Contiki ... every Kiwi knows who they are and probably know someone who has been on one. Very much a rite of passage for young New Zealanders, here is an insight into the heart of Contiki touring. The tour I chose was the Discovery Plus Western Quest, an 8 day tour beginning in London, heading down through Paris, Bordeaux, San Sebastian, and ending in Barcelona. This tour was a section of a larger tour, The Quest.
I caught a flight into Heathrow and took my pre-booked transfer into central London arriving . at the Royal National Hotel at around 9pm. The Royal National may have been used by Contiki from the beginning especially if the 70’s room décor is anything to go by. The Royal National is a tired, basic hotel but what it is has is a brilliant location two minutes walk to a tube station (Russell Square) and cheap pricing. For the amount of time I spent in my room it hardly mattered how tired and old my matching floral duvet and curtained room was. If I were spending more time based in London, I would however choose somewhere a little bit more modern.
With one day to myself to explore London I met with friends, London locals, who made sure I saw all the tourist hot spots such as Big Ben, Westminster Abby, and the London Eye to name a few. Some local favourites followed firstly Kingly Court in Carnaby, just off Oxford Street. We tried some Caribbean food (not something you find in New Zealand very often) at a popular spot aptly named ‘The Rum Kitchen.’ After lunch, we headed to Brick Lane, a revitalised part of London featuring some amazingly tasty Indian foods at good prices. I found London an enjoyable place to visit and I was glad to see many of the ‘bucket list’ sights. However I find true satisfaction in the smaller, quirkier and less tourist trodden aspects of the city. Brick Lane and Carnaby are areas where it is possible to sit and watch daily London life go on about you and really get a feel for the city. Following my day spent speeding around London, it was off to bed early to get as much sleep as I possibly could before my early 5am tour start.
After a simple check in with Contiki and a quick ‘oh you are from NZ? me too!’ introduction to some fellow kiwis on the tour it was on the coach and down to Dover to catch the ferry over to France. We were in luck with a clear blue sky to check out the white cliffs of Dover on the way. Our tour manager provided great history talks passing through areas such as the Somme, it made the eight-hour trip to Paris fly by.
Paris is amazing and going in with no expectations was the best way for me to approach it. It is such a beautiful city. The Tour Manager provided a rundown of the best way to explore Paris along with an in depth explanation of city’s history. After a quick trip to the Eiffel Tower to get the must have photo we were back on the bus and off to have a few brews at the pub across the road in true Contiki style. The following day we were left to enjoy Paris at our own pace and to try as much French food as we could fit in. Paris is such an elegant city and to get more of a feel for it I tried my first 'optional' extra, a French dinner and show. Dinner was in a restaurant behind Sacré-Cœur Church, the best place for a stunning view over Paris. At dinner, we had our first taste of escargot and other French favourites while listening to a live band. After dinner we headed down to the Moulin Rouge, booked out for the three Contiki tours that were in the city that night. The show was something different and very much made you feel in France as you enjoyed a bottle of bubbly.
Tour accommodation was mostly in hostels but with a few hotel upgrades. In all honestly the hotel upgrades were usually worse to stay at as the rooms were tiny when sharing with three to four people. Think ibis budget style accommodation, but sometimes even smaller. The hostels Contiki use on the other hand were exceptional with each bed within a dorm having its own charging stations for USBs and reading lights. All accommodation was clean and tidy but the hostels were far more spacious and designed for the type of travel we were doing. My favourite are the Generator Hostels that are available in many destinations throughout Europe, they are really well designed, and have a cool style to them.
The bus was another form of accommodation due to the amount of time spent on it. It was comfortable and had charging stations for lots of different power points as well as USB ports. While wifi is offered on board this is at a cost.
During my eight days on Contiki something that I enjoyed was our bus driver and tour manager choosing to make independent stops for lunches on our drive days that weren’t on the itinerary. This meant rather than stopping at service stations, we stopped in some really neat towns that we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Some of these included Saint-Jean-de-Luz a beautiful seaside French town, Zaragoza in Spain with the most amazing basilica and the best waffles I have ever tasted. We also stopped at the dune of Pilat, the biggest sand dune in Europe. We were all instructed not to cheat by taking the stairs and race to the top, which was no easy task! It was well worth the view and I definitely thought that these stops helped to experience some more out of the way places even if it was only for a short amount of time.
The last part of my tour travelled down through the Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain. The best way to sum up Spain is good food and good fun! Our first stop was San Sebastian a northern beach town. Famous for its tapas we had night out hopping between tapas bars with a cup of sangria in hand to keep us cool in the summer heat. We had a stroke of good luck as we arrived into San Sebastian, it was independence day so the locals were out making the night even more alive and enjoyable. The following day we were left to explore on our own which we spent eating sorbet and wandering around the small, narrow alleyways filled with galleries and boutique shops. After a leisurely two days in San Sebastian, it was back on the bus and across to the east to experience Barcelona!
Barcelona is a vibrant city with lot to offer. On arrival our tour manager told us to meet him later that night for a walking tour of the Ramblas (shopping street) and the Gothic Quarter. Typical of Spain the city is most alive at night. The Gothic Quarter took you back to medieval times and our tour guide provided some history of the area. The next day we spent at the food market which offered tapas and ridiculous amounts of Spanish candy. We then experienced another optional extra, a Flamenco show and dinner and with free flowing sangria! The optional extras were really worth doing, I did every one of them on the Western Quest.
This tour included breakfast every day, standard continental style, fine but nothing exciting. Some nights also included dinners and these were usually quite basic as well, i.e. French fries and chicken or Spaghetti Bolognaise. A lot of the time we would choose to go out and try some more local food.
I previously mentioned that my trip was a tour within a tour (the 'Western Quest' being part of the 'Quest'). If you have the time and budget it would be better to complete a longer tour from start to finish rather than joining an established tour part way through. The insight from my new found friends who completed the 'Quest' was they seemed to have a slightly better experience as they had more time to get to know each other and click as a group. But hey if time and money weren't an issue ...!!!
Would I do a Contiki tour again? Absolutely. All up, Contiki is a great product and I would highly recommend it. Do the optional extras and get the best out of it that you can, who cares about the bank balance, as Contiki says #noregrets.