Small group tours

These days I do much of my travel “solo”.  I plan my own itinerary and book my own accommodation and activities.

Whilst I enjoy solo travel, small group tours, that is those with less than 16 people, are also a good vacation option.  I have been on four small group tours, three with Intrepid Travel (Italy (2007), Thailand (2012) and Vietnam (2015)) and one with Peregrine Adventures (Myanmar (2006)).  I have booked a small group walking tour with About Argyll Walking Tours for my upcoming (2019) trip to Scotland.

Intrepid and Peregrine are run by the same parent company and while I have nothing to compare them with (yet) I recommend them both as tour operators. (BTW this post is NOT sponsored by any of the tour companies mentioned.)

Small group tours are not for everyone, but in my opinion, they offer a good balance and as you can see from my pros and cons table, the pros outweigh the cons.

Pros and cons of small group tours

Pros Cons
  • You don’t have to organise anything except getting there.
  • The tour company sorts everything out in regards to local travel and activities.
  • You get to visit the highlights of a particular area efficiently
  • The accommodation has been well researched and is good quality
  • The tour guide has great local knowledge and knows the best restaurants, bars and attractions.
  • Smaller groups means access to more places that you could not visit with a big coachload of people.
  • The tour often includes some sort of social payback to the area you visit such as a visit to an orphanage, school, social enterprise or charity.
  • It’s a safer way to travel in places which may be otherwise a bit risky. This may be especially so for women
  • You meet new and interesting people but you are not overwhelmed by 30 – 40 people on a larger tour.
  • You don’t have to organise anything! As I said in a previous post I LOVE the planning!
  • You mostly stick to the tried and true pathways visiting the same tourists spots everyone else does.
  • You can’t make detours or stay longer in a place that you find interesting.
  • You have to spend a lot of time with the “new and interesting” people you meet and not all of them may be people you want to spend time with.
  • They are probably more expensive than sorting things out by yourself or going on a bigger group tour although it’s likely they get some sort of discounts for repeat bookings.

I think it’s the “new and interesting”  people that puts most people off small group tours. If you are travelling alone and you don’t pay the single supplement, you end up sharing with someone you don’t know. Luckily, this has only happened to me once as most people travel with a friend and I have been the odd one out on all but one of the tours, so I get to listen to my own snoring and not someone else’s! 🙂

I suggest that you make careful choices about the tours you book and the companies you travel with, so that you end up with the “right” sort of people.  The price will dictate the sorts of people you share your time with so don’t expect the jet-set on a budget tour.

Also make sure you pay attention to the ratings the tour company makes in relation to physical activity and the theme of the tour (family, active, foodie etc, Peregrine’s themes are here) . In my albeit limited experience, high levels of physical activity and the active themes puts me with “my tribe” more closely than those with lower levels. It will be different for you.

Burma with Peregrine Adventures

It’s hard to believe my first small group tour experience to  Burma (Myanmar) was more than a decade ago. Back in 2006, the country was only just starting to embrace tourism and things did not go smoothly, even for the tour operators.

A scheduled overnight train trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to Mandalay had to be substituted at the last minute by an internal flight because of some undisclosed problem.

The tour leader was on the phone for hours trying to sort things out. It would have been difficult to manage this as an independent traveller. He also warned us about where we could and couldn’t take photos. His entreaties not to take photos of certain buildings seemed very genuine.

 

Intrepid Travel Walking Tour – Amalfi Coast

I wrote about the interesting dynamic that developed on my trip to Italy in my post about “Footpath to the Gods”. In this case, an international group of eight – comprising three husband-wife couples  from Scotland, America and New Zealand and a single Aussie female and myself, joined up for a walking tour of the Amalfi Coast. Although the trip was rated for very high levels of physical activity, the two Americans were morbidly obese and not regular exercisers. They struggled with the walking  and this caused issues. They clearly did not heed the advice about the activity level. While most of trip was harmonious, tempers flared on the last night, almost resulting in a fist fight.

Tribal Thailand – Intrepid Travel

The Tribal Thailand tour included a 3 day trek through the jungle near Chiang Mai. Slashing vines, clambering over fallen trees and hearing the lonely calls of gibbons made it a truly enjoyable experience. The combination of heat, humidity, the weight of our packs and biting insects made it a physically challenging  experience. Sleeping on wooden floors and eating with local families in their simple kitchens made it a humbling experience. Despite the fact that, on reflection, I am pretty sure we walked around in circles not far from a main road for the three days, I would heartily recommend it! I was the second oldest on the tour (but not the least fit I am pleased to say). I still keep in touch with two younger women from this group via Facebook. We even had a reprise trip the year after, where 6 of the 7 of us did a hiking trip along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia.

