The world's best tour guides: Follow the leaders

A good tour guide can make your whole holiday,  but a bad tour guide can sour your impressions of a destination forever.  A guide can have a key role in shaping our memories (and that's some responsibility). Before we visit them, every destination can be just a scene from a movie, or a photo we saw in a magazine or a book, or perhaps a recommendation from a friend or family member; or a story we read in a travel section like this one. 

A guide is the person, should we engage them, that we entrust to bring a destination to life. And so a good guide is one who instills their passion for a destination or an experience in us … if they're smitten (and they should be: after all, if they can't love their destination or experience, how do they expect us to?) it's their task to make us fall head over heels in love, too. 

We don't need hours of pointless, regurgitated information on holiday,  we don't wish to be talked at as if we're high school kids on a science excursion,  we  want to be taken on a journey.  We want to discover that which we won't find in a Google search. We want to feel befriended, but not overwhelmed. We want to feel like locals, privy to secrets. We want to leave a destination hoping,  and praying,  that we'll come back again one day.  

The best guides understand this, and it's for these reasons that those on these page have been nominated by Traveller's writers as being among the finest exponents of their craft on the planet.

THE GUIDE

Brian Lee, Tagalong Tours, The Kimberley, Western Australia

SKILL SET

Bush tours of the beautiful Cape Leveque region, including insights into local history and culture and a bush tucker lunch. 

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE

"Jump in your car and follow me!" It's not the usual way to start a tour but then, Brian Lee's Tagalong Tours are a long way from ordinary. We are at Kooljaman on Cape Leveque, a peninsula north of Broome that is all long sandy beaches, scrubby bush and rust-red soil. This is four-wheel-drive country. Lee leads the way in his vehicle, the rest of us steer our vehicles in his wake. We are headed into tribal territory, where whites need an invitation to enter. 

"I want to give people an insight into Kooljaman, how people lived here before European settlement, and how they lived here after," says Lee, who has been running his tours for four years. 

We start by racing the tide along a glorious sweep of a white sandy beach, an experience guaranteed to appeal to any revheads in the group. Eventually we pull over for a spot of beachcombing on the shell-strewn sand, during which Lee, an elder of the Bardi tribe, demonstrates how to whistle through a periwinkle shell. 

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He also gives us a rundown of the area's multicultural history, from the indigenous inhabitants to European settlers and Japanese pearlers. Lee himself has a typically mixed ancestry, with Japanese and English blood, a Chinese stepfather, and an Italian wife. "I'm a very coloured person," he says happily.

From the beach, we go bush, heading up to Hunter Creek. We cool off with a dip in the clear turquoise waters, while Lee demonstrates the finer points of spear fishing. None of us can boast any skill with the spear, but fortunately Lee bags enough trevally to feed us all for lunch.

As the fish cooks over a campfire,  he tells us more stories, ranging from bush lore to tales of his great grandfather, after whom the Hunter River was named. Lee's extraordinary knowledge and his mischievous sense of humour make hanging out with him a joy.

"Want to try a local delicacy?" he asks at one point. "Oorlgoo: they are tiny little birds. We wring their necks and suck out the juice." We are horrified at the idea: only to find the "birds" are actually bird-shaped growths on a plant filled with sweet juice. 

ESSENTIALS 

A half-day tour costs $75 for adults, $35 for children. Phone 08 9192 4970, or see brianleetagalong.com.au. Kooljaman is around three hours drive north of Broome. Qantas operates flights to Broome via Sydney and Melbourne via Perth and Darwin with some direct services depending on the time of the year. See qantas.com

Ute Junker

THE GUIDE

 Soontareeporn Hombuayai, Bangkok, Intrepid Travel

SKILL SET 

Leads Intrepid's Real Food Adventure tour in Thailand. An engaging food expert who seeks out local delicacies, street-food treats and cheap and cheerful restaurants.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE 

Our street-market breakfast is scheduled for a leisurely 8am start, but our guide Soon has been up since 6 am, scouting the day's offerings, sourcing bargains and no doubt taste-testing to ensure our snacks are fresh, delicious and tantalising. 

Blessed with the annoying Thai propensity to never gain weight, 41-year-old Soon is a passionate foodie, encouraging her clients on Intrepid's Real Food Adventure in Thailand to explore, experiment and push their gastronomic boundaries.

Just wandering through a market under her tutelage, grazing on tropical fruits and breathing in the aromas of herbs and spices is a fascinating and educational experience, inspiring even terrible cooks like me to don apron and begin chopping. 

It was another passion – love of the English language and communicating with foreigners – that led Soon to her career as a tour guide in 1997 after graduating from university in biotechnology. 

She started working for Intrepid nine years ago, and helped to develop the itinerary for its dedicated food tour, launched in 2013.

