It could be said that the COVID-19 pandemic cost many travelers the luxury of choice: Destinations closed their doors to tourism; airlines cut routes or reduced the number of flights; and other companies shuttered, merged or simplified their offerings.
So, then, it might seem like an odd time for a tour operator to introduce a new product based entirely on the concept of offering more options — and yet, that is exactly what Globus has done with the debut of its Choice Touring style. The company is offering 13 new itineraries in Europe, Canada and the U.S., rolling out now through 2022. And when the first-ever Choice Touring departure hit the road in September, I was part of a group of journalists and Globus clients who were onboard for the ride.
The new nine-day California Dreamin’: Northern California by Design itinerary travels roundtrip from San Francisco and hits some of the Golden State’s most iconic areas, along with a few more local treasures, with stays in Sacramento, Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite National Park. The longer travel days included scenic detours, as well — on the way from San Francisco to Sacramento, the tour stops in charming Sausalito and visits a Sonoma County winery, while the drive from Sacramento to Mammoth Lakes includes time at Lake Tahoe.
The “choice” element of the tour comes into play on three days of the trip, each offering three included activities or excursions to pick from — giving each guest the opportunity to tailor the itinerary to their own personal preferences.
For example: Sacramento options were slated to include a walking food tour; a visit to the Folsom Prison Museum (of musician Johnny Cash fame); and a trip to the California State Railroad Museum. In Mammoth Lakes, the planned options included a guided tour of Bodie State Historic Park (and its Gold Rush-era ghost town); a gondola ride to the summit of Mammoth Mountain; and a kayaking trip at Mono Lake, an ancient saltwater lake known for its otherworldly limestone formations. Finally, in Yosemite National Park, travelers could pick between a park ranger-led tram tour, a guided nature walk or a photography-focused outing courtesy of the Ansel Adams Gallery.
The reality of our choice days wound up being a little different than advertised — for a variety of reasons, including wildfires and local, on-the-ground operator issues. But the biggest obstacle, of course, remains COVID-19, at least for the time being. Due to varying restrictions and continuously changing operational procedures, some options — such as the Folsom Prison Museum in Sacramento and the tram tour in Yosemite — were not available at the time of our visit.
It’s also important to note that, due to COVID-19, Globus has not been able to conduct its normal level of pre-departure vetting of activity partners. So, travelers should be flexible and understand that not only may some choices be unavailable, but others may fall short of expectations until all the operational kinks get smoothed out.
That said, guests who are willing to go with the flow may be pleasantly surprised by what they find — as I was during our time in Mammoth Lakes. With two of the three activity options unavailable, I wound up unexpectedly joining the ghost town tour, which, to be completely honest, probably would have been my last choice out of all the offerings.
But stepping off the coach into the deserted mountain town of Bodie was like traveling instantly to the past. The remaining structures are all original buildings — no reproductions or models — preserved in a state of “arrested decay,” kept up just enough to stay standing. The best part, however, is peering through the windows into the buildings’ interiors, where many of the belongings of the last inhabitants remain, just as they were left. Eerily, it’s almost as if the residents simply evaporated from their homes and businesses, leaving behind a capsule of their former lives.
In short, the excursion far exceeded my expectations, speaking to the overall quality of the experience Globus is striving to create.
It’s also key to mention that our excellent tour director, Derek, went above and beyond to make up for any issues along the trip. In Yosemite, for instance, where the tram tour was unavailable, Derek and our coach driver took the group to all the scenic spots where the tram would have stopped, so we didn’t miss a single stunning photo opp. And because Yosemite’s internal shuttle service wasn’t running — meaning we couldn’t get around the park on our own during our free time — he planned an extra outing to a grove of giant sequoia trees for anyone who wanted to see more of the scenery.
Clients interested in the California Dreamin’ tour should be prepared to spend a good amount of time onboard the coach — it’s an ambitious itinerary, covering a lot of ground in a large state. On our longest travel day, we departed Sacramento at 8 a.m., made several stops in Lake Tahoe, and finally reached Mammoth Mountain Inn at about 6:30 p.m.
For first-time Golden State visitors or those who may not have plans to return, it’s a good way to pack a lot of California’s key sites into a single trip. An additional upside is all the beautiful scenery along the way, which certainly helps make the drives more enjoyable.
In terms of key markets for the Choice Touring style overall, Globus imagines that the mix of structure and customization will appeal to repeat clients who have previously traveled with the company, and the new options also create an opportunity to sell to families (especially those with slightly older kids who would have patience during the longer coach rides). Teenagers, for instance, could potentially opt for different excursions than their parents, giving them a sense of independence in a safe, supervised environment.
For me, one of the best parts of the concept is that having multiple included activities periodically breaks the tour up into smaller groups that really give guests the chance to interact and engage with each other. These were often the moments when I best got to know and enjoy the company of my fellow travelers, creating those special bonds that only come from sharing a travel experience.
COVID-19 Policies and Procedures
The Globus Family of Brands is requiring all travelers to be fully vaccinated for itineraries through 2022. Other COVID-19 safety protocols include mask-wearing when physical distancing is not possible and/or as local regulations require (during my trip, guests wore masks while on the coach, indoors when not eating/drinking and during some activities); temperature checks; and enhanced cleaning procedures.