Insight Vacations Luxury Gold reinvents the fine art of escorted travel with unique curated experiences

Ghiozzi can be caught by nets baited with crab,” explains Bepi (Giuseppe), a fisherman whose seven decades on the Venetian Lagoon are etched on his weathered face, “but traditionally we harvest them by hand, pulling them out of the muddy sea floor by the tail when the tide is low.”

In addition to being laborious to catch, ghiozzi or lagoon goby fish is also time-consuming to prepare, requiring hours of simmering to create the delicate broth necessary for risotto di gò, a traditional dish on the island of Burano. In fact, its preparation is so formidable, it’s fast disappearing from the menus of Venice. It’s even rarer to meet a ghiozzi fisherman.

Insdier Italy

Strategically located hotels near attractions are a hallmark of Luxury Gold escorted tours
Photo: Insight Vacations

This unique opportunity is part of a 13-day Ultimate Italy escorted journey offered by Insight Vacations as part of its Luxury Gold portfolio, a collection of 35+ itineraries in Europe, India, South-East Asia, Australasia, North America and South America. Insight Vacations has always offered a premium product — their all-inclusive tours feature small group sizes and luxury motor coaches with extra legroom, Wi-Fi and amenities more often seen in business class travel. But the goal of Luxury Gold is to go a step beyond.

“It’s all about the details,” says John Boulding, Insight Vacations’ CEO.

“Our intent with Luxury Gold is to offer VIP experiences, fine-dining and insider access not available to the general public.”

As we tuck into the creamy seafood risotto, we relive through Bepi’s stories the joys, passions and challenges of fishing on the Venetian lagoon. It’s an unforgettable immersion in the true spirit of the island.

Rome and The Vatican

My introduction to the best of Italy had begun upon arrival at Rome’s Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport when I was met by a uniformed chauffer who whisked me by limousine to my hotel. Since a hallmark of the Luxury Gold product is its 5-star signature hotels, each is chosen for a unique combination of location, personality, comfort and service; Baglioni Hotel Regina didn’t disappoint. It’s within easy walking distance to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and other attractions.

Insider Italy

Authentic epicurian experiences are a highlight of the Luxury Gold Ultimate Italy tour
Photo: Insight Vacations

With time to spare before I meet up with the group, our travelling concierge Daniele Nanneti recommends I lunch at Peppone, a restaurant established in 1809, that’s just a few doors away. I soak away my jetlag with a flute of prosecco before doing as the Romans do and strolling the leafy Via Veneto.

Over the following days, luggage is delivered, restaurant, hotel and guide tips taken care of, taxis arranged, dinner reservations made – all logistics happening so seamlessly it’s easy to immerse myself in the Luxury Gold VIP experiences. For me, an unforgettable experience is a private tour of the Vatican. We enter the Sistine Chapel before it’s open to the public and are awed by Michelangelo’s masterpiece without being jostled by crowds.

The Ultimate Italy itinerary also includes several additional experiences such as a tour of Pompeii with a historian, as well as a cruise of the grottos and cliffs of the Isle of Capri followed by lunch at Mamma, a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Umbria and Tuscany

The hilltop capital of Umbria is best known as a less-touristy alternative to Assisi, but the recent discovery of a 4th century B.C. Etruscan home in the nearby countryside has sparked new appreciation for its early roots. At the Giuditta Brozzetti Cooperative, our group has the exclusive opportunity to meet with artisans to witness how the ancient art of hand-weaving textiles has been passed down through generations.

In Perugia’s Old City, the culinary action is centered along Corso Vannucci and around Piazza IV Novembre where a must-stop includes Pasticceria Sandri, a historic pastry shop offering torta con ricotta and torciglione, a serpent-shaped sweet made of dried fruit and ground almonds.

“When in Perugia, you must also try these,” says Daniele, as he passes a tray of Perugina Baci, the chocolate and hazelnut chocolates wrapped in love notes.

Insider Italy

Locally sourced ingredients are a highlight of a stay at Villa de Maschere in Tuscany
Photo: Insight Vacations

Food fans are thrilled to overnight at the 5-star Hotel Brufani Palace, an ideal home base for sampling dishes with Etruscan roots such as gnocchi with wild goose sauce and smoked duck cannolo with chickpea velouté.

