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Destinations come alive through Tauck's escorted tours created specifically for intimate groups. Experience spontaneous encounters and access to major sights, as well as points off the beaten path.

It’s a dilemma. Travel independently and you can really get a feel for a place. Rub shoulders with local chefs at a Provencal food market. Take off on your own along a mountain hiking path in the American West or linger over conversation with a local at a Viennese coffee shop.

Travel with a group, however, and your travels are bound to run without a hitch. When you pull up in front of that Florentine art museum, you’ll know organizers have scheduled your stop during opening hours. The intricacies of currency exchange and language barriers will be bridged for you. And you can be certain your explorations will include companions who, like you, find a thrill in discovering new places and exposing themselves to different perspectives.

Enter Tauck’s small group departures, travel experiences that provide opportunities for personal encounters while also offering the ease of an organized trip. Tauck’s small groups average just 20 guests, making it possible to experience family-owned inns and small wineries, places that could never accommodate a large group tour. These tours also allow ample free time so you can make your own discoveries.

Whether visiting ancient Roman ruins or trekking through American national parks, small groups combine the freedom of independent travel with the convenience of an organized group tour.

Italian Immersion  
Nowhere is the sun brighter than in Tuscany, where life’s pleasures range from quiet hillsides striped with gnarled grapevines and glimmering, gold-leaf religious art, to mountains that seem to go on forever.

The geographical and cultural center of Tuscany is Florence, where the spirit and riches of the Renaissance linger along narrow cobbled streets. Gather with other art-lovers to pay homage to David, Michelangelo’s master sculpture, looming large in the heart of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Afterward, pore over Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and admire beaming Madonnas and ethereal Roman goddesses painted by Giotto, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio, all on display at the Uffizi Gallery.  

If Florence is known primarily for her stunning works of art, her magnificent architecture takes a close second. 15th-century palazzi crowd around the city’s historic center just steps away from the Duomo, the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral. The church’s magnificent dome marked an engineering milestone when constructed in the 15th century and it served as the inspiration for the U.S. Capitol centuries later in Washington.

Take time for yourself wandering the outskirts of Florence, admiring the red tile roofs, the sparkling Arno River and the palace towers where once the wealthy Medici feted the artists and thinkers who invented the Renaissance.

Just miles outside of Florence lie the hulking mountains where Carrera marble has been mined since Roman times. Consider the priceless Renaissance statues and glorious Italian altarpieces that were transformed from this rock as you travel to Cinque Terre, the “Five Lands,” a stretch of Italian coast once accessible only by motorboat and foot.

Even today, automobiles are banned in Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, and mercifully so, preserving a seaside atmosphere disturbed only by the crashing of the Ligurian Sea. The pastel houses and trattoria of these five fishing villages sit stacked atop seaside cliffs. Spend an afternoon with a guide, learning the history and culture of this unique corner of Italy. Or wander off on your own, filling up on a dinner of the day’s catch flavored with local olive oil and citrus. In the evening, you’ll tuck into bed at a family-owned inn overlooking the sea.

Back inland, Tuscany’s treasures continue in Lucca, just a short drive from Pisa and its leaning tower. Here, as in Cinque Terre, traveling by foot is the best means of exploring a historic center marked by elaborate Romanesque churches and the Fillungo, the city’s main shopping center. Pick up a bottle of local Tuscan wine, bread and cheese for a relaxing picnic. Join in a cooking class to learn the art of perfect pasta preparation. Or explore Lucca from the seat of a bicycle.  Pedaling is a breeze in this Italian town that is unusually flat by Tuscan standards, through centuries-old lanes, alongside and even over the massive city walls.  

Siena ranks as one of Tuscany’s best-preserved medieval towns, offering visitors opportunities to indulge in priceless Italian art, explore Gothic churches and admire architectural treasurers. The city’s historic facades take on a golden glow at sunset, standing in stark contrast to the black and white Duomo. The cathedral’s embellishments preserve religious and civic milestones in the way of Michelangelo sculptures and historic scenes inlaid in the marble floors.

For a higher-adrenaline experience in Siena, coordinate your Italian tour with the running of the Palio, a famous twice-annual horse-race at the Piazza del Campo. Add an afternoon wine-tasting to get a sense of Tuscany’s winemaking prowess — the local specialties are Chianti, Montepulciano and Sangiovese — for a perfect ending to a visit of Tuscany.

 
American Safari

America’s national parks feel worlds away from Tuscany. Yet like Italy, a small group visit of the Old West adds an intimate feel to a trip.   

As the National Park System celebrates its 100th birthday in 2016, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, garners special attention. Smoldering with boiling mud pots, hissing fumaroles, the world’s greatest concentration of geysers and spectacular wildlife, Yellowstone ranks high on most travelers’ travel wish lists.

Old Faithful draws thousands of travelers each year, all of them eager to catch sight of the most famous of Yellowstone’s 500 geysers. One of the world’s most reliable and powerful, the Old Faithful geyser shoots a 180-foot fountain of water skyward roughly every 45 minutes.

Other park favorites include the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a 308-foot cascade that roars into a gorge streaked with yellow, orange, pink and green, telltale signs of the valley’s rich mineral deposits. And Grand Prismatic Spring ranks as Yellowstone’s largest thermal feature. Measuring 370 feet in diameter, the steaming pool wows visitors with its brilliant blue, orange and green hues.

Views through a tour bus window can’t really do justice to a place like Yellowstone. It is in getting out to explore a portion of the park’s 1,000 miles of hiking trails that visitors uncover the essence of Yellowstone National Park. Even a short walk — along a hard-packed trail leading to backcountry geysers, through the Hayden Valley’s plains to the banks of a sparkling trout stream, through a pine forest for a mountaintop lookout — offers opportunities to experience nature. With luck you may also get the chance to photograph a lumbering herd of bison or stately elk.

Just a few miles south of Yellowstone and linked by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Memorial Parkway lie the Grand Tetons, designated a national park in 1950. The park’s namesake mountains rise in lavender-gray peaks far above the surrounding grasslands, mirrored by the pristine waters of Jenny Lake. The Grand Tetons offer countless photo ops for visiting shutterbugs.

Like Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons can best be explored on an active park visit. Lace up your hiking boots and explore one of the park’s 200 miles of trails. Or explore this Western paradise on horseback. Seeing the mountains from a saddle, as the region’s first European explorers did nearly 200 years ago, creates a feeling of oneness with the surrounding landscape.
Another exciting means of exploring Grand Teton National Park is via a float trip on the Snake River. Knowledgeable local naturalists explain the intricate ecosystem of this corner of the West while guests take in unobstructed views of the towering mountains…and keep their eyes peeled for wild moose, bison, elk and beavers.  

Before returning home, there will be time to explore the Old West settlement of Jackson. This Wyoming town embraces its long association with the American cowboy — a legacy that continues today — as well as its ties with the trappers, mountain men and Native Americans who preceded them.

Today, visitors enjoy digging into mouth-watering bison steaks and shopping for turquoise and silver jewelry or hand-stitched Western boots. A few souvenirs to remember an American safari in the Wild West.

Make big connections all over the world. Call 1-800-750-5386 or visit your AAA office and they'll arrange unforgettable experiences.

(Winter 2016 Issue of Traveler)

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