A sightseeing tour through the great cities of Central and Eastern Europe is great in and of itself, but why not get your client’s heart beating with a cooking class in a 13th century palace in Croatia; by horse as they ride through Dracula’s stomping grounds; and on a bike traversing a little-known mountainous region in Slovenia.
There’s no denying that Central and Eastern Europe are on travelers’ radars. Travel from the U.S. to many of the countries that make up the region are up, and a lot of travelers who have done Western Europe want to explore beyond well-trodden destinations and are looking to places that hold a certain intrigue—Budapest, Dubrovnik, Bucharest, Ljubljana. In past issues, in fact, we’ve highlighted Central and Eastern Europe and have heard from tour operators that for many travelers this is an area that is relatively undiscovered, but for which they see huge growth potential. Simion Alb, for example, from the Romanian National Tourist Office, says that Romania is “much better known today in North America than it was 20 years ago, but still preserves an aura of mystery and uniqueness. It’s authentic; a country rich in contrast, history, culture and natural beauty.” Adds Alan Mandic, director of programs for Secret Dalmatia, a tour operator specializing in signature group tours as well as customized tours of Croatia, “People have seen Italy, France, Spain, Greece…and are now looking for something similar, but different. Croatia offers great value and an ‘undiscovered’ part of the Mediterranean, and Croatia is very diverse for such a small country.”
But why not offer tours to these countries with a creative twist? After all, says Sylvie Tannhauser, wine & culinary travel specialist, American Express Wine & Culinary Travel Insider, Brickell Travel Management, “many travelers are requesting immersive trips with an emphasis on food, wine and off-the-beaten-path programs.”
Adds Kevan Cowie, director of sales and marketing, Exeter International, which offers tours to Russia and Eastern Europe, “Culinary touring is particularly good in this region. A plethora of restaurants serving mouth-watering delicacies litter the landscape. There are also numerous opportunities to try one’s own hand at cooking local specialties; biking is good for the fit (most regions have at least some mountain terrain) with relatively light traffic on most country roads and small villages dotting the roadside, making for an easy pace from spot to spot; and the sheer beauty of almost the entire region lends itself to outings on horseback with fantastic views and thick forests or expansive fields to meander through.”
So we’ve compiled a few itineraries that we’re certain your well-heeled and more adventurous travelers are going to want to sink their teeth into (no pun intended, Mr. Bram Stoker).
cooking & kayaking in croatia
Secret Dalmatia’s 10-day Majestic Croatia itinerary, departing May 11 and Sept. 21, with a maximum of eight guests, showcases this country’s most enigmatic hotspots, including its national parks, world-famous Plitvice Lakes, Zagorje’s fairytale castles, and the millennia-old towns of Skradin, Trogir, Split and Dubrovnik. The best part? There are exclusive wine pairing dinners and events, a cooking class in that aforementioned 13th century palace, dining in authentic restaurants and local taverns, and wine tasting at some of the country’s best wine and gourmet clubs. Culinary aficionados, in fact, will have a feast during the cooking class demonstration in the port town of Trogir as they create divine dishes with chef Tatjana, who, the tour operator says, is one of the region’s best chefs (think freshly caught fish, homemade bread and pasta, exploring local ingredients and tasting Adriatic delicacies).
According to Mandic, participants will, of course, learn about food, “but also local traditions. We always give the authentic, behind-the-closed-door experience with local people.”
A couple of days after that, clients are in Hvar, the “island of wine,” where they’ll meet Croatia’s most distinguished winemakers and taste unique wines exclusively available on this particular tour only. There’s even a late lunch in an olive grove in the picturesque village of Vrisnik.
Accommodations are in traditional B&Bs, charming boutique hotels and five-star properties, such as Zagreb’s Regent Esplanade, which was originally built in 1925 and was designed to accommodate passengers from the Orient Express. Rates for the May departure are approximately $3,700 land-only.
O.A.R.S., a tour operator that specializes in white-water rafting, sea kayaking and multi-sport adventures throughout the world, kicks the adventure up a notch with its 9-day Sea Kayaking & Exploring Croatia & Montenegro, which focuses on sea kayaking, hiking and snorkeling. In fact, the tour operator emphasizes that the stretch of coast along Croatia and Montenegro, with some 1,200 islands, islets and reefs, “could not be better suited for exploring by kayak.”
