We've all been there before: bobbing along on a tour bus, shoehorned into a seat, the sights flying by at the speed of a moving car. You try to take pictures of the landmarks, but end up capturing your own reflection in the window. You try to stay awake, but the rhythm of road dulls your brain like Ambien. You try to make the best of it, but can't -- the other travelers in your group won't stop snoring, jostling, chattering, whimpering.
Blame the tour, not you. Simply put, you don't belong on a bus or in the middle of a herd. You're an explorer, not a pack animal.
To find a tour that elevates rote sightseeing into a monumental adventure, grab a virtual shovel and start digging. Start with the websites of tourism offices; indie ideas lurk among the more conventional information. For example, New Zealand.com lists an "artstay" where you can learn pottery and painting from local artists in Auckland, while VisitBerlin.de well represents its edgy city with bike and brewery tours. Creative wanderers should peruse ShawGuides.com, whose listings lean toward the arts and smarts. ToursByLocals.com offers just what the name suggests -- individually led tours from local experts on everything from Norwegian Vikings to Jewish heritage in Buenos Aires.
To help you get started, we've assembled eight tours around the globe that break from the crowd and veer off into unexpected and intriguing directions.
China, one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, is the Land of Dragons and Group Tours. But you can escape the sea of color-coded visors by tramping along the Great Wall, which stretches for thousands of miles. With the Great Wall Adventure Club, you can spend the day putting foot to stone on any of 15 routes. Or take an extra day (or dozen) and follow the ancient fortification into terrain wild with mountains, lakes and fields of wildflowers. Come night, arrange your sleeping gear inside one of the dramatic watchtowers. From this vantage, the only crowds you'll see are the stars amassed in the sky.
To fully explore Canada's Prince Edward Island, you'll need the freedom to stop on a whim for, say, a plate of raw oysters in Charlottetown or a nap on the white sands of Panmure Island. One of the most emancipating forms of travel is a bike, especially when the tour operator has your back. The PEI-based MacQueen's does all the heavy lifting on its Supported Independent Cycle tours. The outfitter sketches out the itinerary (with lots of wiggle room), arranges the homey accommodations (B&Bs and inns), hauls the gear and provides emergency roadside assistance. The five- to seven-night trips offer plenty of excuses to hop off your saddle, such as the East Point Lighthouse, the sand dunes of Greenwich National Park, a cultured mussel farm and the "singing" (squeaky) sands of Basin Head. Your only job is to pedal, pedal ... and coast.
Llamas are built for carrying bags, not riding like a pony. But you'll want to use your own legs anyway on Peru's invigorating trail from Olleros to Chavin de Huantar, a pre-Incan archaeological site nearly 10,500 feet high. On the three-day "llama trek" organized by RESPONSible Travel Peru, your hiking troupe will hoof it up mountains, down valleys and through peasant villages. Along the way, you will soak up Andean culture, from the food and music to the tradition of using llamas as luggage carts. At night, the mammals without built-in fur blankets will sleep in tents; those with insulation stay outdoors. At the end of the 23-mile adventure, don't forget to tip your woolly guide with a carrot or handful of grass.
Alone in Paris, the untrained shopper might end up with a gauche beret or badly translated copy of Rousseau. Mon dieu! Best to call in the experts. The Antiques Diva & Co. helps visitors navigate the warrens of flea markets and overwhelming quantity of quality stores, in addition to such local haunts as vide-greniers (attic sales) and brocantes (traveling antique fairs). The company is owned by an American expat who once scored a Louis XV-style commode worth eight times what she paid for it. The half- to full-day excursions are led by professional stylistas and tailored to your fancies, whether it's for Versailles-worthy chandeliers, Chanel hand-me-downs or the perfect French scarf.
Sing it loud and proud on a tour of Harlem gospel in New York City. Harlem Spirituals hits such high notes as the Sugar Hill neighborhood, home of musical legends like Duke Ellington; the groundbreaking Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater; and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Wednesday excursion finishes with a flourish: the Hour of Power Gospel Service, performed by the ARC choir, which helps support the Addicts Rehabilitation Center. On Sundays, don your pearls and finest church hat for an uplifting gospel service followed by a brunch that feeds more than just your soul.
Cape Town life centers on its harbor, so don't just stand there on the shore -- get out on the water. The Waterfront Boat Company organizes a variety of sailing excursions that stay at sea until the day calls it a night. The 90-minute sunset voyage, with optional glass of bubbly, cruises Table Bay during the magical hour of nautical twilight (when the sun falls 12 degrees below the horizon). Board the Spirit of Victoria, a 58-foot gaff-rigged schooner, and sail away to Milnerton Lighthouse and Granger Bay, in the shadow of Table Mountain.
On a tapas twirl through Madrid, you won't stop chewing until the last plate is cleared from the table. The Walks of Spain tour leads bellies on an evening crawl of four tapas restaurants and taverns. Guests sample at least six small plates of traditional fare, such as chorizo and spinach croquetas. To quench thirsts, the native guide, a member of the Spanish Wine Tasting Association (he enviably tests hundreds of wines a year), pairs the food with a handful of liquid love matches. Before leaving the table, make sure you didn't leave anything behind, such as that bite of artisan blue cheese or swig of Pedro Ximenez.
The young guides who captain the Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk know the roads of Paharganj intimately; they grew up as citizens of New Delhi's gritty streets. However, with the help of the nonprofit Salaam Baalak Trust, these kids found shelter and opportunity, some as trained guides. On the tours, guests follow their leader through back alleyways lined with recycling shops, temples and a pottery market. The commentary is peppered with personal stories of struggle and survival. The walk ends near one of the trust's facilities, which is open to visitors interested in observing the rescued children's classes and activities. The fee helps support the organization and shape future tour guides -- or just futures.
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--written by Andrea Sachs