"My boss knew that I fancied food and had an interest in cooking," she says. "I love Thai food so much, and I like to find restaurants which are more than just a place to eat, where the emphasis is on taste."

Articulate, communicative and organised, Soon is always one step ahead of her tour group, re-confirming arrangements the day before an activity commences. Her biggest challenge, she says, is accommodating her client's dietary requirements, particularly since many restaurants in south-east Asia don't understand these special needs.

Intrepid's Real Food Adventure in Thailand – described as "one part culture, one part adventure and three parts delicious" – has rapidly become one of the company's most popular offerings, with clients raving about the itinerary, the food, the cultural elements and Soon's personal involvement.

ESSENTIALS

Intrepid's Real Food Adventure – Thailand is an 8-day culinary adventure from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, starting from $900. Thai Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Bangkok. See thaiairways.com.au; intrepidtravel.com

- Julie Miller

THE GUIDE

Irshad Mobarak, resident naturalist and tour guide, The Datai resort, Langkawi, Malaysia

SKILL-SET 

Encyclopedic knowledge of the Galapagos-like fauna and flora of the Malaysian island of Langawi combined with a near-telegenic presentation and sense of theatre. Give this bloke a TV series, for godsake.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE

I've just finished dutifully stuffing my day-pack with bottles of water and associated small supplies for a nature tour that's about to began The Datai. But I needn't have bothered. Irshad Mobarak's nature tour barely leaves the driveway of The Datai reception. Yet I don't feel  at all denied. 

The small amount of territory we cover over a few hours or so spotting is a tribute to Mobarak and his uncanny ability to pinpoint the island's teeming ubiquitous wildlife and botany. He first came came to Langkawi more than 25 years ago as a tourist but with the intention of seeking a new place live and work.

"I'm not a city person and i had always loved the outdoors, rainforest and beaches," says Mobarak. "The island had all that and more and I knew then that this was the place for me to put down some roots. I believe there is no other island in south-east Asia that is of the same size as Langkawi that can offer the amazing diversity of geological formations and flora and fauna."

The resort, designed two decades ago by acclaimed Asian-based Australian architect Kerry Hill, is superbly located in that it is built on a jungle-studded hillside which tumbles all the way down to the ocean, namely the crescent-shaped Datai Bay, regarded as one of the best beaches in south-east Asia. 

Mobarak conducts nine day and night walks,  free for house-guests,  weekly, as well as several specialty birdwatching and wildlife photography tours. "We hope to introduce a marine conservation activity in which our guest can actively participate and it is related to the dolphins, whales and whale sharks that visit our waters," says Mobarak, who believes a great guide must possess have an authentic passion for the role. 

"A famous person once said that the two most important things to happen in a person's life are first the day of  his or her birth and  the day he or she finds a sense of purpose.  I certainly do have many unrealised ambitions but life is a work in progress and I am steadily ticking it off my list. My job offers so many unexpected gifts like swimming with eight whale sharks just a short boat ride off the Datai Bay." 

Really, on an underrated island such as Langkawi blessed with so many natural treasures and also certain environmental challenges, you'd have to include Mobarak as a gift in his own right.

ESSENTIALS

Irshad Mobarak's nature tours are free for house-guests of The Datai. Speciality tours incur a charge. See datai.com

- Anthony Dennis

THE GUIDE 

Brian Deedrick, Berlin, Insider Tour.

SKILL SET

"The best way to experience a city is through its history yet with an understanding of its future," states the Insider Tour website. It's a mantra globetrotting guide Brian Deedrick has taken and run with. The cutting-edge walking tour outfit distinguishes itself with superbly delivered historical anecdotes, delivered by carefully handpicked guides who know the city better than anyone. For nearly 15 years, Deedrick has been leader of the pack.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE

From the moment I first joined one of Deedrick's tours more than a decade ago, I knew he had the "it" factor: comic timing, a sense of the ridiculous and an inherent understanding of how to build drama and tension. As the group gathered, he was literally hopping on the spot, peppering us with gags in his trademark machine-gun-fire-delivery, elevating the mood to an air of giddy anticipation.

Over the next five hours we were mesmerised, we rocked with laughter as the fall of the Berlin Wall was recounted with electrifying candour. He honed his skills during his "other life" directing operas during winter months in locations as far flung as Casalmaggiore, Italy, Tel Aviv and the US and Canada. 

His are not a cursory whip-through the obvious sites delivered by a bored student on a summer job; they are deeply insightful examinations of one Europe's most intriguing cities. 

"I had never been allowed to come to Berlin as a child, and I finally made my first pilgrimage 20 years ago," says Deedrick. "When I stepped off the train, it was like a brick to the head. I had the instant, overwhelming sensation that I had been to the city before.  And I hadn't. Thank you, Shirley Maclaine. At that moment, Berlin started to speak to me, and she hasn't shut up ever since."