The itinerary includes paddling around the small collection of islands off Dubrovnik, visiting Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina and kayaking the protected waters of Montenegro, as well as lots of land-based exploration in the myriad dazzling cities and towns that call the area home. A highlight of the tour is a visit to the enchanting Elaphiti Islands, located northwest of Dubrovnik and devoid of cars. Here, travelers will find an open-air museum of history, art, architecture and folklore—the largest of the islands, Sipan, features vineyards and olive orchards, chapels, 15th century monasteries, and numerous gothic and renaissance summer villas. Home base is the Pension Ivana in Zaton Bay, a harborside village that’s accessible from Dubrovnik, as well as the M/V Huck Finn catamaran. Rates are $3,495 pp dbl (minimum age is 16 and it’s about three to five hours of paddling daily), land-only, and all kayaking and safety equipment is included. Departure dates are May 25; June 8 and 22; and Sept. 7 and 21.
Getting there: Air France, Lufthansa, Delta Air Lines and other major airlines offer flights from New York into Dubrovnik and Zagreb via their European hubs.
on two wheels in slovenia & austria
Sea kayaking not your client’s thing? Then tell them to jump on a bike with ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours to explore the region historically dubbed Carinthia, but today known as Slovenia, with a bit of Austria thrown in for good measure.
The tour outfitter’s new 11-day Cycling the Lakes of Austria and Slovenia Plus! Ljubljana itinerary—which begins in Klagenfurt, Austria and ends in Ljubljana, Slovenia—dips into Austria and Italy before crisscrossing Slovenia’s Goldenhorn route, which takes its name from a mythic white buck with golden horns that was said to have lived in the region. Participants will visit small and large towns with classic middle-European architecture, ancient stone houses, gothic-style churches and buildings, and imposing palaces. “There are also,” notes Monica Mapezzi-Price, co-owner and director of international operations for ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours, “stunning lake views with forested shores, and Alpine scenery towering over tranquil valleys and pastures, as well as classic Central European sites like Maria Saal Cathedral in Austria and in Slovenia, its lake and island, Lake Bohinj. Not to mention, rides on bike paths with short climbs into and out of valleys and lake beds.” Guests will also spend time visiting a cheese-making farm; needless to say, the benefit of bicycle travel allows guests to stop, visit and chat with craftspeople and learn about day-to-day life.
The total distance covered is 253-260 miles, with an average daily mileage of 25 to 30 miles. Mapezzi-Price stresses that there is “no tour that has the extensive coverage of the area like we do. Other companies have tours in parts of the region featured in our tour, but we cover the most extensive itinerary of all adventure tour operators offering trips in the region.”
Rates for the tour, which is appropriate for experienced cyclists as well as novice ones who are capable of some short climbs and some short stretches with traffic, are $4,250 pp dbl, land-only, and include bicycles. Departures are June 16 and Sept. 9. Accommodations include Insel Hotel, Austria’s only island hotel (travelers access the island via ferry).
Getting there: Austrian Airlines offers flights from New York to Klagenfurt via Vienna.
horsing around in romania
With departure dates from April to September, Hidden Trails’ 7-day Transylvania Ride has participants taking a step back in time as they mount their horses and explore the forested hills of northern Romania, where horses are still used to plow the fields and to pull hay carts during harvest time. The tour operator stresses that your clients will feel as if they are in the Transylvania of the 1800s, especially when you take into consideration that the tour hosts are one of the area’s most ancient families with a history in the area that stems back to AD 1252.
The tour begins in Miklosvar, a remote village situated in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, which, says Alb of the Romanian National Tourist Office, are “much more often mentioned by U.S. travelers who contact the tourist office. They are easily accessible, offer excellent hiking, birding and wildlife watching opportunities and they are home to beautiful villages that have not changed much over the years.” He adds that travel agents play a crucial role in U.S. tourism to Romania, as they can “give more credibility to Romania and they have the means and skills to introduce Romania as a desirable vacation destination to their clients.”
Blazingly beautiful valleys, forests that are home to bears, wolves, lynx and deer, hay fields overgrowing with wild flowers, exploring medieval villages and Dracula’s domain, getting to know the locals, dining on typical rural Romanian cuisine and wine, and accommodations in rural village guesthouses and hunting lodges are the highlights that weave this tour together. The horses that participants ride on for the duration of the tour are all locally bred, and the pace is moderate with canters about four to six hours daily (five days of riding). Rates for the tour, which is limited to eight persons, are approximately $1,565, land-only and include equestrian guide and Brasov train station transfer, as well as the usuals such as meals, etc.
