Sunday, April 3, 2016

My Travels with Guides


I read an article that talked about the benefit of "investing in experiences instead of
material things".  That is a concept I definitely agree with, particularly when it comes to travel.
I know that most people see travel as nothing more than an extended shopping spree but really,
after the nth souvenir or "dust gatherer" (as my husband likes to call them), do you really need to shop for some more?
How about investing in the experience of immersing yourself in a specific place -- finding out more about the culture, getting a glimpse of how the locals live, understanding the present by knowing something about the past?
One investment I would like to suggest (and in most cases, the investment isn't expensive at all)
is to use the services of an experienced and expert private tour guide.
When I travel, whether solo or with the family, I never book a package tour.  I took one with my parents many many years ago, 31 days on a bus through 8 countries -- and I swore I would never
do it again.
I much prefer to be my own travel planner -- I do research and look for a local tour guide or a small independent tour company where I can either have a private tour or join a small like-minded group.
I had always wanted to write this post but kept putting it off.  This is a belated but heartfelt thank you to all those guides (some have become very good friends) who have enriched my travels through the years. This is a partial list but here are the more memorable guides I have travelled with ...

1. Guide Books 


Let me start by thanking Arthur Frommer, Tony Wheeler,  and the good folks at Fodor's --
I call them my Big 3 of travel guidebooks. 
They give a pretty complete overview of the must-sees and must-do's of a place.   
Some people say that guidebooks deal in the usual tourist traps but hey -- the Eiffel Tower is a 
tourist trap that everyone needs to see.  And so is the Colosseum.  Don't be such a travel snob.
You can also visit a local bookstore and look for english guides written by locals.  
For those who like to walk, I would recommend City Walks' boxed set of different walking routes for major cities.
Tip -- since the guidebooks weigh about a pound or two,  I normally tear off just the pages that I will need for the day and leave the rest of the book in the hotel.

2. Independent Local Tour Companies

Instead of going with a major tour operator who will herd 50 of you into a double decker bus,
try the smaller local tour companies who specialise in walking tours of specific areas.   Tours are conducted in an extensive and in-depth fashion by guides who are more cultured and well informed.

Paris-Walks


Run by an English couple who have lived in Paris for more than thirty years, Paris-Walks has daily walking tours (through rain or snow) usually lasting 3 to 3.5 hours of specific areas in Paris -- the Latin Quarter, the Marais, Montmartre, etc. 
Oriel Caine (shown here) is a History and French literature major who brings the past alive with her scholarly yet interesting lectures.
No need for any reservations, just show up at the meeting point (usually beside a subway station) 
and join the tour.  Groups are manageable -- with 10 to 12 people showing up (perhaps more during peak seasons) so you can really interact with Oriel and ask questions as you walk along.


 

Oriel's other half, Peter Caine is also a History and an Art History major.  His booming voice 
and enthusiasm  plus the spicy and amusing anecdotes liven up any tour that you take with him.  
Their website  http://www.paris-walks.com/index.html lists down the month's calendared walks
so just pick and choose.   I think Jay and I have pretty much done all of their walks through our
years of visiting Paris!
I guarantee that a walk with Oriel, Peter or any of their other excellent guides will be 3 hours well spent in Paris. 

Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tours


Hong Kong -- a food lover's destination.  While I have favourite restaurants that I always end
up going to, it's always exciting to discover new places.
Hong Kong Foodie Tasting Tour is a delightful little tour company that conducts walking tours
in several well known food districts of Hong Kong island.  
The tours are led by owner Silvana (in the black shorts above) who certainly knows all the delectable
secrets  and is only too happy to share them with her clients.  Silvana guarantees that you'll visit
only independent,  owner run restaurants and not chains or franchises. And the tour does not limit itself to food alone -- Silvana will point out architectural and historical places of interest along
the way.  Tours are limited to 12 people and take about 3 hours to finish. Make a reservation on
their website at  http://www.hongkongfoodietours.com

All Star Osaka Walk 


Osaka, my favourite city in all of Japan is fun, casual and lively.  Minako san, owner of the tour company All Star Osaka Walk personifies all these endearing Osakan qualities.  
She and her other equally charming english speaking guide,  Akie san can customise private tours
for you or you can choose from one of the many food tours they offer.  They also offer group tours which give you a 3 hour walking experience of Osaka.  I first met her a few years ago and
always book a tour when we visit. 
All Star Osaka Walk will take you around anywhere in the Kansai area.  You just have to write
them and ask.  The website is http://allstarosaka.com  They're on Facebook and reply very quickly
to all inquiries.

