A luxury tour helps Anna Anderson rekindle an Italian love affair that began as a backpacker.
'And on the ninth day, she ascended into heaven." I fling open the french doors to my juliet balcony with a movie-star flourish to find the River Arno rushing over a weir outside my room. It's day nine of my Classic Italy tour, and I'm in heaven. From my room in the Westin Excelsior in Florence, the view takes in the Ponte Vecchio, Boboli Gardens and the domes of the Santo Spirito and Santa Maria del Carmine churches. The setting sun silhouettes Tuscan cypress pines and glows over terracotta rooftops.
As a backpacker 28 years ago, I fell in love with the romance of Italy, ignoring my frugal digs, cold showers and lack of lire. Now I flop back into a tapestry chair, adjust the glow of the chandelier and pop the iced prosecco left alongside a welcome note from the manager.
Each of the nine days into my Classic Italy tour so far has been exceptional. Clocking up its 1070th aptly named tour (Tauck World Discovery has other Italian tours and dozens of worldwide itineraries), they've fine-tuned this 14-day tour so well that on our last day I struggle to suggest improvements on their guest survey. OK - there is one: how about an extra day in Sorrento so we can cruise to Capri?
As a proud FIT (free independent traveller), I'm nervous about joining an organised tour. Aren't they for old fogeys wearing gaudy name tags trotting behind a guide with a megaphone? Not this one. My 33 companions range in age from 43 to their late 70s. They're nimble, quick-witted, funny, courteous and all American. Tauck is a US-based family-owned company started in 1925, but why aren't Australians familiar with it? Tauck largely relies on word-of-mouth recommendations and hooked tourers have been enough to allow the company to expand from a one-man show to a company of 400.
Our tour kicks off in Sorrento on the Bay of Naples. Breakfast in the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria (a favourite of Enrico Caruso, Princess Margaret and the King of Siam) is as lavish as the hotel. Exquisite glass and silverware, starched linen, frescoed ceilings, arched windows framing the view, waiters in white jackets and bow ties and a buffet groaning with every variation of breakfast (the smoked salmon gets a big serve). A fellow tourer quips: "This sure beats Starbucks." The standard is upheld in each hotel on our tour. Same goes for the airconditioned coach, which is all comfort and hygiene, with big windows, a discreet toilet and an endless supply of chilled water.
Snaking along the Amalfi Coast spotting the summer homes of Sophia Loren and Rudolf Nureyev and listening to our guide's tales from mythology, I relish the passage of time - this is a big step up from backpacking. No rail timetables to decipher, no train platforms to navigate and no luggage to haul. In fact, the only time I see my luggage is when I find it waiting in my room at each destination.
On my grand tour of Europe back in the '80s, I had months at my leisure. Now I have two weeks, and although most of my fellow tourers are retired or semi-retired, all have busy lives back home. It's important for us to make every moment of this trip count, and that's the genius of a Tauck tour. While our itinerary covers Sorrento, Rome, Torgiano, Viareggio, Florence and Venice, with stops at Pompeii, Orvieto, Assisi, San Gimignano and the Cinque Terre, we remain blissfully rested throughout, if a little footsore after scouring Rome. The itinerary is so expertly calibrated we have the carefree and rested demeanour expected of a holiday.
Comfort is a big factor. Most nights after dinner, I fill the deep tub in my marble bathroom (all the hotel bathrooms are marble and all pristine, some with spa tubs) and recount the fun of the day. Fluffy bathrobes and slippers are my evening wear, and Westin's famous Heavenly Beds are my cloud nine.
By day, our journeys include plenty of bagno (bathroom) stops and I'm relieved to find Italy has upgraded its "starting blocks" (the hole-in-the-ground amenities of old). The location of each hotel is hard to beat. In Sorrento, we're waterfront with the ferry wharf to Capri at our doorstep and the town's piazza at the end of the tree-lined driveway. In Rome, we're at the top of the famed Via Vittorio Veneto, we're an eight-minute walk from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Westin Europa & Regina in Venice is at the start of the Grand Canal and about five minutes' walk from St Mark's Square.