Getting there: Delta Air Lines flies direct from New York to Bucharest. There are easy and frequent train connections from Bucharest to Brasov, or a private transfer from Bucharest can be arranged on request (approximately $187 one way).
customize it with brendan vacations
For clients who do not want to travel in a group tour, don’t want to be boxed in by set departure dates and are looking for a traditional way to sightsee through Central Europe—i.e., walking and by car—recommend Brendan Vacations’ Independent and/or Private Chauffeur Vacations. As Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations, says, “You travel on your own, but never alone.”
The 7-, 8- or 10-day Prague, Vienna & Budapest independent itinerary, for example, includes the services of an English-speaking guide in each city (available 24/7), high-speed train transportation from city to city and the customary sightseeing such as the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, a tour of Budapest’s main attractions, including Hero’s Square, and the world-famous Astronomical Clock in Prague. Rates start at $1,162 land-only; arrival is in Prague (major airlines, including Czech Airlines, fly directly into the city from New York).
Recommend clients take advantage of the tour operator’s Optional Sightseeing opportunities. One that caught our eye was The Third Man in Vienna–Underground Tour, which has visitors following in the footsteps of “The Third Man,” the silver screen classic from 1948. Travelers will go under the city, down the same staircase used in the movie, into the bowels of Vienna and into the world of smugglers and spies ($23 pp; not suitable for children under 12).
Another recommendation: The company’s 9-day Private Chauffeured itinerary through Croatia and Slovenia from $5,451, land-only.
poland & bohemia with insight vacations
Have clients who want to hang out with like-minded travelers? Recommend Insight Vacations’ annual Travel Forum Members tour to Poland and Bohemia taking place in 2014. It’s a 20-day exploration of Central Europe that will have participants hopping from Prague, Cesky Krumlov and Hradec Kralove in Czech Republic, to Wroclaw, Torun, Gdansk, Warsaw, Lublin, Zamosc, Zakopane, Krakow, Auschwitz, and Wadowice in Poland, as well as Bratislava in Slovakia.
Along the way, travelers will visit medieval spa towns, UNESCO sites, castles, cathedrals, salt mines and century-old fortresses; dine at Europe’s oldest restaurants; take strolls through flower markets; and marvel at the variety of architectural styles throughout the region.
Accommodations range from old inns to palaces and luxury hotels. Rates for this tour that sets off from Prague start at $5,879 pp.
DuVine also has a new 6-day tour of Slovenia, that, says Justin Wuycheck, a senior guide and pro series manager at DuVine, highlights the country’s food and wine, as the group visits the wine country of Goriska Brda to sample wines and enjoy a meal prepared by the chefs at Vila Bled (one of the on-tour accommodations). To read more, visit recommend.com and search for “Biking Through Europe.”
hanging with the girls in russia
Included in Indus Travels’ Women Only programs is an 8-day tour to Russia that is led by a female tour leader. It features a cooking class in Moscow, including dinner; a visit to a Russian tea room for sweets and pastries; a Russian banya (sauna) experience; special Matryoshka doll shopping expedition; learning about Catherine the Great and visiting her summer palace; a farewell vodka cocktail in a local bar; and myriad other unique highlights. Rates are $2,399 and departure dates are May 11, July 13, and Sept. 14. For more information, visit indus.travel/russia/women-only-tours/wow-russia-express or indus.travel/login.aspx (travel agent login)
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com.magazine/issue-archive):
A Taste of Tradition in Eastern Europe (July 2012)
Brendan Vacations: (800) 421-8446; brendanvacations.com or brendanvacations.com/travel-agent-portal
Exeter International: exeterinternational.com
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours: (800) 685-4565; experienceplus.com
Hidden Trails: (888) 9-TRAILS; hiddentrails.com or hiddentrails.com/agents.aspx
Insight Vacations: (888) 680-1241; insightvacations.com or insightvacations.com/us/user/log-in (travel agent login)
O.A.R.S.: (800) 346-6277; oars.com
Secret Dalmatia: (877) 899-0635; secretdalmatia.com