Tours with expert input are extra-special, says Katie McGonagle

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If a little knowledge goes a long way, imagine how far an out-and-out expert could take you.

Any good tour guide can field questions on an impressive array of subjects – and the best ones do so while keeping conversation flowing, staying on schedule, and sorting out any hitches along the way.

But for clients who want to focus on a favourite hobby or pick up a new passion as they travel, there’s no substitute for learning first-hand from a real expert in the field.

That’s why specialist tours draft in professionals to enrich the group experience – not only can it attract travellers who wouldn’t usually choose an escorted tour, but with higher price points than standard tours, this is a lucrative market that could earn you extra commission.

Gardens




Never mind the pink or the grey pound: if the trend for garden-themed holidays is anything to go by, the green fingered-pound packs just as much punch. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) lends its expertise to garden tours run by a handful of operators – Wendy Wu Tours in China, Titan in the UK, Voyages of Discovery and Swan Hellenic for cruise, and Collette across Europe, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and the US. They’ve proved so successful that Collette introduced a dedicated brochure last year, and Wendy Wu will do the same in 2015.

All Collette’s garden holidays use expert guides, but each tour also has one departure led by an RHS Specialist Host from a pool of writers, garden curators and destination specialists. They include Matthew Pottage, an expert in ornamental plants, who will accompany New Zealand’s Garden Route next February. The 22-day journey from Auckland to Christchurch goes via Hamilton Gardens, for a tour led by the estate director, private grounds in Queenstown, and the award-winning gardens once owned by women’s suffrage leader Kate Sheppard. Prices start at £4,899 for standard departures and from £6,089 for the Specialist Host departure on February 1.

Even more exotic species can be found on Wendy Wu’s Plant Seekers tour around China’s Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, but if the prospect of rooting out unusual plant life wasn’t enough to woo gardeners, knowing the tour is led by RHS executive vice president Jim Gardiner and the curator of Chelsea Physic Garden, Christopher Bailes, should do the trick. They’ll be on hand to highlight the signature trees found on Mount Emeishan, identify some of 2,500 plant species in the remote Nine Villages Valley, and discuss the diverse plant life on Ganhaizi Wetland during the 15-day tour, which starts at £4,990 including flights, accommodation, meals and visas.

Europe’s green spaces can offer just as much of a thrill to enthusiasts, especially when they come with input from Gardeners’ World presenter Monty Don. His guest lecture forms part of APT’s 15-day Botanica World Discoveries luxury river cruise on the Rhine, Moselle, Saône and Rhône, which departs April 23 (prices from £5,245 including flights, meals, drinks and tips).

Photography




Getting the right angle, catching the light and framing a subject while still managing to capture a fleeting moment – taking a great photo can be tricky, but a little professional guidance will make it that much easier.

Wildlife expert and photographer Paul Goldstein leads several Exodus tours each year to Kenya and the polar regions. The operator’s nine-day Photographic Safari is based at luxury tented camp Kicheche in the Masai Mara, and includes photographic tuition while game-viewing to make sure clients come back with the best possible shots (from £3,999 including flights, accommodation and breakfast, departing January 8).

G Adventures also includes a photographer – along with ornithologists and marine biologists – on its Antarctic tours on board Expedition.

It’s not always about going to the ends of the earth, though. Insight Vacations brings a professional photographer on its Picture Perfect Italy trip to help guests capture this beautiful country on film, from the snow-topped Dolomites and colourful Cinque Terre, to the hills of Tuscany and the capital itself. The 18-day trip starts at £4,350 land-only including B&B, but get in there quickly – it departs on September 9.

Escorted Tours

Astronomy




While cameras will certainly be clicking on any northern lights tour, Explore’s four-day Iceland itinerary calls on a different kind of expert – astronomer Andrew Green – so guests can understand the science behind this natural wonder. Tours run from October-December and February-March, costing from £989 with flights.

If clients have already ticked the aurora borealis off their bucket list, why not suggest adding a total solar eclipse?

