As much as I like to travel, I have to admit that I’m not a confident traveler. I don’t like driving in unfamiliar cities because I may be the only sighted person who needs a seeing eye dog to avoid getting lost. With the amount of traveling I’ve done over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten better, and smartphones are my new best friend when I am on the road. I have learned to research my destination, prepare a list of activities, and determine if I can rely on public transportation or if I have to deal with a car rental agency.
I’ve always held a bias against taking a guided tour. It has always felt like a form of cheating. I imagined being trapped on a double-decker bus, forced to socialize with octogenarians, while the guide peppered us with a constant stream of trivia most of which was eminently forgettable.
However, when I was preparing for a trip to the Bay Area to see Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds perform at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, I had an extra day that I was having trouble figuring out what to do with. A friend sent me a link to a tour company that for $100 would fill up my day by taking me for “spectacular” views of the Golden Gate Bridge (are there any other kinds?), a walk in the Muir Woods, followed by wine tasting and lunch in scenic Sonoma. For the price, this seemed like an easy way to see some sights that I knew I’d enjoy and beat the heck out of wandering aimlessly around the City.
When I arrived at the pick-up location in downtown San Francisco, I was happy to see that the majority of people waiting for a tour were not using walkers, but were in fact, young international travelers. It appeared as though I was going to be the aged geezer of the bunch. When my mini-bus pulled up, it turned out that I was one of only two tourists, the other being a young man from Singapore in San Francisco on business.
Our annoyingly upbeat tour guide assured us that the trip would go on even if it were just the two of us. Originally, I thought of the trip as being a bargain. Now I felt I was being gouged if the tour could turn a profit on only two customers.
I had to grudgingly but happily admit that I could not have had a more pleasant traveling companion. We chatted easily as we got across the Golden Gate, and strolled through the Muir woods trail enjoying a peaceful walk and taking pictures for each other. We sampled wines together discussing the pros and cons of each at a rustic winery outside of Sonoma and then were whisked away in time to catch lunch at a sports bar where I got to watch Seattle come from behind and destroy Green Bay in the NFC playoffs. My new friend and I dozed most of the way back to the City stopping once to get one more lovely view of the Golden Gate Bridge being swallowed up by the incoming fog at sunset.
If it weren’t for the tour guide I would have given the experience a solid “A” grade. I suspect many a tour guide is actually a failed stand-up comedian who feels compelled to fill every moment with a stream of amusing anecdotes and historical minutia that, for me, evaporates the moment it hits my ears. As we started off down the city streets headed for the bridge, all I really wanted was some quiet and a second cup of coffee. Even worse, since he had only two riders, he wanted his shtick to be interactive. “Hey, how many stories do you think that building…?” “In what year would you guess this bridge…?” “Hey, I bet you didn’t know that…?” Please, shoot me now. My mind feels like it is about to explode. I begin wondering if Singapore brought any heroin with him.
With only two of us on the bus, even I couldn’t summon enough rudeness to put on headphones and tune out this endless stream of information. Because, see, what I forget sometimes is that these guys really, really want you to like them and have a GOOD TIME, a memorable trip. They want this for you because they are hoping that as you leave you will be slipping them a memorable tip. My Singaporean friend did not know or did not care about the tipping protocol and, even though the guide was nice enough to drop him back at his hotel, he skipped out with nary a word. Since the guide took me directly to a nearby BART station, I tried to be generous and gave him twenty bucks, hoping it made up a little for my friend’s oversight.
I have jumped on several tours since and for me, the jury is still out. I think the whale tours on Maui may have the best formula: out on the water with free food, free beer, and guides who say things like “whale on the port side.” Perfect!