Context Travel, named one of the top European tour companies by Travel + Leisure magazine, launched its first Canadian tours in Vancouver and Montreal in May. This week, PAXnewsWest.com joined expansion manager Lily Heise and Vancouver wine docent Louise-Marie Lessard for a trial run of the new Vancouver-based tour Wines of B.C., a Tasting Journey of the Province, with stops at The Wine Bar in Yaletown and Beach Bay Café in the West End.
Context Travel offers small group tours (maximum six guests) dubbed “walking seminars” in 35 cities around the world. Led by local experts, the tours explore subjects like history, art, architecture and food, including specialized itineraries like Jewish Buenos Aires and Cold War Berlin. Typical of Context’s more than 500 docents, Lessard has an extensive education in her subject – including two years of wine study in the south of France – and works in the local industry.
At The Wine Bar, sommelier Rachelle Goudreau showcased wines from B.C.’s Cowichan Valley and Naramata Bench, paired with hors d’oeuvres of seafood salad, pork belly and house-made gnocchi. At the new Beach Bay Café (which has taken over the space vacated by Raincity Grill), restaurant director Luc Trottier served wines from Penticton, Summerland and Pender Island, paired with an heirloom tomato appetizer.
As we sipped our way through the province’s wine regions, Lessard provided a history of wine production in B.C., from the first vines planted by monks in the Kelowna region in the 1850s through to the newer wineries in B.C.’s emerging wine regions.
Heise told PAXnewsWest.com that Context Travel launched in 2003 with “deep travel” architectural criticism and art history tours in Rome. The company grew organically, expanding first to Paris when a Rome docent moved there, and then throughout Europe as repeat clients came back looking for new experiences. More recently, the company moved into Asia and the Americas, with 10 new cities launched this year. Docents include urban planners, architects and even a marine biologist for a tour of the Venice lagoons; most have master’s degrees or PhDs in their areas of expertise.
“It’s something for the discerning traveller who doesn’t want to be with a large group being shepherded around,” Heise said. “Narratives are very important. It’s not going back to school, but you learn a lot about some surprising moments and facets of a city.”
In Cartagena, for example, Heise said guests visit a youth centre in the low-income neighbourhood of San Francisco, where volunteer with local children, including helping them develop their English skills, before dining in the docent’s home. The cost of the tour includes a $50 USD donation to the youth centre, matched by the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel, which Context created to mitigate the company’s environmental footprint and social and economic impacts, and to give back to the cities in which they operate.
“It’s a very immersive program,” Heise said. “You get beyond the façade to learn what really makes a destination tick.”
Context also offers private tours, including “Welcome to” tours in each city described as an “orientation meet-up with a local.”
“It’s a practical orientation where the docent explains how to use public transit and walk to the historic sites, where to find the good cafes, how to buy metro tickets and so on,” Heise told PAXnewsWest.com. “It’s like a travel agent’s helper in the destination.”
Agents can book Context Travel tours through the company’s website (contexttravel.com) or through the Philadelphia-based customer service office, where agents can speak to experts in each of Context’s regions to help select the best tour for their clients. The company offers agents a commission on all bookings.
PHOTO: Of Context Travel: Lily Heise, expansion manager, and Louise-Marie Lessard, Vancouver wine docent, at Beach Bay Café.