Hansen's Hikes in Hong Kong


If someone had invited me to traipse through Hong Kong's trails and peaks  instead of spending
my day wrapped around a plate of char siew and rice, I would have said no thank you.
But that was until I met Michael Hansen who owns and runs Hansen's Hikes, a tour company
that specialises in hiking, cycling and walking tours of Hong Kong.  A transplanted Dane who has  lived in Hong Kong for the past twenty years, Michael speaks Cantonese, knows all the trails and paths and is a wonderful hiking guide and most important to me, a very patient walking companion.  
I may have bitten of more than I could chew on our first hike but I have since been back for a few  more.  Thanks to Michael, I discovered the joys (and pains)  of hiking. 
Check out the different hiking, walking and cycling routes on http://hansens-hikes.com  You may get a few calluses but you will also see Hong Kong as you have not seen her before.

 Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks



I am always happy when I take friends on any one of Ivan's walks most specially his signature 
Big Binondo Food Wok -- they invariably rave and say they had so much fun.  Whether walking through the walls of Intramuros or grazing through the many delicious places in Chinatown,
Ivan is sure to educate, entertain and delight.  I can't count the number of times that I have done
his Binondo Food Wok but Ivan makes it fresh and new each time. 
His passion for the city is infectious. Check out his schedule and make reservations at http://www.oldmanilawalks.com 

3. Tours by Locals

Tours by Locals' slogan is "Connecting Travellers with Local Guides".  This is a travel company
that has more than 1,600 independent tour guides spread out over 130 countries.  Visit their website
at https://www.toursbylocals.com   
I found them on the web many years ago and have used their exceptional guides in different parts of the world.   Tours by Locals is a much better option than going with a big tour operator.  
Tours by Locals guides are expert,  accomplished professionals and at the same time, are personable and very welcoming.


Mari Reguillon in Lyon, France



We visited Lyon a few days before Christmas and thankfully Mari put her Christmas break on hold
to take us on a brief but exhaustive tour of her beloved city.  My one wish was to see the famous traboules of Lyon and Mari delivered on that and more.  She even had a wonderful treat for us -- taking us down to the basement of the Basilica of the Notre Dame  de Fourviere,  she showed us
a statue of our very own Nuestra Señora de Naval de Manila -- a heartwarming and touching surprise.
We were in Lyon for all of six hours but thanks to Mari, we walked and talked and came away knowing more about Lyon than we would have, if we had gone on our own.


Chieko Ishii in Kyoto 


Chieko Ishii  is one of the busiest Tours by Locals guides for the Kansai area.   She is happy to
ask about your interests but will also recommend the places that you need to see.   We always
schedule a tour with her each time we visit Kyoto.  If you like to walk, you will enjoy meandering with Chieko san through the beautiful paths and streets of Kyoto -- listening to her talk about the many aspects of the city that make it a truly one-of-a-kind place.  My favourite tour with her was a
2- kilometre stroll along the famous Philosopher's Path.


Meiko Tabata in Kyoto


We met Meiko Tabata through Tours by Locals on our second trip to Kyoto.  We hit it off so well
that we have since become best friends.  After that first tour with Meiko san, she has refused to do any more tours with me, instead she takes me around as a friend and not a client.  Truly a generous and warm hearted lady!  She has spent Christmas with us a couple of times and even attended Christmas masses with us at the Cathedral in Kyoto.
Most recently,  she joined me as as I fulfilled my Kyoto UNESCO World Heritage sites bucket list.

Amy Overy in Hong Kong


Not all Tours by Locals guides are native to the place. Amy Overy is an expat living in Hong Kong and does cycling tours on her free time.   Jay did a 40 km ride through the New Territories with Amy  where he enjoyed seeing the countryside -- definitely a much better sight for him than the inside of (yet another) shopping mall.


Iker Dominguez in San Sebastian


Iker is proudly Basque and very multi-faceted -- he is a gourmet cook and belongs to an exclusive and very historic gastronomic club in San Sebastian, food capital of Europe
He is a global traveler and has been to and lived for a while in many places in Asia. 
He has a blog, makes travel videos -- I could go on and on.  All these make Iker a most engaging and engaged guide and host.
Iker introduced us to the small towns along the Basque coastline from San Sebastian, all the way to Lourdes, in France.  We very much enjoyed knowing more about the Basque country, people, traditions, cuisine, culture and yes -- even a few Basque words.  Eskerrik asko, Iker! 


