Travel: Building the Perfect Vacation

  • Bobbie Leigh

The accidental traveler is fast becoming extinct. For many, leisure time has become too scarce and too precious to spend it wandering about the world in the hope of happening upon a life-affirming or life-altering experience. Instead, you board a plane with a specific goal, whether it is to indulge in a spa’s pampering, partake in a spiritually fulfilling adventure, shop for a one-of-a-kind antique (see Travel, “Foreign Furniture Affairs,” December 2002), or view great works of art. To this list of things to do with your free time, add: Tour spectacular architectural achievements.

Although architectural tourism is a relatively new phenomenon, the number of companies offering this form of niche travel is growing. In fact, Carrie Snyder of Archetours Inc. estimates that her company’s business has grown from 10 percent to 20 percent each year for the past two years.

The best architectural tours offer exclusive opportunities that would be difficult if not impossible to arrange on your own, such as a private tour of the Vatican or of Frank Gehry’s titanic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which has become a place of pilgrimage for the architectural cognoscenti. The quality of a tour can also depend on the knowledge and insight of the person or people leading it. In Berlin, a compelling destination for anyone with an interest in architecture, Archetours enlists the services of Ralph Stern. An American-born architect who teaches at the Hochschule der Kunste and operates an architecture firm in the city, Stern accompanies Archetours clients on a dizzying round of visits to buildings by Gehry, Helmut Jahn, Norman Foster, Arata Isozaki, Jean Nouvel, and Renzo Piano. “Our tours involve a lot of walking during the morning, a break for lunch, and more touring in the afternoon,” Snyder says.

Karen Bergenthal, who organizes and leads art and architecture tours of European, South American, and U.S. cities through her Milwaukee-based company Tours d’Art, says the secret to a successful trip is balance. “I try to pace my trips so that people aren’t overwhelmed by being talked at all day,” she says, adding that one of her tours would never include an entire day of only churches, museums, or facades. Like Snyder, Bergenthal also relies on local experts, and she provides special VIP access whenever possible. To complement the study of public spaces, her tours often include visits to private homes with impressive collections.

Exclusive access and well-designed itineraries are what Florida architect Steve Brisson appreciated most about his two European tours. He traveled with Art & Architectural Tours & Seminars, which is headed by Jean Renoux, a Paris native who worked as an interior designer in Florida for 19 years and is now based in Sarasota. Depending on the city, Renoux will arrange for visits to local architects’ offices, meetings with university professors, or even stops at city planning offices. “If we had gone on our own, we would have made different decisions and might have missed some important visits,” says Brisson. “Jean’s planning is quite intense. I don’t think we could have planned and scheduled comparable itineraries on our own.”

Archetours Inc., 646.613.1896, 800.770.3051;
Art & Architectural Tours & Seminars, 941.365.5214, 800.240.1194, www.art-architecttours.com;
Tours d’Art, 414.276.3131, 800.822.3789, www.toursdart.com

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