8 Websites Offering Unique Local Tours Around The World

eating fire While it can be worthwhile booking a tour through a big-name company when traveling, it can get boring seeing a new city in the same old fashion. To do something off beat and interesting, these companies are offering unique tours and activities created and led by locals.

Gidsy

A marketplace for local and unusual experiences, Gidsy was started in 2011 in Berlin by two brothers, Edial and Floris Dekker. The idea was formed in an unusual way, when the hungry brothers were looking for someone to take them mushroom picking so they could make mushroom risotto. Thus, Gidsy was born. The business puts an emphasis on the host, trying to show off their personality and unique skill or knowledge.

“The experiences are better because they’re expressions of an individual’s personality and passion,” explained Edial to VentureBeat. “Instead of attending a yoga class at a gym, for example, you’ll find an expert on Gidsy offering candle-lit yoga classes on a rooftop.”

It’s free for hosts to make a profile and offer their service, and a great way for them to meet new people and make a profit. Some unique tour options include making sock monkeys for charity in New York ($18.88), learning to eat fire in Los Angeles ($25, pictured above), getting a relaxing singing bowl massage in Amsterdam ($19) and partaking in a twilight Berlin underground walking tour ($24.58).HipHost

Founded by Mario Ricciardelli in June 2011, HipHost was started with a “vision of empowering anyone to share their passion and expertise by creating awesome local tours.” The company focuses on allowing travelers to go local in a new city, and also on helping them to save money. You can check how trustworthy a guide is through interviews, personal recommendations and reviews. Additionally, they have a great money back guarantee – if you’re not satisfied, you’ll be issued a refund immediately. Some of their unusual offerings include exploring the haunted spots of Phoenix ($22), a sunrise meditation and beach walk in Miami Beach ($9), a medical marijuana dispensary and music tour of Los Angeles ($76) and a tour that takes you to film locations from the movie “Twilight” in Portland, Oregon ($73).




CanaryHop

Described as a “marketplace for activities, tours, lessons and experiences,” CanaryHop is a helpful tool for connecting travelers with local hosts in a city. The idea for the site, which was cofounded by Andy Samberg in June 2011, came when the founders were traveling through the South of France with their families. After searching the web for hours, they still couldn’t find anything to do. They knew there had to be a better way to make the most of vacations.

“Our solution is to give travellers around the world a diverse set of local activities that they can book for their kids, for themselves and can be accessible by locals, tourists, travel agencies and more in booking travel around the world,” CanaryHop told Tnooz.

CanaryHop is designed around the idea of a canary, or host, and travelers “hopping” along with the tours around the world. You can search via activity, lesson, location, price or level of child-friendliness. And, if you find the same tour cheaper somewhere else, CanaryHop will refund you the difference. Some interesting tours to find on CanaryHop include a scavenger hunt in Denver ($40), a tour through Salem based on the pages of “A Walk Through Salem” and “A Walk Under Salem” ($10), a private sandcastle lesson in South Padre Island ($200) and gladiator classes in Rome ($338).

brewcycle GuideHop

Started in 2011, GuideHop is a “peer-to-peer marketplace for tours and guided activities.” The company aims to connect people from around the world, and help travelers and those interested in making discoveries try new things. It integrates social media by allowing you to post your activities to Facebook and Twitter, and also focuses on giving guides fair rates, while at the same time showing those signing up for tours exactly how much the guide receives from the price.

“Your hotel room should not be what you write home about. An uninspired bus tour of all the obligatory sites shouldn’t be the only way you experience a city,” the founders told Tnooz in an interview. “It’s no fun burying your nose in a guide book but you don’t want to waste your precious spare time on some lackluster tourist trap.”

Users can search by location, activity or top guides. Some of their unique experiences include taking a brewery tour while riding a 15-person brewcycle ($30, pictured above), playing unicycle football in Austin ($15) and a Beatles walking tour of New York ($34).

Triptrotting

Triptrotting is a versatile site that not only allows travelers to connect one-on-one, but also through tours and activities hosted by locals. The idea began to take form in 2008, although the venture was formally founded in July of 2010. When traveling through Thailand, the founders felt like “clueless tourists,” being herded from one site to the next. While they took photos of numerous monuments, they couldn’t help but feel as though making a connection with locals was the key factor missing. They wondered what natives their age did, and from there, the idea for Triptrotting was born.

Triptrotting is passionate about global citizenship, stating on their “About Us” page, “Through face-to-face interaction, people will learn to understand each other beyond cultural differences and boundaries. With the help of the Triptrotting community, we hope to make the world a better place through cultural exchange and understanding.”

Some interesting tour and activity options offered include a nighttime photo tour of New York ($90), a Lincoln Park urban nature tour in Chicago ($55), a Segway experience of Santa Monica and Venice Beach ($128) and a tour of the hidden areas of Berlin ($38).




