Small-group specialty tours to Asia, Europe

The older I get, the more I seek meaning in whatever I do. That includes travel, and I’m not alone in this quest toward fulfillment. It is not enough to simply see a new part of the world: I want to feel a connection and return home with memories that last a lifetime.

Small-group tours of foreign countries enhance the travel experience. They are more likely to unite people and cultures than windshield tours in big buses that cover hundreds of miles in one day.

Plenty of Wisconsin-based endeavors take intimate and novel approaches to small-group travel. For example:

Europe – Many of the people who lead UW-Stevens Point Adventure Tours teach health promotion classes at the university, which has arranged physically active excursions (kayaking, hiking, snorkeling and/or biking) for 25 years.

“What makes our tours unique is the health and wellness aspect,” says Cathy Scheder, program manager. It is not unusual for participants to use heart rate monitors, to keep track of cardio levels.

International tours this year include “Vienna to Venice” (hiking, May 29 to June 10, $2,730, plus airfare) and Ireland, Isle of Man and the United Kingdom (hiking, June 27 to July 10, $3,065, plus airfare).

The program also embraces domestic destinations, such as biking the Natchez Trace to Nashville, rafting in the Grand Canyon, kayaking Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands and backpacking “the cowboy way” in Wyoming., 715-346-4080.

India, Mexico – A University of Wisconsin summer trip to Tanzania was full before the Educational Travel Program could print trip brochures, so let that be a warning. Offerings tend to be popular.

A trip to India, Nov. 3-20, stays north and begins in Delhi. Stops include Keoladeo National Park and a stay at Camel Camp Osian in the Thar Desert.

The Mexico trip, in February 2011, heads from Mexico City to monarch butterfly migration in Mariposa, then on to Oaxaca and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Prices have not been announced. Other tentative destinations include Tanzania in summer 2011 and Turkey in fall 2011. A max of 24 people travel per trip., 608-263-7787.

Italy – Registration remains open until May 1 for a Sept. 26 to Oct. 6 tour of small Tuscan towns and the Italian Riviera. Attend a Chianti food/wine festival, get to know Florence and sample specialty products/recipes of the area.

Tour leader Cathy Fleming, from the Madison area, has lived in Italy and describes the culture and cuisine as her passions. Her company is Viaggi di Gusto (“Travel with Taste”), and itineraries include cooking classes.

Trip cost is $2,980, based on 20 participants, and airfare to Italy is not included. Cathy also arranges corporate retreats abroad., 608-217-7455.

China, France – Cooking maven Janice Thomas of Ellison Bay organizes culinary vacations, but only one spot remains (as of this writing) for her May 9-15 excursion to Italy. Cost is $3,900, plus airfare.

A Nov. 4-16 journey to China’s Yunnan Province, with daily cooking demos and lodging at the Linden Centre (a high-end and historic retreat owned by Wisconsin gallery operators Brian and Jeanee Linden) will cost $4,900, including airfare from Los Angeles.

Dates and details have not been announced for this year’s trek to the French Seasons of Provence Cooking School., 920-854-6600.

China – An emphasis on Chinese medicine and culture, plus stays in five-star hotels, distinguish a July 27 to Aug. 11 tour led by Dr. Xiping Zhou, a longtime Madison acupuncturist and herbal medicine specialist. See Beijing, the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, the Terra Cotta Warriors, Great Wall of China and cruise the Yangtze River.

The cost of $4,699 includes airfare. Holistic health assessments and treatments are a part of the itinerary. The group (of no more than 25 participants) travels by plane, train, cruise ship and bus.

In Madison, the doctor’s pain clinic and massage school are at 6425 Normandy Lane., 608-236-9000.

Peru, Turkey – Regional food specialties, prepared by family-owned businesses, are the core of culinary tours organized by Joan Peterson of Madison, whose Eat Smart Guides (a nine-book series, and growing) spell out connections between history, geography and diet. Eight to 12 travelers learn which foods, recipes and cooking techniques define a country’s markets and restaurants.

The Peru tour, Sept. 14-23, involves the Andes Mountains and coastal areas, with visits to Machu Picchu and the Ballestas Islands. The cost is $2,969 to $3,494, plus international airfare from the U.S and flights within Peru.

The tour to Turkey, Sept. 27 to Oct. 6, covers Ottoman and modern Turkey, with stops in Istanbul, Antakya and Cappadocia. The cost is $2,995 to $3,515, plus international airfare., 608-233-5488. (Full disclosure: I have agreed to write “Eat Smart in Germany” during 2010-11.)