Mary Carlson's first experience on a Rick Steves tour was back in 1990, when she was invited to "go along for the ride" on a three-week Best of Europe tour led by Steve Smith and assisted by his wife, Karen. By the next summer Mary was apprenticing to be a guide, and by 1993 she was leading tour groups for Rick Steves — the first American woman to do so. We caught up with Mary in Edmonds, WA — where she lives with her husband, Martin, and works as a consultant in the Travel Center when she's not in Europe guiding tours.
You've been cheerfully guiding tours for Rick Steves for two decades. Wow! What keeps you going?
That's easy. I love being in Europe and I really like the way our tours work. I've been lucky to lead many different tour itineraries, so the constant learning experience has been an enjoyable challenge. Many winters I've taken classes in art history, European history of various periods, language classes, plus lots of reading on my own. It freshens up my knowledge, and what I can teach to my groups.
What did you do before this?
I had a background in Special Education, lived as an "au pair" in France, worked for airlines, and did camping tours for French groups doing road trips in the U.S. That odd mix of experiences all fell into place when I was given the opportunity to lead tours for Rick.
What's the biggest change you've seen in Rick's tours over the past two decades?
The travel philosophy behind our tours is still the same, but the sheer number of tours has changed tremendously. In 1990, we had six departures for the entire year. This past year we've had 483! In the early days, we offered only the three-week Best of Europe tour, and now we have 38 different itineraries.
Weren't you "winging it" a lot in the old days?
Oh, yes. As the assistant on an early Best of Italy tour, I would routinely call hotels two days ahead to confirm our rooms. Through some booking error, our Siena hotel had us arriving two days later than we planned to be there. Uh-oh!!! I started calling all the hotels from Rick's guidebook and other books that we had with us, but no one place had enough room for our whole group. Sooo, we went with the next best option: splitting up into four or five different places. One hotel had something like eight rooms for us, but the others had space for only two or three couples, some of them in completely, non-English-speaking homes with spare rooms. And this was Siena, notorious for all its traffic restrictions, so checking into these multiple locations was much more complicated than the bus dropping us at one address. The next challenge had to do with paying for the rooms. Instead of being able to give our designated hotel the check that had been prepared in advance, we needed to pay in cash all over town. In pre-ATM times, that meant getting to the bank and cashing lots and lots of travelers' checks. In any case, the end result was great. Tour members had very unique experiences that they all had fun sharing for the rest of the tour!
Do you ever miss those days?
There was the time in Vernazza when five of us women shared a room. Not only that, but we also shared the toilet and shower facilities down the hall with five members of a hiking club from Milan. They were crazy — exuberance personified! Their spirit was infectious. In spite of little common language — and maybe because we were all "roughing it" together — we had a great time with them. Back then, just like today, things that look like problems at first can end up creating your favorite memories.
Today you lead so many different tours, including the Best of Europe in 21 Days, the Best of Italy in 17 Days, and the Wine Regions of Eastern France. How does your guiding style change from one to the other?
These tours ARE very different, particularly in the depth of information we need to communicate. The Best of Europe tour is often a first-time European experience for tour members, and we spend relatively few days in each country. It's a sampler, where the guide tries to help people understand the basics about each country as we visit: its historical context, current issues, and how things work, along with some language tips. The Best of Italy tour limits the territory to one country, so we can focus more on the regions within it, and offer more in-depth history, language lessons, and cuisine. The Best of Eastern France tour allows us to get even more specific, concentrating on just a few distinct regions, their food and culture, and providing a variety of experiences related to the wine industry in particular.
Of all the Rick Steves tours you've led, which one has been your favorite?
That would be the Best of Village Europe, a tour that we ran about a dozen years ago. It started in Bruges and ended in Barcelona three weeks later, stopping in places like Zell an der Mosel, Appenzell in Switzerland, Stresa on Lago Maggiore, Cassis on the French Mediterranean, and Cadaques on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. It had the breadth and variety of our "normal" Best of Europe tour, with specific destinations that I love. Let's bring it back!