Delve a bit deeper with a guide
BEFORE I started the job (as they call it) of travel editor, I would never have dreamed of employing the services of a guide on my travels. Far too touristy and restrictive a proposition. Now, I'm rarely without one by my side, admittedly because I tend to have precisely 48 hours to immerse myself in a destination and get enough information to write an article about it, but also because I've become a bit of a fan of these mines of information.
Over the years, I've discovered that they can turn you on or, indeed, right off a place in the space of an hour. Fortunately, most of the ones I've met have been engaging and knowledgeable.
You never forget good guides, like Rosalynd Pio, a woman in her later years with a formidable brain and an acute sense of humour, who showed me and fellow journalists around Florence. Not only did she hold an amazing amount of information in her head, but she also knew how to keep it entertaining and to judge just when we'd reached the point of overload.
Arthur Lamy, the Blue Badge Guide who took me for a walk along part of the new Channel Islands Way in Jersey earlier this spring, was a delightful companion on the cliff paths. As much as he provided an entertaining narrative to the trail, and, indeed, the island, he was also happy to fess up when he didn't know the answer and offer to try to find out - an option too often ditched by tour guides who'd rather make it up than look stupid.
And in Florida, at Ybor City, Tampa's cigar-making quarter, Manny Leto revealed knowledge that didn't just stick to the mainstream history but delved deeper to give a social and cultural understanding of the place, then and now.There are, of course, the bad, too.
In Rio a few years back, I met the grumpiest of guides, who became positively abusive and had to be removed from the job by his company.
While in Oman, our driver/guide refused to engage at all and showed what he thought of our group by choosing a bus stop with an overflowing bin as a suitable spot for our picnic lunch.
And on a recent trip to New York, I came across a local guide who had the most irritating habit of clapping his hands together every 20 seconds or so. He'd lost the group's attention within five minutes to anticipating the next thunderous smash of his palms.
Guiding is an art, and when you get yourself a good one, you appreciate there are few better ways of getting under the skin of a place.
If you plan to head to New York this year, make time to dine at Rouge Tomate at 10 East 60th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenue. I've promised myself that I'll eat there when I'm in the city because it's one of New York's top culinary experiences. Chefs and nutritionists work together at this unusual Michelin-starred restaurant based on a philosophy of “Health Through Food”. If that sounds a little tough on the taste buds, the truth is executive chef Jeremy Bearman and his team compose the most extraordinary flavour combinations for their modern American menu.
If you can't get to New York any time soon, there's a sister restaurant in Brussels. Surely it can't be long until Rouge Tomate comes to the UK. I hope not.