4. Cycling Tours

Jay likes to cycle so he tries as much as he can to incorporate a ride when we travel.  We are always on the look-out for cycling tour companies.  These tours are run by guides who speak both english and the local language and safety is always a priority.

Fat Tire Paris



Fat Tire runs cycling tours in Paris and other major cities of Europe.  If you have a few hours free, take one of their many cycling tours which will take  you through Paris' landmark attractions.  
Jay took the morning Paris tour but they also conduct evening tours during summer.   Groups are
not too big and the guides do all they can to ensure everyone's safety.  

Tokyo Great Cycling Tours


Tokyo Great Cycling Tours at http://www.tokyocycling.jp takes cyclists through the old and new sections of Tokyo.  Owned and run by Yukiko san who leads tours along with her other english speaking guides, TGCT also offers kayak and running tours.  Most of the time, the tours include a packed bento lunch and cyclists stop for a picnic in a park.

Miracle Cycling Tours in Tokyo 



This group will run the tour even if only one cyclist makes a reservation.  It was drizzling the day that Jay did a tour with Miracle Cycling Tours but they outfitted him with a raincoat, a helmet and away they went.  Owned and run by former rickshaw drivers who used to pull tourists around in rickshaws in Asakusa,  Miracle Cycling Tours at http://www.tokyobiketrip.com/about.html promises to show cyclists a  side of Tokyo they wouldn't normally see.  

Cycle Osaka


Since the time that Jay took a bike tour with Sam of http://cycleosaka.com  this tour company now also offers cooking classes of Osakan specialities.  The owner and lead guide is a friendly Irishman who is married to a Japanese lady and so he says that he speaks Japanese using the feminine point 
of view.  There are half day and full day tours with a break for lunch in a very local neighbourhood restaurant. 

Bravo Bike in Madrid



Bravo Bike at http://bravobike.com has a Madrid office and runs a popular bike tour of the city but they also do bike tours all over Spain and Europe with special itineraries like a wine tasting tour, a golf and bike tour  and even a pilgrimage tour by bike to Santiago de Compostela.  The four  hour Madrid city tour that Jay took  even included a quick tapas and wine break. 
He was lucky enough to have his tour conducted by the owner of Bravo Bike himself, a very dedicated and enthusiastic rider. 


5. Transport and Tours

How about investing in a private van to take you around a city? A country? A continent?
It's certainly more expensive than a packaged bus tour but you go on your own time, follow no
one's itinerary but your own and can make stops whenever and wherever you want.
This option is specially good for groups of at least 6 or 7  people,  brings down the cost when
you're sharing the van with others.
Private transport will eat up a good chunk of your travel budget  but it will be money well spent!

Dondon Infante's D&D Van Service 


We met Dondon through a friend's recommendation and have since recommended him to other friends  who have all loved travelling through Europe with him.
Dondon is based in Rome where he has lived for more than 20 years but he will go anywhere in Europe to pick you up and take you around.  
He has a fleet of new, comfortable and spacious vans that easily fit 7 people with huge luggage 
(that was us!) and he also has a staff of kababayans who can drive you around if he is not available.
Very professional and efficient,  Dondon can help plan your itinerary, show you the best sights,
take you outlet shopping  and get you into places where you normally wouldn't be able to get in to.  He'll even get you tickets for the weekly audience with the Pope!
Dondon took us on a week-long drive from Rome through Tuscany -- certainly a highlight of our trip!


Peter Lauz's Euro-Fil Travel and Tours


Peter has been living in Paris for over twenty years and like Dondon, takes travellers anywhere
they want to go in Europe.  He is gregarious and friendly, a natural born raconteur who will regale you with stories and a lot of insider tips -- where to shop, where NOT to go, where to get a great haircut! When we're in Paris,  Peter takes us on day trips,  the highlight of which is a final stop at
his mini grocery stocked with Pinoy goodies -- right smack in the middle of the chic and tony 16th arrondissement.  How about some home cooked Pampangueno sisig to go with that french baguette?

 Follow the Camino



When we did the Camino de Santiago last year with friends, we chose a dedicated Camino specialist, 
http://www.followthecamino.com.  While we did not use any guide and walked the Camino ourselves,  Follow the Camino arranged for all our transfers, made reservations for us in the 
various inns and B&Bs along the way and generally ensured that we would have the best experience possible.  Their transport provider on the ground in Galicia was a family who has been helping  Camino pilgrims through the years -- Paola and her brother were efficient, punctual and always ready to be of help and answer our questions.   Buen Camino!