ESSENTIALS

To join an Insider Walk, no bookings are required. Simply show up at one of the daily designated meeting points around the city at the allotted time. Tours, which begin again for the year in June, cost from €12 ($17.50)  for an adult. See insidertour.com. Qantas fly regularly from Sydney to Berlin via Singapore and Frankfurt. See qantas.com.au

- Guy Wilkinson

THE GUIDE

Navarino Narah, India, Banyan Tours

SKILL-SET

Multilingual, specialist trekking and cultural guide working exclusively for Banyan Tours in India's Himalayan states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand and Ladakh. Guides only individuals, couples, families.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE

It's pouring when I go to bed in a tiny village opposite Pelling, in India's northern state of Sikkim, but Narah says that's a good sign. "In the morning, you'll see Kanchenjunga in the rising sun". And there it is, a blade of ice and snow, the world's third-highest peak, piercing the heavens. Narah has a hot line to the weather gods, along with everything else.

Navarino "call me Rino "is a tall, sinewy man in his mid-20s with Tibetan features who meets me outside the baggage hall at Bagdogra. He comes from Arunachal Pradesh, from a tribal and largely animist society in India's north-east. He's my guide on a four-day walk through the forested foothills of Sikkim's Himalayas.

He came late to guiding but has gathered an impressive CV having studied graphic design in New Zealand, worked as a sports journalist in Delhi and has six languages under his belt.  He learned English by watching old movies, and speaks it with the accentless and leisurely tones of a film star of another era. 

"I can only just understand Nepalese," he says, the language of the farmers and villagers when our walk takes us deep into western Sikkim. He is a whiz on the details – the price of cardamom, the lucrative cash crop that grows well in these hills, the inscriptions on the prayer walls along the forest tracks.

A picture of Narah on his Facebook page shows him doing a cartwheel on a sunny hillside with mountains in the background. It's a total Rino moment, joy, chi and athleticism in a single moment. He reads Lao Tzu and Krishnamurti but in the evenings, over mutton biriyani with rice, cauliflower and peas, potatoes, okra and banana pancakes, we compare notes on Breaking Bad.

On our last morning, back at the airport at Bagdogra, he narrows his eyes. "If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything," he says. I'm in Delhi in February, and so is he. I'm hoping we'll catch up. I've got a quote from the Heart Sutra that'll slay him.

ESSENTIALS

Tours can be arranged via the Delhi-based Banyan Tours with the depending on location, group size and tour length. Singapore Airlines operates regular daily flights from Australia to Delhi with connections to Bagdogra. See singaporeair.com; banyantours.com

- Michael Gebicki

THE GUIDE

Yasu Beltrami, San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, works as a guide with Tierra Atacama Hotel

SKILL SET 

True jack of all trades. As a guide for Tierra Atacama, Beltrami must be versatile enough to guide the more than 20 daily excursions offered by the hotel,  from teaching guests to ride horses within the world's driest desert, to leading experienced mountain bikers along treacherous rocky paths or hiking to the top of a 6000-metre volcano. He also has intimate knowledge of the area and its history for a range of daily 4WD tours.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE 

"Life is so short so when I saw this place, I knew I had to stay," says Beltrami, who grew up surfing the wild waves of Chile's rugged west coast,  He turned his back on the ocean when he fell deeply in love with the wide open spaces of the world's driest desert, the Atacama. Now he spends his life passing on his passion to visitors.

The best guides know their region better than anyone and can answer every question you ever think to ask. Beltrami can do all that.  I know, as I quiz him constantly,  but the best thing about him is not what he teaches me about the Atacama, it's what he teaches me about life.

Each morning he buzzes with anticipation for the day ahead of us. It's infectious, despite my altitude-affected sleep I soon find myself just as eager and spend five days on a variety of excursions – from horse riding to hiking to mountain biking. Beltrami's enthusiasm for life never slips for a moment.

It's common practice in Chile these days to tip so I offer my gratuity to Beltrami after my last excursion. "No, please," he says. "I don't want money, friendship is all I ask. I am lucky, I get to make a lot of friends."

The best guides are the best humans.  Beltrami taught me that.

ESSENTIALS

Visitors to Tierra Atacama are offered a range of daily excursions that are offered with their room rate. Beltrami is one of the guides assigned to guests (you may request him, though availability depends on the excursion requested). See tierraatacama.com. Fly to the Atacama via Chile's capital, Santiago, with LAN. See lan.com.au

- Craig Tansley

THE GUIDE

Mick Chapman, trekking guide, Wandering the World, Nepal.

SKILL-SET 

Pioneer of a trekking trail through the Annapurnas in the late 1970s, now into his 40th year of guiding treks through the Himalayas. Chapman distils the essence of guiding into a single word: passion.

