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Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore

Come with me for A Taste of Northern Italy and Provence  

I can promise you, this is a program of huge contrasts - from incredibly diverse art galleries and sculpture gardens to elegant shopping arcades; from almost manicured lakeside gardens to forests and vineyards. Our journey through north-western Italy and the south-eastern corner of France explores the lakes, gardens, wine-producing villages and artistic heritage of the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy, together with the artistic haunts, charming hilltop villages, local cuisine and 'effusive' gardens of France's Côte d'Azur and Provence.

We begin in Lombardy, in Milan. This city has long been an important trading centre because of its location on the junction of trans-alpine routes. Nowadays it is the second-largest city of Italy and its undisputed economic and financial capital. However, business and money are most certainly not everything. The long history of the city is still visible in the many monuments, buildings, and works of art. From its Gothic cathedral to the impressive Renaissance Castello Sforzesco with its collection of priceless furniture, art and sculpture and the 19th century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II which offers the best in shopping, there is history and contrast everywhere. Leonardo da Vinci lived in Milan for seventeen years, leaving the legacy of one of his most famous and intriguing works, 'The Last Supper', which adorns the rectory wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie. I suspect there will be many of you who, like me, saw this masterpiece originally in the early seventies when it was really crumbling into oblivion. You will not believe the difference after its recent restoration. It's a humbling experience to see, as Leonardo painted it, the moment in which Christ tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The 17th century Brera Botanical Garden - containing some of the oldest exotic trees in Europe - will also delight you.


Lake Como

Gardens and villas are a great part of this adventure and while we are in this region we enjoy the magnificent 'lakeland' scenery of Como, lesser-known Orta and beautiful Maggiore. With lakes come the opportunity for exploration by boat. My last group loved the boat rides on each lake. The end of each day provided so many memories and so much discussion that in fact we never came to a consensus as to which was best! Beautiful Lake Maggiore, Italy's second-largest lake, nestles against a backdrop of the mountainous scenery of the Swiss Alps, is home to the three Borromean Islands of Isola Bella, Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori. Despite their alpine setting, these islands share a pleasant climate, but each offers a very different experience. Isola Bella was completely transformed by its occupants, and its palace and gardens are the epitome of opulence and luxury. In contrast, Isola dei Pescatori, with its village unchanged by time, offers a fascinating simplicity. Finally, the exotic atmosphere of the lush and tranquil Isola Madre can perhaps be ascribed to the gardens that almost totally cover it. It's an absolute joy to wander there. On Lake Como we discover the wee lakeside town of Bellagio and visit the magnificent gardens of the Villa Melzi. Lake Orta presents us with a completely different experience, as we visit San Giulio Island and the UNESCO-listed Sacro Monte di San Francesco, an extraordinary complex of twenty chapels devoted to the life of St Francis of Assisi and set in a serene landscape of winding lanes and woods. Here peace continues to reign as it has for centuries.

Castello di Barolo

We have some amazing gardens in this part of the program, including the enchanting private gardens of Villa Cicogna Mozzoni and those of Villa Taranto, considered amongst the finest gardens in Northern Italy.

From Lombardy we move to a very different part of Italy. Piedmont is, apart from the cultural and historical splendours of the city of Turin, essentially rural. To the north lie the highest peaks of the Alps and to the south, the vine-clad hills around Barolo together with the countless fields of grain and rice, used in the local dish, risotto. From the 11th to the 18th century, Piedmont was part of the French-speaking principality of Savoy which spanned the Alpine divide and was ruled by the ancient noble House of Savoy. It was only when the capital of the duchy was moved from Chambéry to Turin in the 16th century that the region looked more to Italy, so much so that, during the Risorgimento of the 19th century, the western part of Savoy was handed to France and Piedmont underwrote the ambitious movement to unite Italy under the king in Turin. The vestiges of this history are to be found in the surprisingly elegant Baroque city of Turin. Piedmont is also the headquarters for many of Italy's large commercial establishments, but the region has not forgotten its agricultural roots with southern Piedmont producing many great Italian wines.

Piedmont Wine Cellar

We learn about the history and culture of Turin with an exploration of its architecture and glorious palaces. We discover for ourselves some of the smaller towns and villages of Piedmont, such as the well-preserved and historic town of Alba with its Romanesque cathedral, and the dramatic Castle of Barolo on the rolling hills of the Langhe, where the famous wine is produced. Needless to say, we will learn more about Piedmont’s wine and delicious food at various 'tastings'. That is in quotation marks because at least one of our tastings seemed to provide all the sustenance we needed for several hours. We decided that we did not believe the actual word existed in the Italian language as we devoured incredible salamis, fresh hazelnuts and typical cheeses of the region!

