The 50 best escorted tours

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The 50 best escorted tours

From orca-spotting in Iceland and hiking in the Himalayas to sightseeing by private jet in America, Robert Ryan picks the top group holidays to book now

There is a definite snobbery about escorted tours, as if putting yourself in someone else’s hands for a holiday is one step away from a care home. Yet over the past few years, a new breed of group holidays has reinvented the escorted tour. Forget the dreary coach ride heading off on well-travelled roads — these trips are often for a small band of individuals and may go as far afield as North Korea or Burma. They take in special interests and are increasingly led by specialist guides: it’s no coincidence that MasterChef, the Royal Horticultural Society, Christie’s and Foyles have all teamed up with travel companies to do their own trips.

What’s more, some tours even take you behind otherwise closed doors, whether it’s to see private art in Cuba or to enjoy the Hermitage in St Petersburg before it opens to the public.

Exclusive access

1. Vatican archives
Andante Travels’ experts on history and archaeology are among the best in the business and pride themselves on special access to little-visited sites. Next year, as part of its Hidden Rome trips, the company has arranged access to the Vatican Secret Archive, repository for all the acts promulgated by the Holy See. Sadly for Dan Brown-like conspiracy theorists, “secret” here means “private”. Or so they claim.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: Five nights’ B&B plus three lunches, and flights, costs from £2,895pp in September 2015 (01722 713800,

2. Secrets of Florence
Dr Joachim Strupp, an expert on Italian art, leads a tour of private Italian palaces that also includes a walk through the Vasari Corridor, an elevated enclosed passageway between the Uffizi art gallery and the Pitti Palace containing Medici masterpieces. This is by special arrangement, as are the visits to Palazzo Corsini and Palazzo Capponi all’Annunziata.
Group size: maximum 18
Details: Four nights’ B&B with some meals and flights is from £2,120pp departing in November 2015 (020 8742 3355,

3. Another side to Cuba
Henrietta Loyd of Cazenove & Loyd opens up her Cuban address book and takes guests to museums, private art collections, for lunch with friends, gallery owners and art collectors to see a side of the island few will experience. There are also guided city tours, ballet, and, of course, sun and salsa.
Group size: maximum 12
Details: Seven nights’ full board is from £2,950pp, including flights in March (020 3733 1165,

4. Rooftop Jerusalem
Cox & Kings operates the Royal Academy of Arts travel arm, and its trips feature eminent lecturers who can pull the odd string or two to get special access. Its Jerusalem: The Golden City tour (led by the British Museum’s Konstantine Politis), which focuses on the rich architecture of the city, includes exclusive access to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Group size: maximum 25
Details: Six nights’ B&B with flights in October is from £1,795pp (020 7873 5000,

5. Private St Petersburg
A descendent of Tolstoy, Tania Illingworth opens the doors of St Petersburg during her Treasures of the Russian Tsars tour, with access to the vast Hermitage when it’s closed to the public, the best seats for the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, troika rides and visits to private galleries.
Group size: maximum 24
Details: Five days’ B&B is from £2,295pp, with some other meals, and flights in February (020 3582 2547,

6. Mandela’s South Africa
Rainbow Tours’ In the Footsteps of Mandela tour is led by anthropologist and specialist South Africa guide Roddy Bray and includes a private visit to the presidential estate in Cape Town and a walking tour of the city with Gordon Oliver (the mayor who welcomed Mandela to the city on the day that he was released) as well as visits to key Mandela sites.
Group size: maximum 12
Details: Fourteen nights in October costs from £4,990pp, including flights and most meals (020 7666 1250,

Unusual destinations

7. Art and caves in Iran
It may sound like a Game of Thrones spin-off but this Troglodytes & Assassins tour is a look at the astonishing rock carvings, churches, mosques, ancient temples and early Persian art that dot western and northern Iran. The tour title comes from the bleakly beautiful Valley of the Assassins and the troglodyte homes in Kandovan.
Group size: maximum 12
Details: Fourteen days costs from £2,795pp, including most meals and flights in October and April (020 7183 6371,

