‘A guide can make or break a holiday, and a good guide is the ultimate luxury – better than the biggest hotel room or best restaurant table’

A museum tour with an art historian, Hiroshima through the eyes of an A-bomb survivor – here's our guide to a good holiday.

The best guides stimulate your curiosity, and by extension your holiday, with insider information. Image by Ralph Lee Hopkins / National Geographic Society / Corbis
Powered by automated translation

Kenya. I’m 24, sitting in an open-topped Land Rover on my first safari. Could it be more boring? “Ah, look at Mr Lion. He saying, ‘Who those people staring at me?’,” chortles the guide, looking around from the front seat with a wide grin. Cue appreciative laughter and – as soon as the guide’s back is turned – the international hand gesture for “that makes me want to vomit” from a teenage boy to his friend in the back seat. A bit harsh, I think, as I smile politely along with the other adults. But as the vehicle bumps on across the sand, and we encounter Mr and Mrs Warthog and a fleet of junior warthogs charging out of their burrow (“House on fire, heh heh? Gotta get out!”), I gloomily wonder why people go on about safaris being so compelling. It’s a relief to get back to the hotel, a resort-type affair with a big pool.

Fast forward a decade or so. I’m back in Kenya, reluctantly, having been told by my new husband (who grew up as an expat in Africa) that this is the most exhilarating form of holiday on the planet. (This time around I’m staying in a tent at Little Governors’ Camp; resort-type hotels in the bush are, as I learnt last time, the choice of fools). The guide for our first foray into the bush together is one Bill Winter, an energetic man with a thousand-yard stare and, I soon discover, intensely detailed knowledge of African wildlife. Before the engine has started, I have learnt that male cicadas chirp at a decibel level of 100. Five minutes later, Winter has stopped the vehicle beside a pile of dung. “OK, we’ll start with the dung beetle,” he says, plunging his hand into the mound as I inwardly cringe. Soon I am grinning, buzzing with new information, a safari convert. Dung beetles are the only creatures to navigate by the Milky Way? The brain of a gemsbok has a cooling capillary system that stops it fromover-heating in harsh sunshine? Amazing! I love it!

A guide can make or break a holiday and good guides aren’t just a luxury. They’re the ultimate luxury. Better than the biggest hotel room or best restaurant table – or, rather, the perfect complement to those examples of excellence and essential to wringing the maximum amount of pleasure from the holiday experience. The more I’ve travelled, the more I have come to treasure these brilliant fonts of knowledge. Get a good guide and you’re plugging into their expertise and getting a shortcut to the best of wherever you’ve pitched up. A good guide has the power to transform your experience of a place. It’s not until you have the experience of being taken around by someone who knows the area inside out, and who can tailor their commentary to your age and outlook and particular interests while stimulating your curiosity in places and events and points of view you may never have considered before, that you realise what you’ve been missing. A well-compiled guide book or app can be stimulating. With those, though, it’s one-way traffic. You can’t ask questions, have a dialogue, probe for the back story.

A New York friend of a friend, formerly married to a billionaire – who thus routinely stayed in the best suites in the world’s best hotels – recently told me that the best holiday they ever had was when her late husband read a newspaper article by the distinguished historian John Keegan about the war cemeteries in Normandy, found out Keegan’s phone number and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “To have that great, knowledgeable man escort us all around the cemeteries was the most inspiring, informative, humbling experience we ever had as a family,” she told me, reverently.

That particular expert is sadly no longer with us. But there’s a Guild of Battlefield Guides in the UK that links military historians around the world to accompany private or tour-operator trips. And all manner of experts on the most arcane subjects act as occasional guides for the specialist tour operators who organise art, historical or other cultural trips. Many of these operators are based in the UK or US. Art Tours Ltd organise small-group private tours with an expert; Cox & Kings, set up in the 18th century, routinely uses Royal Academy art lecturers for its trips around the world; Martin Randall Travel provides a range of experts for its art and history-oriented tours. For safaris, African-based companies such as Wilderness Safaris and African Explorations provide outstanding guides. Bill Winter has his own safari company and is still guiding. In India, Greaves Travel, based in the UK and US, uses the best local city guides. Also in the US, Virtuoso has numerous experts on tap.

The best guides can also invariably be accessed by the best concierges. In New York a few years ago, what I loved most about a stay at The Peninsula hotel on Fifth Avenue was the private pre-general-opening visit to the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that the hotel offered with the art historian who had curated the show. Empty galleries and an insider’s explanation for each work: what a way to start a Saturday.

But, however you’re travelling, the more you specify what you want in a guide the better the results, in my experience. I think you want someone old, for a start. Not so tottery, perhaps, that you have to walk slowly, although my octogenarian, stick-using guide in Calcutta (sourced via Greaves) was definitely worth slowing down for. (Fascinating, too, on the nightmare of Calcutta’s then-Communist local authority, and how as a result of its policy he had had three families staying in his house without paying rent for the past 15 years.) Old enough for them to be able to put the current state of affairs wherever you are in context, though, and to bring a store of memories to the table. That can add a precious dimension to your travels.

In Hiroshima, I was taken around by an elderly guide who took me to meet his uncle, a former guide who could remember being shielded by his aunt as the atom bomb was dropped on the city in 1945. In East Germany, on a visit to the town of Lauscha, where glass tree decorations are made, I had a compelling tour with another guide who could remember the second world war. A retired engineer, he talked about the momentous night in 1946 when the American troops withdrew and Russian forces took over. “Gradually the sound of rubber wheels on the cobble stones stopped as the last US Army vehicles disappeared. An hour or later we heard the sound of steel-tipped boots as the Russians arrived. Life got very different, then,” he recalled quietly. Spellbinding. Travel at its best.