GUIDE TO THE GUIDE 

In the early 1970s, the Englishman was so determined to become a Himalayan trekking guide that he spent six years effectively walking as an unpaid apprenticeship. For six months of each year, he worked in a British car factory, saving enough money to spend the rest of the year wandering through Nepal acquiring knowledge and experience.

In 1976 he guided his first trek to Everest Base Camp, and two years later led the first-ever trip operated by Peregrine Adventures, taking two trekkers into the Annapurna Sanctuary. In 1979 he forged a new trekking route in the Annapurna region after spotting a distant unknown ridge from the popular lookout point at Poon Hill.

"I was looking at this ridge thinking, 'I reckon if we stood on top of that, we'd have a pretty impressive view of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri range'," Chapman says. "Two weeks later we took some tents and some food and just headed up the ridge."

The resulting trek to Kopra Ridge has grown in popularity over the subsequent decades, but nobody knows it better than Chapman, who continues to lead treks through Nepal and Kopra Ridge. Walk with him into any of the nearby villages and old friends materialise, bringing an intimate, personal interaction to his treks.

"I've always felt that trekking is about bringing the experience to your clients," he says. "If you've got the intimate knowledge, which you only gain by being out there trekking, it really enhances the program for people." Chapman also believes in individual discovery, allowing liberty for clients to feel and find their own personal journey as they walk.

"I'm not the sort of guy who leads from the front," he says. "I tend to let people discover things themselves.  I lead from behind, help out when necessary. I think on a trekking holiday you need to give people space as well because that's part of the reason they've come on the holiday.

But I think if you've got the passion,  and I have such a passion for the Himalayas, that'll infect the clients and make their holiday enjoyable."

ESSENTIALS

Mick Chapman leads treks for the Australian-based tour operator Wandering the World with tours starting from about $US2200. See wanderingtheworld.com.au.

- Andrew Bain

FIVE ATTRIBUTES OF A GREAT TOUR GUIDE

CONGENIALITY He or she is a great person, too. A guide has to be likeable,  regardless of how much useful information they can supply. While you're not necessarily looking for your next best friend, enjoying the company of your guide is essential, particularly if you're stuck with them for days (or weeks).

JUDGEMENT They don't love the sound of their own voice. There's nothing worse than a guide who can't stand silence, while it's their job to inform,  and sometimes entertain.  They should understand travellers need time off to enjoy their surroundings in silence. The best guides know when to let us talk too, or allow us to rest.

DISCERNMENT They must know how to filter information. We all have computers, we don't need to know everything about a destination. We rely on guides to pick out the most interesting parts and the anecdotes that bring a destination to life. A great guide only tells us things we want to know.

GENEROSITY They know how to share their passion. A good guide must cherish the destination you're visiting, but must understand how to get us as enamoured without overdoing it. They will know what to show us to make us see the destination not only its best light but also threats and challenges to it such as environmental and climatic factors.

ENCOURAGEMENT They will be prepared to push you,  but they also know when to stop.  Good guides will urge you further than you'd normally go – to complete the hike you thought you weren't capable of, to eat the local delicacy that initially repulsed you, to stand near the edge of a spectacular drop-off. But they'll never risk your safety or bully you into pushing your boundaries

- Craig Tansley

FIVE MORE GREAT GUIDES

RENE SEINDAL, VENICE KAYAK

The best way to see Venice is from the water, and these kayaking tours offer a unique perspective. Seindal, who has lived here since 2008, takes you through narrow canals and quiet backwaters that few tourists ever get to see. See venicekayak.com

DARREN "CAPES" CAPEWELL, SHARK BAY, WA, CULTURAL TOURS

Situated at the junction of red-sand country and white-sand country, Shark Bay is a powerful place. Capes, who was born to a Malgana father and a Nhanda mother, leads kayaking, snorkelling and camping adventures while sharing the secrets, stories and traditions of his people. See wulaguda.com.au

GABRIELLA RANELLI, TENEDOR TOURS

If, like most visitors, you come to San Sebastian to eat, there is no better guide than Ranelli. She knows every chef, every restaurant's specialty, and may even sneak you into one of the famous private dining clubs.

MIKE KEIGHLEY, FAR OUT ADVENTURES

So good he has had a book, Tales of an Outback Guide written about him, Northern Territory-based Keighley takes visitors to the back of the beyond with laid-back humour, a local's insight and a real sense adventure. A much awarded eco-guide, with strong indigenous connections and an uncanny understanding of wildlife, he is a one-off. See farout.com.au

IFTEKHAR "IFTY" AHSAN, CALCUTTA WALKS

Funny, irreverent and knowledgeable, Ahsan brings his city to life,  and this being Calcutta,  death, too. But he prefers to focus on the vitally of his underrated city, and not its black holes of despair, including its extraordinary, though decrepit, stock of architecture dating from the days of the Raj. See calcuttawalks.com

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