Top 3 Smart Tour Companies: Pack Your Bag and Start a Cerebral Vacation

To accommodate those in search of greater and more meaningful travel experiences, there are tour companies that specialize in educational and culturally enriching learning adventures.

It was the ancient Greek playwright Euripides who said “Experience, travel — these are as education in themselves” and over two thousand years later, it seems that for many, travel is still the best way to learn about the world and ourselves. Each time you visit a foreign land and immerse yourself in a new culture, you embark on a journey of discovery that has far reaching effects long after you return home. So while some may choose to travel on group bus tours that shepherd tourists from one Kodak moment to the next and from one fixed price tourist menu restaurant to the next, there are discerning travelers who seek out a more cerebral vacation.

One such operator is Context Travel: a network of architects, historians, and art historians who organize walking seminars, special events, and exclusive access to cultural sites for intellectually curious travelers. Their Out of Context series runs throughout the year in seven cities around the world: Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Paris, London, and New York. The walks last anywhere from three hours to all day and provide an in-depth alternative to traditional tours with small groups (six people maximum) being led by scholars and historians. In Italy, the series includes special activities like after-hours visits to the St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (May 13, June 17, July 14 and October 9; $133) and reservation-only visits to the Vasari Corridor in Florence (April 25, May 23, June 13 and July 11; $172).

Ancient history buffs will be enthralled by Anthony Majanlahti’s series on the families of Rome which includes private visits to closed palaces with one of the world’s top experts on Roman nobility (June 17, June 26 and July 1; from $102). Or there’s Jane da Mosto’s program on the Ecology of Venice (June 23 and October 6; $78), as well as the Egg Tempera and Gold-Leafing workshop in Florence (July 3; $86). For the sophisticated traveler to Paris, the series includes more esoteric pursuits like Carolin Young’s “Rite of Spring Banquet” at Le Pharamond Restaurant (May 7; $436) or Louisa Chu’s excursion to Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale produce market (May 28; $180); two culinary highlights tailored to appeal to fine food connoisseurs. Prices vary from around $40 for the Buried Under Rome experience with Saskia Stevens (May 20, 2008) to the $450 Vatican Museums after-hours visit with Elizabeth Lev (May 5, May 29 and June 12, 2008). For a complete splurge, indulge in one of Context’s Scent Dinners with Chandler Burr and receive a master class in perfumery whilst dining and experience the relationship between food and scent. Scent Dinners will be taking place in Paris (June 5) for $500 per person and in Rome (June 10) and Florence (June 11) for $187.

TraveLearn is, as its name suggests, a company that combines the excitement of travel with the joy of learning. Their ten-day Vietnam: Yesterday and Today program runs from September 18 to 29 and October 16 to 27, 2008. Participants get to experience and learn about Vietnam’s ancient traditions and culture and gain insights into the contemporary local customs and the current social, economic and political situation of today’s Vietnam. Visit UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Complex of Hue and Monuments Ha Long Bay and Hoi An Ancient Town. You can meet local people through a specially arranged school visit, eat a special dinner in a traditional aristocratic home, visit villages in the Mekong Delta and craft workshops in Hanoi, and experience the sights and smells of markets while purchasing ingredients for a cooking class at the Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School. The program features all air and land transfers in Vietnam, specially arranged lecture/seminars and field experiences, deluxe and first-class accommodations, professional English-speaking guides, touring and most meals. This specialized cultural immersion tour is priced at $1,895 per person based on double occupancy land-only; add $695 single-room supplement. International airfare is additional.

Their 11-day Egypt Yesterday and Today program runs from June 17 to 29 and October 15 to 27, 2008. Apart from visiting the most prolific sites in the country, including the temples at Luxor, Karnak, Edfu and Denderah, the Pyramids of Giza, the Egypt Museum of Antiquities, Memphis and its Necropolis, Abu Simbel and several historic mosques. You will also be privy to a series of informative lectures including Introduction to Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Ancient Egyptian Mythology, Religions of Ancient Egypt, The Old Kingdom and the Pyramid Age, Contemporary Egyptian Art and Pharaonic Egypt. Stay at first-class hotels (like the Meridien Pyramids and Ramses Hilton in Cairo), take a deluxe Nile river cruise and enjoy three meals each day on the cruise plus most meals on other days. This trip, land-only is priced at $2,695 for the June departure and $100 more for the October departure. (single supplement is $595 or $425 respectively) and also includes an air excursion to Abu Simbel, specially selected Egyptologists for site visits, all sightseeing and entrance fees, plus tips and taxes.

If you would like to immerse yourself in all things French, then Travel Med offers travel experiences that focus on the art, architecture, cuisine and culture. Their French, Wine and Cuisine learning tour is a seven-day package that combines French lessons, a wine tasting orientation, wine tasting sessions, cooking lessons and exceptional cuisine, set against the stunning backdrop of Provence. Tours begin on a Sunday (June 21, July 12, September 13 and October 4, 2008) in Aix-en-Provence and end on the following Saturday with a Sunday departure. Each morning features three hours of French language lessons and every afternoon there is a wine activity led by a local sommelier or a cooking class where participants learn about traditional Provençal cooking, seasonal produce and recipes. The tour is led by Phillippe Gerardin, an oneologist with a rich background in French and Italian cuisine. Learn about the fundamentals of harvesting and vinification in famous wine growing regions and towns like Château-neuf-du-Pape and Dentelles de Montmirail and receive instruction about wine pairing with cuisine. Also enjoy four dinners, one lunch, six nights’ accommodations and touring to cities like Avignon for $2,490 per person based on double occupancy. International airfare is additional. Single supplement is an additional $300.

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