Buvette Masthead

Not Too Old, Not Too Young

Tenele Conway

There has long been a perceived gap in the travel market.

You are no longer a twenty-something looking for that boozy bus tour with a smattering of iconic world sights. Your days of carrying a heavy backpack around the streets are long gone but you aren’t ready for the all-inclusive jaunt on a comfortable bus with early evenings and excessive toilet stops.

If this rings true for you then I am guessing you are 30 to 50 something and have a spirit for adventure but are lacking some direction as to what options in the travel market that fit your particular niche. So where does that leave you?

Well, my friend, you are just like me and I’m here to tell you that you have many many opportunities for adventure.

I can sum it up for you in four simple words: Small Group Adventure Travel.

It’s a corner of the market that has been there for decades but has struggled to spread it’s travel ethos widely.

Small group adventure travel is all about grassroots adventures and getting to know a culture through a more intimate style of travel. You have the security of a guide and fellow travellers but the focus is on diving deep into a culture and not just scraping the surface with brief photo opportunities. I became a convert after my first trip in this style, two weeks in Mexico and Guatemala with Intrepid Travel. It was everything travel should be.

Begone the dreaded bus tour

Bus tours have their place. My first big trip overseas was with Contiki on a three-week bus tour of Europe. It is a right of passage for every young Aussie and I had the time of my life. But small group travel takes the best parts of touring and leaves out all the crappy bits (does anyone really enjoy 50 seater coaches?).

Small group travel is all about using the most convenient mode of transport available at any given time. In China, we took overnight trains. Pre-high speed rail, we rattled around the countryside eating pot noodles on bunk beds with the locals.

In Italy, we jumped on the TGV for lightning-quick transportation. I have been on slow boats, fast boats, local buses, chartered buses, aeroplanes, two feet and a heartbeat. You name it, you will do it on a small group adventure. It brings variety and opportunities for local interaction in an environment where you can do as much or as little as you want.

Local Guides

There is no better guide to a country or a city than a local. Small group adventures employ local people so you benefit from their local knowledge.

My tour guide in China, Mr Chin, told us that there were certain topics we couldn’t talk to locals about but we were free to ask him anything. He was a portal to an unknown culture that had not long opened its doors to the world. He was our inside man on subjects like Mao and the Tiananmen Square Massacre and he was our medium for translating menus and making sure we got what the locals were eating not the western version cooks thought we wanted to eat.

Small groups, like-minded travellers

Small group adventures attract a certain type of traveller. They want to go out into the world to see it unfiltered but they also want the security and company that comes with a group of like-minded people and a local guide. Group sizes vary from eight people to 24 people. I have found they average around 12 people depending on the company, destination and season.

By keeping the groups small, you never feel like just a number and you’ll meet people from all walks of life who are looking for a taste of the world, just like you.

A fellow traveller in Central America left a lasting impression on me. She was in her mid fifties, had come on tour with little else but a couple of t-shirts and a pair of shorts and she recounted how she told her doctor after open heart surgery that she didn’t want to be a cardiac patient, she wanted to run marathons. And so she did.

Destinations abound

Small group adventures span the globe. You have all the standard destinations one would expect, with itineraries designed to give you a true local immersion, but they can also take you to the ends of the earth. They specialise in destinations that are not the standard tourist trails, – think Madagascar, West Africa, Antarctica, The Arctic Circle, Everest and Sri Lanka. You name it, they can take you there.

The banishment of the chain hotel

Begone the standard hotel chains. You will not see the inside of a Novotel, Sheraton or Days Inn with a small group adventure. They source locally owned, boutique accommodation where your money goes back into the community and you feel a part of the culture, not sheltered from it in a generic brand name hotel.

Price price price

There are price points and comfort levels to suit all budgets with small group adventures. You have the Basics concept, where you have the bare minimum included (two-star accommodation, transport and a guide) and the prices are almost shockingly low – think two weeks in South East Asia for under $1000.

You then have a mid-range price point (which will get you three-star accommodation) and you can then go up to luxury. These include 4 and 5-star options, which still maintain the adventure aspect of small group travel but give you a high end boutique hotel experience at the end of the day.

Choose your level of comfort

Small group adventures break down trips into activity levels, so you are fully aware what you are getting yourself into.

A basic level of fitness is required for even the lowest grade of trips but you will be warned when tours are on the strenuous side.

For active Canberrans, there are trips that specialise in hiking and cycling for those who want to see gorillas in Rwanda, trek to Everest Base Camp or cycle the length of Vietnam. Or, for those who have world cuisines on their mind (as do I – permanently) there are trips for foodies that will take you to cooking classes and guide you through a nation’s cuisine.

The companies

There are many great companies offering this style of travel but I will recommend the ones that I have travelled with or had first-hand feedback from clients on.

The Intrepid Group: This is my number one pick as I have been to China, Central America, Italy and France with their various brands and they cannot be faulted. They embody everything I have mentioned above and they are a well established Australian company who have always provided outstanding service to myself and the many clients I have sent with them.

The Intrepid Group now covers multiple brands: Geckos, which is an age limited option for 20 and thirty somethings, Intrepid Travel which is non-age-limited and covers a range of comfort levels from basic to comfort and then Peregrine, which is not age limited but aims themselves at the 40+ market. It is still an adventure but with a few added extras like more comfortable accommodation.

Intrepid also have a brilliant day trip option called Urban Adventures.

G Adventures: The offerings by G Adventures are on par with the Intrepid group. A wide range of destinations spanning the globe, a range of comfort levels on offer and all their tours are open to all ages. They also have some unique partnerships such as their National Geographic program of trips as well as their local living experiences . There are also family trips if you want to take the kids on an international adventure.

Insider Journeys: These guys specialise in Asia and they do differ a little in that they have Western tour guides for the whole duration of your trip but you do pick up local guides in each new city on route.

They have two levels of comfort on offer and I can tell you that the standard (as opposed to the deluxe) has an outstanding level of accommodation and inclusions for the price.

It is more “inclusive” than the two aforementioned companies and therefore sits at a higher price point but they are an Australian company offering exceptional and unique travel experiences.

Backroads Tours: This is the higher-end of the market and whilst I would say they are a little light on the “adventure” aspect of touring, they will give you a unique trip in the UK or Europe with boutique hotels and local experiences.

Abercrombie and Kent: This is the pinnacle of small group adventures. Definitely a higher price point than all of the others and they do have larger group sizes (up to 24 people) but they offer a product that is quite rare.

They also offer a wide range of styles from canal cruising, rail journeys and family holidays up to private jet journeys. Now that is something I am yet to experience but I might just pop it on the old bucket list.


Tenele Conway

Tenele Conway is a veteran of the Canberra Travel industry having worked in retail travel stores around the city for well over decade. Taking full advantage of the perks of the job she has travelled the world primarily at the expense of others and when she isn’t zip lining in Guatemala or cruising the Nile she is bringing together her two passions of world cuisines and travel on her blog www.hungryplanetblog.com. With a cookbook collection worthy of an episode of 'Hoarders' she sees a future as a travelling cookbook author, look out Rick Stein. More about the Author