8. Walking in Albania
Northern Albania is about as remote from the rest of Europe as it is possible to get and on a Walks Worldwide group hiking trip to the suitably wild Accursed Mountains you feel like you’ve slipped back to a pre-technological age (as well as pre-tarmac). It includes the high passes of the aforementioned unfortunate peaks (cursed by a queen and pretty blasted in places) and the Thethi National Park, with its Matterhorn-like Mount Arapit.
Group size: maximum 10
Details: Eight days costs from £995pp, including most meals and flights, for departures from June (01962 737565,

9. Pakistan’s northwest
Wild Frontiers travel company started its tours in Pakistan so is au fait with the political complexities of the country and has the expert knowledge to take you there. Founder Jonny Bealby, who lived there and knows the locals well, considers it his spiritual home. Among the company’s tours to the country is one next May that will be led by Bealby himself — the 16-day Hindu Kush Festival Adventure. It takes in the spectacular mountain scenery, the ancient kingdom of Chitral, three days at the festival, and stunning Hunza.
Group size: maximum 12
Details: The 16-day trip leaving May 9 is £3,045, with flights and meals (020 7736 3968,

10. Colonial Colombia
There was a time a decade or so ago when the words “Colombia” and “kidnap” seemed interchangeable, but the country has since entered a welcome period of calm. Still, it is reassuring to have the help of old hands Journey Latin America to navigate this beautiful but sometimes chaotic country. Its Weaverbird: Spirit of Colombia itinerary includes Bogotá, coastal Cartagena, rainforest, archaeological ruins and some wonderful Caribbean beaches.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: Seventeen nights’ B&B costs from £3,488pp, including flights, with departures from October onwards (020 8747 8315,

11. North Korea
Next year is the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, and Regent Holidays, which has a number of tours to the country this winter, is running a commemorative trip. It will take in the capital of Pyongyang, the southern city of Kaesong, the Demilitarised Zone and the border with South Korea, and the stunning scenery of Mount Myohyang.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: Eight days’ full board from June 23 costs from £1,550pp including flights from Beijing (but not from the UK) and North Korean visa (020 7666 1244 ,

12. Secret Burma
Burma is hardly overrun with tourists but Voyages Jules Verne’s pioneering cruise of the Irrawaddy’s gorges in a shallow-draft boat takes the visitor even farther off the beaten path, deep into a world of small riverside villages, elephant camps and logging rafts.
Group size: maximum 20
Details: Eleven days’ full board is from £3,295pp, including flights in November and December (0845 1667003,

Escorted families

13. Pandas in China
China can be tough to negotiate on your own, and a hard sell for kids, but Wendy Wu Tours has a number of itineraries aimed at families, including “Discover China”, which includes a visit to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Centre, as well as designing, making and flying kites, trying Chinese calligraphy and visiting the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army.
Group size: maximum 28
Details: Eight days all-inclusive is from £2,390 per adult, £1,890 per child under 12, including flights, for trips in April (0844 8752436,

14. South Africa safari
Virgin Holidays Worldwide Journeys has a programme aimed at families with set departure dates in the school holidays. New this year is South Africa, including penguin spotting, whale watching, Table Mountain, ostriches, snakes, crocodiles and the Big Five on a malaria-free safari.
Group size: maximum 14
Details: Thirteen days’ B&B with some meals costs from £2,349 per adult, £1,149 per child 7-11, with flights based on August departures (0844 4173706,

15. Backwaters of Kerala
India isn’t always considered a family destination, but travelling by rice barge, minibus, elephant and rickshaw on an escorted tour of the Backwaters of Kerala is a perfect introduction to the sub-continent. It includes spotting wild elephants in Periyar National Park, a cookery lesson, Kathakali dancers and watching the local fishermen.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: Twelve days’ B&B costs from £1,699 per adult and £1,599 per child aged 5-12, including flights for departures from October onwards (01962 737560,

16. Islands of Croatia
A mix of walking, cycling, rafting, swimming or just lazing on deck awaits on this escorted boat-based adventure, cruising around the islands of the Adriatic including Vis, Brac, Hvar and Ciovo with plenty of non-active time too.
Group size: 32-45
Details: Eight days’ full board for summer 2015 is from £940pp (0845 2417599,, excluding flights (about £200)

