The travel itself was painless. The bus had been customized, with seating reduced from 53 to 47, equipped with WiFi and an electrical power port at each seat. It even had hardwood flooring.
Carefully planned stops between cities — once for a farmer’s market, other times for meals and at historic attractions — meant we seldom rode more than two hours at a time.
Both on the road and in the cities, the Insight guide would offer easily digestible history lessons on the region. This proved a benefit for the several Americans who had never visited the Southeast, as well as for the three Australians, three Canadians and two Republic of Ireland citizens on board.
The guide also played regional music, read region-appropriate poetry, taught a few Southern words to drawl and passed around snacks — including boiled peanuts. She placed sticky notes on the windows to move us about the bus each day — there were so few passengers that everyone could have a window seat every day, but this moved us from front to farther back on the vehicle.
In other words, she served as our mom on the road, with a little homeschooling tossed in.
At the destination cities, local guides took us on tours, with varying degrees of success:
• In Charleston we took a walking tour, rode horse-drawn carriages and a sightseeing boat. I’ve been there several times and thought these separate tours supplied a good understanding of the history and culture of the “Holy City.”
• In Savannah, a resident stepped aboard the bus to describe the notable buildings, only to constantly interrupt herself to tell the driver which way to turn at the city’s numerous squares.
At the fabled Biltmore Estate, we were each given an audio guide to stroll America’s largest private home. But we were never taken to nearby Asheville to sample its bohemian flavor.
We also wandered on our own around a Civil War fort and historic millionaires’ homes on Jekyll Island, had a lively local narrate our pontoon boat tour of a Louisiana bayou, and were part of a larger group getting a guided tour of four rooms of a classic rice plantation mansion north of New Orleans.
There was also a cooking school lesson/lunch led by an exuberant New Orleanian, a closing dinner in one of the Crescent City’s famed restaurants and, fittingly, two hours in a pocket-sized jazz club on Bourbon Street.
Any of this package trip’s participants could have arranged each of its experiences. But they had paid to have professionals handle the planning and transportation matters. And that’s what the package tour really comes down to: How much of a vacation do you want to not just research but also reserve? How much driving do you want to do — including finding parking spaces?
On my tour of the Southeast, all of the Americans had previously bought package tours, some many times. Austin, Texas, residents Jan and Owen Carpenter — he’s a retired banker, she a homemaker and volunteer librarian — summed up the reasoning offered by these travelers:
“We’ve done many of these tours, in the U.S. and overseas,” said Owen, like his wife in his early 80s. “It’s just simpler to have someone else do the work.”
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of The Tampa Bay Times.