Bonie Lazaro's  B.A.L Cargo 



The Pinoy global network is really the best -- through a friend of a friend of a friend, we were able 
to contact Bonie Lazaro who runs B.A.L. Cargo in Madrid.  Just like Peter and Dondon, Bonie 
has been in Europe, specifically Madrid,  for over twenty years and has brought his entire family 
over since then.  
Very hardworking and entrepreneurial, Bonie drives all over Spain picking up balikbayan boxes 
from Pinoys to send them to their relatives anywhere in the Philippines.  
In between all this, he tours visitors around Spain and will take you anywhere you want -- 
Bonie mentioned that Pinoys usually ask him to drive them to Lourdes and Fatima.   His very spacious van converts to a comfortable people carrier.


Kido san, english speaking taxi guide in Kyoto


On my last trip to Kyoto, Buddha sent me a gift in the form of Kido san -- an english speaking cab driver who took me to various temples that I had not been to and even recommended one that was the high point (literally) of the morning.  He told me to take all the time I wanted and gave me a very fair arrangement on what would otherwise have been a most expensive taxi ride.  He is very willing to do tours for foreigners -- give him a call on his mobile at 090-6609-1368.  The country code for Japan 
is +81.  

6. Expert Local Guides

There are some local guides who are widely acclaimed as the specialist in their given field of interest.  When you have the chance to take a tour with one, grab it as it will be a most enlightening and engrossing experience.

Malcolm Miller at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres


In December 2012 we visited Chartres , 90 minutes out of Paris, with a double purpose -- to see this beautiful cathedral and to listen to a lecture given by Malcom Miller, the renowned authority on this magnificent Gothic church.   
An englishman, Mr Miller has been doing lectures in Chartres since 1958,  daily for most of the
year, except for January to Easter.   When we met him, he must have been in  his early 80s -- the passion for what he does continues to fuel him up to today.
The one and a half hour lecture (I hesitate to call it a tour because of how erudite and scholarly 
Mr. Miller is) will you give a fascinating  glimpse into the Cathedral, how she was built,  the architectural highlights, the times in which she was built and  the many historic events she has witnessed.  
Amazingly, the lecture costs only 10 euros per person which is a pittance compared to the unique experience of listening to Malcolm Miller.  He is truly remarkable --  a fascinating speaker who holds your attention with his every word  but best of all -- he is kind and gentlemanly and welcomes all who are interested in his beloved Cathedral.  
Tip -- before Mr. Miller arrives,  drop by the Cathedral Shop and get a copy of his book so that you can have him autograph it after his lecture.


Yukari Sakamoto in Tokyo 



I first heard about Yukari san when I bought a copy of her book, Food Sake Tokyo from amazon.com (see me holding it proudly above?)  
A Japanese American lady who lives in Tokyo with her husband, Yukari san is a recognised authority on Japanese food and is the go-to resource of CNN, the New York Times and so many other global news and lifestyle networks.  
Between writing articles, restaurant reviews and books,  appearing on t.v. and touring visiting 
chefs and food celebrities, she somehow still finds the time to conduct walking food tours for those with a more than passing interest in Japanese cuisine.  
Jay and I took her Nihonbashi walking tour where she brought us to the top purveyors of key japanese ingredients -- bonito, miso, nori, dashi --  explaining the backstory and role of each in the way that japanese food is cooked.  
I also saw all kinds of  utensils and kitchen implements making me realise just how complex and unique japanese cooking truly is.  You may find Yukari san's tour schedule at her website http://foodsaketokyo.com/about/


+ Bambi Borromeo of ATON 


For me, a good travel guide should have the following qualities:

1. He or she should be both a generalist and a specialist -- he should have general, factual knowledge and at the same time, he should have in-depth and exhaustive information (including interesting and real anecdotes) about his particular sphere of interest and expertise;
2. He or she should have a good and charismatic personality -- how else would he be able to hold your attention?  
3. He or she should be patient, flexible and equipped with a sense of humor -- in travel, things 
don't always go the way you want them to and the ability to adapt and turn around a potentially difficult situation is something a good travel guide should have.
My dear late friend Bambi Borromeo, tour guide non pareil of Bacolod and Negros Occidental possessed all these qualities and more.  I was fortunate to have seen him through his career shift -- from advertising whiz to excellent and much sought after travel professional.  
I miss him dearly and dedicate this post to him!








2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the shout out! It was an awesome day with Jay and he enjoyed getting out of the busy city centre :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Amy! So glad to hear from you 😊 Jay sends his best regards. Hope to see you again, one of these days. Cheers and warmest regards!

      Delete