17. Star Wars in Tunisia
See where the original Star Wars was filmed at Chott el Djerid on an eight-day tour of Tunisia. Other sites include the amphitheatre of El Djem, a night in a desert camp, and a Red Lizard train excursion through river canyons.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: The tour costs from £824 per adult and £742 per child based on a December 28 departure, including flights and some meals (0808 2525994,

18. Jordan with kids
The joy of travelling in Jordan is that its size makes it very easy to get around, yet it has a variety of interesting sights. This nine-day trip visits the lost city of Petra, the Roman city of Jerash, Crusader castles and biblical settings. Camp under the stars at Wadi Rum, float on the Dead Sea and snorkel in the Red Sea.
Group size: 12-18
Details: A nine-day trip costs from £1,321pp, including flights, B&B, two lunches and two dinners. Children must be aged five or older. Trips are available at half term and in the Easter holidays (0843 6346072,

Expert-led tours

19. Peru with Bradt
Hilary Bradt is a well known guidebook publisher who has been travelling in South America for 45 years. Next June she leads a trip to Peru concentrating on the little-visited pre-Inca archaeological sites of the north and trekking the spectacular snow-topped mountains.
Group size: maximum 10
Details: Fifteen days’ full board costs from £3,995pp, including flights (01285 880931,

20. Foyles tours in India
You get a triple literary whammy with this 13-day tour: it heads to the renowned Jaipur Literary Festival in January, is joined by novelist Marcel Theroux, and is put together with insider knowledge from the book store, Foyles. You get invitations to the inaugural party and the authors’ ball at the festival. Then head to Samode, where Theroux will lead a creative writing workshop.
Group size: maximum 20
Details: The 13-day tour leaving January 17 costs from £5,170pp, including flights, B&B, lunches and two dinners (020 7462 8414,

21. Explorers’ Borneo
Robin Hanbury-Tenison is a threatened species — a proper old-school explorer and author. Join him on a guided trip to Sabah in Borneo to see other exotic creatures; rare butterflies, proboscis monkeys, orangutans and, on the Kinabatangan River, pygmy elephants.
Group size: maximum 20-22
Details: Fifteen days costs from £6,295pp, including most meals, and flights next February (020 3582 2666,

22. Christie’s in Geneva
Christie’s auction house has teamed up with luxury specialists Abercrombie & Kent to run several art journeys with specialists, including this visit for an in depth look at Geneva’s watchmaking tradition. It’s led by Reginald Brack, the head of retail and watches at Christie’s, and takes in a behind-the-scenes private visit to the Patek Philippe Museum, tours of the Audemars Piguet plant and museum, and watch-handling sessions.
Group size: maximum 14
Details: The tour, from November 8-11, costs from £4,150pp with flights and half-board accommodation (01242 547775,

23. Algeria with Anthony Sattin
Writer Anthony Sattin is a leading expert on North Africa and the Middle East. He leads tours of Roman Algeria, which encompass the city ruins of Djemela and Timgad, with their triumphal arches and mosaics, the mountain hamlet of Tiddis, the ruins of Hippo and Tipasa and tours of Algiers, Constantine and Annaba.
Group size: 12-22
Details: Eight nights’ full board costs from £3,270pp, including flights from the UK in late October (020 8742 3355,

24. MasterChef in Marrakesh
Although MasterChef Travel’s USP is that it allows keen cooks to rub shoulders with the programme’s finalists or winners, it also runs (cheaper) trips where the guide is a specialist on their home turf. Such is the case with the owner of Dar Les Cigognes riad in Marrakesh who leads visits to local markets and bakeries.
Group size: maximum 15
Details: Four nights’ B&B in November costs from £995pp, including flights and some other meals (020 7873 5005,

25. RHS in Japan
Garden enthusiasts are always well catered for in the world of escorted tours. The RHS runs trips through Collette, including a top-end one to the exquisite gardens of Japan, including Happoen Garden in Tokyo for tea, Ryoan-ji, a famed Kyoto rock garden, and two of Japan’s Big Three gardens.
Group size: maximum 40
Details: Fourteen days costs from £4,959, including 19 meals and flights in October and April (0800 8048710,

