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Published: Saturday, 1/20/2001

Minivan tour operators give travelers interesting, in-depth view of their areas

Of all the travel people we've met over the years, there's one small but merry band of pilgrims whose names and faces we can't forget. Nor would we ever want to.

For these are the real heavy lifters of the travel biz. Enthusiastic entrepreneurs all, who in a single day can do more to promote their home turf than most so-called tourism professionals do in a month of Sundays.

They are the minivan tour owners and operators (usually one and the same chap) who for a hundred bucks or so will slot you into their Mitsubishi or Mazda, Renault or Range Rover for a day in the country, showing off the sights and telling the stories you'd never find out about on your own.

And while it may have been eons since we last saw or drove with some of them, their names still manage to trigger instant associations and fond memories.

People like Jean Marc from Bayeux, Gil from Sydney, Quasimodo (honestly) out of Bruges, Fred from Marquette, and Dario in Tuscany.

It is still very much of a hidden fraternity, with names and itineraries passed sparingly among travelers, like some newly discovered destination or favorite restaurant that no one wants to popularize for fear of spoiling.

Which is the classic Catch 22. For these guys (and in our experience, it's pretty much a guy thing) really need the publicity to survive. Minivan touring is a precarious business, to put it mildly. It can take just a drop of the mercury, a change in ferry schedules, or an airplane cancellation to have a dramatic effect on the bottom line - and even survival - of these one-man operations.

Minivan tour operators tend to be one-of-a-kind types, marvelous characters - hardy, resilient, flexible, tolerant (of all the stupid questions), humorous, and above all, blessed with a silver tongue.

It was Gil, for example, who ran his seven-passenger van around the countryside south of Sydney, Oz, and told us his secret for successful day-tripping.

“Always carry a bottle of chilled champagne in the trunk,” he said, “so if the proper ambiance appears lacking, the weather turns rotten, the jokes are dying, or the grumps winning, you simply pull into the nearest lay-by and uncork the bottle.”

From then on all will be right with the world. Apparently.

Gil also included a substantial barbie (Australian for BBQ) and some good Aussie wine in his tours - so the afternoons were pretty mellow anyway.

Quasimodo (a Belgian, whose real name is actually Notre Dame) doesn't have to rely on barbies ... or chilled champagne ... to keep his clients happy and bubbly.

His “Tour of the Beer Country” around Flanders in Belgium (one of three different itineraries he operates year 'round out of Bruges) incorporates a stop at a Trappist monastery where the monks still brew their own high-powered concoctions and are happy to share. Another sampling of Flemish beers (there are more than 400 different varieties in this country of two-fisted drinkers!) takes place at a country cafe where you can play turn-of-the-century pub games. Then there's one final tour of a medieval brewery - with a tasting, of course.

All that and more, however, is needed to get over the sadness and melancholy that permeates the Flanders Fields, where countless WWI soldiers fought and died. The Menin Memorial Gate in Ypres alone contains the names of 55,000 missing warriors etched into the stone.

(Quasimodo Tours: Poorterstraat 47, 8310 Bruges 3. Belgium Tel: 050 370 470)

A young Frenchman, Jean Marc Bacon, ran his own little “war tour” out of the station hotel in Bayeux for many years, and described the WWII Normandy action at nearby Omaha and Utah beaches with a passion and a technical understanding that belied his youth.

An unfortunate auto accident ended his business endeavors, but we will never forget those views out over a gray swelling sea, the bunkers and the barbed wire, and the endless lines of white crosses with the names of the fallen.

Of the many tours we've taken, however, none can really compare with Dario Castagno's Chianti Rooster Tours of Tuscany ( e-mail: rasna@dada.it, Tel: 0337 706 958)

Dario's laid-back and appealing personality, his intimate knowledge of all things Tuscan, and a wine expertise and appreciation - born of family ties and honed by years of toiling in the wine business around Siena - make his tours of the hill country and the wine tasting stops a must for anyone visiting “Chiantishire.”

Dario and his ilk are not always easy to find, which is part of their appeal. You might come upon their brochures at a local tourist office, in a rack at the hotel, stuck on a bulletin board of the local laundry, or occasionally even mentioned in guidebooks - and in stories such as this.

If you do come across a minivan tour ... of anywhere ... take it. And then spread the word. But oh so carefully.

Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.



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