Interview with Steve Smith

After interviewing so many Rick Steves guides, it's only right that we now include the recently retired "father of our France tours" — Steve Smith. Steve began guiding tours with Rick in 1985, and soon became co-author of our France guidebooks, designer of our France tour itineraries, the first operations manager of our tour program, and finally the direct manager/mentor of more than 100 Rick Steves tour guides.

For many years you've been "Mr. France" at Rick Steves' Europe. How did it all begin?

I was eight years old when my parents "force-moved" me to France for 18 months. While my father taught English to grad students at the local university, my parents had the "gaul" to make my sister and me attend a French-only school (after a six-week Berlitz immersion course). As it turns out, the experiences from that year, at such a tender age, would help define my career.

We loved traveling all around France during that time, and we returned to visit on several more occasions as we were growing up. Then later, in my early 30s, I moved to France with my wife to find a house and oversee its renovation for my parents' retirement. Thirty years later, that same house has been passed on to us, and we are planning our own retirement in France.

You mean you haven't gotten tired of France after a lifetime of travel there?

Not a bit. What I'll always appreciate about traveling and residing in France is the slower pace of life, the focus on family and friends — and the outrageous variety from region to region. A short drive away from any point in France not only brings new scenery but entirely different cuisine and architecture. Our house is in Burgundy. A little over two hours to the north is the Alsace, which feels more German than French with beer, Riesling wines, sauerkraut, and colorful half-timbered homes. Two hours south is Provence, the arid land of lavender, herbs, olives, and rock-top hill towns. And two hours east lie the Alps and Europe's highest peaks with glaciers, flowery chalets, fondue, and raclette. Big changes in short distances are typical when traveling anywhere in France. I love that.

You pioneered Rick Steves' France tour program nearly 30 years ago. What was it like, leading those first tours?

It was a blast, and not for the faint of heart! In those early days we were complete travel industry outsiders, more enthusiastic than experienced, always improvising, and working without a net every day. Cell phones and the internet certainly weren't part of our tool kit. We had to call ahead to hotels, restaurants, and museums, using pay phones at rest stops along the way. Guides did not carry credit cards. Just like tour members, we got cash to replenish our well-used moneybelts by cashing travelers' checks at banks (a process that usually took at least 30 minutes). We had no local guides, so a lead guide did 100 percent of the teaching during the length of a tour, from the Louvre to the D-Day beaches to walking tours of Arles and Nice. But most importantly, we did not have the office support that we rely on today (one reason I was hired as a manager 25 years ago). As a guide, when anything unexpected happened during your tour, you had to fix it yourself.

That all sounds like an ordeal.

Oh baby, it was great fun! Every tour felt unique, and not being completely sure how each day would end was exhilarating. Fortunately, our tour members were ready for an extended adventure (which they got). Originally, our only France tour was 22 days long, covering the country top to bottom and east to west in a big Paris-to-Paris loop. Today that seems like an eternity.

Can you give us an example of a memorable early tour?

One tour stands out as wildly memorable. It was the second tour of my guiding career, following Rick's three-week "Best of Europe" tour route. I was 28 and recently engaged to be married. My group consisted of one married couple…and 20 fun-loving women under 25. Yikes. I felt like a den mother barely their senior. It was a wild ride from the start. We kept losing women along the route, only to have them turn up again — somehow. One young woman had to return to the US for a family emergency, then flew back a week later to rejoin the tour! Another adventurous woman met a handsome Italian man. She rode away on his motorcycle, only to meet us several days later during a happy hour at our hotel. Vive l'amour.

How about especially rewarding moments?

Touring with this company has brought me so many "wow" moments — narrowing it down seems hopeless. From taking WWII veterans back to the beaches they landed at in Normandy, to walking with tour members across the very top of the 170-foot-high and 900-foot-long Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct, to surprising groups with an evening champagne toast right at the moment when floodlights suddenly flash on to illuminate Carcassonne's awesome fortifications, there are so many. But there is one that stands out:

While on a France guidebook research trip back in 1990 or so, I befriended a guide at le Mont St-Michel. She offered that on my next visit with a tour group she would take us on a "special tour" of the abbey. I could tell she was a top-notch guide, so this sounded intriguing. A few weeks later, she met my tour group and proceeded to walk us up from the base of the island to the very top of the massive church, where we explored rooms that were strictly closed to the public (her key set was massive). That was pretty wonderful, but she wasn't finished. The tour ended with her unlocking a small door and leading us all out onto a flying buttress. Yes, I mean on top of the buttress! Centuries ago, a very narrow walkway had been built for maintenance purposes. As our adrenaline kicked in we half-walked, half-crawled to panoramic, jaw-numbing views over the church, the island, the bay, and halfway to England (and sincerely appreciating the solid work of stonemasons from 800 years ago). Those tour members still talk about that experience today.

Today, that original tour itinerary has grown to five. Which one is your favorite?

That's like asking me to choose my favorite child. Sorry, but that's impossible. As co-author of our France books, I am often asked to name my favorite region, and the honest answer is that I can't pick one. Each region in France is unique and our tours reflect that. Since France's forte is its incredible variety, we need five tours to do it justice. That said, each itinerary has its niche (and length). If you've never been to France, I'd take Paris & the Heart of France (Paris, Loire, Burgundy, and Normandy). If you love food and wine, take the Eastern France tour (Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, and Provence). If you are looking for the most variety in one tour, take Loire to the South of France (Chartres, Loire, Dordogne, Languedoc, Provence, and Riviera). If you prefer independence, take the My Way tour. And if you can't stop dreaming of Paris, take the week-long Paris tour. Ooh la la, better yet, make the choice easy and just take them all!

Today, 14 different guides combine to lead Rick Steves' France tours. You hired all of them and know them well. Tell us about them.

Our France guides reflect the variety you find in this amazing country. While each guide is different, they all know every corner of France, and are passionate about the country and their work as teachers. Half of our guides are French, and they lead a majority of our tours. But we also have three American guides, one Canadian, one Brit, one German, and one Dutch guide. While our French guides include the cool accent, no one should feel disappointed to have a nonnative guide. Each of them has chosen to live (or spend much of their lives) in France, and they are just as excited (if not moreso!) about France as a French native. Our American guides have the great advantage of understanding what tickles Americans' curiosity, and can speak to that. Each guide brings their own background and perspective to our guide meetings, and that further enriches our France program.

After such a busy and rewarding career, what's next for Steve Smith?

First and foremost, I want to spend generous amounts of time with my 16-year-old daughter, my elderly parents, and a few friends with health issues. Second, I look forward to focusing on the various France guidebooks that I co-author. Until now I've had to hire extra help to update our books, as I couldn't be away from the office for as long as that requires. Now I can indulge in the luxury of researching entire books at a reasonable pace. I also plan to spend considerable time at our house in Burgundy, where I'll be based when researching guidebooks. The 250-year-old place needs some TLC. And I was not kidding about loving the pace of life in France. I have some dear friends there with whom I plan to spend more time relaxing. Finally, I'll be spending time in Guatemala, as I'm involved with an organization that takes high school students there as a critical part of a nine-month global leadership program. And who knows, I'd love to guide again, now that I have more time. I'd love to get back out on that flying buttress…

Looks like I won't be bored any time soon.