Small escorted tour holidays are increasing in popularity, whether they offer trips to Russia or the Lake District. All transportation is organised for you, as well as hotels and most meals.
A tour manager is on hand throughout to take care of the itinerary, paperwork or any problems. And along the way, the best guides join the trip to bring each destination to life.
Some of next year’s escorted holidays offer a raft of exciting extras, including private, after-hours tours of otherwise crowded galleries, and the opportunity to meet famous families with incredible stories to tell. Here are ten of the best with VIP treats galore.
TASTES AND SOUNDS OF THE SOUTH
A 10-day tour of Nashville and New Orleans includes trips to the likes of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Elvis’s Graceland mansion and the Grand Ole Opry
This is the ultimate tour for music lovers. Start in Nashville, where you’ll head to RCA’s famous Studio B to see where Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves and Roy Orbison recorded some of their biggest hits.
Later, see Elvis’s gold Cadillac at the Country Music Hall of Fame, listen in on the weekly radio recording at the Grand Ole Opry, tour Memphis with a blues maestro, visit Elvis’s Graceland mansion and then head south for some Creole food (served in the cook’s own home) en route to New Orleans.
VIP treat: Johnny Cash’s family still live in Nashville – and you will meet his grand-daughter or another family member for a relaxed chat about the star’s life. You can also enjoy a private, very personal performance of the singer’s music.
Details: The ten-day tour with Trafalgar (trafalgar.com) starts from £2,115pp, including flights to Nashville and home from New Orleans.
COUNTRY ROADS OF ITALY
The Vatican’s fabulous Bramante Staircase, pictured, an architectural wonder and normally off-limits to the public
Few tours let you see as much of Italy as this one, while still maintaining a relaxed, dolce vita pace.
Start in Rome, visit Pompeii, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Assisi, San Gimignano, Florence, Venice and more, always with a friendly tour manager and a set of knowledgeable guides leading the way.
VIP treat: In Rome, a private guided tour of the Vatican takes you behind the scenes to the stunning double helix of the incredible Bramante Staircase, an architectural wonder and normally off-limits to the public. You also travel on the Vatican’s electric train to the flower-filled town of Castel Gandolfo, formerly the site of the Pope’s summer residence.
Details: The 16-day tour starts from £3,533pp, including flights to Rome and back from Venice. Visit insightvacations.com.
NORTHERN IRELAND CULTURAL EXPERIENCE
The blockbuster Titanic Museum, the Giant’s Causeway, pictured. and a tour and tasting at Bushmills, the oldest whiskey distillery in the world, are highlights of a tour of Northern Ireland
The blockbuster Titanic Museum, the Giant’s Causeway and a tour and tasting at Bushmills, the oldest whiskey distillery in the world, are highlights of a holiday based at Belfast’s iconic Hotel Europa.
It’s where journalists gathered during The Troubles and where US President Bill Clinton and his entourage booked 110 rooms for a stay in 1995.
VIP treat: Music and dance are at the heart of this tour. Listen to the former and try your hand at the latter in a special performance and demonstration with local experts. Sport more your thing? Have a go at hurling instead, with an instructor at your side.
Details: A five-day tour starts at £1,149pp, including return flights to Belfast (prestigeholidays.co.uk).
MEXICO’S MAYAN TRAIL
Dawn of a new day: The sun rises at Chichen Itza in Mexico before the crowds flood in towards the temples
Guides help guests navigate the happy madness of modern Mexico City at the start of a tour. Then move on to see ancient Aztec sites, sun pyramids, lost cities and tiny villages or pueblos deep within the countryside.
Two weeks later the tour ends relaxing on the warm, sandy beaches of Cancun.
VIP treat: On the final day on this trip, you’re woken before dawn, served coffee in the hotel and taken through the locked gates of Chichen Itza to watch the sun rise, hours before the general public are admitted to the site. Later, as the crowds flood in towards the temples, you head back to your hotel for a full breakfast.
Details: The 16-day tour starts from £2,549pp, including flights to Mexico City and back from Cancun. Visit titantravel.co.uk.
BEAUTIFUL CHATSWORTH AND THE PEAK DISTRICT
On a tour of the Peak District, holidaymakers can enjoy a tour of Chatsworth House, pictured, before it opens to the public
Relax as friendly guides showcase some of England’s most glorious countryside, giving you the chance to take the waters in Buxton and try Bakewell tarts in the town that gave them their name.
A drive through Sherwood Forest and optional spa treatments at your hotel add to the informal elegance.