More culinary diversions await at Villa Le Maschere, a late Renaissance estate complete with spa, gardens and swimming pool overlooking the Tuscan countryside, where we savour “la dolce vita” in true Italian style. We enjoy a hands-on cooking class set among vineyards, hills and olive groves. Inspired by generous glasses of sparkling rosé, our group of travellers bonds while hand-rolling pappardelle noodles and dipping zucchini blossoms into batter for frittelle di fiori di zucca, forging new friendships along with our culinary skills.

In Florence, accompanied by an art historian we learn about Michelangelo’s masterpiece the marble statue of David in the Accademia Museum. Then, in the Uffizi Gallery, after browsing famous works by Botticelli, Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, we’re granted access to the Vasari Corridor, a secret portrait-lined passageway built in 1564. Set above Ponte Vecchio and designed to allow the Medici family to travel safely from the government palace to their residence. Our insider look at Florence offers an opportunity to experience the privilege of the Renaissance’s most powerful political dynasty.

Yet, despite the sweeping scope of the Luxury Gold itinerary, our schedule never feels rushed. Many mornings are relaxed starts (9:00 am or later), and generous free time allows for independent exploration.

Venice

Insider Italy

An unforgettable experience includes a gondola ride in Venice Photo: Insight Vacations

In Venice, our home base is the Bauer Palazzo Hotel where we arrive via private water taxi at the hotel’s private dock. With the waves of the Adriatic lapping gently and the sun reflecting off the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the Grand Canal, it’s an ideal location to experience the beauty of Venice. In addition to our orientation walk with a local historian, Daniele shares his favourite watering holes with us, and on a side street away from the crowds we rub shoulders with locals and enjoy Venetian bar sandwiches tramezzini, crustless triangular sandwiches stuffed with fillings of tuna, olives and asparagus.

Inder Italy

Incredible views at every turn in Venice
Photo: Michele Peterson

Along with an-in-depth tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and a private evening tour of the Doge’s Palace, I also have time for a cicchetti (tapas) crawl through the labyrinthine back streets around the Grand Canal where I sample authentic tastes include sarde in saer (fried sardines with sweet onion), code di rospo alla grigua (fried monkfish tail) and Cygnar, a bitter artichoke-based aperitif created by Venetian entrepreneur Angelo Dalle Molle in 1952.

As we wrap up our escorted journey with a gondola ride through Venice’s ancient waterways serenaded with barcarolle, traditional folk songs sung by gondoliers, I watch the light reflect off the lacy buildings.  It’s a golden moment in which we soak up the beauty and essence of Venice as local Venetians – such as Bepi the fisherman – have done for centuries.

Travel Planner

Insider Italy

Hotels such as the Bauer L’Hotel in Venice
Photo: Insight Vacations

Luxury Gold: The 13-day Ultimate Italy itinerary features the destinations of Rome, The Vatican, Pompeii, The Isle of Capri, Assisi and Perugia, the Tuscan countryside, Florence, Pisa, the Cinque Terre and the Italian Riviera as well as Venice and Burano. In 2017, tours take place from April to final departure on October 7, 2017. During a special, small-group tour from June 17-29, 2017 CEO John Boulding will host a VIP reception on the island of Capri. For a limited time only, that tour is available at a discounted price if you book and pay in full by May 31, 2017. For 2017, accommodation in Rome is the historic 5-star Hotel Bernini Bristol. All-inclusive luxury escorted tour includes hotel accommodations, sightseeing and admissions shown on the itinerary, motorcoach, cruise or rail transportation, tips, services of a professional Insight Travelling Concierge, all meals shown in the itinerary and luggage handling. 1-866-747-8120 www.luxurygoldvacations.com

Air Transat offers direct flights from Montreal to Rome. www.airtransat.com

Air Canada offers non-stop direct flights from Montreal to Rome. www.aircanada.com

Michele Peterson is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in food, drink and sun destinations. Her work has appeared in major magazines, guidebooks and travel anthologies. Get travel tips, inspiration, exclusive discounts and recipes on her A Taste for Travel blog and via Twitter/Instagram @atastefortravel.

Insider Italy

Ultimate Italy includes a stay at luxurious Villa de Maschere
Photo: Insight Vacations

-Elegant stays include Villa Le Maschere, a late Renaissance home built in the 16th century Credit Michele Peterson

Elegant stays include Villa Le Maschere,
a late Renaissance home built in the
16th century
Photo: Michele Peterson