TRAVERSE CITY — Martha Ryan loves to travel, but annual trips to places like Tuscany and Salzburg, Budapest and Prague could be beyond her means.
So to feed her habit, the Suttons Bay restaurateur doubles as a tour group coordinator, drawing on her name recognition and food and wine expertise to get local travelers to sign on to her trips in exchange for a more personalized — and specialized — experience.
From TV personalities to yoga instructors, more and more people are discovering the benefits of leading group tours. Most work with tour companies and their guides, and are responsible for recruiting and escorting local travelers in exchange for a free spot on the tour. Others plan the trips on their own and hope the fees cover their expenses, such as a translator or driver licensed to chauffeur groups.
Ryan promises guests everything from "the vibrant, artsy port cities" of Normandy to "the romance, the splendor, the ooh la la" of Paris during her 10-day tour of France in November. Along the way, they'll experience the Rouen Cathedral that inspired Monet, the luxurious chateaux of the Loire Valley and the Gothic Mont St. Michel abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But perhaps as important, they'll get to taste the country's famed food and drink, from Sauvignon blanc to apple brandy, cheese to coq au vin — some of it personally selected by Ryan, proprietor of Martha's Leelanau Table, a European-style cafe.
"I think people like to travel with me because of the food and wine connection," said Ryan, who, with co-coordinator and multilinguist Jill McFarlane, seeks out authentic food experiences — from cooking classes to olive pressings to boat excursions to see how mussels are raised — wherever her groups travel. Then there are the memorable meals.
"Martha essentially checks with the locals to suggest particular restaurants," said Mary Scott, a retired nurse from Leelanau County who has gone on a half-dozen of "Martha's Tours." "It's just an extra touch. We usually end up with great meal ideas. And sometimes it's a cup of coffee at a bistro in France or a picnic along the way in Italy."
"There's a great deal of effort that goes into it," said Scott's husband, painter John Scott. "Before the Croatia trip, she had an evening of Croatian cooking at her restaurant."
Grocer's Daughter Chocolate owner Mimi Wheeler will lead a tour to Ecuador in February and March to explore the country's cacao heritage and rich Kichwa indigenous culture. Guests will visit several cacao farms and production facilities in the Amazon to learn about the origins of chocolate, "from pod to the port." They'll even roast and grind beans to make their own rustic chocolate and stay with friends of their guides in a rural indigenous community.
Wheeler, whose Empire-based business specializes in high-quality high cocoa-content South American chocolate, said the trip is both a way to escape the northern Michigan winter and to revisit one of her favorite regions, without the usual costs of travel. She and co-guide Jody Treter, an experienced Latin American guide and food entrepreneur, are hoping the $1,750 tour cost for each of eight participants will cover most of their fees as leaders.
"It certainly helps me to get back there, but I'm mission driven," said Wheeler, who has visited Ecuador several times. "I want some of those customers I've gotten to know to experience what I fell in love with. I'm so excited to show guests the world where cacao — which relates to everything that comes before chocolate — comes from."
Inuit art collector Ann Conway is a regular on annual spring tours to Toronto organized and led by Terry Tarnow of the Dennos Museum Center. The trips offer the chance to view and purchase Inuit art at showrooms normally not open to the public.
"You walk into one of them and there are thousands of pieces, not the 100 or 200 Terry buys for the museum," said Conway, of the Traverse City area and a founding member of the Midwest-based Inuit Art Society. "The first time you're literally overwhelmed. You don't know where to look."
Travelers pay a small registration fee to the museum and make their own way to Toronto. Then they carpool to four area showrooms filled with Inuit carvings and prints.
"It's a hectic, exhausting day," said Tarnow, manager of the Dennos Museum Store. "We travel on Thursday, we run like crazy on Friday. People take pictures of things and make a list of about 20 things they may want to buy and I give them a few days to mull it over."
Orders are placed through the museum center, which gives participants a discount off the retail price. Profits — about $10,000 or more each year — go the museum store to benefit museum programs.
"I have people who come from all over the country for this," Tarnow said. "It's a great week. We go to museum, galleries, we eat great food. While we're there I always look ahead at what's going on in the various museums that relates to Inuit art. There's a new museum devoted just to Inuit art so we always go there."