I recently heard a woman recount her experience on a group tour of the Biltmore Mansion. She was bored beyond belief at conversations that lingered on various methods of 18th-century wood cleaning products.
Imagine the absurdity of touring the largest privately-owned estate in America-- belonging to what was once one of the wealthiest, most prominent American families-- and not even scratching the surface of their legacy, but instead learning what they used to clean the surfaces.
For her, this was a hard pass. A never-again moment.
Independent travelers might shudder at the idea of "group travel".
Just the thought of group travel starts a mental slideshow of hulking tour buses, the flash of cities passing by the window, clusters of headset-clad tourists huddled around their weathered guide—discussions of 18th-century wood cleaning products. By night, cameras flash attempting to capture famed sights at a distance, by morning hurriedly packing to depart an unfamiliar room— on repeat for days and days until all the boxes have been checked and it’s time to return home.
Perhaps all of this sounds completely exhausting to you too, and yet, for some travelers, there’s an appeal to the conveyor belt approach to placing oneself physically in a new country. It provides a safe distance and a kind of regularity. The predictable, yet hasty schedule is a comfort amid an unfamiliar scene.
But group tours were NOT for me:
I'm an introvert
I love to research
I fancy myself a guru of planning & organization
I’m independent and self-assured (I’m a New Yorker after all!)
I don’t have a huge budget
I like to know my travel dollars are going to support the local community
I could NEVER travel in a group tour.
But then, I recall the first time I ate a raw oyster.
Many times I’d watched friends devour the shiny, putty-colored little lumps from their watery nest, one after the next. As if they had no consequence on their appetite. They would place the coarse edge of the shell under their lip, then slurp from the pearly side until everything inside was gone; the briny seawater, bits of sand, and the opaque little creature that had lived inside.
It wasn’t for me.
I observed while ignoring refrains of “you don’t know what you’re missing”, and “it’s an acquired taste”Then, on New Year's Eve in Rennes, France my host Yves offered me a small delicate plate with two raw oysters, a few sea snails, and clams. He offered me a tiny two-prong fork and a glass of white wine, selected to complement this portion of the meal.
Yves had gone to the market that morning, arriving at 5 am to collect fresh seafood from the fisherman returning from the Brittany coast. Then he’d lovingly cut into every jagged shell, detached each oyster, careful not to shave bits of shell with it, and prepared a mignonette to dress the little delicacies he was proudly serving his friends and guests.
This would be a very special meal.
I lost track of the courses, but I’d guess there were 9 or 10 counting the cheeses and dessert. Each with a small portion of wine that was paired so perfectly that I marveled at how one could even come to possess such knowledge.
The first oyster I would taste would be paired with the first glass of white wine I ever enjoyed. I had sipped a few whites before, but in doing so I always felt like an imposter. Sipping the chilled beverage, I was unsure if it was supposed to taste like funky, sour apple juice, or if I just had never had a “nice” glass.
That night I found out it was the latter, and also that whites, like many things, would be an acquired taste for me. Although I still come across some that make me question if the grapes were spoiled.
As I looked at my oysters and wine, then glanced up at the others at the table, hoping they wouldn’t notice, or God forbid, comment on my hesitancy. These were after all precious, French New Year’s oysters, the best batch in Rennes apparently. I couldn’t offend my host, or identify myself as an uncultured American with a simple palate.
So, mostly to stave off embarrassment, I picked up the simultaneously delicate and sturdy shell, place it to my lips, tilted my head slightly back, and let the contents slip into my mouth. I notice first the amount of liquid, not even detecting the jewel at the heart of this exercise. Then came the awareness of the salty taste meeting the pungent vinegar of the mignonette. This strange combination I liked, comforted by the lack of a fishy taste. My mouth felt completely engaged and awake, taking in sensations from every corner.
When I finally detected the oyster, I was so confident in myself as enjoying the distinguished experience I was surprised when my throat seemed to reject it from following the briny pool down into my stomach.
Panic came over me. “Don’t gag! Oh please don’t gag,” at this tiny, elegant, crowded table. I smiled, the little clump on my tongue. All the liquid from the vinegar and seawater has gone, with only saliva wetting my mouth. I took a sip of wine, expecting it to be like the others, but miraculously, it was delicious. Crispy and citrusy, with a faint sweetness.
All of a sudden, the oyster was nestled again in a little pool, but this time, its weight seemed to merge with the wine, rather than separate. With an apprehensive tightening in my cheeks, I swallowed.
I had done it. And mostly enjoyed it!