Comprehensive information is posted on the website (travelthe world.com.au), including suggested reading. With little time to prepare for the trip, I'm nervous I'll miss the fundamentals. No chance. Perhaps the greatest strength of Tauck's tours is the quality of its guides, fonts of information bottled in the form of tour directors. Our director, Tina del Campo, quickly becomes our go-to girl, language consultant, art and history expert, security guard and best friend. A confessed Chatty Cathy and map nerd, she approaches her role with so much enthusiasm and fun it's contagious. After 13 years in Italy and 12 guiding the Classic Italy tour, there's not much Tina can't answer. She uses the short bus journeys to feed us information on how to order a coffee, where to find a decent bathroom and how to sniff out the best gelaterias. On the Amalfi Coast, she tutors us on the phenomenon of sirocco winds that carry desert sand from Africa, points out the home of the Sirens and where the Titans clashed. Through the Umbrian countryside we learn about the Italian economy and religion, and passing Perugia we brush up on Italian education, birth rates and the legal drinking age (there's no Italian word for "hangover"). Heading up to San Gimignano, we have a lesson on the Guelphs and Ghibellines and learn a little about alabaster.
While the tour director's knowledge is phenomenal, she makes a point of handing over to local guides at each destination, and this is where the clout of a good tour company comes to the fore. Each of our guides has either a master's degree or doctorate in the history and art of their town, all have excellent English and a terrific sense of humour. And they have a secret weapon - one I longed for in my backpacking days - a guide's pass to the front of every queue.
Pompeii is a thrill. There among the ruins, with Vesuvius as backdrop, our party divides into two groups tagged Michelangelo and Da Vinci. We're issued with battery-operated Whispers - a device the size of a mobile phone with an earpiece and lanyard to hang round our necks. This allows us to follow our guide while hearing her every word. No megaphones here. Wandering around those ancient ruins in the sun, listening to extraordinary stories, I feel the urge to dust off our history books as soon as we get back home. Each guide through the trip prompts the same response.
In Rome we're doubly spoilt. The suave Ricardo enthralls us with tales of ancient Rome at the Colosseum and other monuments before presenting us with a Tauck exclusive and what for many is the highlight of our trip - an after-hours tour of the Vatican. Watching the crowds disperse at sunset, we swan through like welcomed dignitaries. Once inside the Sistine Chapel, we sit for 45 minutes listening to Ricardo's wealth of knowledge.
But Classic Italy isn't all art and history, and certainly not all group togetherness. There's a happy balance of free time and plenty of opportunities for romantic dinners with your partner or private adventures. Travelling solo, I have two fears - that I'll feel lonely, or worse still, long for some alone time. Neither eventuates. At every meal I'm invited to join a table; sometimes I do and have loads of fun getting to know this genial bunch. At breakfast, I'm content in my own company. When we cut loose for free time, most of us have agendas - for some, it's to sip martinis on the Via Veneto or Bellinis at Harry's Bar, or while away the afternoon in a sunny piazza ristorante while others ply the concierge for directions to museums, galleries, shops and cafes. At night, we swap tales of our discoveries and show off our loot.
Armed with Tina's tips on sights, restaurants, shops and gelaterias, I set off with my own must-see list. It's like being 21 again. Taking a wrong turn reveals a new discovery and testing my schoolgirl Italian brings a courteous response - in English.
At the end of two weeks, speeding towards the airport aboard a water taxi, I'm starting to feel separation anxiety. It's alleviated by my chaperone, Renata, who takes me all the way to the check-in desk. Resisting the urge to tip (Tauck suggests for a one-off gratuity for our tour director and coach driver), I bid her "ciao" knowing I'm going to miss this constant cosseting.
The writer was a guest of Travel the World on a Tauck Tour.
Emirates flies from Sydney to Rome via Dubai from $1903 return. Alitalia flies from Rome to Naples from $95 one way, www.emirates.com; www.alitalia.com.
The Tauck Classic Italy tour operates between April and November. Prices start at $6175 a person. For more information and bookings, contact Travel the World on 1300 857 437 or visit traveltheworld.com.au.