My husband and I will never forget the guide we hired during our visit to North Africa three decades ago. Ahmed arrived at our hotel with his camel. He was going to show us the authentic Tunisia — the old Arab medina quarter, the souk’s twist of alleyways, the beachfront restaurant known for its lip-smacking couscous. But first he wanted to show us a pet trick. Taking a bucket of straw, he pushed handfuls of hay down the front of my tank top. “Now eat,” he instructed the camel. My husband and I quickly decided that we could navigate the souk on our own.
Fast forward 30 years and you no longer have to put up with the likes of Ahmed to get an insider look at a foreign destination. With a bit of Internet research or the help of a tour company, you can find superlative guides who are experts in topics ranging from Antarctic penguins to Buddhist monasteries. You can gaze up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling with your own private art historian (www.bellinitravel.com), fish a salmon river in Iceland with the world’s premier fly tier (www.roxtons.com), or even — if money is no object — take an around-the-world tour of exotic cultures aboard a private jet with an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution.
The best guides do a lot more than simply speak the local language and navigate crowded streets. They also provide expert commentary and a personal connection to a place, a time and a culture. Nancy Wigston, a Toronto writer, took a tour of the Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires with a guide who was bar mitzvahed in the city’s historic synagogue (www.jewish-tours.com.ar). “He told me stories about his own bar mitzvah, with his mother and grandmother throwing him candies for a happy life from the gallery, and I felt as if I’d stepped through the door into someone else’s childhood.”
How much does this personal connection cost? An escorted whirl around Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market with local historian Bruce Bell is just $25 per person and includes multicultural tasting stops for peameal bacon, pierogies, tempura and pungent cheese. More typically a good professional guide will set you back $200 to $500 a day, although some specialized guides cost $1,000 a day or more. John Fort, an Oxford graduate and reviser of the classic The Companion Guide to Rome, will arrange a private evening viewing of Rome’s Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. The two-hour viewings carry a €50 entry fee per person — plus a rather jaw-dropping guide fee of €3,200 ($4,700).
As pricey as that may sound, a good guide magnifies your experience and makes sure that you get full value out of every second. “Our Cairo guide was a top curator at the Egyptian Museum, so we didn’t waste any time going hither and thither,” says Peter Kane, a retired entrepreneur from St. Andrews by-the-Sea, N.B., who with his wife, Mary, has traveled around the world. “She was able to cherry-pick the very best of each temple, and tell us why it was important. At the end of the day, we were able to piece together the story of Egypt over many hundreds of years.”
High-end tour companies now compete with each other to hire the best, most knowledgeable guides. “In Europe, we have people who used to be in the British Foreign Service and negotiated NATO treaties,” says Pamela Lassers, spokeswoman for Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury travel company based in Downer’s Grove , Ill. “In Galapagos, we have naturalists who know the animals and can explain the concept of evolution. They live and work in the destination, know it intimately and can share their knowledge of the history and ecology.”
Of course, not all professional guides are wonderful, and some will remind you of Ahmed by trying to steer you into their cousin’s carpet store or asking for extra money at the end of the day. Finding the right guide boils down to three rules. First, do your research (some good starting points are listed in Guide and seek, below). Second, agree beforehand with your guide on what you want to see and do, and at what price. Finally, don’t be afraid to cancel the arrangement if it’s not working. Wigston, the Toronto writer, remembers a particularly inept guide in India who refused to drive her and her husband to Jaipur as they had arranged. Instead, he showed up late, driving a car without shocks, and insisted on showing them a bird sanctuary first. “We fired him,” says Wigston. “Then he began to weep inconsolably. But it’s your trip and your itinerary, and you shouldn’t be held hostage to a guide.”
Their second guide was more experienced and asked them what they were interested in before they set out. “He got us a better car, air-conditioned, with a siren and flashing lights, which he used to blast through intersections when I got food poisoning. Traffic halted and policemen saluted us!” I can only hope that, somewhere, somehow, Ahmed is reading this.
How to find a great guide
• Book with a reputable tour operator such as Horizon & Co., Canadian Travel Abroad, Abercrombie & Kent, the Royal Ontario Museum, or Smithsonian Journeys. Always book several weeks in advance.
• Ask for recommendations from the local Canadian embassy or consulate. Or hire a guide from the official tourist office in whichever city you’re in.
• If you want to book via the Internet, use a site accountable to its readers like www.journeywoman.com. Guide recommendations for solo women are listed under Girl Talk Guides.
• Check out winners of The Paul Morrison Guide of the Year awards sponsored by Wanderlust magazine. Winners have included people such as Goyotsetseg ‘Goyo’ Radnaabazar, a female musician who guides travellers through Mongolia in her traditional costume, and Zimbabwean naturalist Gavin Ford, who has led more than 2,000 safaris.