Vayable

Vayable, which the site defines as “the best way to find unique, insider travel experiences, worldwide,” has the unique mission to better the world through experiences. For example, a study by UNESCO showed that tourism is one of the greatest threats to global sites by which it sustains itself. Vayable tries to respond to this problem.

“… the survival of the industry translates into the survival of the communities that sustain it, particularly in developing countries,” Vayable says in their mission statement. “For many countries, tourism presents the greatest promise of prosperity and economic mobility. Vayable provides these communities with a new, safe and fun way to accomplish this.”

The idea for Vayable came when co-founder Jamie Wong went on a trip to Morocco. Guidebook in hand, she wandered into a carpet shop and began telling the owner how much she wanted to visit the Sahara Desert. Moments later, they were driving for 15 hours through the Atlas Mountains to the desert, where Wong met the shopkeeper’s cousin, Ali, who was head of the caravan tribe. Wong got to travel for five nights on camel, sleeping under the stars and eating bread baked in the sun. When the trip was over, she realized the small amount of money she had spent – well, what she saw as small, anyway – had given Ali and his cousin enough to live on for a month. Wong’s new understanding of the world lead her to want to make a difference. From here, the idea for Vayable was born.

Some interesting experiences they offer include touring Paris by scooter at night ($80), doing a fake hipster tour of London ($24), urban spelunking in New York ($90, shown in the video above) and an educational homelessness walking tour through San Francisco ($20).

weapons SideTour

SideTour, whose tagline is “Challenge the ordinary,” was launched in the summer of 2011 by Vipin Goyal within the TechStars incubator in New York City. They set up travelers and curious locals with hosts who can show them unique skills and facets of the city. While many similar companies use a listing system, where users find an interesting activity and contact the host to arrange to meet, SideTour uses an event outline. Hosts plan an activity for a specific date and time, and then interested parties can purchase tickets. For now they’re focusing on New York only; however, they will be spreading to other cities in the near future.

“We update our site weekly with the most uncommon and unexpected activities, so you’re always in the know with whatever’s going on around you,” says SideTour. “Our NYC-based team curates each and every listing so you can book knowing that a great experience is guaranteed.”

You’ll need to create an account or sign in with Facebook to see events. Upcoming activities they’re offering include having lunch with a monk ($20), discussing national security with an ABC news reporter ($25), getting insider access to Hollywood’s secret weapons depot in SoHo ($60, pictured above) and spray painting your own graffiti tag with an NYC crew ($75).

Meetup

While often overlooked by travelers, Meetup is excellent way to find unique activities to enjoy with like-minded people. With more than 9,000 groups and about 340,000 monthly meetups in 45,000 cities, they boast being the world’s largest network of local groups. You can search for meetup groups that interest you, join, then attend interesting activities and events. The concept for Meetup began shortly after 9/11, when founder Scott Heiferman read the book “Bowling Alone.” He realized the less people interact with those they don’t know, the less they trust strangers. Because of this, they end up interacting less. Additionally, Heiferman used to go see a band he loved, Luna, often times alone. Although he would see the same people at every show, he usually felt awkward going up to them.

“…it’s not just find the people that have a similar interest because the other people that like that band were in the same place multiple times a year, but it’s more about giving them permission to talk to people, giving them license to talk to each other,” Heiferman explained in an interview with Betabeat.

What’s really great is the activities and events are usually free or extremely inexpensive to attend. You’ll have to join the groups to RSVP to events, although there is an option to contact the group moderators. Simply let them know you’re coming to town and interested in attending an upcoming event. While it’s hard to narrow down just a few offbeat groups to join on Meetup, some include:

  • Long Island Role Players– This is great if you’re interested in fantasy-meets-reality role playing games, like “All Flesh Must Be Eaten,” a survival horror game, “Four Color Blues,” a superhero adventure game and “Dungeons and Dragons,” a game of political rule.
  • Sydney Arthouse and Foreign Films– Join this group if you’ll be in Sydney, and are interested in arthouse and foreign films and going to events like film festivals, open-air movie screenings and coffee and drink gatherings with other cinema-lovers.
  • Dublin’s City Life Drawing– This group meets on Tuesdays at a studio in Dublin to draw still life and have constructive discussions. The members also go for drinks afterwards at a local pub.
  • Free Fun in Las Vegas– If you’re looking to save money but have fun in Vegas, this group hosts activities that are $5 or less. They post events like free movies and swimming, $5 improv comedy shows, free farmers markets and free poetry slams.

