How did you begin your long career as a Rick Steves guide, and how have things changed over the years?
My first tour for Rick Steves, back in the summer of 1992, was an incredibly exciting experience. Incredibly terrifying, too! I had traveled throughout Europe on my own and lived in Barcelona as a student, then moved to Seattle and got a job helping Rick with marketing. Before I knew it, I was responsible for taking a group of 28 people through six countries, using four different languages and six different currencies — all while showing them the sights and making sure they had a great time! It was kind of 'trial by fire,' but it turned out to be great fun and I was hooked on guiding from then on.
Rick's basic travel philosophy hasn't really changed over the years. What has is the level of comfort on our tours. Gone are the days of shared bathrooms and bunking together, dorm-style, in lofts!
Another change is that every tour involves more locally-based guides along the way. They inject a local personality and add immensely to our understanding of the places we've traveled so far to see.
What is it about leading tours that makes your long commute (from Seattle to Europe) worthwhile?
Being a guide helps to satisfy the adventurer's spirit in me. Every trip is different — with new people and new challenges.
As a little girl, I watched movies about explorers venturing out to discover new lands. And I would think to myself, "I want to do that!" Some of my favorite childhood vacation memories include hiking in the Adirondacks, canoeing and camping along swift-running rivers, backpacking for months in Mexico, and memorable encounters with fascinating people (plus one bear) we met along the way.
Guiding is one way I can help other travelers have similar thrills. It makes me happy to be a part of this experience and to help them have the best time possible.
You lead Rick's Best of Europe and Heart of Greece tours. How would you describe the differences?
The Best of Europe tour is often a tour member's first experience abroad. It's a great way to sample a rich variety of customs, foods, languages and geographies — all while traveling comfortably in the company of others, free from all the logistical hassles of planning and getting around on your own. And a trip like this helps people decide where they'll want to go next!
The Heart of Greece tour really is about getting to the heart of this remarkable country. Two weeks here gives us time to appreciate the achievements of Greece's classical past, while also learning about its often turbulent transformation into a modern nation. This tour also gives us plenty of opportunities to soak up the local culture and to talk with welcoming Greeks we meet along the way.
What surprises Americans the most when they set foot in Greece?
Most Americans don't realize how mountainous Greece is until they see it for themselves. All their lives they've seen pictures and postcards of the islands with aqua-blue waters, sandy beaches, white-washed houses...and not a mountain in sight!
Americans are also surprised by the cuisine — mostly by the amount of olive oil that's used — and how delicious the food is! They're also surprised by the freshness of the produce, particularly the tomatoes. People get hooked on the Greek salads of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, huge chunks of feta cheese and lots of olive oil. They actually crave them once they return home!
Do you have a favorite stop on our Heart of Greece tour?
The natural beauty and laid-back feel of the little seaside village of Kardamyli really appeals to me. Nestled right at the base of the Taygetos Mountains and overlooking the Messenian Gulf, it's especially lovely in springtime when the wild flowers bloom out of nearly every rock and crevice. There are some great hikes up the mountainside, and afterwards you can cool off with a dip in the sea below.
I love to visit my friends in Kardamyli, too. Yiannis Dimitreas has a little shop in his home where he makes soaps and creams from the olives he hand picks from his trees and the herbs he collects from the mountains. Then there are Eleni and Elias, who own and run the grocery store and the Hotel Vardia, with their daughters, Fotini and Voula. I've gotten to know them, their children and grandchildren over the years. So it's a lot like coming home whenever I visit Kardamyli.
What Colleen won't tell you — here's how her tour alums rave about her:
"What a pleasure to know and travel with a guide of the caliber of Colleen. I have encountered other guides on other tours, but Colleen is by far the best guide with whom I have traveled. Cool under pressure, always readily available, consistently warm and pleasant, excellent sense of humor, she was indeed a delight. She could read actuarial statistics, and I think we would have all paid rapt attention!"
— Richard in Salisbury, MD
"Colleen, is truly a national treasure. She is extremely knowledgeable about history, culture, food/wine, and current events, a good speaker and teacher (informative and entertaining!), very organized (the tour ran like clockwork, without a glitch), friendly to all, and somehow made us all feel well cared for every step of the way. Grazie mille, Colleen!"
— Mary in Kennesaw, GA