It took Illinois residents Beth and Dave Macaulay a couple of tries to decide what style of international travel most appealed to them. Now, after traveling with Odysseys Unlimited 14 times, they've found the style of travel that fits their needs.
Following retirement, they first enjoyed a coastal Alaskan voyage and a coastal Norwegian voyage but decided that they didn’t want to continue the big boat cruising lifestyle. Next, they traveled to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos with another small group tour company. "We had a great time but wondered what other opportunities were available," said Dave. "It was obvious that small group travel had huge advantages for us."
After collecting catalogs from several small group travel companies, it became difficult to compare the companies. Obvious was the itinerary and the cost. But, explained Dave, “Our Machu Picchu/Galapagos experience had many hidden costs that weren't included in the initial price. Odysseys Unlimited promised no hidden costs."
Beth and Dave took two friends on their first Odysseys tour, Portrait of Italy, and had a fantastic time. From that first trip, they eventually took another 13 with Odysseys – and now have five more reserved! During this time, they also took a Canadian rail excursion and a European river cruise with other companies.
As they travelled, Beth and Dave compared notes with fellow travelers. "What companies have you traveled with? Where have you gone? What was your favorite trip?" When staying in a foreign city they compared the location of their lodging with lodgings used by other companies.
"We began to see differences in tour companies that weren't obvious from looking at catalogs," said Beth. "Another good small group tour company uses lodging that isn't as nice and isn't as well-located." "That company's slightly lower catalog price doesn't include some hidden costs either," mentions Dave.
Beth and Dave really appreciate the advantages of a small travel group. "It makes a huge difference in where your bus can stop and how long it takes for the bus to load and unload," says Beth. "It takes a long time for a bus of 48 travelers to unload and make a rest stop," adds Dave. "Our Odysseys groups are never more than 24 and we can get off the bus much faster and also stop at areas the larger groups must pass by."
People sometimes worry that organized group travel is too rigid and restrictive in itinerary, but the Macaulays haven't found that to be the case. Their Odysseys tours make efficient use of their time while also allowing adequate free time for individual exploration. "In Rome, for example,” explains Dave, “our tour director had tickets to enter the Sistine Chapel and we were able to bypass a long, long line, saving hours of time. That's been true at all attractions, big and small, from the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, the Parthenon in Athens, the Sydney Opera House, the Alhambra in Granada, the Eagle's Nest near Salzburg, the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin, and Michelangelo's David in Florence.”
When they've traveled by themselves, Beth and Dave have found they've "wasted time" by standing in a long line or by going to an attraction only to find it was closed. On their Odysseys tours, say the couple, they have adequate free time to explore on their own. And their tour directors have been extremely valuable in recommending free-time activities.
When Beth and Dave asked other travelers where they had traveled and what their favorite tour had been, they found that everyone who had been to Africa listed it as their favorite destination. So, in 2015, they took Odysseys’ Africa's Wildlife tour and had such a fantastic time that they took another couple with them on Odysseys’ Classic Safari the following year. Says Dave, “Africa isn't for every traveler, but it’s our favorite destination.”
Dave says his Odysseys tour directors have been uniformly very good and some have been truly outstanding. In Ireland, Gerry O'Brien delivered a laugh a minute on the tour bus that was worthy of the best TV comedy routine, but Gerry's thoughtful presentation on "The Troubles" during the post-tour Northern Ireland extension was eye-opening. In Victoria Falls while leading Africa's Wildlife, Russell Gammon’s 50-minute presentation on Dr. David Livingston was a gem that he won't forget – nor will he forget Russell's skills as a wildlife guide and photographer.
In Fez, Morocco, Hassan Rakmi helped Beth negotiate the purchase of a Berber rug that has become Dave's favorite foreign purchase. At a tented game camp in Masai Mara, Kenya, tour director Tony Marangabassa figured out a way for Beth to safely transport two 22-inch carved wooden figures that she had purchased.
In every country, add the couple, “Our Odysseys tour directors showed us they were proud of their country, its history, and accomplishments, while also acknowledging its shortcomings. And, all of our tour directors have been focused on their travelers – intent on providing the best travel experience for each person.”
Their favorite city is Barcelona, Spain. Their time spent there on the Paradores & Pousadas post-tour extension was, in part, guided by a local Odysseys representative. "Everyone loves Las Ramblas, of course, but we were mesmerized by Antoni Gaudi's work. We spent fascinating hours studying the genius of Casa Milà, Park Güell, and Sagrada Familia." In the evening they attended an intimate guitar concert in the fifteen century Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi which Dave says, “remains one of the finest musical performances we’ve heard”.
Their favorite island is Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile, which was an optional extension on their Patagonia Explorer tour. As a youth, Dave had read Thor Heyerdahl's popular Aku-Aku, describing his expedition to Easter Island, his archeological excavations of the mysterious stone statues, and his now disproven theory of the island's history. Dave says his dreams were fulfilled by visiting the island. As for Beth, she didn't want to leave.
Travel, to Beth and Dave, is much more than mountains, animals, and buildings. "We bring home memories of people. Fellow travelers have shared interesting life experiences; many have traveled much more extensively. But it's the people from foreign countries who have made the biggest impact. Foremost, of course, is the tour director but you also have plenty of time to talk to the bus driver and to local guides. Shop owners, craftsmen, street musicians and others are eager to engage you in conversation. In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, we talked to an 11-year-old girl who spoke excellent English but wanted additional practice. In Vietnam during the Chinese New Year, dressed-up families gathered for photos along highly decorated ‘flower streets.’” As Dave photographed the scene he was often asked to pose with a family. "We have been welcomed wherever we’ve gone."
The Coronavirus pandemic caused Beth and Dave to cancel four Odysseys tours, reluctantly. "In addition to the obvious economic stress to travel companies and their immediate employees, we knew that reduced tourism had real impact on people throughout the world. In Africa, large animals must have enormous open spaces. Without income from the tourism industry, private development will carve up the places needed by the animals." At the same time, Beth and Dave worry about the environmental effects of jet travel. Their home area in Illinois was once covered by prairie and groves of oak trees. So now, they annually fund a local nonprofit which plants oak trees that will beautify the area while also serving as a carbon offset.
“Travel shows us how little we actually know about the world”, says Dave, who cites the following two quotes as reflecting his own philosophy. From Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” And from Aldous Huxley: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries."
Dave adds, "We are unbelievably fortunate to be able to travel. We travel to experience the incredible beauty of planet Earth. We’ve seen the interconnectedness of humanity – people everywhere share similar needs. Travel creates lifetime memories – unforgettable moments and experiences. Travel makes you love America even more – but you see it with new eyes. ‘Nobody comes back from a journey the way they started it.’ “ (anon.)
Beth and Dave look forward to two Odysseys tours later this year – and to three more in 2023. "We are so ready to travel again!"
Photo credit: Dave Macaulay. Click here to view a gallery of photos from Dave and Beth's travels.