According to Matt Berna of Intrepid Travel, the most popular trip for international travelers coming to the US is a multi-day exploration of the Southwest. And who could blame them? Our red rocks and wide gaping chasms are awe-inducing—the stuff of dreams and old movie backdrops. The area’s Indigenous tribes are rife with culture, community, and art. Plus, we make a hell of a Cowboy Steak. Less understandable, however, is their excitement over visiting a Walmart, but to each his own.
Embarking on a multi-day tour in a country other than your own is what Intrepid—and similar operators like G Adventures, Contiki, and others—are known for. They work especially well for solo travelers, and, depending on the provider and price point, you can hone in on your particular interests, whether it be food, adventure, history, or even old-timey train rides. Along the way, you’ll meet like-minded travelers, encounter new experiences, and, best of all, you don’t have to do a stitch of the planning.
Intrepid was launched in 1988 by two adventurous and ambitious bearded Australians, Darrell Wade and Geoff Manchester. Today, the company offers more than 1,000 itineraries across Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, the Middle East, Australia, and both the Arctic and Antarctica. Their particular niche is creating immersive—or intrepid, if you will—travel itineraries for groups of no more than 10, typically focusing on the outdoors: trekking Kiliminjaro or the Patagonia wilderness, doing both frontcountry and backcountry tours of US national parks like Acadia and Yosemite. They often partner with local guides, deferring to their expertise. Schedules are flexible, and they’re committed to patronizing small, often family-run businesses.
But while most people might consider reserving a spot on a multi-day group tour when planning a trip to an unfamiliar, far-off locale, it’s less common to book one in your own home country. Berna, for one, thinks that’s a mistake. “There’s a very rich culture right here in the States that has often gone overlooked completely,” he attests. With their slate of 40 new US domestic tours, Intrepid is hoping to encourage curious Americans to explore their own backyards.
“International travelers have a lot more time to spend—two, maybe three weeks—and they’ll want to hit three to five states in one trip,” says Berna. “In domestic programs, it’s really about traveling deeper and smaller.” The new adventures are highly localized, with shorter durations (sadly, we Statesiders tend to have less PTO than our European counterparts). With many, there’s the signature eye towards exploration and conservation, while others, like cycling through Washington’s San Juan islands, are designed to get the blood pumping.
“There’s been an incredible trend toward more active holidays, particularly in North America, I think from the pandemic,” says Berna. “People are buying bikes and getting out and walking more. Our bookings for our hiking programs are off the chart.”
The future of the company will also involve shining a light on underrepresented areas of tourism. Despite their prolific tour roster, one large interest area they admit they’ve overlooked and are hoping to now rectify is BIPOC heritage in the US. Offerings are typically piecemeal, parts of larger trips like a hands-on cooking lesson at Deelightful Roux School of Cooking, the only African American woman-owned cooking school in New Orleans, as part of their Tennessee Music Trail to New Orleans excursion. Or joining a local Blackfeet guide for a half-day hike through the secluded wilderness of Badger Two-Medicine, part of the Best of Montana tour. But starting this October they go all in, as guests will be invited to spend six days getting to know the past, present, and future of the Southeast US’s Gullah Geechee Corridor.
A feat of cultural preservation
The Gullah Geechee Corridor includes the coastal and sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and is the region where enslaved people, many hailing from the rice-growing cultures of West and Central Africa, were brought to work on American rice, indigo, and cotton plantations. Because of their geographical isolation, the local enslaved population was able to greatly retain many of their ancestral traditions, with today’s Gullah Geechee descendants continuing to keep their culture alive through the arts, cooking, music, and language. Fast-forward to 2006, and the Gullah Geechee Corridor was designated a National Heritage Area by Congress.
For this new tour, Intrepid partnered with Stephanie M. Jones, CEO of the Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism, whose goal is to explore the Black American experience beyond the Civil Rights movement. Jones is also a founder of Blacks in Travel Tourism, and her tours are built on in-depth research pounding the pavement, identifying potential Black-owned collaborations for her itineraries. “She had some very interesting activities,” Berna says. “For example, a shop where women can get their haircut and guys can have a pedicure—a chance to sit down in a really immersive environment and have a conversation with someone about their community.”
For her benefit Jones would utilize the backing of the largest small group tour operator in the world. After the pandemic dealt a blow to the travel industry– especially Black-owned travel agencies, and seeing the income of her peers remained stagnant, she shared with Essence magazine the importance of leveraging smart partnerships. Black Cultural Heritage Tours will run the Gullah Geechee trip on the ground, collaborating with Intrepid for itinerary details, promotion and marketing. “This partnership was incredibly important because my mission has always been to amplify Black businesses, Black history, and our amazing culture,” Jones told Essence.
In the Gullah Geechee tour visits to places like Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, founded in 1817 as the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South (as well as the site of 2015’s horrific racially motivated massacre), South Carolina’s James, Johns, and St. Helena Islands and the memorial of Gullah pioneer Robert Smalls lay the foundation for understanding the American South’s all too often-overlooked Black roots. The six-day journey through Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah covers lowcountry boils, sweetgrass basket-making workshops, church visits, dance instruction, heritage museums, and hiking trails.
And if it goes well, Intrepid hopes to add more cultural offerings of this kind in the future, using the Gullah Geechee venture as a template for them and other tour operators. “We’d like to see this become a standard part of everybody’s travel portfolio, to have these kinds of cultural tours in the States,” he says. But, given the country’s deeply divided climate as of late, he’s aware that’s no short order.
“It’s a lot to tackle,” he acknowledges. “We have to be really conscientious on how we go about doing it.”