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As a travel writer I’ve travelled in all kinds of ways.
I’ve travelled alone, I’ve travelled with my wife, and I’ve been on numerous press trips, where a group of journalists are taken somewhere to see a destination, a hotel or an event. My first one was to Siberia!
As a travel writer you do get around.
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An Irish affair
Some of the best memories, though, are from trips where I joined up with a group tour. I took my first group trip reluctantly – a newspaper had asked me if I wanted to write about the experience so I took the job.
This was a coach tour of the highlights of Ireland, very similar to Saga’s Legends of the Emerald Isle tour, taking in Dublin, the Cliffs of Moher, Bunratty Castle, Blarney Castle, and pretty well everything you’d want to see on a whistle-stop tour of Ireland.
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To my surprise there were other highlights, every bit as memorable as the sights. The group was a mixed bunch of Australians, Americans and Brits, and the banter on the coach, during meals or at music sessions in the pubs in the evening was a delight.
One or two of the people had mobility problems, and it was heartening to see how they didn’t let this prevent them from living life to the full, and how the other passengers rallied round to help them when they needed it.
It was a true sharing experience of Ireland.
Exploring the Land of the dragon
Group tours needn’t restrict you to always being with the group, either.
Many have flexibility built in, so you can opt for the safety and company of the group if you wish, but still do some exploring.
So it was with a tour I joined in China, with a similar itinerary to Saga’s Land of the Dragon. Starting in Beijing and taking in The Great Wall, we travelled to Suzhou, Shanghai and many other highlights; it remains one of the best experiences of my life.
I’d palled up with an Australian guy who was also on his own. After a magical day seeing the fascinating city of Xi’an and The Terracotta Warriors (one of those attractions that takes your breath away when you see it for real) the tour group were taken back to the hotel for dinner and relaxation.
Brian and I decided instead to venture out for a meal at a local restaurant, recommended in a guidebook.
We asked the hotel receptionist to write out the name and address of our hotel and the restaurant in Chinese script, and summoned a taxi.
The driver dropped us but it soon became apparent that the restaurant had disappeared. We were wondering what to do when a little boy emerged and chatted to the driver, who indicated we should follow the boy.
He took us along a few streets, and eventually pointed to the restaurant, which had moved. He ran away, happy to have done a good turn.
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Experiencing the local cuisine
The restaurant was more of a hole-in-the-wall cafe, but the smell of the cooking was wonderful.
Brian was a wine lover and from a cooler he’d been carrying he produced a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and asked if they could pop it into the fridge and let us drink it.
There was no English menu but we somehow managed to order. It was superb. As was the Cloudy Bay. Brian even had wine glasses with him.
After dinner, the owners showed us where we might find a taxi. We were ambling along, enjoying the strange sights of a Chinese city at night, when a young couple approached us and asked us if we wanted to go to a club.
We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. What kind of club?
‘Jazz club,’ the young man said. ‘Music… good beer!’
OK, we thought. In for a penny, in for a pound. It was a basement bar with beer at regular prices. On stage a trio was playing, the male singer belting out Unchained Melody in a kind of strangulated English that was both funny and touching.
We had a couple of beers then got a taxi back to the hotel.
The entire adventure had cost us no more than a few pounds. And still today, whenever I hear someone sing ‘Oh my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch’ I’m taken back to that bar, that night in Xi’an, and the rest of my time in that remarkable country.