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The rise of high-end escorted tours

Image: Canaima National Park in Venezuelas Gran Sabana region.
Tour guide Mario Rojas looks over an edge of Roraima tepuy called "the abyss," 9,094 feet high, in Canaima National Park in Venezuelas Gran Sabana region. The mesas inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, "The Lost World," in which dinosaurs live on an isolated plateau in the Amazon.Leslie Mazoch / AP file
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

Book by: ASAP
Travel by: Various through 2008

The deal
Independent travel may be all fun and games when we stick to the beaten trail but stray off the mainstream path and an escorted tour may no longer seem like such a lame idea. In certain destinations, paying a pretty penny for a cozy room, a stellar meal and access to a unique sight makes perfect sense — you get your adventure, security, convenience, creature comforts, and exoticism all bundled together. All this, plus the time you save off planning the trip, make the splurge of an escorted tour worth it. We’ve chosen a handful of the most reputable companies you can rely on for a tour of a lifetime — be it to Mongolia, Ethiopia or the Amazon!

Mongolia with Travcoa
One of the most acclaimed high-end tour operators is Travcoa, a company that has paved way to some of the world’s most remote regions since 1954. With tours to all seven continents and 90+ countries, they pride themselves on bringing the first Westerners to the Trobriand Islands, West Irian Jaya, and Oman. They’ve arranged gorilla tracking safari in Zaire led by Pygmy guides; a sojourn at the Maharajah’s palace in Kathmandu; and a stay in an Antarctica research station.

This summer, you can set off with Travcoa to Mongolia, one of Asia’s last unspoiled destinations. This 12-day tour for $5,595 — departing roundtrip from China’s Beijing on July 5 –features a variety of one-off experiences. Those include staying in a ger (felt tent) in the Gobi Desert; watching horse races at a local festival; and exploring the country’s capital, Ulaan Bataar. Travcoa’s all-inclusive escorted tours are limited to 18 guests and cover even the gratuities, in addition to lodging at high-end properties like St. Regis, Beijing.

Ethiopia with Abercrombie & Kent
Abercrombie & Kent is another top-rated luxury operator you can go to for a premier escorted tour. Originally born as a safari outfitter in 1962, A&K now offers small-group tours as well as tailor-made private trips to more than one hundred countries on all the continents. Their unforgettable trips include small-group tours to hard-to-get-to destinations far and wide, from Papua New Guinea to Antarctica.

A tour that caught our eye for its exotic and price value is a 12-day foray to Ethiopia next October, priced at $2,995. With incredible wildlife, pristine scenery and a medieval past, this East African country is home to Axum, the land of the Queen of Sheba, and the 13th-century cave churches of Lalibela. On this tour, limited to 10 people, you’ll enjoy a traditional Ethiopian dinner with a coffee ceremony and dance performance in Addis Ababa; cruise on the highland Lake Tana; and visit 14th-century monasteries of Ura Kidane Mihret and Azwa Mariam.

Brazil’s Amazon & Rio with Maupintour
With over 55 years of experience, Maupintour is another travel industry leader. With a limited group size (up to 25 guests), all-inclusive perks (every single excursion is covered) and ample free time thrown in, Maupintour’s escorted vacations get excellent rankings from discerning travelers. Their tours range from a weeklong New Orleans, Antebellum South and Cajun Country trip to a 15-day China & its Ancient Waterways escapade.

Our favorite on the list: a nine-day Amazon and Rio de Janeiro cruise-tour for $3,249, with two summer departures. The appeal of the Amazon rainforest is undeniable but most trips to this vast region involve ‘roughing it’. This well-organized Brazil tour lets you take in the biodiversity of the Amazon in comfort of the deluxe Iberostar Grand Amazon river boat. This adventure covers a four-night sailing; one night in the jungle town of Manaus; and two nights in Rio de Janeiro. Highlights include a visit to an Amazon tribe; a tour of the Manaus Opera House; and a cable car ride to famous Sugar Loaf in Rio.

Other tour operators you can trust
Mountain Travel Sobek
Geographic Expeditions
Orient-Express Vacations
Artisans of Leisure

The dollars
The rates above are listed per person, based on double occupancy. None of the above escorted tours include international airfare, which will undoubtedly add a chunk of change to your bill. Still, we deem each of these trips excellent value! The Mongolia trip with Travcoa, for example, is priced at $5,595 but if you book through, you can save 5 percent — that amounts to the sizeable $279. The Ethiopia tour is so well-priced that all departures until the October 7 trip are filled up already. Even with the fact the internal flights will cost you extra ($635), it’s still a fantastic deal for the inclusions it involves. The same applies to the Brazil cruise-tour, which covers the flight from Manaus to Rio and a wealth of other great perks (see details above).

The catch
Visa and immunization costs are extra.

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