Orcas, sea kayaking, and sea planes: a day trip to Washington’s San Juan Island

san juan islandsI woke up early one morning last week and realized that August 15th would mark two years since I arrived in Seattle. Normally I wouldn’t take note of such a thing, given that I tend to move with the frequency of a fugitive. Staying in one place just isn’t in my nature.

But here I was, 24 months into life in Seattle, and of the many things I’d yet to do, I hadn’t: been to the San Juan Islands (blame a longterm illness, an anemic bank account, and overwhelmingly crappy weather, in that order), seen an orca, nor flown on a sea plane despite living two blocks from the Lake Union terminal. As a travel writer, there’s really no excuse.

So I decided to celebrate my anniversary by knocking out all of those goals in one day, with a sea kayaking trip to San Juan Island. There are few things I love more than paddling, but I don’t have my own boat, so it’s tough to make trips happen. That’s where EverGreen Escapes comes in.

Last summer, I did an overnight paddle off of Whidbey Island with Evergreen, and was very impressed by the professionalism and knowledge possessed by my guide. The four-year-old “nature, adventure, and epicurean tour” company has a green ethos not uncommon in Seattle. What sets Evergreen apart from most of the other outfitters I’ve used is a staff who know their stuff and possess great people skills, diverse tours, and an emphasis on quality and comfort. Owners Jake Haupert and Dan Moore are actively involved in every aspect of their business, and it shows.

EverGreen just launched a partnership with Kenmore Air–the “seaplane airline”–this summer. The “Soar & Explore” upgrade allows you to fly one-way or round-trip on various EverGreen trips (see end of story for details). Kenmore has been around since 1946; I’ve enviously watched their little yellow-and-white planes buzz over my apartment hundreds of times, and I was jonesing to fly in one.

%Gallery-130546%san juan islandsI signed up for EverGreen’s full-day “Quest for Orcas, Pigs, and Wine” trip. In no way does that accurately describe the outing (it sounds more like a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien), but I admit it begs further investigation.

The name actually refers to San Juan Island’s post-Civil War land dispute between America and England. The so-called “Pig War” began as a result of a farmer shooting a neighbor’s pig that was on his property. Said property became the subject of controversy as to where the U.S./current Canadian border was actually located, and for the next 13 years, American and English troops lived in “Pig War” camps where they primarily got together, drank too much beer, and waited for their respective governments to figure things out. I had hoped this part of the trip referred to sausage, but a little history never hurt anyone.

The “Wine” portion of the trip is a nod to Washington State’s burgeoning boutique wine industry, and the small selection of varietals to be served with lunch. San Juan Island also has its own vineyard and a Tasting Room in the main town of Friday Harbor.

Our day began at the crack of 6:45, when Evergreen’s luxury Mercedes van picked up my eight fellow whale, wine, and pig-lovers at their hotels. Our young guide, Tyler, is a naturalist and native Seattleite; before we’d even left the city limits, I’d learned more about Seattle’s history than I’ve gleaned on my own. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Anacortes. The weather was unfortunately behaving as it has for most of the summer: gray and dreary, but we could still catch glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An hour later, we docked at Friday Harbor. While crowded with visitors, it’s a cute town that manages to remain delightfully free of tackiness. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, San Juan–at 55 square miles, the second-largest in the 172-island archipelago–is all about enjoying the moment. With a year-round population of just 8,000, the island is mostly rural; uncrowded roads wind past forest, prairie, deserted beaches, and pasture. Agriculture is still a big part of the island’s economy, and you’ll see everything from cattle ranches and alpaca farms to a hops plantation. There’s even a camel named Mona on one property; she’s become emblematic of San Juan’s quirky nature.
san juan islands
Our launch spot was Roche Harbor, a pretty, historic village/resort/ marina on San Juan’s northwest tip built in 1886. San Juan Outfitters provided us with tandem boats and gear, and Tyler gave us a brief tutorial on paddling basics (most of our group were newbies). We embarked on a two-hour paddle around Nelson Bay, encountering curious harbor seals whose heads popped up like corks around our boats. Bald eagles soared overhead, and beneath us, giant Purple Sea Stars and crimson rock crabs hid amongst the eel grass. Tyler stopped us in the midst of a bull kelp bed (encouraging us to snack on it), and talked about the ecosystem it supported.

Our first post-paddling stop was Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan’s west side, ten miles east of Vancouver Island–you can actually see the back side of the city of Victoria. Lime Kiln is the only dedicated, land-based orca viewing spot in the world. Most days, besa juan islandstween 3 and 4pm, the local Southern Resident Orca community (also known as the Salish Sea Orcas) pass by, following their main food source, Chinook salmon.

