Colleen has been leading groups of curious travelers around Europe since 1992. Although some things have changed over the years, her adventurous spirit and enthusiasm for travel continues to shine, and her tour members aren't shy about letting us know. You can find Colleen leading our Best of Europe and Heart of Italy tours throughout the season.
How did you begin your 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 the Best of Europe in 22 Days. (Yep, back then it was 22 days of pure adventure!) It was an exhilarating experience — a bit terrifying, too. I had lived in Barcelona as a student, and by my early twenties I'd crisscrossed Europe by rail (twice) and spent four months backpacking through Mexico. After graduating from university, I moved to Seattle and began working for Rick in marketing. Before I knew it, I was responsible for leading a group of 28 curious travelers through six countries with six local currencies, four languages, and over 400 kinds of cheese!
Why was I a bit terrified? All these years later, I can now admit that on that first tour I was flying by the seat of my pants. Although I'd done loads of traveling and study, I hadn't been to several of the stops on the tour prior to leading it. And I was supposed to be the "expert." But it turned out to be great fun for everyone and I was hooked on guiding from then on!
Rick's basic travel philosophy hasn't changed over the years — providing great travel experiences for great value. What has changed is the length of the tours and the level of comfort. Tours are shorter to accommodate the relatively short vacation times of most Americans. And gone are the days of shared bathrooms (mostly) and bunking together, dorm-style, in lofts! Another fundamental change is that the tours now include local guides at each destination. This is a huge benefit for our tour members, as the local guides help us gain deeper understanding of their cultural heritage and invite us into their daily lives. They help us make connections between our own lives and the places we've traveled so far to see.
What is it about leading tours that makes your long commute (from the US to Europe) worthwhile?
Leading tours helps satisfy the adventurous spirit in me. 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, and memorable encounters with fascinating people (plus one bear) along the way.
As someone who's always been inquisitive, I enjoy making new discoveries with my tour members and sharing the stories of the characters and events that have contributed to the rich cultural fabric of each place we visit. I have a passion for connecting curious travelers with people and experiences that are educational and fun. There are so many "Wow!" moments I get to experience daily. Seeing great art and architecture and eating tasty local foods are some of the reasons I love my job. But the most rewarding part is making friends along the way. We get some terrific travelers on our tours. And many local guides have become my lifelong friends. There is plenty of laughter and good conversation on my tours — usually over delicious food and wine. A group of 28 travelers can quickly become like one big extended family. It makes me happy to be part of these moments, and they often become cherished memories.
What surprises Americans the most when they set foot in Europe?
Many things, but here are a few:
- The longer vacations that Europeans typically get — and actually take — compared to Americans.
- The differences in the cost of health care and college in Europe versus the US.
- Technological and environmental advancements being made in Europe.
- How European countries are so geographically close to one another, yet continue to maintain their own cultural identities, languages, cuisines, and traditions — not only countrywide but regionally as well — while also being part of the integrated European Union.
Do you have a favorite stop on our Best of Europe tour?
Hmm…that's a tough one to answer. Each stop has so many wonderful things to offer that it's difficult to choose. But if I had to pick one, it would be Paris. I love the incredible art, the café culture and cuisine, the parks and green spaces within the city, the sound of the French language…I could go on. For many of the same reasons, my next choice would be anywhere in Italy. But truly, I love all the stops on the tour.
What is something unique about you that others would never guess?
I made the headlines of our local newspaper when I was six years old, but not for any extraordinary accomplishment on my part. Early on a chilly spring morning, in Upstate New York, my father took me and two siblings to the nearby Susquehanna River to try out our shiny new canoe. This was the first in a series of bad decisions made that morning. The river was flooded with spring runoff and large trees protruded from the water along the shoreline, while miniature ice islands floated by. After paddling near the shore, we headed toward the main current to get a better look at the river. With one quick movement, our canoe flipped, throwing us into the freezing drink. We weren't able to right the canoe, so we held on to tree branches just above the water's surface. We clung there for quite some time before a passing motorist spotted us and called emergency services. It took a dozen firemen, braving the current in boats roped to the shore, to pluck us from those tree branches. I'm certain I wouldn't be guiding tours today if not for their courage. The funny thing is that I don't recall being scared during the entire ordeal. I guess as a six-year-old, I saw it as a great adventure. Who knew this event would be the beginning of many exciting adventures to come?
Here's what Colleen won't tell you…but her tour members will:
"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