Getting the “local experience” and immersing yourself in your destination — this is the ultimate goal of many modern travelers who want to go beyond the popular tourist attractions and really get to the heart of the places they visit.
It’s also the raison d’etre for Back-Roads Touring, which specializes in taking small groups on off-the-beaten-path itineraries along scenic roads to eat where locals eat, stay in local accommodations, and to have an overall authentic experience in prime locations throughout Europe. The Back-Roads philosophy really shines through on its 11-day “London to Paris via The Channel Islands” tour, which has now added new dates for 2016.
Lose yourself in amazing scenery as you see the sights traveling from one iconic European city to another, and feel the history all around you as you tour medieval towns, Neolithic sites, mighty castles, and World War II landmarks. Find out all there is to know about the towns and villages along the way with the help of a knowledgeable guide.
Justin Hill is one of those guides. The leader of the “London to Paris” tour took some time to answer questions about the attractions and accommodations along the way, and about the Back-Roads Touring experience in general.
Q: Many people visiting Europe, particularly two of its most popular cities, London and Paris, will think primarily about the major sights in those cities. Can you speak a bit about the benefits of getting out of the cities and seeing some of the off-the-beaten-path attractions Back-Roads stops at on its London-Paris tour?
The main benefit is leaving the crowds, along with their hustle and bustle, behind and taking things at a much more relaxed and enjoyable pace. London is often described as the “World in One City” with its wonderful array of languages and cultures. Leaving for Dorset, we drive with stops at Windsor and Winchester, traveling down narrow country lanes, so it’s perfect for those who want to see something more traditionally English: quaint little villages with thatched-roof cottages, and farm estates with wheat and barley swaying to a breeze with pheasants and partridges running across the road as you go by.
I like to compliment all of this with a lunch stop at one of my favorite traditional country pubs set next to the beautiful River Test, famous in England as the home of fly-fishing, and our guests will be able to see salmon and brown trout swimming by along with the occasional swan or duck making a dramatic take off or landing. All this while having typical country pub food, like a ploughman’s lunch, and washing it down with a good old pint of English cask ale or cider!
Related: Our 10 Favorite Castles in Europe
Q: There’s a lot to take in on this tour. Can you walk through some of your favorite spots and maybe bring them to life for our readers? There’s a lot of history here, through many different eras from the Neolithic period through to World War II. Which period is your favorite to explore, and how does this tour immerse travelers in that time?
I love history, and seeing it all around gives added perspective to what I studied at University. Being able to share that passion with our guests is something I consider a privilege. Explaining what we are seeing in the local context and then relating it to the bigger picture is what makes traveling through history — which is what we really are doing — fascinating.
For instance, driving around Guernsey and Jersey you can see the Round Towers, or Martello Towers as they are often called, built up along the coast to defend against the threat of French attack over the centuries. These fortifications were added to by the Germans during World War II, and the huge array of defensive fortifications, concrete anti-tank and vehicle embankments along the beachfronts, and watchtowers that make up the battery structures that were designed as dry-land battleships, are all part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. We stop at some of these sites, and the guests can get up close and personal, going inside as well as walking along some of the trenches.
All too often, it is easy to go sightseeing without actually having any meaningful engagement with the local people, so to cap it all off we have the pleasure of meeting the lovely Molly Bihet, who was only nine years old when the German Occupation started, and she will talk to us about her experiences and life on the island during the occupation.
Q: Can you discuss some of the accommodations along the way? Back-Roads is famous for providing off-the-beaten-path local experiences in both attractions and accommodations. What are some of the most unique places to stay on this tour, and what makes them unique?
The Greenhills Hotel, where we stay on Jersey, takes its name from the beautiful and lush hills in which it sits. En route, if we are lucky, we will see the doe-eyed Jersey cows grazing in the fields. On arrival at the charming 17th century building, we are greeted with a delight for the eyes, as it is fronted by a colorful display of seasonal flowers.
We get a warm welcome upon checking in with friendly staff showing our guests the way to their rooms. In the evening we will have an included three-course dinner, but not before a glass of wine or a local beer at the bar, where we continue to get to know our new friends.
Q: What type of cuisine do travelers get to enjoy along this tour? In what ways can they truly enjoy the authentic tastes of English and French cuisine?
Typically, the Channel Islands and Brittany are known for their seafood — we are talking about sea bass, scallops, crab, lobsters, and, of course, oysters. Cancale oysters are said to be the best in France, so perhaps the best in Europe! King Louis XIV was known for having them delivered to his court in Paris en masse.
While in St Malo it is possible to indulge in all of these things to excess with a platter, if one so wishes. The famed Brittany Blue Lobster is a must, and you can enjoy the spectacle of having it flambéed before your eyes! For something lighter, you can go for a savory galette or a sweet crepe and wash it down with a boule of traditional Breton Cider.
Q: Can you describe some of the local shopping experiences along the way on this tour? What unique items can travelers expect to shop for?
We have the famous Guernsey sweater, long worn by sailors. As well as being warm, it’s popular because of its tight stitching, which turns water away when it’s raining.
There is also the Guernsey milk can, which dates back to Norman times, along with other silver and copper crafts. In Brittany, of course, you have the Breton striped shirt made famous by Coco Chanel in her 1917 nautical range, and also by Audrey Hepburn and James Dean in the movie Rebel Without a Cause.
Q: How does a Back-Roads tour typically begin and end? For someone who books this tour, what is the procedure as far as booking, transportation to the tour’s starting point, and transportation after it ends?
Typically, guests book directly or through their travel agents. We pick them up from the joining hotel and begin the tour after introducing ourselves and the tour. At the end, we drop them off at La Demeure hotel in Paris, saying our final farewells to each other. Guests often book pre- or post-accommodation (extending your stay at the beginning or end of the tour) at each of the hotels. Otherwise they often arrive or depart in taxis.
Related: Rollin’ On the River
Q: Can you describe some of the modes of travel during the tour? What should travelers expect while journeying from location to location?
The majority of transport is in our luxury Mercedes Sprinter Mini Coach, which has leather seats and air conditioning. Traveling between the islands, we drive onto ferries in our coach. The ferries have allocated seating, and there are snack bars for food and coffee along with duty-free shopping.
On the day trip to Sark, we catch an included ferry over. There are no cars allowed on Sark, so I arrange an optional horse and carriage ride around the island, and the guests pay the driver at the end. At times there is the occasional orientation walk at places we visit, and when getting off the Back-Roads Touring coach to go to a scenic photo stop.