Special Knowledge – Special Places
There was a time when I would never have considered using a guide. I muddled along, wasting loads of time, not seeing key features in the area and not normally being able to obtain answers to all the “Who? Why? When?” type questions that came into my head. In short, not understanding.
Now, I see it from the opposite point of view. For the last eight years I have done all the guided tours for our clients on our luxury hotel barge, the Saint Louis. Through the reactions of our guests on the boat, I now understand how the information that I have accumulated is valuable, or even essential, to our little business.
There is a key element here, which is that we have been operating in the same area, visiting the same places and developing the same contacts, for the past eight years. A good tour guide should be able to go into a new area and, following a bit of research, make a passable job of guiding a group through the main features of that area. But – and this is a very big “but”, absolutely nothing can substitute for eight years of experience in the same locality.
Having made that bold and controversial statement, I now need to substantiate it! In general terms, our guests are very taken with the experienced touch, and the personal anecdotes. “I remember when this whole area was flooded” or “If you look over there, right on the horizon some 35 kilometres away you will see the chimneys of the old paper-mill at Montech” or perhaps “Did you hear that bird – that was a nightingale” or “that was a golden oriole”. But there is much more to it than that.
As you may imagine, after eight years of visiting the same places, we now have a warm and friendly welcome everywhere we go. Our guests become part of a family as part of a knock-on effect – I am welcomed with smiles, and our whole group is welcomed.
It goes further than that. For example, one of our great visits is to a barrel-makers. Normally we are shown round by the most charming man imaginable, who founded the works and who has now handed over the reins of the business to his son. Some years ago, he said to me “If I cannot be here for one of your visits, just lead your group yourself – you know as much about this place as I do.” I am very conscious of the compliment, and of the trust that he places in me.
Similarly, we have often visited a charming little museum, dedicated to the maverick man who founded Detroit who was born in the very house that now houses the museum. If our lovely hostess is not available to show us round, she simply gives me the keys and we carry on without her. That sort of relationship can only come after years of working together.
Sometimes we visit an unusual little church that was originally a chapel of the chateau that surrounds it on three sides. The church is a brilliant visit, but it is sometimes made even better by my friends who own the chateau inviting us in for a look around their 12th century home, including a view from the tower and a cup of tea!
Clearly, the cruises that we do on the canal are the essence of “slow travel”, because we travel at walking pace and our guests have time to observe and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife of the countryside through which we glide. It is clear though that our personal visits to which we take our guests each day are also the essence of “slow travel”, because we work in harmony with our local friends and contacts, in many cases we take our guests to places that they could never find or access on their own, and we always give people time to absorb, understand and enjoy their discoveries.