Be it saving bears, unearthing ruins or chasing miracles, you can get to the heart of the action, writes Peter Needham.
What does viewing a solar eclipse in China have in common with bird-watching in Kakadu or tracing the footsteps of Alexander the Great through Turkey?
Answer: those three interests namely astronomy, birding and history provide a focus for separate, custom-built tours. Special-interest tours are designed for people who share a passion, which might be history, choir-singing, French tapestry, Byzantine art, yoga, astronomy or liberating dancing bears in India. Designed around a chosen pursuit, the tours allow small groups to take their time and explore in depth.
The In The Footsteps Of Alexander The Great tour is led by British historian, archaeologist and BBC documentary maker, Peter Sommer, who once trudged 3200 kilometres across Turkey pursuing his interest.
He's offering Australian travellers the opportunity to follow the same route (without the slog), as he leads a 19-day educational trip. It costs from $7875 a person.
In Sommer's words, expert-led archaeological tours "allow people to truly get under the skin of the country, to delve into its culture and its past". That attitude helps explain why special-interest tours, almost always small-scale, are comparatively resilient in the face of economic fluctuation. People who have set their hearts on something are not easily dissuaded.
Special interests make for unusual combinations. Practise yoga on the Larapinta Trail (Into The Blue Creative Walks), head to Jordan to view a meteor shower (On The Go Tours), explore the legend of Dracula in Romania (Gateway Travel) or commune with spirits via a medium at Q Station, Sydney's former Quarantine Station in Manly.
Tours focusing on arts and music, ranging from weaving in Indochina to Wagner performances in Austria, have become so popular that many sell out months in advance. The range extends to architecture, ballet, opera, even mosaic. Artist Christina Macaulay established Mosaic Art Tours in 2005, concentrating on wonders like the Orsoni mosaic workshop in Venice. Based in Istanbul, she expects to return to Sydney in 2010 to work on an Italy and Spain art tour.
"The trips are real adventures that gather like-minded spirits," she says.
Plenty of tours are built around cooking and golf. Music is big too. A Berlin to Bavaria music tour, arranged for May 2010 by Sydney's Academy Travel, is selling steadily. A small-group independent travel operator, Academy Travel maintains close links with universities. One of the company's directors, Robert Veel, a specialist in Italian medieval and Renaissance history, says most of the company's clients are retired baby boomers who have already travelled quite extensively.
Smaller tour wholesalers sometimes run special tours for groups alongside their more general offerings. Peregrine Adventures has a private groups team to tailor special-interest itineraries. Peregrine's 14-day Total Solar Eclipse tour to China this July costs from $2720 a person excluding air fares. The eclipse, lasting almost six minutes, will be the longest of the 21st century. Astronomers can hardly wait.
Special-interest tours tend to be environmentally friendly, blending into villages more readily than large coach groups. Many operators are proud of their reputation for social awareness and environmental responsibility.
Turtles or Uzbekistan
Cruise out of Darwin to join a turtle rescue camp in a Cape York Aboriginal community or opt for an educational excursion to the Gobi Desert. Odyssey Travel, based in Wollongong, is a major player in the Australian special interest market, concentrating on educational journeys for the over-45 age group. Not a lot is heard about Odyssey because it's a not-for-profit organisation (involving some 25 universities in Australia and New Zealand) rather than a regular tour wholesaler.
Trips coming up include one in conjunction with the University of Sydney studying archaeology in Uzbekistan, spending time at dig sites and in ancient cities such as Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and a trek through the Outback following the Burke and Wills expedition. Some Odyssey programs have no single supplements (which suits solo travellers) and many Odyssey clients return year after year.
This July, a 26-night Odyssey study tour will take an in-depth look at Britain's heritage, history, art, architecture, literature and social change. Specialist lecturers, field trips and discussions will help explain. The price for that is $13,120 a person, twin share, including air fares.
Weaving and Egyptology
Valerie Kirk tapestry weaver, senior lecturer and head of textiles at the Institute of the Arts, Australian National University accompanies a tour to Laos annually as guest lecturer. The 18-day tour, run by Active Travel, focuses on textile skills such as embroidery, dyeing, weaving and fashion, plus other crafts including basketwork, ceramics, lacquer and painting. Next departure is scheduled for January and will cost $5385 from Australia.
