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Travel secrets: Guid  es are the number one luxury

 

Kenya. I’m 24, sitting in an open-topped Land Rover on my first safari. Could it be more boring? “Ah, look at Mr Lion. He saying, ‘Who those people staring at me?’,” chortles the guide, looking around from the front seat with a wide grin. Cue appreciative laughter and – as soon as the guide’s back is turned – the international hand gesture for “that makes me want to vomit” from a teenage boy to his friend in the back seat. A bit harsh, I think, as I smile politely along with the other adults. But as the vehicle bumps on across the sand, and we encounter Mr and Mrs Warthog and a fleet of junior warthogs charging out of their burrow (“House on fire, heh heh? Gotta get out!”), I gloomily wonder why people go on about safaris being so compelling. It’s a relief to get back to the hotel, a resort-type affair with a big pool.

Fast forward a decade or so. I’m back in Kenya, reluctantly, having been told by my new husband (who grew up as an expat in Africa) that this is the most exhilarating form of holiday on the planet. (This time around I’m staying in a tent at Little Governors’ Camp; resort-type hotels in the bush are, as I learnt last time, the choice of fools). The guide for our first foray into the bush together is one Bill Winter, an energetic man with a thousand-yard stare and, I soon discover, intensely detailed knowledge of African wildlife. Before the engine has started, I have learnt that male cicadas chirp at a decibel level of 100. Five minutes later, Winter has stopped the vehicle beside a pile of dung. “OK, we’ll start with the dung beetle,” he says, plunging his hand into the mound as I inwardly cringe. Soon I am grinning, buzzing with new information, a safari convert. Dung beetles are the only creatures to navigate by the Milky Way? The brain of a gemsbok has a cooling capillary system that stops it fromover-heating in harsh sunshine? Amazing! I love it!

A guide can make or break a holiday and good guides aren’t just a luxury. They’re the ultimate luxury. Better than the biggest hotel room or best restaurant table – or, rather, the perfect complement to those examples of excellence and essential to wringing the maximum amount of pleasure from the holiday experience. The more I’ve travelled, the more I have come to treasure these brilliant fonts of knowledge. Get a good guide and you’re plugging into their expertise and getting a shortcut to the best of wherever you’ve pitched up. A good guide has the power to transform your experience of a place. It’s not until you have the experience of being taken around by someone who knows the area inside out, and who can tailor their commentary to your age and outlook and particular interests while stimulating your curiosity in places and events and points of view you may never have considered before, that you realise what you’ve been missing. A well-compiled guide book or app can be stimulating. With those, though, it’s one-way traffic. You can’t ask questions, have a dialogue, probe for the back story.

 

A New York friend of a friend, formerly married to a billionaire – who thus routinely stayed in the best suites in the world’s best hotels – recently told me that the best holiday they ever had was when her late husband read a newspaper article by the distinguished historian John Keegan about the war cemeteries in Normandy, found out Keegan’s phone number and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “To have that great, knowledgeable man escort us all around the cemeteries was the most inspiring, informative, humbling experience we ever had as a family,” she told me, reverently.

 

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