Grand American Adventures taught this old traveler a new trick. I took a seven-day tour, enjoying fantastic food and luxury accommodations while exploring Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in a van.
Guided bus tours have never appealed to me. I had seen too many monstrous coaches packed with complaining passengers. Folks are herded from one destination to another, standing in long lines. The food and lodging were selected for fast turnaround.
I learned guided tours have evolved. Highlights of our tour included a sunset champagne cruise, a hike in a sequoia grove in Yosemite, seeing whales in Monterey and picnic lunches.
The company has 40+ years of experience with guided touring in the Americas. They curate small escorted adventure tours that provide “authentic travel, shared experiences, and real adventure.”
My tour, Yosemite and Tahoe In-Depth, began and ended in San Francisco. We explored the Monterey Peninsula, Yosemite, the Sierras, Lake Tahoe and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a grand adventure with seven Brits, American driver/guide Julie, and California girl, me.
I would take another Great American Adventures tour in a heartbeat and here are my top reasons why.
The chance to explore the surprising and the familiar
Great American Adventures itineraries will show you places you’ve never heard of plus those that are well-known.
Surprising—In Yosemite National Park, our first stop was Mariposa Grove. Mariposa Grove has the largest giant sequoia grove in Yosemite, intertwined by several walking trails. The forest gets fewer visitors than some tracks. It was the perfect first stop in the park, uncrowded with an interpretive center and facilities.
Some of us hiked in the shadow of behemoth trees with a park ranger explaining the life of the trees and forest. Others walked the less frequented and longer trails.
After the ranger-led hike, I had time to shop for souvenirs in the gift shop. I found a lovely book, “Anywhere That is Wild,” by John Muir. It’s about his first walk to Yosemite. It was the perfect bedtime read that night for the following day’s hike to Vernal Falls.
[See related story: Show Your Love of National Parks With These Fun Products]
Familiar—Monterey was my most familiar destination. I lived there as a young woman but hadn’t visited for years.
Magic, breathtaking, heart-throbbing – every cliché term applies. The highlight of our trip was the whale watching tour. That day we saw dozens of whales and hundreds of seals feeding in the Monterey Bay. Our captain extended the cruise almost an hour, gently moving from pod to pod among the giants feeding on shrimp.
Unique—Each Great American Adventures tour will be a little different, even to the same destination. Free time to explore as you choose is nicely balanced with escorted experiences. Your guide can make unplanned stops when desired.
One of those unplanned stops on my tour happened at sunset in Yosemite. We were cruising along on our way to the hotel and dinner. We were all hungry and ready for a hot shower. When we cleared the dense forest, our view across the sierras was a red, yellow, and purple sunset. Julie, our guide and driver, pulled into the next turnout. We each found a seat outside and watched quietly. Even the fellas in the party van next to us were silent.
Your Great American Adventures guide isn’t a control freak
Some of the time, your guide is with you leading a hike, providing background information, or hosting a meal. Independent time each day allows you to explore on your own.
Guides and drivers are well-versed in flora and fauna of the area. They can answer most questions and will make suggestions for your free time walks or meals.
We were outside all day
My favorite part of the tour? We were outside all day. Some of our walks were led by a naturalist or park ranger. Others were self-guided in a group or solo.
We spent time with a park ranger in Mono Lake, one of the strangest lakes on earth. Our Great American Adventures guide took us to the part of Yosemite called “the tunnel” so we could get that famous Ansel Adams shot. We picnicked in a small-town park. One day we ate lunch in an outdoor café with Sierras on one side and a desert on the other. In Lake Tahoe, we enjoyed a sunset champagne cruise.
We slept in luxury each night
What could be better than a luxurious bed or deep soaking tub after a day of occupying nature?
Our trip began in San Francisco’s Japantown at my favorite San Francisco hotel, Kimpton Buchanan. The Buchanan is a gracious boutique hotel with 131 rooms. Located in the heart of Japantown, the Buchanan is an oasis of comfort and culture. Contemporary Asian décor showcases local artists and designers. The crew at the Buchanan are fantastic. Helpful and friendly, they make your stay exceptional.
In Monterey, our hotel was Casa Munras, a place I dreamed of staying when I lived and worked in Monterey as a young woman. The historic beauty hasn’t lost her bloom. The hotel is a short walk from the wharf where some of the group went for dinner.
Yosemite took us to Rush Creek Lodge. Located outside the park, Rush Creek is a perfect place to call home base while in the Sierras. When you take a break from the mountains and forest, the lodge is an oasis for relaxation and fun. Swimming, hot tub, horseshoes, giant checkers, a zipline and hiking trails are offered outside. Indoors, a game room, pool tables, daily activities for kids and adults, and live music and entertainment keep you occupied.
A restaurant, tavern, and pool bar have everything from snacks to dinner featuring mountain cuisine.
Lake Tahoe’s lakefront lodging, Beach Retreat and Lodge at Tahoe, had the best location in town, on the edge of the lake in an alpine setting. Hangout on the beach, cruise the lake, dine by the water. Beach Retreat has two waterfront eateries, a sports bar, and a Tiki bar, where you can enjoy food and drinks day and night.
We enjoyed outstanding food and libations
Food is one of my favorite parts of travel. GAA’s tours strike a great balance between planned group meals and independent dining.
Our tour restaurants were terrific. Each served high quality and locally sourced dishes of regional cuisine. The evening meals included wine or beer and we took turns selecting from the wine list. My English companions loved the California wines.
Each day a full breakfast was included at our accommodation. Differences in breakfast foods from America and England were always discussed as we carb-loaded for the day’s hikes and walks.
Lunches were varied. Some days we ate together in a café, found our own eatery, or my favorite, picnics. On picnic days, Julie took us to a large market. Folks bought their personal favorites to eat, drink and snack. Some were adventurous and tried new foods. Our goodies were stashed in a cooler until lunch.
We rode in style
Forget the GPS. Forget the traffic, and indeed, there are no 60-passenger coaches. Drop your bag at the van, step aboard, and settle into your comfy seat. Someone else is driving while you sip your cappuccino and read about the days hike to Yosemite’s Vernal Falls, chat with your companions and watch the world roll by.
There were eight in our 12-passenger van. We had plenty of seating and cargo space. Large bags went to the back, and day packs had overhead storage.
Coolers held our picnic and snack supplies. Little extras were on board for safety, first aid, and entertainment.
Not driving, parking, navigating, or looking for fuel was WONDERFUL.
Other Great American Adventures luxury tours I’d love to try
Grand American Adventures organizes trips to Alaska, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Galapagos, Peru and the United States.
Choose an escorted journey that complements you and your companions. For example, the active tours may include rafting the Grand Canyon, glacier trekking in Alaska, or horseback riding in the wild west. You can also choose multi-generational, solo, in a luxury van, a cruise on a small ship, or even escorted camping. No matter what style you select, or which destination calls to you, you will sit back, relax, and leave the itinerary, transportation and equipment in GAA’s experienced hands.
– Text and photos by Mary Charlebois, a freelance journalist and photographer based in coastal Northern California. No matter where she’s wandering, she digs in, getting to know people, history, food, and art.