Just Back: A European Sojourn

Annette Stellhorn of Accent on Travel created a multi-group travel experience abroad during the pandemic. Here is her report.

In a normal world, toasting Prosecco with 30 guests on a hotel veranda in Treviso, Italy at the start of a five-week European sojourn would have simply been one of the lovely perks of being a travel professional.

But this was different. Europe had just reopened to Americans after 19 months of COVID-19-imposed solitude. I looked around at the faces of our group: Their excitement and sense of liberation were obvious. But it had taken more than a few leaps of faith for them—and me—to get here. 

It was never my intention to stay in Europe for more than five weeks almost the moment Europe threw open its gates. But it seemed the right thing to do at the time.  

For months, the group promoters had been on the fence about going. The travelers were anxious. And my own group travel advisors at Accent on Travel were virtually burnt out from suspending one group trip after another. 

Now, with a trickle, European travel was starting up again. The only logical path I saw was to offer up my services.

“If you still want to go,” I’d told them, “I will be there to help.”   

We’d had two groups planned for travel in Italy, one in Portugal, and one in Spain. When they departed—if they departed—they would be the only groups traveling for Accent on Travel in a year when we’d planned to have over 30 group travel departures. Financially and emotionally, we needed these groups to travel, if humanly possible.   

Once the decision was made to go for each group, the next challenge was finding flights. Most of my guests travel business class nonstop flights. Due to the pandemic, flights into Venice, Lisbon and Barcelona were scarce. We made our reservations—and the airlines canceled those flights.   

We brainstormed, broadened our departing and arriving airport searches, played the waiting game, and lost sleep. 

Douro River
Cruising the Douro River: Annette Stellhorn took an LGBTQ group on a Uniworld cruise operated by SS Gabriel.  (Courtesy Annette Stellhorn)

Finally, after reconfirming all logistics and sharing via Zoom with all travelers the current COVID-19 travel tests required for departure and return, how to complete Italy’s Passenger Locator Form (PLF), and how to upload to the airlines for smooth transition between countries, we were ready to go. After a nonstop American flight from Newark to Milan, our 30 guests arrived at the Relais Monaco Country Hotel in the heart of the Prosecco region ready to celebrate. 

We broke the ice by exploring the Prosecco Trail for a few days—and soon were feeling surprisingly comfortable with travel. We headed to Venice to board the recently launched Uniworld Boutique River Cruise ship, S.S. La Venezia—our home for a week. 

Having visited Venice several times in the past for a day or two, I couldn’t really wrap my head around spending a week floating around the Venice Lagoon. It was an experience I am now willing to repeat anytime. The ship docks in a variety of places around the lagoon so you can explore further than staying at one hotel.  

As with all Uniworld ships, the décor reflects the destination—in this case Venice. The suites are “cozy” and have all the latest luxurious amenities and tech needs. Even with the Italian restrictions, the included tour options were fantastic. Guests loved the extensive tour of Doge’s Palace, including that somber walk across the Bridge of Sighs and into the jail. We watched the lights slowly illuminate during our private evening in St. Mark’s Basilica and salivated at the Rialto food market tour. The overnight stay in Burano and our leisurely biking tour of Chioggia were favorites.  

Truly every day had a fabulous option for every pace of travel. And when we returned to the S.S. La Venezia, dining experiences that could rival Michelin star restaurants greeted us each day.   

Tuscany, Italy

Departing for Florence, the capital of Tuscany, meant saying good bye to our first group of travelers fully prepared to return home with their U.S.-approved negative COVID-19 tests in hand and uploaded to their airline. Ideally located for sightseeing and dining out in Florence—and featuring a fabulous staff—the Hotel Helvetia & Bristol provided a quiet respite for my incoming guests. Florence never ceases to capture my heart with its unmatched shopping, wonderful aromas and relaxing piazzas. Like Venice, the more often I visit, and the further I explore the city, the more intriguing it becomes to me.

For our group’s Tuscan villa experience, I offered the Casali di Bibbiano (16 rooms), 35 minutes from Siena. Bibbiano is a villa-like wine resort that I recommend for those who want a “taste of the villa experience” without buying the entire villa. You can start and end your day dining al fresco, overlooking the vineyard.  

My role as a luxury group travel designer is to make group experiences somehow reflect the personality of the group promoter. This group promoter, a local chef and sommelier, loves watching “The Italian Butcher” Dario Cecchini on TV. As a special treat, we took the group to a meat lover’s lunch at his Solociccia Restaurant. Since the group also originated from Rehoboth Beach, DE, we also made a stop in Greve in Chianti—Rehoboth’s Italian sister city—and visited the still-operating winery at Verrazzano Castle, home of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Italian explorer who discovered North America’s Mid-Atlantic coastal area in 1524. 

Umbria, Italy: Orvieto & Cooking Class

Staying flexible is key to enjoying the “host” experience. I’d been planning to have a private, quiet farm stay in Umbria, Italy, between hosting my Italy groups and Iberia groups—but that retreat somehow became a post-villa option for my Tuscany guests. 

Just minutes from the historic Etruscan town of Orvieto is Farmer-chef Lorenzo Palegri’s farm and restaurant, Casa Segrada. When word got out that their hosts were staying on in Italy, 14 of our villa guests asked to join me for a visit to Orvieto and a fun and educational cooking class led by my Italian friend. How could I say no?

The extra add-on was a triumph, and a nice reward for our guests brave enough to venture to Europe.

Lisbon, Portugal 

Thankfully, armed with the required Portuguese PLF and a negative rapid COVID-19 test, my nonstop flight from Rome to Lisbon went smoothly. I arrived at the Altis Avenida Hotel in time to meet my incoming group the next morning.  