I’ve had a few oyster experiences where I just couldn’t get my throat not to go into rejection mode, no matter how much wine I offered it. Sadly, a few of my oysters have found themselves in a napkin, secretly discarded to avoid revealing myself as only being so-so on the ritual.
Although I wouldn’t become an oyster lover, I did learn about which white wines I liked, and became somewhat knowledgeable on French appellations to know how to order my preferred style at restaurants or wine shops. My favorite, by the way, Sancerre.
This night lives in my memory as one of the best meals, and loveliest evenings of my life. Most of my companions spoke only a little English, and I far less French. But we shared and celebrated the delicious meal, the festive spirit, and feelings of joy that transmute from person to person without the need for language.
I felt the Joie de vivre.
I let myself be a beginner. Awkward and foreign to the ways of being, taking cues from others, finding bravery, and embracing the moment. The experiences I’ve shared in the home of Yves, and his wife Annmarie, illuminated how I always desire to travel.
When given the opportunity to join with locals, whether it be a typical activity or a celebratory occasion, I excitedly accept. I set out to be curious, wide-eyed with delight, and comfortable in my discomfort. I see my energy, my respect, and enthusiasm as a gift to my host.
And by ‘the host', I mean the actual person extending me the invitation, and also the culture, community, and place, to where I’ve been granted entry. For it’s in these moments I find what I came for; a little more exposure to the multitude of ways life and joy and sorrow are expressed, a little more connected to myself. But mostly in the penetrating awe that comes from connecting with people, without shared language, culture, or background, we find kinship in what matters most— our humanity.
I share the oyster story not just to boast about the best meal of my life but also to note that the entire experience was all the richer by sharing it with others. The group energy coupled, dish after glorious dish, into an evening of joy.
For the traveler who seeks to receive an unfamiliar place in its fullness lays the challenge of shaping themselves to that place, rather than asking it to bend to their perception of how things work. This requires a bit of bravery no doubt, but also some self-awareness to notice when an uncomfortable feeling seeps in— a feeling of being a complete beginner. The vulnerability of not having a clue.
Group travel can offer access to experiences that might not otherwise be available, but also access to a container that holds us saying, “I’m a beginner too!”, “We are in this together,” “it’s safe to try if you want to.”
For this reason, even when I travel alone, which I often do, I seek ways to meet up with small groups. I’m introverted, so 1:1 can feel like a lot of pressure. My sweet spot for socializing is 3-10 people, depending on the setting. From seeking out group experiences, I’ve learned that I gain so much more than I do when on my own.
Massive guided tours will never be for me. However, I've discovered the benefits of traveling with the right travel groups & learned that I can get even more from hybrid group-solo travels than when totally on my own!
1. Experiencing new places with like-minded people who share a similar viewpoint on travel:
✔enriches the experiences
✔ helps us be braver
✔ have more fun.
2. You can actually afford more in a small group tour than when traveling alone
✔ The expertise of the tour leader, the benefits of their insights & knowledge
✔ Luxury” costs (private drivers, guides, experiences) are reduced when spread between a group.
3. Access to experiences
✔ Like local connections that put you in contact with things you just can't get on your own
✔ This access leads to more access, as the locals we meet share their favorite things to do, or which market has the best bread, where to get the best sunset views, or where not to go for xyz.
4. Traveling together reduces your individual carbon footprint
✔ You can also get tips from locals on best practices for public transit, which makes you more inclined to use it! Thus, reducing your footprint.
5. Shared experiences are a direct pathway to connection. Bonding experiences that can be transformative and life-changing (see story above)
6. The freedom that comes from not having to determine the when’s, where’s and how’s of every day!
✔ Even when planning is your superpower (humblebrag💁♀️) nailing the logistics of a place you’ve never been takes some doing
✔ even then there is never a guarantee something wasn’t taken into account.
(Like the time an entire city was closed for a Jewish holiday for the full 2 days I was there, even though it has a fairly small Jewish population)
7. When you know the details are handled, it allows you to be fully present. This can be a priceless element when checking off experiences from our Conscious Travelers Bucket lists.
8. Your money and time are precious. By selecting fully vetted experiences, that put you in the hands of caring locals, you can be secure in knowing you are making the most of your resources.
If you are one of those, “seeker” types of travelers, our small group trips are highly curated to offer truly meaningful experiences, that respect the destination and give travelers an opportunity to build the connection that leads to transformative experiences.
Traveling with others, when united by similar intention, for sacred time to expand awareness, and get below the surface of a place, leads to inspiration and helps focus us on our individual experience on the journey – making it even more meaningful.
The author of this blog is the Founder of Conscious Travel Collective, Tara.
You can find out more about Tara on our team page