VIP treat: Enjoy a private tour of Chatsworth House before it opens to the public. The Palace of the Peaks has been the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and their family for 16 generations – in addition to beating the crowds, you’ll be able to look around rooms normally kept off-limits.
Details: The five-day tour starts from £569pp, including coach pick-up points all around the country. Visit shearings.com.
Holidaymakers can travel by hydrofoil to the Peterhof Palace (known as ‘Russia’s Versailles’) on a tour of St Petersburg and Moscow
See the best of St Petersburg and Moscow, including a sunset ‘white nights’ river cruise and a guided tour of the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg.
Travel by hydrofoil to the Peterhof Palace (known as ‘Russia’s Versailles’) and by high-speed Sapsan train to Moscow, where a Kremlin tour takes you to rarely visited parts of the Royal Apartments in the Grand Palace.
VIP treat: The Hermitage in St Petersburg is one of the biggest museums in the world. On this tour you beat the crowds with a private, after-hours visit accompanied by an art historian – and with a glass of champagne in hand.
Details: The eight-day tour starts from £3,623pp, including flights to St Petersburg and back from Moscow. Visit luxurygold.com.
On a tour of Wessex, guests are allowed to visit Stonehenge before any other tourists arrive at the ancient site
Salisbury Cathedral and the stories of Old Sarum are highlights of this expert-led tour, which also includes Glastonbury, Avebury, Bath and the Cotswolds.
Along the way, guests explore ancient abbeys, roman villas and prehistoric sites.
VIP treat: Hours before any other tourists arrive at Stonehenge, your group gains privileged access to the site. Your guide will lead you into the centre of the sarsen stones (roped off to the public except on special occasions like this) and you’ll enjoy the treat of watching the sun rise from the heart of the circle.
Details: A seven-day tour starts at £2,895pp. Visit petersommer.com.
FLORENCE AND TUSCANY
Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, pictured, during a guided tour of both Florence and Tuscany. Food and art lovers can rejoice in this indulgent trip
Food and art lovers can rejoice in this indulgent trip. Guides arrange pitstops for the best pecorino cheese, freshly baked bread and local olive oils. Enjoy wine tastings amid the rolling hills of family-owned vineyards. Climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa and visit the picture-perfect towns of Lucca and Siena.
In Florence, you will have a beat-the-lines tour of the Uffizi gallery, with its fabulous collection of works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci.
VIP treat: It’s the ultimate Italian extra – guides in classic Fiat 500s are on standby to take you on two-hour tours through the glorious Tuscan landscape, with a gelato stop along the way.
Details: Tours start at £999pp, including return flights to Florence. Visit rivieratravel.co.uk.
THEME PARKS AND FAMILY FUN IN JAPAN
Taiko drumming in Japan. Guests on a tour of Japan can get a lesson in his kind of drumming. It is described as an ‘incredible adrenaline hit’ by recent guests
As the name suggests, this is perfect for adventurous families who like to get immersed in Japan’s ancient (and much more modern) culture. In Kyoto, guests are given an insight into the world of the ninja and an instructor teaches the group how to throw their traditional stars.
In Tokyo, you’re given tickets to Disneyland, and in Osaka there’s a visit to Universal Studios.
VIP treat: The first is a very loud taiko drumming lesson, described as an incredible adrenaline hit by recent guests. The second is a visit to a private home to learn how to make perfect sushi, and to leave with a home-made bento lunchbox.
Details: A typical 14-day Japan tour starts at £6,555pp, including return flights to Tokyo. Visit audleytravel.com.
THE TRIBES AND TEMPLES OF ORISSA
The 12th Century Konark Sun Temple, a Unesco world heritage site. It is a stop off point on a tour around the Bay of Bengal
History is all around the Bay of Bengal in eastern India – and this tour aims to bring it to life with a tailored itinerary and plenty of added extras.
With echoes of Buddhist and Hindu eras, as well as the days of the Raj, you visit the 12th Century Konark Sun Temple, a Unesco world heritage site, and visit the city of Bhubaneshwar, home of more than 500 ancient temples.
VIP treat: There’s an overnight stay at the Maharajah of Dhenkanal’s Palace. The Maharajah and his wife still live in the building and often join guests for dinner. Later in the tour, head to the hills to meet members of the Kondh and Bonda tribes and see other holy men perform their evening rites in Joranda.
Details: The 14-day tour starts from £2,390pp including return flights to Calcutta (explore.co.uk).