pay and pack. This isn’t 44 people on each of three buses descending on a small village hotel at the same time for the dogfight over rooms.”
Instead, it means travelling like a group of friends who are able to tap into expert knowledge while getting a well-rounded experience, or “total immersion” as Dominque calls it.
And by keeping groups small, they often access boutique venues, restaurants and galleries not available to large groups.
All are passionate about travel and experts in their field and have managed to bring the two together to create something different and special.
While they find specialist tours have particular appeal to single women who are looking for secure solo travel, many couples also sign up to do things the easy way – the tour you take when you don’t want a group tour.
Similarly, those over 70 also enjoy the security and convenience of small group specialist tours.
As Jennifer puts it, “Baby Boomers seem very happy to have someone do the leg work and present wonderful experiences for them to enjoy. And why not?”.
Dominque’s food, wine and cultural tour guests are also mainly aged 50 to 70-plus and Penny’s gardeners are a similar demographic.
Dominique was born in Brisbane to an Australian mother and Sicilian father, so has a personal connection with the food and culture of Sicily, as they often returned to her father’s homeland during her childhood.
“My memories are embedded with images of Sicily’s rustic peasant landscape,” she says. “The memorable raw elements of riding in open air trucks, the smell of horses, chickens and rabbits running freely, bountiful orchards of lemons and oranges, and collecting fresh seasonal garden vegetables.”
She now brings her fresh culinary style to her Brisbane restaurant Putia Pure Food Kitchen in Banyo, to regular cookery classes, and to the pages of her cookbook My Taste of Sicily.
Her Sicily tours are a combination of cookery classes, unearthing the local cuisine and learning about the island’s history and culture.
“I loved watching my uncle prepare the pigs for the bleed and use every part of the animal – the coiling of pork sausages, then piercing them with sticks ready for the grill; constant farm to table encounters; rolling the polpete; stirring the pasta; and picking wild greens, fennel and broad beans,” she says.
Tours find a balance of this local life, a collection of little known places and activities, with popular tourist sights. Her memories combined with family connections, means guests get “complete immersion”.
“Although my focus is on food, we also cover history, art and heritage sites so people can get deeper into the country and meet the locals. I’m well qualified to do this in Sicily,” she says.
“And if you want to know more about the Mediterranean diet, you can do it first hand, cooking with the locals and picking up the tips. No previous skills are required.”
From making salami in the mountains to cooking fresh fish on the coast; staying in ancient convents to five-star hotels; riding Vespers to a small boat trip to the islands, everything is covered – with Italian lessons thrown in along the way.
Each tour offers a balanced itinerary combining food sourcing and activities, hands-on cooking classes; local food market visits; cheese and wine tastings; and farm tours and vineyard lunches.
And although Sicily and the Aeolian Islands are where her heart lies, Dominique is now branching out to other destinations, including other parts of Europe – and Norfolk Island!
Jennifer Parish and Stewart Cameron are both opera singers. They met in Brisbane in 1993 when they were both singing with the Queensland Pops Orchestra. A year later, they launched the OPERATIF! performance company.
It was a great success and presented countless performances, then eight years ago, a group of concert clients asked if they could come along on one of their holidays.
“They knew we loved travel and figured we’d know the good places,” Jennifer says. “We decided to offer a tour of Italy and it sold out very quickly. So we offered some more tours and they filled too.”
It wasn’t long before the tours took over the performance side of Operatif!.
“What began as drawing on our data base of performance clients now draws music-lovers from all over Australia as well as some from New Zealand and the US,” she says. “There is certainly a demand for travel with music as an essential part of the itinerary.”
They were thrilled when a woman recently made contact with the words, “I’ve just found you! To think we can enjoy our travels and indulge our passion for opera and music at the same time! We’re there!”.
Operatif! is about travelling with others who share a love of opera and, unlike some ‘off the shelf’ package tours, groups quickly come together easily and cohesively.
“Those who’ve travelled with us before – and we do have an exceptional rate of repeat clients – help to relax new people into our rhythm and style,” Jennifer says.
Jennifer and Stewart design and book every element of the tour, from where people would like to sit on the plane to theatre seating; hotels to dessert menus.
For a solo traveller, it can be a big job organising an itinerary, and some places are hard to find or access on your own.
“Securing good seats to performances overseas can be very tricky,” Jennifer says. “We take a lot of time to forge good relationships with venues and box offices so we know we can always get good seats at the La Scala Opera House for example.”
As performers, they know how to pace an audience experience.
“We’ve always allowed space and time to absorb what’s going on,” she says. “Whether it’s for listening to a performance or embarking on a trip of a lifetime, it’s a similar process. There needs to be variety, high-points, downtime.
“I guess we design our tours the way we like to travel,” she says.
Penny Hegarty is a horticulturist, so for her guests that means not just trips to hidden gardens, but also useful advice from what will grow at home to customs regulations on seeds and cuttings.
“In Singapore you can buy orchid vials and bring them back. Between us we can buy different varieties and have a potting session and swap them when we get back,” she says.
“I can say, ‘don’t get that it won’t grow where you live’, and I know just what we can and can’t get through Customs. Along the way, we can also discuss their gardens at home and I can help with general gardening advice.”
She had been working as a tour director for a garden club leading tours mainly in Australia. Then, on a private trip to New Zealand, some of the members asked her if she was taking a tour there. She wasn’t but she gave it some thought, put her first tour together 15 years ago and the rest is history.
“I love travelling and I love gardening, so it’s a perfect combination,” she says.
Her formula obviously works. Three travellers have now been with her on seven tours.
“Most tours are mainly people with an interest in gardening, but they come from all professional backgrounds,” she says. “These are people who want a holiday in a small group and to be well looked after.”
She has just arrived back from China where as well as beautiful gardens off the beaten track, the group also visited the major sights, such as the Terracotta Warriors.
“While I choose destinations with gardens in mind, we also get into the culture and history through the garden and visit everything you would expect to see on a general itinerary,” she says.
The China trip was autumn to see the native maples in their full glorious colours, but it was also the right time for picking the chrysanthemums for tea making.
“We went to a tea plantation and saw them growing, being picked and dried and then sampled the tea,” she says.
Next year, she plans to return to Japan for the cherry blossoms, her favourite time of year.
London’s famous Chelsea Flower Show and Monet’s Garden outside Paris are also on her itineraries.
“Monet’s garden was stunning. I’ve been there three times and only once caught the wisterias in flower on the bridge,” she says.
Like the others, her tours are about personal service and satisfaction.
“I have a big garden so before we go I open it up for morning tea and to answer last minute questions and get everything in order before we depart,” she says.