Great life experiences in far-flung destinations are in reach like never before, writes Belinda Jackson.
What do Hindu festivals, gorilla tracking and sailing to Uruguay have in common? They're experiences available in this year's crop of group tours. Forget just viewing the world from the window of your coach seat - touring companies have upped the ante, using their contacts to garner invitations to exclusive events such as rare art viewings, visits to private gardens and the best dining opportunities. Now it's cool to admit you're a groupie ...
Camel trek in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Tie a scarf around your head, leap on to your trusty camel and head into the awesome desert wilderness of Jordan's Wadi Rum. With its red sands and monolithic rock formations, this is where Lawrence of Arabia helped co-ordinate the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-18.
You can still see the ruins of his headquarters. Hidden between the rocks are Bedouin camps where you can stretch out beside a fire, drinking tea and listening to the sounds of the desert. Peregrine Adventures' 20-day Egypt, Jordan and Israel tour is priced from $5190 a person, twin share, excluding flights. Phone 1300 791 485, see peregrineadventures.com.
Celebrate the light fantastic, India
Wander the lamp-lit streets of Udaipur in Rajasthan and hear the roar of firecrackers, used to frighten off evil spirits during the massive Hindu celebration, of Diwali, the "festival of lights". The festival celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after 14 years' exile. You'll sit down to a traditional celebratory meal then participate in prayers and exchange gifts with a local family.
Other features of this Indian tour include camel and elephant safaris. Abercrombie & Kent's 15-day Festival of Lights tour is priced from $14,590 a person, twin share (maximum of 14 guests). Departs October 30. Get a $500 discount if you book before March 31. Phone 1300 851 800, see abercrombiekent.com.au.
Get your spurs on, Wyoming, US
Get the family into the act at the rodeo at Buffalo Bill Village in Cody as you mosey through the great American West. See rodeo favourites from steer wrestlers to clowns and visit the largest museum on the US's frontier history. The other stops on this tour are the stuff of legend: Yellowstone National Park, including the Old Faithful geyser; the Bighorn Mountains; Mount Rushmore; and then barrel down the rushing Snake River on a raft.
Cowboy Country is an eight-day tour, priced from $US2671 ($2967) a person, twin share, excluding flights, and takes place on selected dates from June 6 to August 24. Phone 1300 766 566, see tauck.com.
Visit a nunnery, Tibet
Take tea with Tibetan nuns in a seventh-century nunnery in the back streets of Lhasa. The Ani Sangkhung Nunnery is where Tibetan kings have meditated and thangka (prayer banners) are made. Guests are welcome to hear the rhythmical chanting and see prayer wheels being assembled.
Other highlights include visiting a local family to chat about life in Tibet and there is extra time in the capital, Lhasa, to acclimatise to the mountain kingdom. The 12-day Tibet Experience tour is priced from $3855 a person, twin share, and includes domestic transport and permits. Maximum of 18 guests. Phone 1300 138 755, see travelindochina.com.au.
Ice-trekking, New Zealand
Tackle New Zealand's famous Franz Josef Glacier. You don't need Sir Edmund Hillary-style skills to strap on crampons for a moderately difficult hike that traverses crevasses and ice caves. The half-day walk is rewarded by panoramic views over the Waiho valley. If you reckon a half-day hike is for wimps, extend to a full day or go all out with ice climbing or a heli-hike over the glacier.
Intrepid Travel's 15-day South Island Explorer tour, starting in Christchurch, is priced from $2950 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 364 512, see intrepidtravel.com.
Hear the sounds of St Petersburg, Russia
Embrace the opera at the Mussorgsky Theatre in St Petersburg. The theatre has been presenting opera and ballet since 1833. This tour includes a performance of the opera Eugene Onegin and the melodramatic ballet, Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor, and is just one of many historic stops on a river cruise between this impressive city and Moscow. Bentours's 15-day Waterways of the Czars cruise is priced from $3299 a person, twin share. Phone 1800 221 712, see bentours.com.au.
Return to the Ice Age, Canada
Skim over ancient ice in the sleek, toasty cabin of an Ice Explorer and experience the serenity of the Columbia Icefield, spread over Canada's Alberta and British Columbia provinces. The Athabasca Glacier, between Banff and Jasper, shuffles several centimetres a day. Other tour highlights include beaver-spotting and a walk through Whistler, the site for next month's 2010 Winter Olympics. The 11-day Best of Canada's West tour is priced from $2899, excluding flights. See trafalgartours.com.au.
Sail to Uruguay, South America
Feel the breeze in your hair and act like you don't care as you sail on a catamaran to Uruguay. The day trip sees you leaving the tango halls of Buenos Aires for the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Colonia del Sacramento, where a local guide will lead you through the winding streets of this old smuggling town, established by the Portuguese in 1680. This tour, which journeys from Rio De Janeiro to Santiago, also stops at the massive Iguazu Falls and crosses the Andes from Argentina into Chile. Globus's 16-day South American Odyssey is priced from $5563 a person, twin share. See globus.com.au.
Gastronomy heaven, France
Isn't that Bathers' Pavilion chef Serge Dansereau sitting opposite, acting as your guide to French food? This is eating at its most elegant, with Michelin stars aplenty in Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Paris. Local markets and cellars are also on the menu. Your coach has just 20 passengers, a lounge area and a kitchenette. The 14-day Gastronomy and Wine tour is priced from $9700 a person, twin share, excluding airfares. Phone 9967 5995, see frenchindulgence.com.
Haggle at a Kashgar bazaar, China
Kashgar's Silk Road Sunday market is where traders have been wheeling and dealing for centuries. The oasis town on China's western frontier is a wild region where history and mysticism intermingle. Other treasures visited on this tour include Xi'an's Terracotta Army, the Heavenly Lake, 1000-year-old Buddhist carvings in the Mogao Caves and the Gobi Desert. Bunnik Tours's 21-day China Silk Road adventure is priced from $6519 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 664 170, see bunniktours.com.au.
Drink in Croatia's liquid gems
Great wine tastes better in great surroundings, so the views of Croatia's beaches and villages should make its renowned red wines, Postup and Dingac, simply superb. Just an hour from historic Dubrovnik, newly discovered by the jet set, you'll taste the wines and hear local winemakers describe life in the slow lane. Other highlights of this 15-day tour include visits to Vienna, Budapest, Sarajevo and Belgrade.
Insight Vacations's Country Roads of the Balkans, Dalmatia and the Adriatic Riviera is priced from $3899 a person, twin share, excluding flights, and departs on selected dates from April 18 to October 10. See insightvacations.com.
Eyeball a gorilla, Rwanda
Your tracker will lead you through the jungle, following the trails of the mountain gorillas, and introduce you to these peaceful, sociable animals. Volcanoes National Park is also home to the endangered golden monkey and the second day of this tour sees you combing bamboo forests to spy on these blue-faced, golden-haired creatures.
Accommodation includes tented camps in the mountains, with a maximum of 10 guests allowed on this five-day Gorilla Adventure, priced from $3190 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.au.
Green in Tasmania
Visit some of Tasmania's beautiful private gardens, including Woolmers Estate and Brickendon Homestead, in the full flush of spring. This tour celebrates great markets, pretty villages and also has a gourmet component, with wine and cheese tastings, morning teas and an oyster farm visit.
In between, you'll also visit the state's rose gardens, the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, convict-built towns and gracious colonial buildings. The seven-day Gardens and Gourmet Discovery of Tasmania tour is priced from $2755 a person, twin share and departs on November 14. Phone 1300 336 932, see aptouring.com.au.