Tours that Measure Up

Many of you know I’m not a big fan of group tours. Virtually every tour I’ve taken is a private one, and a single day or half day length at most. Generally, the tours I take are more of the functional type – I don’t really want to try to get to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius on my own, so I schedule a with a private tour. Let me be clear that this is nothing against tour operators in general, and even the functional type have generally been quite interesting. It’s just that I like to wander and explore on my own. I have, though, been on several tours that really have impressed me, and that I highly recommend to my clients. I’m turning this into a series, my new thing it seems, to my already verbose blogs as short as possible.

Tour #1
Night Time Ghost Tour, Edinburgh, Scotland

Ghost tours can go one of two ways. Cheesy with masked figures “hiding” behind things that you can totally see, who jump out at you and don’t surprise you at all, or super creepy and therefore cool. This was definitely the latter. It was a group tour, but most of it was so dark you couldn’t see anyone else anyways. It was creepy enough with 20 people, so I didn’t mind. We toured Mary King’s close, a street that was paved over and now resides underground. In the 1600s the plague struck, and victims and their families were quarantined and basically left to die in the close. After this we went through the underground tunnels in which body snatchers used to the traverse the city. The tour guides extinguished off all forms of light (flashlights and candles), and we stood there in the absolute pitch black and stunning silence, except for the tour guides providing tales of the passages. Finally, you head to a graveyard where the body snatchers used to dig up bodies. Quite eerie!

There are numerous companies that do ghost tours in Edinburgh, and I’ve talked to people who have used a variety of tour companies. The key is to find a night tour that visits the underground tunnels and Mary King’s Close. This is not a tour for small children – in fact I think there’s an age restriction. We were petrified, I can’t imagine a small child not being scared out of their mind. If you truly have a real fear of the dark and ghosts, unless you just like to terrify yourself, you might want to opt for another ghost tour, say during the day. If you like the thrill though, this is definitely a tour worth taking.

I wish I could provide a picture, but it was so dark I really didn’t get anything worth posting. You’ll just have to go and check it out for yourself!

Adventure: Within City Limits

People often seem to think that to do something truly ?different? you have to get away from the city. It?s true that there are numerous adventurous and cultural experiences to be found far from the city and that getting ?off the beaten path? is one way to achieve this. That doesn?t mean, though, that you can?t find one-of-a-kind (or close to it) opportunities within the city limits. Check out these experiences within some of our most well-loved cities around the world.

1. Catacombs in Rome: Rome?s wonders seem to never cease, and all of the ?popular? attractions are absolutely worth a visit. The catacombs, or underground burial tunnels, have a mysterious lure that draws visitors interested in seeing a slightly darker side of the city and its history. Visit the catacombs with a guide. If you?re not a group tour type of person, hire a reputable private guide. These tunnels are dark, winding and easy to get lost in.

2. Robben Island, Cape Town: Behind the beauty of the V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain, the city of Cape Town holds a sordid past. Visitors can now be educated about this history with tours to the prison where Nelson Mandela and countless other political prisoners were held on Robben Island. Not only do you get to tour the jail and see Mandela?s cell, the tours are led by former inmates who were wrongfully imprisoned on the island. These guides give first hand accounts of their experiences as well as historical information about the prison and its inmates that no ?outsider? would be able to provide. (Note: the only prisoners giving tours are those who were political prisoners, wrongfully jailed for their efforts to end apartheid.)

3. Haunted Edinburgh/Edinburgh underground tours: Edinburgh is just one of a long list of haunted cities, so the idea of a ghost tour isn?t overly unique in and of itself. What distinguishes these tours is two-fold: first, they are given only later at night ? many start around 10 PM (in the summer, it?s light in Edinburgh until at least 9:30 PM so this is a necessity for the ambiance). Secondly, they are conducted primarily underground, in the tunnels where body snatchers used to run stolen bodies. Once in the tunnels, the guides extinguish all forms of light, letting you stand underground in the pitch black for the best chance of hearing or seeing a ghost. It?s beyond spooky, even for those who are avid ghost tour enthusiasts.

4. Dubrovnik?s city walls: Is it touristy? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutley. In recent years, the city of Dubrovnik has become a hot spot. The city itself is interesting enough ? it certainly has plenty of history and its location on the water adds to its appeal. But without a doubt, the ?must do? here is to walk along top the old walls of the city. It can be done individually or as part of a tour ? I imagine a tour might be a bit of a tight squeeze but you may also learn more than you do by walking the walls on your own. The experience is certainly distinct and the views of the town, countryside and the waters below are incredible. (Yes, there are other cities where you may walk the walls, the Beijing?s Great Wall being the obvious other. So this isn?t ?one of a kind? but it?s certainly not an experience you can have everywhere, and one that has excited people about travel to this part of Europe.)

5. In-home cooking classes, Florence. While this isn?t, strictly speaking, unique solely to Florence, this is quite arguably the best place to do so. Take a walk to the market; choose your fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses. Go back to the home of your guide for a private cooking class, and then enjoy the final products with a glass of local Tuscan wine. These classes can include creating everything from homemade pastas to authentic Italian desserts, delicately flavored meat dishes and vegetables harvested fresh that morning. It?s difficult to get more culturally immersed in Italy than this.