Tyler explained that there are three types of orcas (whether or not they are different species is a subject of scientific debate): offshore, transient, and resident. Orcas, actually a species of toothed whale in the dolphin family, are found worldwide. They’re opportunistic feeders (hence their erroneous name, “killer” whales), meaning they’ll eat a variety of prey species. In addition to salmon, harbor seals and rockfish make up the Southern Resident’s diet; they forage between the San Juan islands and southern Vancouver Island from April to September.

The Southern Resident community is federally listed as an endangered species due to a variety of factors that include a decline in their food supply, toxic exposure to industrial waste and human-related pollution, surface impacts (think boat exhaust, etc.), and low population. Orcas generally travel in pods and are very family-oriented. The Southern Resident community is comprised of three different groups: the J, K, and L pods (the oldest is a 100-year-old female named “Granny”). These pods are subjected to some of the highest boat traffic in the world, which is a good reason to try and view them via kayak. Unlike a whale-watching boat (which must still abide by strict regulations to protect the animals) however, kayaking doesn’t guarantee a show.san juan islands

Despite arriving at Lime Kiln around 3pm, we’d apparently missed the orcas. No matter–we saw dolphins, and enjoyed the views. Meanwhile, Tyler and intern Maggie set up a beautiful lunch on a picnic bench. Despite the cold (the hot tea Maggie offered was much appreciated), we enjoyed a meal of couscous salad, grilled chicken breasts, and the aforementioned Washington wines. Tyler noted the whale boats heading south, so we decamped to South Beach, where binoculars enabled us to see some orca action far offshore. We took some time to walk the driftwood-strewn beach before departing for Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Despite not getting any up-close views of the orcas, it had been a fun, interesting, relaxing day, and no one seemed put-out that the animals had been a no-show.

Back at Friday Harbor that evening, everyone else went to do some exploring on their own, but I had a sea plane to catch. The terminal is two minute’s walk from the ferry, and I climbed aboard the seven-seater to find my fellow passengers included a boxer wearing a pink, rhinestone-studded harness. The dog lolled across her owner’s laps, evidently a veteran of float plane travel. Unlike me. I was childishly thrilled to be onboard, and within minutes of taking off, I was fantasizing about a second career as a seaplane pilot. The sun had finally emerged, and the water was dazzling. Waterfront cabins sat amidst the lush undergrowth and evergreens, sailboats bobbed in emerald coves.

And then, just as we banked and headed south toward Seattle, I saw them. Two pods of orcas–about 20 in all–leaping and splashing no more than 200 feet below us. I pressed my face against the window in awe, watching them until they were lost in the expanse of blue. Happy anniversary, to me.

Travel tips
Wear layers (including one waterproof), and lots of ’em. The weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly this far north. Although the islands are in the “banana belt,” sea breezes can be chilly.

Bring sunglasses, a hat, and broad spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and use it–frequently.

If you’re paddling, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Drink small sips throughout to keep your bladder from getting full. And don’t forget to eat a small, high protein/complex carb snack to keep your blood sugar up (Evergreen provides snacks and water, FYI).

Kayaking attire should include a swimsuit, board shorts or waterproof pants, watersport shoes or sandals, and a long-sleeved nylon shirt (preferably one made with UPF fabric) or lightweight spray jacket. Your arms, and possibly your butt will get wet (if your boat’s spray skirt isn’t tight enough).
san juan islands
Soar & Explore

Evergreen Escapes offers a wide variety of summer and winter multi-day/activity packages, as well as customized tours for individuals or groups. San Juan excursions are offered year-round, with sea-kayaking April through October.

If you want the ultimate San Juan scenery experience, you can fly up in the morning, or go round-trip: there are terminals at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Another option is to overnight/take two nights at Friday Harbor House, Earthbox Motel, or Island Inn, or add-on another island (including Vancouver Island, BC) or Olympic National Park. Kenmore Air has terminals throughout Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island, and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (Canada’s name for their part of the San Juan archipelago). They also offer flightseeing excursions and have four wheeled aircraft in their fleet.

Want to support the Southern Resident Orcas? Click here for details on the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Adopt-an-Orca program.

Visit San Juan Islands in Washington

Tour operator Goldtrail goes bankrupt, strands 16,000

UK company Goldtrail Travel Ltd announced it had gone bankrupt at 4pm yesterday. The revelation, made just an hour before the end of the work week, has left the travel plans of thousands of customers in doubt. About 16,000 customers are already abroad on Goldtrail flights and package tours, mostly in Turkey and Greece.

Goldtrail operates under the names Goldtrail Holidays, Goldtrail Travel, and Sunmar.

While flights returning this weekend and Monday will operate as normal, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority is left to pick up the slack for the remaining passengers. All outbound Goldtrail flights have been canceled. You can read the CAA’s statement about the failure, and advice to those affected, here.

The number for the CAA helpline in the UK is 0844 856 2585. Customers outside the UK should call 0044 203 441 0846.