Active Travel, based in Canberra, conducts tours to Indochina, Greece and elsewhere, many with an arts focus. Tours later this year include Textiles and Culture of Bhutan, a 15-day guided tour with Christine Pearson ($8850 from Australia) and Textiles of Egypt, focusing on the textile collections in the Coptic, Egyptian and Textile museums ($5370 a person twin share).
Lourdes and Oberammergau
Pilgrimage is a long-established special interest. Tempo Holidays runs a two-day trip from Paris to the market town of Lourdes in southern France, using the TGV Atlantique train. Lourdes has developed into a site of Christian pilgrimage and healing since a series of allegedly miraculous visions there in 1858. The Tempo package costs from $730 a person twin share and runs from Paris every Wednesday until October 21.
Avoiding the Black Death was of overwhelming interest in 17th-century Europe. Village elders in the alpine hamlet of Oberammergau, Bavaria, vowed to perform a play every 10 years depicting the passion of Christ, if only God would spare the village. The death rate abated in 1633 and the first play was performed in 1634. The once-in-a-decade performance is a striking example of a special interest that has crossed into the mainstream. Initially, the play attracted only Bavarians and monks. Next year, big European coach tour operator Trafalgar plans over 300 departures across 14 fully escorted touring itineraries, complete with tickets for the performance.
Birds of a feather
In the world of birding, twitter doesn't denote blogging. Dedicated twitchers have been known to stand motionless for hours awaiting the arrival of a feathered visitor. Odyssey Tours and Safaris (not to be confused with Odyssey Travel) recently launched a Top End birding tour, with both three-day and five-day options, accompanied by a qualified guide from Birds Australia. Lucky participants may spot the comb-crested jacana, the spangled drongo, barking owls, buff-sided robins, white-browed crakes and rainbow bee-eaters. The three day-two night option costs $2667 an adult.
World Expeditions, which specialises in trekking and adventure holidays for small groups worldwide (everywhere from Mt Kilimanjaro to the Kokoda Track), also runs, from time to time, cycling tours, culinary tours and photographic trips. Photographic journeys range from Tasmania to Tanzania, Umbria and South America. World Expeditions stands for responsible tourism it has run trips to bear sanctuaries for the past seven years, with $1000 of every trip price donated directly to the Free The Bears Fund. It also runs snow leopard conservation trips.
Opera and ballet
Renaissance Tours puts together numerous special-interest offerings, many patronised by cultural support organisations. The company started in 1996 with one tour and kept growing. It now offers about 30 tours, many designed for patrons and supporters of Opera Australia, The Australian Ballet, Sydney Symphony, the Art Gallery Society of NSW, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia.
You don't have to belong to a society, director Hugh Hallard explains. "All our tours are available to anyone with a love of travel and opera, music, ballet, architecture and the fine and decorative arts. All are escorted by academics or experts in their field and designed for small to medium-size groups, usually a maximum of 25 people."
Climb that mountain
Horse racing and golf are legitimate special interests and so is climbing mountains. Brian Travers, a keen Golden Oldies rugby player, flew over Africa's highest mountain in 1997 and vowed to climb it one day. As Travers runs International Sports Tours in North Sydney, he has decided to fulfil his ambition by leading a tour group to the top of the mountain, Kilimanjaro (5895 metres).
His "Big K Challenge" will depart Sydney on October 5 to ascend Kilimanjaro over several days in a series of hikes. All going well, Travers and his hikers should reach the summit on October 11, descending for a well-earned, week-long, post-tour safari in Kenya. The cost, $7930 a person twin share, includes air fares and pretty much everything else.
Here are a few special-interest operators.
* Academy Travel academytravel.com.au.
* Active Travel and IndoChina Journeys activetravel.com.au.
* Alumni Travel alumnitravel.com.au.
* Excite Sports 9968 2144.
* Gateway Travel gatewaytravel.com.au.
* Into the Blue intotheblue.com.au.
* Intrepid Travel intrepidtravel.com.
* Margaret Cowling Arts arttour.com.au.
* Mosaico Art Tours www.studiomosaico.com.au.
* Odyssey Travel odysseytravel.com.au.
* Odyssey Tours and Safaris odysaf.com.au.
* On the Go Tours www.onthegotours.com.au.
* Peregrine Adventures peregrineadventures.com.
* Peter Sommer Travels petersommer.com.
* Renaissance Tours renaissancetours.com.au.
* Travel Concepts travelconcepts.com.au.
* Q Station qstation.com.au.
* World Expeditions worldexpeditions.com.