Vietnam – North to South with Intrepid Travel

The trip to Vietnam had six people – two couples and a single, elderly man. It was rated with low levels of physical activity and the people were much older than the Thailand tour. On this trip I was the second youngest and at 52 that’s saying something! It was still fun and I spent most of my time with Debra and Phil from Wales. On this tour, the “interesting person” was a barrister from the UK travelling with his lovely wife. Even though he was probably the wealthiest amongst us, he owed us all money by the end of the trip because he didn’t ever seem to have “the right change” when he needed to pay his share of the taxi/hotel/restaurant bill. It was funny at first but became a bit of a sore point by the end of the 12 day tour. Debra and Phil, by the way, run a pub in Wales. It looks pretty good and one day I’ll visit them!

All these these small group tours have given me great memories and photo books full of images. Overall, they have been very positive. Even the negatives are positive, in that they give you some great dinner party stories.

My advice is to keep an open heart and open mind, know that it’s only for a short period and be friendly and easy going. Don’t sweat the small stuff and if worse comes to worse, treat it as an interesting social experiment. That way  you can sit back and learn about the world both from the country you visit and the people you share the bus with.

 

The Vietnam Cookery Center

A few years ago I went to Vietnam on my way home from Israel. Not exactly a direct route… but since I was transiting through South Korea it was not too much out of my way.  The main focus of the trip was to join a small group tour with Intrepid Travel from Hanoi in the north down to Ho Chi Min City. I stayed on in Ho Chi Min City for a couple of days to catch up with some friends who were living there at the time.  Vietnamese food is a favourite of mine so I was keen to try a cookery school.

Vietnam Cookery Centre - Ho Chi Min City
Vietnam Cookery Centre – Ho Chi Min City

Australia has a relatively large population of Vietnamese people who came here as refugees in the 1970’s and 80, when Australia had a more humane and sensible policy towards refugees than it does now … but that’s a different story.  As a result, it’s not hard to find a good, authentic Vietnamese restaurant.  Their cuisine has become almost mainstream with school canteens offering rice paper rolls as a matter of course. I have always found it tasty, light and satisfying.

Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leave with prawns.
Green Spring Rolls – Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leaf with prawns.

I booked an afternoon class with The Vietnam Cookery Center after reading reviews on Trip Advisor. The Cookery School is still open and gets consistently good ratings.

The School was on the fourth floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong St and easy to find. I was able to walk there from my hotel without a problem although it didn’t look like a cookery school at first!

a dark lobby area with a kitchen just visible through a doorway
View from the elevator

The three hour lesson was around $US40. There were two other women who were from Sweden doing the course with me. Their husbands joined them to eat what they had cooked after the class.

A group of 3 people two men and a women at a table waiting to start eating.
Sitting down to eat the fruits of our labours.

We were welcomed by a young woman who spoke good English (and whose name I don’t remember sorry)  who explained what we would be doing before we were introduced to the rather stern looking Chef  – Bai Van Bao.  I don’t think he spoke the entire time and he only smiled once… right at the end.  I got the impression this was part of the performance. Very much like the Iron Chef if you have seen that Japanese Cooking show.

A chef with black hat and jacket rolling up his sleeves preparing to cook
Chef Bao – a very serious chap!

The Chef would demonstrate first and then we would copy. The ingredients were all laid out, pre-measured and chopped.

A Chef stiring a pan with various dry spices over a gas flame.
Preparing the spice mix for Pho

All the dishes were made from scratch, except the pho (a beef  and noodle soup, pronounced “fur”). The stock and meat requires about 5 hours cooking time so this would not have been possible to make in the time frame we had. The stock was bubbling away when we got there and the Chef showed us how to add the spice mix at the end and assemble to soup.

The ingredients were very fresh, the recipes uncomplicated and the resultant dishes very tasty. As participants, we made  green spring rolls with a dipping sauce; sauteed chicken with spicy sauce and sweet basil and steamed rice with pandan leaves. The pho and a fruit dessert had been made for us. We walked away with a full belly, a recipe book and a nice apron. In my mind a great way to spend the afternoon.

a bowl of beef and noodle soup with a beer on the side
Tasty Pho

Finally a smile!

a chef dressed in black smiles as he holds a cook book.
Smiling Chef Bao

These photos were taken 2 cameras ago using JPG rather than RAW which I use to shoot now. Looking at them I can see my photography has come a long way!

Reflection of the photgrapher in a mirror
A theme from this trip to Vietnam was to take mirror-Selfies.

If you are looking for other things to do in Vietnam check out this post with 50 things to do in Vietnam