Special interest

Food & drink

26. Gourmet India
Ampersand Travel’s The Art of Living to Eat is a blow-out 14-day escorted culinary journey between the cities of Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Calcutta and Hyderabad, with food historian Jonty Rajagopolan. It includes visits to restaurant kitchens, meeting chefs and traditional feasts in village homes.
Group size: 8-10
Details: From £4,483pp including all flights in October and 13 nights’ full board (020 7819 9770,

27. Mexican street food
Forget any jokes about a vindictive Montezuma, the best Mexican street food is delicious and perfectly safe if you follow the normal rules about eating things hot and freshly prepared. This escorted culture and culinary tour takes in Puebla (famous for mole poblano — chocolate sauce) Oaxaca (perhaps for chapulines — grasshoppers) and a taco-crawl in Mexico City.
Group size: maximum 12
Details: Seven nights’ B&B in October is from £835pp, plus three lunches and three dinners, internal flights but not international travel (0808 2745111, BA ( flies to Mexico City from £730 return

28. Wine of the Douro
Ditch your car on a vineyard tour and take a walking holiday through the vines, justifying those extra liquid calories. Wine specialist Arblaster & Clarke has a walking tour of Portugal’s Douro this October and next year. As well as port, sparkling and other non-fortified wines are included. The five-night trip is based in a quinta where the manager takes you out on daily forays for tastings, walking, more tastings, and plenty of food.
Group size: maximum 10
Details: From £1,195pp for five nights, with nine meals and all tastings, but not flights (01730 263111, Flights with TAP Portugal ( are from about £200 return to Porto

29. Tapas in Spain
Kuoni’s Gastronomic Highlights of Northern Spain by minibus is ideal for lovers of tapas and Gaudi (Barcelona), cava (Penedes), red wine (Rioja), beaches and pintxos (San Sebastian), and art and architecture (the Guggenheim in Bilbao).
Group size: average 10, maximum 18
Details: Nine nights’ B&B is from £2,056pp plus one lunch, one dinner and tastings in May (01306 855984, Flights cost extra. Vueling ( has flights to Barcelona and from Bilbao from £76


30. Orcas of Iceland
Iceland and cetacean expert Cathy Harlow leads Discover the World’s short escorted break to Iceland in search of orcas as well as exploring the lava fields of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Plus there is the chance of spotting the aurora.
Group size: maximum 25
Details: Four nights’ full board is from £920pp, excluding flights, for January-March departures (01737 214250, Wow Air ( has return flights from Gatwick to Reykjavik from £98

31. Animal snaps in Namibia
For those who want to record their travels as something more than a series of iPhone snaps, Wildlife Worldwide has tours aimed at both photography buffs and beginners. The 14-day tour of Namibia takes in the flora and fauna of Namib Naukluft Park, Sossusvlei and Etosha National Parks, including leopards and black and white rhino.
Group size: 10
Details: From £6,695pp, including most meals, all tuition/activities, local transport and flights, for May departures (0845 1306982,

32. Nature of Andalusia
You don’t have to go to pricey destinations to track rare wildlife. Naturetrek has a tour to the Coto Doñana and the rugged regions of the Sierra Morena in Andalusia, Spain, in search of the endangered Iberian Lynx, as well as the less elusive birds and mammals of the region.
Group size: 12
Details: Six days’ full board is from £995pp, full board, including flights, with departures from October to February (01962 733051,

33. Tasmanian devils
Wombats, wallabies, whales, the Tasmanian devil and the duck-billed platypus are on the list for local operator Premier Travel’s tour of the wildlife of Tasmania, including Cradle Mountain and Freycinet but also the lesser-known national parks of Narawntapu.
Group size: maximum eight
Details: Ten nights in Tasmania, including the seven-night tour, is from £2,495pp with most meals but not including flights (01534 735449, Flights to Tasmania from Melbourne cost from £120 return through Virgin Australia ( Flights from Heathrow to Australia with Austravel (0800 9884834, cost from £699

