Best cultural tours: 15 holiday experiences that could change your life

Travel is often less about the places you go and more about the people you meet when you get there. It's the conversation you strike up with locals sitting at the next table in the cafe, or the charming family who run the little winery you stumble across by accident, that stay with you long after you return home.

Increasingly, touring companies are including these authentic exchanges in their itineraries. Insight Vacations, for instance, includes a variety of experiences, such as traditional accommodation and dining.

"We're giving our guests experiences they will talk about in years to come," says Insight's managing director, Joost Timmer.

"Each of our itineraries has a host of what we call Signature Experiences, many of which are exclusive to Insight."

Whether that's eating with a local family or joining in an olive oil tasting at a family-run oil press, Timmer says these experiences are part of a broader trend of guests looking to engage more deeply with destinations.

"Through our Country Roads programs, which explore particular regions in more depth, and our Easy Pace program, where we spend three nights in each location, guests are able to get to know places much better," Timmer says.

Trafalgar Tours has been having success with its Be My Guest program, where guests dine with locals in their homes.

"We started with one experience and we now have hundreds," Trafalgar Australia's managing director Matthew Cameron-Smith says.

"In Europe particularly, culture very much happens around food, around the dining table," Cameron-Smith says.

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He cites one encounter with a Loire Valley goat farmer.

"She welcomed us with a glass of kir, told us all about her farm, her life, her family, her house, and then we enjoyed a three-course meal in what was once the barn."

Like Insight, Trafalgar draws on its local guides to source the hosts of these experiences.

"They are able to put us in touch with people and experiences that you just couldn't get on your own," Cameron-Smith says.

From encounters with an Amish family to sleeping in a Buddhist monastery, there is a world of encounters available. Here is our selection of some of the most interesting.

Learn warrior ways

The trip: Bunnik Tours' Kenya and Tanzania 

The plains of eastern Africa are home to plenty of spectacular sights.

On this 18-day trip, you can spot lion in the Serengeti and elephants in the crater of an extinct volcano, as well as rhinos, hippos, antelope and zebra.

Perhaps even more memorable than the wildlife, however, is a visit to a Masai village. Enter the traditional houses, watch celebratory dances, and learn more about this warrior tribe, one of the few in Africa to continue their traditional way of life. 

Price from $10,410 including airfares

See bunniktours.com.au

Shabat dinner

The trip: Insight Vacations' Israel and Turkey

Roman ruins, Crusader castles, underground cities and Ottoman palaces are all on the itinerary of this 18-day trip, but for many, it will be the human encounters that stand out.

A guaranteed highlight is a Friday Shabat dinner in Tel Aviv. Shabat is the Jewish day of rest, and you will learn the meanings of various customs, from lighting candles to the blessings offered before meals.

Pricing From $5495

See insightvacations.com

An Amish encounter

The trip: Globus' Eastern US and Canada Discovery

Talk about squeezing a lot of diversity into a small space.

This 13-day trip takes in some fascinating cities, from the power hub of Washington DC to historic cities such as Boston and Philadelphia.

It also includes the fairytale romance of Quebec City, and the hip and happening cities of New York and Montreal.

There is a trip to Niagara Falls, and a visit to an Amish family farm to see how they live without electricity, learn about their quilting traditions, and taste traditional foods such as their Amish cheese.

Price from $3419

See globus.com

Join in a family dumpling dinner

The trip: Bunnik Tour's China In Depth

Take in 2000 years of history on an 18-day tour that takes you on a detailed journey through this vast country. Along the way, you will experience the 21st century buzz of mega-city Shanghai, ancient towns such as Zhujiajiao, and the unresting vigil of Xi'an's terracotta warriors.

Epochs collide in Beijing, where you will take in not just the glorious imperial palaces, but the city's daily life. Amid the narrow streets and alleys, join a local family for a dinner of homemade dumplings and learn more about life in this sprawling city.  

Price From $5490 including airfares

See bunniktours.com.au

Foraging in Ireland

The trip: Trafalgar Tours Best of Ireland

This 10-day round-trip gives you a taste of Ireland's many charms, from fishing villages to castles.

But chances are your west coast visit will be one of the highlights, not least because of the unique dining experience offered by the O'Brien sisters.

Oonagh will take you foraging along the shore; after which, her sister Theresa will serve up a delicious seafood feast.

Successful foragers may find their harvest served up as part of the meal.

Price from $2295

See trafalgar.com

Street style in Vietnam

The trip: APT's Luke Nguyen's Vietnam and Mekong River Cruise

This 20-day trip gives you the area's greatest hits - from the temples at Siem Reap to cruising Halong Bay - but it's the explorations of Vietnam's most bustling cities that offer a unique insight.

Chef Luke Nguyen knows his way through the street culture. 

n Hanoi, you will enjoy a bowl of some of the city's best pho soup, slurping it like locals do by the stall in an alley, run by three generations of the same family.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Luke goes back to his roots, introducing guests not just to the area in which his parents grew up, but also bringing them to meet his extended family.

This is followed by a cooking class with Luke.