Astronomy tour brand Explorers, part of the Intrepid group, has a 16-day trip to Indonesia to witness this rare phenomenon in the company of astronomer Dr John Mason. Next year’s trip is already sold out, but a departure on February 28, 2016, starts at £4,799 including flights, accommodation and some meals.

History




Forget stuffy history lessons or tweed-clad teachers – the best way to understand a region’s past is to learn about it while you’re there. Explore calls on historian and archaeologist Antonio Marretta to accompany its Ancient Sicily tour, bringing the dusty Greek and Roman ruins at Syracuse and the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento to life (15 days, from £2,182 including flights in September or October).

Likewise, journalist and author Jonathan Fryer lends his expertise – he covered the Vietnam war, contributed to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent and is a university lecturer – to Jon Baines Tours’ newest itinerary. Gold, Frankincense and Trade in Oman and Jordan departs November 4, covering more than a 1,000 years of history by retracing the route of ancient frankincense merchants from Muscat to Salalah, Jerash, Petra and Wadi Rum (flight-inclusive prices from £3,550).

Even if clients don’t fancy spending their whole time immersed in history, expert input can still help make sense of what they see. Travel Indochina’s Khmer Empire Tour bookends its visit to the iconic Angkor Wat with an archaeologist-led tour of Angkor National Museum beforehand and a lecture from a University of Sydney historian for a more in depth explanation afterwards.

Putting a human face on war history, Riviera Travel’s South Africa Tour visits KwaZulu-Natal’s battlefields in the company of a local guide whose great-grandfather was a Zulu chief who fought at Rorke’s Drift. Likewise, Grand UK’s Battle of Britain calls in a local aviation historian to put the rest of the tour – which includes seeing Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster on the Battle of Britain Memorial flight at RAF Coningsby – into a local context.

Art




Everyone interprets artworks in their own way, but understanding the historical and cultural influences that shaped them can unlock more layers of meaning.

In the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, for example, the famous frescoes by late medieval painter Giotto are impressive by any measure. But the experience becomes that much more meaningful on Travelsphere’s An Italian Journey, with a Franciscan monk to explain the religious symbolism and how this style paved the way for the Italian Renaissance.

Likewise, Trafalgar’s Highlights of Peru includes a visit to the Larco Museum in Lima, home to the largest private collection of pre Columbian art in the world, where the museum curator offers invaluable insight into these ancient cultures through the artefacts they left behind. The seven-night tour starts at £2,525 including flights, accommodation and UK transfers.

Local culture




When it comes to getting under the skin of a culture, the real experts are those who live and breathe it every day. Travel 2 highlights the 10-day Heritage of America tour, which starts with an insider’s guide to the Big Apple, visiting Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chelsea Market and other local hangouts, before moving on to tour an Amish community with a chance to see their customs first-hand. The tour, operated by Collette, starts at £2,199 including flights and transfers for a March 20 departure.

Over in Japan, artist and photographer Peter Macintosh has become an expert in the traditions of the geisha since being one of few foreign men allowed access to this unique world. He runs a walking tour of Kyoto’s old Gion district for InsideJapan’s Japan Enchantment and Classic Japan tours, finishing with a private performance from a geisha.

Food and drink




The rise and rise of foodie tours has been well-documented, but some go beyond a few cooking classes or street food tours. Back-Roads Touring recently introduced A Taste of Scotland, a five-day culinary tour led by Carolyn Robb, who was personal chef to Prince Charles and Princess Diana for 11 years. The trip includes a private dinner on the Royal Yacht Britannia, plus visits to a whisky distillery and an artisan smokehouse (from £2,895, available April-October).

With Italy’s reputation for good food, it could be argued that any home cook is something of an expert, but the host of the agriturismo where G Adventures bases its Local Living Sorrento trip has a very specific field of expertise – lemons. Luigi lives on the lemon farm where the property is based, hosting a guided tour of the grounds and a limoncello-making session (from £999 for a week land-only).