34. Polar bears in Canada
The polar bears of Churchill on Hudson Bay are a well-known stop on the Canadian tourist trail. Normally you view them from a safe distance, but Titan Travel sends its clients out in a Tundra Buggy, an enormous all-terrain vehicle straight out of Thunderbirds, high enough to keep you out of reach of even the tallest bears, who come right up to the side of the truck. There are also guided tours of Churchill and surroundings, insights into Inuit life, and a chance to go dogsledding.
Group size: maximum 20
Details: The nine-day Lords of the Arctic tour costs from £4,999pp, in November including five breakfasts, four lunches and five dinners, with flights (0800 9885823,

35. Madagascan lemurs
Saga Holidays has superb two-week guided trips in Madagascar throughout next year, during which visits are arranged to Isalo National Park and Mantadia National Park, where there’s the chance to see the country’s famous lemurs. The tour also includes stop-offs at a paper-making factory in Ambalavao, and time is spent visiting cultural sights in the capital, Antananarivo.
Group size: maximum 20
Details: From £2,699pp full-board with 12 nights at hotels and two on overnight flights, with travel insurance and a pick-up from home and drop-off service included (0800 414383,

Culture and history

36. Art in New York
Music and art combine on Kirker’s expert-led trip to New York and Philadelphia, which includes three performances at the Metropolitan Opera plus a backstage tour and a private visit to the Museum of Modern Art. In Philadelphia there’s a visit to the Cézannes, Renoirs and Matisses of the Barnes Foundation.
Group size: 18-25
Details: Six nights’ room-only in March is from £2,899pp, including opera and entrance tickets, two dinners, transfers and flights from the UK (020 7593 1899,

37. Music in Nashville
What about a private performance by a close relative of the great Johnny Cash? On Travelsphere’s Deep South tour, which takes in iconic music sites from Atlanta through Memphis to New Orleans, the day in Nashville includes a special show by either John Carter Cash (son) or Tommy Cash (brother).
Group size: average 45
Details: Fourteen days room-only is from £1,749 including four breakfasts, many excursions and tours (although Graceland is extra) and flights. There are multiple departures from October onwards (0844 4172479,

38. Gypsies in Romania
Songlines runs music tours to Africa, India, the Caribbean and Portugal, among others, and offers unique access to the musicians themselves. Its At Home With The Gypsies tour looks at the music and musicians that have influenced artists from Django to Bartok, with visits to the villages of Clejani, the home of the Taraf de Haidouks ensemble, and Zece Prajini, for the brass of Fanfare Ciocarlia, as well as the more urban lautari music of Bucharest.
Group size: 16
Details: Nine days’ B&B is from £1,500pp in August plus most other meals and all excursions/music (01992 579697, Flights cost extra. Wizz Air ( has return flights to Bucharest from Luton from £59

39. Battlefield tours
Battlefield tours are another area where it makes sense to go in an enthusiastic, knowledgeable group with an expert guide. Next year is the centenary of the debacle that was Gallipoli in Turkey, where the British lost more than 33,000 men and the Anzacs over 8,000 in appalling conditions (not least a fatal lack of fresh water). Holts has an escorted tour to the most famous sites in the Dardanelles — Cape Helles, ANZAC cove, Lone Pine Memorial and Suvla Bay — with expert explanations of how this bold landing turned into a tragedy.
Group size: 25-30
Details: Five nights’ full board costs from £1,895pp (01293 865000, including flights and all entrances, for a May departure

Walking and cycling tours

40. Hiking in Italy
The company name – Hedonistic Hiking – tells you who your companions will be. Its Italian Lakes trips take in Orta, Como and Maggiore by foot, boat, cable car and funicular.
Group size: maximum 16
Details: Seven nights’ full board with wine in May is from €2,695pp (£2,157pp). Flights cost extra (01858 565148, British Airways ( flies to Milan from £105 return

41. Active Vietnam
To see Vietnam properly, it’s good to see it as the locals do — by bike and on foot. On this Active Vietnam trip with Transindus you’ll also do a bit of river cruising on bamboo rafts, junks and hand-rowed sampans.
Group size: 8-15
Details: The 16-day trip costs from £1,845pp for departures in 2014 and £2,065 in 2015, including flights, B&B and some meals (020 8566 3739,

