Call me a masochist but I really enjoy the company of strangers. It is a maxim of mine, which I cling to through thick and thin, that there is no such thing as a bore, only interesting people to whom you have not yet asked the right questions.
Which is probably why I am such a big fan of escorted tours. The ‘E-word’ makes people twitchy. They worry they are going to be nannied, shepherded around in groups, forced to make uncomfortable small talk for hours at a time.
They are missing the point — which is that the comradeship of the road is as old as travel itself. It is an intrinsic part of what makes travel so exhilarating. Not just new scenery but new faces. Experiences shared. Friendships struck up far from home.
Max Davidson has ‘savoured every minute’ of his time spent on escorted tours
I have been on dozens of escorted tours in my time, in many different countries, in groups large and small, and I have savoured every minute.
From coach tours of English cathedrals to river tours of French vineyards, from bourbon distilleries in Kentucky to ancient ruins in Turkey, I have been there, done it. I could have visited the same places on my own, or with my family, but I doubt I would have brought home such a wealth of memories.
Quirky encounters. Mad conversations. Jokes. Stories. Mix-ups at airports. Late-night drinking. Larking about at the back of the bus, like children on a school trip. What’s not to like?
I have also learned a lot from the people who matter most on an escorted tour — the guides doing the escorting. These guides are part of a long tradition. In the 19th century, English travellers visiting Rome or Florence, hungry for cultural enlightenment, would be escorted by a cicerone. (In Muslim countries, the dragoman played a similar role.)
The cicerone was Wikipedia and Tripadvisor and Google Maps rolled into one. And if you think modern technology has rendered cicerones redundant, you are wrong. A good expert guide is like gold dust.
I can still see the face of the young Egyptologist who accompanied me and a small group of Brits on a Nile cruise 20 years ago. His enthusiasm was infectious. His knowledge about the tomb of Tutankhamun and the great Temple of Luxor was encyclopaedic.
A guide’s ‘encyclopaedic’ knowledge about the Temple of Luxor (pictured) left Max impressed
Different expert guides have different styles, which is all part of the fun. I remember another escorted tour of Egypt in the company of the English classical scholar Peter Jones.
His after-lunch slide shows were a riot. ‘In ancient Alexandria, you couldn’t move for sages. And they knew their onions.’ Boom-boom!
Independent travellers, spurning package holidays, doing their own research, straying off the beaten track, are rightly proud of their self-sufficiency. They are the heirs to the great Victorian explorers. But human beings are social animals
Such is the rich variety of the modern travel industry that your cicerone on an escorted tour might be not just charming and knowledgeable but also a household name.
I have been on an escorted tour of Vietnam, on a cruise ship, where freshly bought local produce was turned into delicious meals by Raymond Blanc, no less. Gastronomic heaven, with a seasoning of Gallic charm.
Even better was an escorted tour of the Caribbean a few years back, when I joined some England fans on an island-hopping, cricket-watching extravaganza in the company of David Gower, God’s gift to the cover drive.
For this avid cricket fan, it would have been a thrill just to glimpse the great man in the distance. To spend hours in his company, talking about cricket and life, with a glass of something good in hand, was riches indeed.
Independent travellers, spurning package holidays, doing their own research, straying off the beaten track, are rightly proud of their self-sufficiency. They are the heirs to the great Victorian explorers.
But human beings are social animals, and there is no shame at looking at travel through a slightly different lens. If you have looked down your nose at the idea of an escorted tour, think again.