Price from $9995

See apttouring.com

Japanese contrasts

The trip: Contiki Japan Unrivalled

From the bright lights of Tokyo to the mighty Matsumoto castle and the elegance of ancient Kyoto, this 13-day trip captures the contrasts that define Japan.

And if you're looking for a contrast to Japan's hyper-modern efficiency, you can't do better than its ancient Buddhist traditions.

Guests on this trip get to explore that culture first-hand with an overnight stay at a Buddhist monastery on Mount Kova.

From a vegetarian dinner eaten kneeling on tatami mats to an early morning Buddhist service, you will get a unique insight into the life of a Buddhist monk.

Also part of the experience is the opportunity to bathe in a traditional bathhouse, and a walking tour of the area's major temples.

Pricing from $4699

See contiki.com

At home in Peru

The trip: Globus' Legacy of the Incas

From the Nazca lines to the Sacred Valley, the fortress of Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu perched on its mist-wreathed mountain, this 12-day trip takes in many of Peru's most fascinating destinations.

In one of the few remaining Peruvian villages retaining its original Inca walls and street grid, guests are invited into the one-room homes of local Quechua families, to see how they eat, sleep, wash and pray.

Don't get too fond of any of the guinea pigs running around: they are being fattened up for supper.

Price from $4584

See globus.com.au

Back to school in Sri Lanka 

The trip: Bunnik Tour's A Taste of Sri Lanka 

Sri Lanka is an island of contrasts, and this 17-day tour is designed to explore the many facets of this enchanting island.

From the wave-washed coast to the tea plantations in the cool highlands; from the mighty rock fortress of Sigiriya to the forest-shrouded ruins of Ritigala, every day has its own Instagram-worthy highlights.

Along with a stop at the elephant orphanage, the trip's highlight is visit to a village school which Bunnik Tours helps support. Sit in on a lesson and get to know some of the children and their teachers, before sharing a feast of traditional Sri Lankan dishes. 

Price from $4490 including airfares

See bunniktours.com.au

Desert treats

The trip: Cox & Kings Arabian Odyssey

From bustling souks to deep desert canyons, from fishing villages to caves sparkling with stalactites and stalagmites, this nine-day trip showcases the best of what Oman has to offer.

It includes a night sleeping under the stars at a Bedouin camp.

Made in traditional Bedouin style with goat and sheep wool, each tent has several mod cons, most notably an attached toilet.

Your local hosts will prepare a traditional dinner including mezze dishes, slow-cooked lamb and mint tea.

Price from $2495

See coxandkings.com.au

Cook Mexican style

The trip: World Expeditions' Mexican Fiesta with Peter Kuruvita

The many flavours of Mexico are showcased in this 16-day trip which covers such diverse areas as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula and Puebla.

There are plenty of tastings, market visits and cooking lessons, but perhaps the most authentic experience is a cooking session in Oaxaca with one of the village women in charge of cooking feasts for local celebrations.

Work in her rustic kitchen with traditional tools to prepare traditional Mexican dishes such as tamales, empanadas and salsas. 

Price from $7790

See worldexpeditions.com

Turkish delight

The trip: Trafalgar's Highlights of Turkey

This itinerary includes visits to Istanbul, Gallipoli, Ephesus and Troy, but it's the visit to the small village of Demircidere that makes this eight-day trip special.

You will be greeted by local women who will invite you into their homes to enjoy traditional dishes such as tarhana soup and borek pastry.

Price from $1535

See trafalgartours.com.au

Maori culture

The trip: AAT Kings Best of NZ

From the Bay of Islands in the far north to such South Island landmarks as Milford Sound, there's barely a corner of the country left unexplored in this 18-day trip.

One highlight is an evening at a marae that gives an insight into Maori culture.

From the traditional welcome - including a haka and a powhiri (greeting) - this visit lets you learn about traditional rituals and protocol.

Guests can enjoy dinner with a family, take part in dancing, and end the evening sitting around a bonfire learning about Maori legends.

Price from $5750

See aatkings.com

Sheepish in Scotland

The trip: Insight Vacations' Country Roads of Scotland From the buzzing cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh to the soaring mountains and misty lochs of the Highlands, this nine-day trip showcases Scotland's most atmospheric destinations.

Go behind the scenes with a visit to a working sheep farm in the Scottish Highlands, where you can meet the farmer and watch a sheepdog demonstration.

If you like to get your hands dirty, there is the opportunity to muck in on some of the daily chores, or you can just cuddle the collie pups or perhaps bottle- feed an orphan lamb.

Price from $2750

See insightvacations.com

Cattle in Kimberley

The trip: AP Touring's Horizontal Falls and Kimberley

Complete The Kimberley's magnificent landscapes often steal the show, but the story of its huge cattle stations is also fascinating.

This 15-day trip includes a visit to the indigenous-owned Home Valley Station to discover how these properties are managed.

Home Valley also runs a respected program which gives indigenous people training in skills as diverse as fencing, welding, horsemanship, stock handling and tourism.

Price from $9690

See aptouring.com.au

Explore some of the best tour experiences in the photo gallery above.

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