42. Walk the Himalayas
Village Ways specialises in introducing travellers to life in small communities of the Himalayan foothills through escorted walking tours, staying in guesthouses. For next year it has a women-only break that concentrates on the work of women in and around the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Group size: maximum 6
Details: Eleven nights in March is from £708pp, including rail transport from Delhi, room-only in Delhi (two nights) and eight nights’ full board in the villages (01223 750049, Flights cost extra. Skyscanner ( has flights from Heathrow to Delhi from £440

43. Snowshoe in Turkey
Exodus has a series of escorted trips from December to February that involves snowshoeing across the twisted landscape of Cappadocia, with its chimneys and caves, the harshness softened by a liberal sprinkling of the white stuff, as well as the wildlife and villages of the Taurus mountains.
Group size: maximum 16, average 12
Details: Eight days costs from £999pp, including most meals, all equipment and flights, for departures from December to February (0845 2877658,

Trains, planes and cars

44. Private jet for less
Think a private jet tour is beyond your budget? Well a Wings over the West air tour might not be — starting in Las Vegas with guided tours of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, a San Francisco Bay cruise, Napa Valley wine tasting, first-class train journey from the central coast to Los Angeles, and a private aircraft on all internal sectors.
Group size: the aircraft has 16 seats
Details: Nine nights is from £1,999pp B&B, with one lunch, two dinners and flights to Las Vegas, but not airport transfers at those locations (through DialAFlight, 0844 5566060, Departures are from May to September 2015

45. Luxury jet tour
Moving up a notch, an escorted tour by private jet with Captain’s Choice is always fully inclusive. Its 24-day Ultimate South America journey departs the Harrods VIP Terminal for Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and flies onwards to the Falkland Islands, Chile, Argentina, Peru, the Galapagos Islands and Bermuda.
Group size: 44
Details: From £32,490pp in April (0800 0463322, including all flights, meals, excursions and most drinks. Try a four-day taster session in Istanbul from £2,975pp

46. Classic cars in Wales
Petrolheads will love Classic Travelling’s driving itineraries. Its Welsh Borders Weekend features the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley, some of the best driving roads in the UK. The tour is led by the company’s director Sarah Dowding, although detailed maps mean you don’t have to travel in convoy.
Group size: maximum 18 cars
Details: Four nights’ B&B is from £895pp in April, with three dinners (0845 2301678, The tours are for “classic, vintage or sports cars” only but they can be hired

47. Route 66 by Harley
Bon Voyages’ Escorted Harley Davidson Motorcycle tours of Route 66 go from Chicago to Los Angeles, crossing three time zones and through eight states— 2,350 miles of riding, staying in bike-friendly three to four star hotels. You can choose a Triumph, BMW or Honda.
Group size: maximum 25
Details: Fourteen nights’ B&B is from £4,150 (0800 3163012, with two dinners and flights, leaving this October and throughout 2015

48. Isle of Man by train
Ffestiniog Travel has a range of rail-based escorted tours, including itineraries for train enthusiasts called Connoisseur Tours, so you can be sure fellow guests know what you mean when you talk about Elephant style coupling. The Isle of Man Driving Experience lets you drive an electric train, with footplate experience on the Groudle Glen railway and workshop tours.
Group size: 16-20
Details: Seven nights’ B&B is from £1,025 with one lunch and two dinners, in May (01766 772030,

Classic tours with a twist

49. Oz with added value
A new company, Distant Journeys, has a 22-day Wonders of Australia tour next year including a choice of UK departure airports, an overnight on the legendary Ghan train, and a selection of two-night outbound stopovers, all at no extra cost.
Group size: 40
Details: The 22-day trip costs from £3,695pp, including flights and B&B in four-star hotels (0808 2716915, with

50. Coast-to-coast USA
Scenic Tour’s Ultimate USA has guided tours in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Las Vegas (with a side trip to the Grand Canyon), Los Angeles,
Monterey and San Francisco, packing a lot in while still giving time for individual exploration. Plus all tips and gratuities are taken care of.
Group size: maximum 48
Details: Twenty days cost from £4,495pp B&B, plus seven other meals, flights to New York, internal flights and return from San Francisco, for departures in March