Spirits were high: Lisbon had just opened its many bars and the town was definitely celebrating. The Altis Avenida is in the center of the city with a rooftop bar, which was a perfect gathering spot for our LGBTQ group. Lisbon’s museums, restaurants and shops were all open and provided a great backdrop to our planned sightseeing of the city prior to heading to Porto. 

When designing this itinerary, I focused on the group promoter’s love of art, culture and learning, so a stop in Coimbra to tour Portugal’s oldest university was perfect. Rather than arriving for embarkation hungry for lunch, I planned lunch surrounded by the beautiful gardens and art of the Quinta das Lagrimas—home of the legendary Prince Pedro and his tragic love, the fair Ines de Castro, rumored to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”.   

Porto and a Douro River Cruise

Although I had many world travelers in this LGBTQ group, none of them were prepared for the elegance and ease of traveling on Uniworld Boutique River Cruises’ S.S. São Gabriel. The new ship was beautiful, the staff welcoming, and the food and drink fabulous. 

The Douro River lends itself to river cruising. Winding upstream from the lovely city of Porto, the course meanders through the wine valley, stopping in small villages and locations for wine/port tastings along the way to learn about the history and importance of port and wine to the region. Staterooms were again “cozy and luxurious” (of course!) but this was a river cruise, after all, so most of the guests’ time was spent on tour or on the top deck taking in the beautiful late fall scenery.  

Portugal’s COVID-19 protocols were minimal during our visit, with just one rapid test required to enter and another required and provided upon embarkation of any ship. As I prepared some of the guests for return to the U.S. COVID-19 testing requirements, I also prepared the rest for their onward post-cruise-hosted journey to Madrid and Barcelona. Since I was also heading to Spain to meet another group, we all worked on our Spain PLF the last day of the cruise and had them attach the QR code returned to us to our airline check-in form. Early the next morning, we said our farewells upon disembarkation, and I headed to the airport to meet my last group in Barcelona.

Barcelona, Spain

Annette Stellhorn in Master Blanch I Jove Winery Priorat
Priorat was one of the regions where Stellhorn created a wine
pairing lunch for her group in Spain.
(Photo by Annette Stellhorn)

Had I not known otherwise, I would not have believed there was ever a halt to travel in Barcelona. The tapas restaurants were full, the museums open, and the streets buzzing with activity.  

I met my new group at our 12-room villa organized through Luxury Retreats. Even under normal circumstances, villa rentals can be challenging—and having had the 2019 contracts and communications proved very helpful.

I had designed the nine-day itinerary for the group promoter, a local wine store owner, to include full days of wine pairing lunches and tastings at some of the most exclusive wineries and vineyards in the Penedes, Pyrenees, Priorat, Montsant and Terra Alta regions. Also scheduled in there was a break to tour Barcelona’s famous sites—including a food market tour along with a tapas tasting/tour in the old town.  

Every day was better than the last. The group was well settled when I took the opportunity to say farewell and move on to Barcelona where my LGBTQ group had just arrived from Madrid. I had chosen the historic Palace Hotel for their last stay. Although an imposing building, all guests are greeted by warm and caring staff and led to rooms too inviting to ever leave again. But tempting the group with their final day being a shopping trip and farewell lunch in Sitges, a favorite beach town minutes from Barcelona, worked beautifully.  

As I headed home, I was confident I’d just completed a trip that will never be repeated. Orchestrating four uniquely different custom groups and making 100-plus guests not just comfortable but grateful to be traveling in Europe during the pandemic was both exhilarating and exhausting.  

Of course, I faced my own personal challenges. Changing bedrooms 10 times in 38 days can result in your not knowing where the bathroom is during the day, let alone at night.  

But I was filled with a deep satisfaction that we had made the right choice moving forward with these groups. Seeing the renewed confidence of the travelers, my own team’s dedication to making it all happen, and the attitude of appreciation from the Europeans—who over and over expressed hope that the first American groups to return would certainly not be the last, makes me wonder if I would not be talked into doing it all again if needed. 

COVID-Related Protocols in Italy, Spain and Portugal 

We seldom needed to show it but my advice is to be sure to always have on hand the original or an exact size copy of your vaccination card—along with a digital copy on your phone to upload as necessary. COVID-19 tests, required for each change of country, were by appointment only and the costs (payable by credit card) ranged from €20 in most pharmacies up to €90, depending on the local regulations. Note: Paper masks (no specific type) were required anytime you were indoors or walking around on the river cruise ship in both Portugal and Italy.

Practical Advice for Hosting Groups During the Pandemic

  • Organize Zoom events to educate group travelers on the protocols for each country’s visit and U.S. re-entry requirements. 
  • Keep in touch with your suppliers and get price and space guarantees in writing.
  • Have guests sign Terms & Conditions form advising they hold responsibility for fulfilling COVID-related travel protocols.
  • Hold off collecting and forwarding final payments as long as possible.
  • Check regularly and recheck 24 hours ahead each country’s COVID-19 protocols related to transportation maximums (taxi, private car, and coaches all have rules), testing requirements/appointments (and costs for guests), and Passenger Locator Forms to stay informed.
  • Take along your own U.S.-approved COVID-19 test packs for easy access for return to the U.S. 
  • Use a travel app like Axus to provide each guest their own personal itinerary that can be updated quickly if protocols change. 
  • Have a group leader travel app to attach contracts/confirmations, and group guests list details.
  • Be “available” to your group guests as much as possible before final payment, prior to and during travel.

A great resource for planning European multi-country custom group trips is Abercrombie & Kent Europe. With professional staff in many of the European countries, they can easily mobilize private and group transportation, dining venues, wine tastings and cultural experiences, boutique hotels, and COVID-19 test appointments as guests arrive, transit from country to country, and return to the U.S. For more information, contact Mark Crawley ([email protected]).

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