Meaningful travel

WAG Wanderer Jeremy Wayne, an expert traveler himself, offers some unusual tour companies for those who aren’t.

When it comes to organizing the trip of a lifetime, or simply life’s next small adventure, it makes sense to seek professional help. To be travel savvy is one thing, but to compare, contrast and coordinate everything in the marketplace single-handedly is another. That’s where the custom-made travel provider comes in — professional consultants who offer exciting itineraries, excellent planning and flawless delivery, albeit at a price. That price, however, should represent good value for money.

Here are four providers I think are worth sending a postcard home about. For domestic travel, Revealed America, a relatively small, independent firm based in Seattle, offers family and multigenerational vacations, action and adventure expeditions and even honeymoon trips, with itineraries as straightforward as whale-watching in New England, to more adventurous ones such as rafting on the Colorado River, to grizzly bear and caribou-spotting private “flight-seeing” tours in Alaska. With expert teams on the ground throughout the United States, Revealed is able to offer, as it puts it, “expert knowledge, from sea to shining sea.”

Heritage Tours, another small independent company, founded more than 25 years ago,  specializes in Spain, Portugal, Greece, the Middle East and Africa. Along with bespoke itineraries, the company offers ready-made small-group tours for friends, families, couples or individuals, led by experts and influencers, with places still available on upcoming trips this summer and fall to Egypt, Israel and South Africa.

“While there’s still a place for the white glove, five-star resort, chauffeur-driven service, there’s a new level of value given to local artisans, meaningful interactions and authentic culinary adventures,” says Jaclyn Sienna India, whom I met recently at a luxury travel convention in Cannes, France. Her agency, Sienna Charles, specializes in meticulously planned, custom-made trips for high-net-worth individuals. Sienna Charles recently arranged a top-secret trip to Ethiopia for President George W. Bush, whom India personally escorted. Hers might be a handy number to keep up your sleeve for when the experiential — or “transformational,” as she calls it — travel bug bites.

Not so much head and shoulders above the competition, but genuinely offering something new in the field, Naya Traveler is an extraordinary company you should know about. Naya means “purpose” or “meaning” in ancient Sanskrit, something you will almost certainly discover staying in a Bedouin tent in the Empty Quarter, say, or in a riad in the medina of Marrakech, or on an opulent Kashmiri houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinigar, India, all experiences which Naya Traveler can arrange. 

The company was founded by three friends. Sofia Mascotena grew up on a family estate in the Argentine Pampas. Sarah Casewit was born and raised in Morocco. And Marta Tucci’s travel experiences have taken her from from the Peruvian highlands to Burma’s subtropical plains. All of which makes my own traveling to date sound pretty humdrum. “The growing desire for genuine experiences can no longer go unnoticed,” Tucci says. “There’s a fundamental human need for connection and authenticity that has a real place in travel.” To which I can only nod in agreement.

If Naya Traveler’s list of destinations is eclectic — Asia, Latin American and Spain, along with Morocco, Ethiopia and Antartica — this only adds to the feeling of exclusivity and “cachet,” as in bragging rights, that a Naya Traveler-arranged journey can bestow. Clearly the principals are selling what they know best. And, actually, it’s a further testament to the authenticity of the brand that they stick with their areas of expertise — their personal comfort zones — while at the same time expecting you to go well beyond yours.

From Naya’s “Savant Endeavors” suggested itineraries, for instance, you might choose to discover Kashmir and Ladakh, meeting with local scholars and professors. Or you could trace the anthropological beginnings of mankind in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. In Cambodia, by contrast, you might opt to journey with an expert archaeologist to uncover the secrets the Khmer Empire has left behind, or strengthen the connection of your mind and body, trekking in the Peruvian Andes with an indigenous shaman as your guide.

For food-lovers traveling with Naya, all the bounty of South India awaits on a journey that might take in the lesser-known flavors of the Tamil Nadu state, or the fish-rich cuisine of coastal Kerala. In meat-obsessed Argentina, there is the opportunity to explore the Pampas or the drier grasslands, as well as great vineyards, often in the company of well-known regional chefs. 

This is not “If it’s Tuesday this must be Belgium,” travel, but serious journeying aimed at those with a particular interest to pursue, human connections to make and social and cultural insights to acquire. And while Naya does offer some pre-arranged journeys — a trip to Fez, Marrakech, and the ravishing Skoura Valley, with a night under the Saharan sky, accompanied by Casewit, is coming up shortly — itineraries are typically created to order. 

As I have never traveled with Naya, I decided to “test drive” the process to get an understanding of the level of care and attention provided in designing my trip.  Posing as a well-heeled New Yorker (but one with a keen sense of value for money), I discovered that Naya was prepared to work with me, and for me — not only to research and plan my ideal itinerary and coordinate all the logistics, but also to see it through to its conclusion, offering a mountain of good advice and intel, with 24-hour support along the way. 

As for the cost, which might well have been astronomical, it struck me as quite reasonable, adding only a small premium to what I would have paid had I booked the entire journey myself (although I would not have been able to do so as effectively without Naya Traveler’s input.) A ballpark figure? My hypothetical trip to Spain and Morocco worked out at around $850 a person a day, fully inclusive of accommodation, guides and excursions, but not transatlantic travel. (Booking the outbound and return flights from the U.S. is the responsibility of the client, which means you can economize or splurge on fares according to your personal preference and budget.)

What’s more, testimonials from real clients show how they feel genuinely altered by their experience. This harks back to Jaclyn Sienna India’s viewpoint, which is that travel has the power to change us for the better — something that remains long after the trip is over. 

Sofia Mascotena puts it another way, though her message is effectively the same. “When traveling in a way that leaves superficiality and prejudices aside, one not only takes away what one sees but returns home with a fuller soul. This is the greatest wealth that travel offers me.” 

So true. Because no matter how much or how little you pay, and whether your accommodations are five-star or no-star, the benefits of meaningful travel will always come back to you in spades.

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