Just a few hundred yards down Maiden Creek from Pennsylvania’s historic Dreibelbis Station covered bridge, the Berks County home of Barbara and Matthew Daub sits tucked in at the foot of a tree-covered hill. Their home – an old log cabin, a striking modern addition, and a red barn – huddles around a small tributary of Maiden Creek where it noisily tumbles through a notch in the hills behind the house and joins the larger stream. Their home was a most appropriate setting for our Slow Travel Tours planning retreat the last weekend in October.
Slow Travel Tours is an informal affiliation of small-group tour operators who lead trips in Europe using the Slow Travel philosophy. Our group members first connected through the Slow Travel message board and began sharing ideas in early 2008. Spread across the USA and Europe with busy travel schedules, most of us had never met in person. Now on this autumn weekend in Pennsylvania Dutch country, ten of us were finally together. The two of us (European Experiences) were eager to meet Matt and Barbara Daub (Arts Sojourn), Anne and Kirk Woodyard (Music and Market Tours), and Valerie and Bryan Schneider (Panorama Italy). And after earlier encounters in Savannah and Asheville, we were excited to reunite with Bill and Kristi Steiner (Adventures in Italy). Our 16-year old daughter Kelly, also an enthusiastic European traveler, joined us for this weekend trip.
Our group immediately felt a kinship with each other and the idyllic location. This peaceful, wooded setting at the juncture of hill and stream seemed to emit a confirmation of our travel philosophy: take it slow, stay put and relax, and dig down to discover the deeper layers of place and relationships.
It was fitting in another respect that our group held its first meeting in the Quaker state. Pennsylvania has been the site of a multitude of historical events: the constitutional convention, the first national capital, the birthplace of the oil and steel industries. The list is a long one.
Obviously, the first group gathering of Slow Travel Tours doesn’t equate to these seminal events, but for those of us able to participate, the warmth and hospitality of our hosts and the conviviality of a like-minded group with common interests and goals, will be fondly remembered. This “historical event” gave us a clearer sense of direction, a sharper definition of goals, and some great ideas about how to achieve them. Perhaps the real “event” though was the first meeting and nurturing of new friendships.
Barbara and Matt welcomed us into their home with its lovely setting and ensured we had the quintessential Pennsylvania Dutch experience. Everyone arrived Friday evening and enjoyed a get-acquainted dinner at the Daubs’ home. The informal evening set the tone for the weekend. Barbara prepared a wonderful buffet meal with an Italian theme, very appropriate for the many Italophiles in the group. Everyone brought wine from one of their favorite wine regions, and we offered a toast to the members of our group who were not able to be with us for the weekend.
On Saturday morning we reconvened in the Daubs’ great room for a full day of discussion facilitated by Bill Steiner. We shared our experiences leading small group tours, discussed ideas for enhancing our trips, and identified initiatives to pursue together. Bill expertly kept us on track and helped us arrive at consensus decisions. We adjourned for a lunch of sandwiches, and then continued working until just before dinner.
Bill’s job would have been considerably easier and we would have wrapped-up much earlier if we were average business meeting attendees with a set agenda and a let’s-get-finished-and-out-of-here attitude. But put ten people who love, eat, and breathe travel in the same room and time has a way of getting lost amidst a flurry of personal anecdotes, the sharing of special places and experiences, and discussions of ideas to make great small group trips even better.
Once again we found that the internet facilitates special friendships between people of similar interests who are separated by hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Travel is a great common denominator. We fell easily into a comfortable and warm camaraderie. What great fun it is to discover that you’ve sat at the same sidewalk café on the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence and enjoyed a glass of wine on a warm summer afternoon, perhaps at the same table and perhaps just days or hours apart.
And you can almost smell the aroma of toasted flour in the air when you discuss your favorite boulangerie with someone who’s also walked through that same door and left with a baguette tucked under an arm. And comparing the merits of the multitude of gelato shops in Florence– the taste is on your tongue!
It’s so pleasant to reminisce with another who has shared the experience of strolling along the warm pavements of the Spanish Steps, watching the Roman evening come alive with people doing the things people have done in Rome for thousands of years.
Our attentions and dreams wandered mightily, but Bill pulled us back just before we all signed up for each others tours. With the work mostly done, it was time to enjoy the hearty Pennsylvania Dutch fare of the local area. Dinner at Deitsche Eck in the hamlet of Lenhartsville and breakfast at the Hamburg Diner in the small town of Hamburg brought back memories of America a half century ago.
Small towns, idyllic farms, family-owned restaurants, home style food, covered bridges, hex barns… we loved the ambiance and culture of this part of America. It was hard to believe we were just an hour-and-a-half drive from Philadelphia and approaching the end of 2009! We especially enjoyed the atmosphere at the Hamburg Diner, where several of us met for a copious, inexpensive breakfast before our Sunday morning departure. The old Wurlitzer juke box just inside the front door belted out classics from Elvis, the Beatles, and the Righteous Brothers. The packed café buzzed with polite conversation and a friendly banter that joined the music as the perfect accompaniment to the diner food. Our group semed to be the only non-locals.
Whether it was a scrapple-scrambled-eggs-hashed-browns-and-pancake induced inertia or simply a reluctance to call it finished, we slowly said our goodbyes on the quiet little sidewalks of Sunday-morning Hamburg. On that morning, our home in Knoxville seemed not just miles away in place but ages away in time. No one else said as much, but leaving, we sensed in each face that they had also experienced something very special and unique: a travelers time.
Every member of this group has a passion for sharing special places with other travelers, and for providing a high-quality travel experience. We all have a deep, personal connection with the places where we host our groups. Now we hold even brighter expectations for future possibilities. We came away from this weekend with fresh ideas and the support of friends. We have an excellent plan of how Slow Travel Tours will work together to spread the word about the benefits of small-group, slow tours and how we can let more people know about our trips. And we all look forward to future gatherings of the Slow Travel Tours group where we’ll again enjoy stimulating conversation, idea-sharing and brainstorming, and exceptional food and wine in the company of friends
As a final thought, maybe we should all sign up for everyone else’s tour! We’d definitely enjoy traveling with each of these people and experiencing the places they love so much. Hmmmm… an idea definitely worth considering!
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Kathy and Charley Wood lead The Luberon Experience, a week-long “slow tour” in the most beautiful area of Provence, France. Their popular trips are offered five weeks a year, in May and September. They also now lead two or three trips a year to other special places in Europe. Their other 2010 European Experiences tours will be based in the Salzkammergut area of Austria and the Cotswolds in England.
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 20 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with others travelers. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.