Tour guides, like bedtime storytellers, come in two varieties: those who, through their complex, actor-like narration, transport you to a faraway land, and those who, through their pained, let’s-just-knock-this-out-so-I-can-return-to-me-time intonations, land you counting down the minutes until it’s all over. Having experienced many of the former during my trips around the world, and only one or two of the latter, I feel confident explaining the foundations for what make a good guide.
Grade A tour guides have verbal diarrhea: While living in Paris, the guide I couldn’t help but go on multiple tours with – she was truly as addictive as croissants – spewed out facts of all sorts. Normally I’m not terribly interested in history but something needs to be said about a guide who unleashes so many fascinating historical facts that even I remained gripped and wanting more. Bottom line, tour guides should blow your mind with their knowledge, and this brings me nicely to the next point…..
Grade A tour guides should be so enthusiastic about the region they’re in that it’s simply infectious. You may have arrived at a location and been excited to see it more closely, but a great guide should stoke that excitement and leave you awed by the sense of place.
In Japan, I booked a tour guide that meets the third criteria for enthusiasm. From his flawless ability to speak Japanese (he’s originally from the US), to his bottomless knowledge of Asian culture, to his enthusiasm for making me and my fellow travellers feel so at home that he actually invited us to his home to enjoy lunch with his Japanese wife and daughter, he is the hallmark of a good guide. Arriving early to the hotel to eat breakfast with the group, and then later joining us to soak in the hot springs, meant this guide took our relationship to a deeper level, one that permitted questions galore, and, in turn, a rich understanding of the city of Kyoto. This was an invaluable gift that cannot be obtained through travel books, no matter how colourful they may be.
A memorable guide goes beyond the task-at-hand, they’re a Jack-of-all-trades. I’m reminded of the time a river rafting guide we had hired in Idaho tackled a slew of feisty rapids then beached the raft, threw on an apron and created a makeshift kitchen to assemble a rice pilaf accompanied by stuffed chicken breasts and sautéed spinach topped with raisins and pine nuts. This guide proved that river rafting and luxury are not mutually exclusive.
Finally, the best guides come rigged with a bunch of keys that permit access to the out-of-bounds. In Beijing, it was my savvy guide who convinced two aged inhabitants to kindly show me around their ancient home. This was a life-long memory that I would not have gained had I entered the hutong with just a map in tow. And the same can be said of my trip to the Great Wall of China: if it weren’t for my guide, I would have ended up a sardine in the throngs of other tourists. Instead, I was driven to a remote village where we parked and then walked peacefully to the wall via working farms. No crowds. Just a wonderful, authentic experience.
In sum, the guides I’ve hired in France, Japan, America and China have made it clear that their success lies in knowledge and enthusiasm. A good guide never stops learning and they bring a vitality to the tour that enlivens the region, activity and history at hand.
Here are a few pics from some of my excursions with guides around the world: