Ever wondered if mystery travel is for you? Read on to hear about Felix and Sarah’s mystery trip experience with active travel company Backroads—and check out the other installments in our Mystery Traveler Q&A series to find out about Ariana and Brett’s mystery long weekend, Cheryl’s mystery birthday trip, Dave and Jaclyn’s mystery honeymoon, and Tony Austin’s mystery Memorial Day weekend getaway.
MMT: What inspired you to try a mystery trip?
Felix and Sarah: I first read about Magical Mystery Tours in Oprah magazine several years ago. Since then I’ve wanted to try one; however, we do a lot of traveling to visit family (in Germany and Wisconsin), so it wasn’t feasible at the time. When we were thinking about ways to celebrate my 40th birthday, we thought that this would finally be the perfect occasion to try a mystery trip, and we decided to go for it. Even though I am usually a planner and enjoy the research and anticipation leading up to a trip, there was something appealing about having someone else do all of the work and just showing up and enjoying a vacation at a completely unknown location! We filled out the questionnaire about our travel preferences and worked with Alicia. We sent her a follow-up email describing more in depth the kinds of things that we like to do on vacation and our travel style, and based on the questions she asked us, we knew that she completely understood what we were looking for. We certainly weren’t disappointed in the end!
Did you or your friends/family have any guesses about where you were going? If so, did anyone guess right or was it a complete surprise?
We first started planning the mystery vacation in January (for July travel) and knew some details about it by mid-February, so this was a constant topic of conversation everywhere we went for months! We found it very funny to watch people’s reactions when we told them about the mystery trip concept. People either loved or hated the idea—there was nothing in between! Family, friends, friends of friends, coworkers, and even the office staff at the dentist’s office were all very interested to hear more and make a guess.
We already knew that we would be part of a small, all-inclusive, well-equipped group tour with beautiful and unique landscapes and interesting activities, and we knew it would be an active vacation with a lot of hiking and walking. Guesses included Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, the Azores/ Portugal, Mallorca, Corsica, Croatia, and a few more places. We really had no idea where we were going, but were really excited!
When we got our weather forecast and packing list the week before we left, the weather was predicted to be sunny and very hot, so a lot of the potential places were eliminated right away. It was pretty likely that we were going to the Mediterranean based on the weather, but that still left a lot of possibilities! One of the items on the packing list was a retention strap for our sunglasses, so we started wondering if part of our vacation was sailing or kayaking, etc. We thought it could be a tour of the Greek Islands or Corsica. But no one hit the nail on the head and guessed mainland France or Spain.
What was going through your mind when you opened your packet?
We were a little nervous and very excited when opening the envelope—even though we had had great interactions with Alicia, it still is a little nerve-racking to pay a lot of money and not know if it is something you will like or not! We figured that even if it wasn’t a destination we would pick for ourselves, it would be an interesting experience regardless and we could enjoy one week in any place. But when we opened the envelope and saw that we were going on a tour through France and Spain, we were both relieved and overjoyed!
Did you have a hard time waiting to find out where you were going or packing without knowing your destination?
I definitely had moments where I really wanted to search for well-equipped tours online, but I resisted. I usually like to start thinking about my packing list and what things I will need a few weeks before a big trip, so the days before we got the weather forecast and packing list were a little difficult. Once we got that information, at least it was easier to pack because we knew we would go somewhere sunny and hot and would be hiking a lot. The packing list was pretty comprehensive. By opening the envelope the morning that we left, I still had time to make some last-minute changes to my suitcase before heading to the airport.
Tell me about your trip! What were the highlights?
The trip was absolutely fantastic—it was one of our best vacations ever! Part of the trip was on a Backroads tour through Provence, France and the Costa Brava in Spain, and the nights flanking the group tour were on our own. We flew out of Boston in the evening, arrived in Paris the next morning, and were booked on the train to Avignon. Everything was very easy to figure out and we had no trouble making our connection and getting there. When we arrived in Avignon, it was extremely hot—it felt like a furnace with the hot wind blowing. Both of us wondered how we would be able to do any hiking in that heat! Alicia had booked a nice hotel in the old part of Avignon, and it was perfect for our first night in France. It was afternoon by the time we got settled in our hotel and we were getting tired, but we forced ourselves to enjoy the sites and highlights of Avignon. We visited the Papal Palace and gardens, and we wandered around the old town through the narrow, twisting streets. We ate dinner at a wonderful restaurant just around the corner from our hotel before calling it a night.
The next day we met up with our Backroads tour group at the Avignon train station. Wehad been told to arrive in our hiking clothes, and we took a short bus ride to the starting point of our walk, in a small village called Lacoste. We walked for five minutes before arriving at our lunch spot. The food and atmosphere of meals was definitely a highlight throughout the trip—our lunch was a beautiful spread of quiches, salads, bread, cheeses, meats, and desserts under a pergola covered in grapevines, overlooking the Luberon Mountains and valleys. It was an amazing way to kick off the tour! After lunch, we hiked through small medieval perch villages, passing small family vineyards, lavender fields, and gorgeous chateaus along the way. We are normally very independent travelers and had never considered a group tour before, but we really enjoyed getting to know the other travelers and leaders. One of the most impressive things that we got used to was that during the hikes, the van met us every two miles or so and we could have snacks, Perrier, and other cold drinks, as well as refill our water bottles. That was a very extravagant bonus that we never knew we needed until experiencing it!
The dinners in France lasted two to three hours with several courses, but the portions were reasonable and the conversation flowed easily (as did the wine), so the time just flew by. The first night we gathered for a wine tasting before dinner at our hotel and then ate al fresco as evening turned into nightfall. The second day consisted of another beautiful hike with a walking tour of one of the older towns in the area, time for a swim in the beautiful hotel pool, and a lesson in pastis (a delicious anise-flavored apertif) and Pétanque (a French game like boules or bocce) before dinner at a unique local restaurant that used to be a silk farm. We loved the exposure throughout the trip to cultural things like the game and local drink that we likely wouldn’t have found if traveling independently.
The next day we hiked through the Provence countryside to Roussillon, which is famous for its ocher deposits. We toured the ocher canyon, which has 17 shades of ocher in red, orange, yellow, and brown. It was beautiful! Other stops along the way included sampling the local wine at a small family winery and hiking up to the top of another hilltop town. From there we were shuttled to our next hotel in St. Remy, a bigger town in Provence famous for its market. Since it was Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, there was a lot of festive energy. It was fun to listen to the concerts going on for the celebration during our dinner.
The next morning we visited the famous St. Remy market that meanders throughout the town. The quality and variety of produce, berries, cheese, sausage, olives, etc. was amazing! After a hike and another delicious lunch, we headed to our last destination via a six-hour bus ride to the Costa Brava of Spain.
In Spain, our hotel was directly on the Mediterranean, and our balcony overlooked the sea. We had a local guide-led walking tour through our little village, learning about the history of the Catalan people and the historical significance of the region. We also had a wonderful hike along the Mediterranean through hidden coves and beaches, forests, and along cliffs overlooking the sea—the crystal clear blue-green water never got old. Our hike was topped off by ice cream and a swim at the beach. We loved that there were mostly Spanish tourists there, as it felt very authentic and unspoiled. After two days exploring our village of Calella and the surrounding regions, we took a bus ride to Barcelona, where our tour officially ended. We had one last night in Barcelona on our own, where we took in some of the sights of the city and ate at a fantastic tapas place recommended in our mystery packet. The whole experience of the mystery trip was fantastic, and we were so happy to be exposed to the Backroads company.
What surprised or excited you the most about your mystery trip experience?
The biggest surprise was that we really enjoyed being part of a group tour. We are not the most extroverted people, and we are very self-sufficient and always enjoy figuring things out by ourselves in a foreign place. But the Backroads tours are very thoroughly researched so that only the most beautiful hikes, unique and delicious restaurants, and interesting cultural experiences are included to permit the best and most authentic travel experience possible. It was so nice to be able to sit back and enjoy the vacation without stressing over anything. Even though our trip was only one week long, we can’t believe we did and saw so many different things during that time! We are still in contact with several of the other travelers from our tour, and we really enjoyed the whole experience and would certainly consider taking another Backroads tour in the future.
What are your top tips for other potential mystery travelers?
Our advice is to take the plunge and just go for it! This experience opened our eyes to a different mode of travel and led to one of the best and most carefree vacations we’ve ever had! The months leading up to the trip were as much fun as the actual destination and vacation itself. It was fun to speculate about the destination, and we identified several places we want to visit on future vacations because of this. We highly recommend trying the mystery travel experience at least once, and we may even do it again someday (after visiting all of the new, exciting destinations we thought we might travel to on this mystery vacation, of course!).