And then to France ....to one of my absolute favourite regions. During our French section, we explore the sun-drenched countryside of Provence, with its time-worn, hilltop villages - considered some of the most beautiful in France - villages such as Gordes, Venasque and Rousillon which were often the inspiration for artists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Chagall. We visit some of the great art galleries of the contrasting southern cities of Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles and Nice as well as some of the more unusual artistic exhibition venues of the region such as Les Baux de Provence. This year the Les Baux Experience will be the works of Van Gogh. I can promise you, this will be an experience you will never forget as the works are projected all around you - on the floors and walls - of this converted quarry.

Abbaye de Sénanque, Provence

Again, we have so many contrasts on this program as we absorb the complexities of French history without really thinking about them. We wander through ancient Gallo-Roman remains such as those of Vaison-la-Romaine. (How did those Romans invent such complex drainage and plumbing?). We visit the picturesque medieval abbey of Sénanque with its lavender fields (hopefully in flowering splendour, if we are lucky). Founded by Cistercian monks, the abbey has been occupied up to the present day, with some interruptions due to the vicissitudes of history. The monks support themselves by growing lavender and making honey. The Abbey is regarded as one of the icons of Provence. While in this region we have the magic experience of chugging gently between the mountains and the sea on the narrow-gauge (1m) railway Train des Pignes, one of Provence’s most picturesque rides. Rising to 1000m, the track follows rushing rivers and steep-sided mountain valleys with breathtaking views. The 151km track between Nice and Digne-les-Bains passes through Haute-Provence’s scarcely populated backcountry, taking about 3 hours. The ride is an adventure. The stations are old, tiny and personal - it's almost a step back in time. The name Train des Pignes comes from the pinecones, once used for tinder to start the steam engines.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, French Riviera

After many more adventures, our journey finishes in Nice. with Matisse and Renoir, flower markets, the hilltop artistic village of St Paul de Vence and the breath-taking Mediterranean gardens of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.

I would love to share with you a little of two of my favourite countries in the world on this program of incredible contrasts.

Port of Bastia, Corsica

For those who wish to continue with me, there is an 8-night Extension to Corsica on our Corsican Discovery tour, and that's another whole story! Think crazy history - mysterious Filitosa with its 4,000-year-old, life-size stone warriors and then Italian and French 'ownership' at various times and thus diversity of architecture, ideas and language. Think some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine - rugged mountains, a dramatic coastline with rocky headlands peering down to tiny azure-blue bays. Think, fiercely-independent people who have somehow managed to hold onto their special culture...

Can we tempt you?

Louise Shave,
Golden Compass Program Leader

As a result of the tremendous support we’ve received recently, we are very pleased to announce that more of our 2019 tours (including those listed below) are now guaranteed. Each tour offers the opportunity to travel with a small group of like-minded people and to experience amazing destinations with the expert guidance, care and insights of outstanding local guides and our much-loved, well-traveled and experienced program leaders.



30 March - 11 April 2019

Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo

In April, when the cherry trees blossom throughout the country, Japan welcomes the return of mild weather. Excitement mounts as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics are planned in celebration and close attention is paid to the daily 'cherry blossom front' forecasts which are included in the weather forecast. Our tour has been designed to take us through several of the cherry blossom 'front zones', to ensure we will enjoy this beautiful spectacle for which Japan is so well known.

With the backdrop of spring, our tour takes us from modern Tokyo, through beautiful rural districts, to elegant Kyoto. Along the way we will learn about the history and culture both traditional and modern, visit outstanding gardens and temples, marvel at the architecture, eat delicious food and meet very gracious local people.


17 May - 05 June 2019

Gordes, France

Our journey through north-western Italy and the south-east corner of France explores the lakes, gardens, wine-producing villages and artistic heritage of the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy together with the enchanting artistic haunts, charming hilltop villages, local cuisine and effusive gardens of France's Côte d'Azur and Provence.

In Italy, we experience the hidden gardens, fine art collections and palaces of Milan and Turin, view the awesome lake-land scenery of glorious Como, little-known Orta and magnificent Maggiore with their grand villas and exuberant gardens and explore the quintessential hilltop towns and villages of Le Langhe, famed for their Barolo wines and truffles. The baroque extravagance of the Borromean island of Isola Bella in contrast to botanic gardens all'inglese of Isola Madre on Lake Maggiore, the exceptional gardens of the Villa Taranto and exquisite Bellagio with the stunning gardens of Villa Melzi on the shores of Lake Como are all visited.

Lake Maggiore, Italy

In France, we discover the sun-drenched countryside of Provence, with its time-worn, hilltop villages, considered some of the most beautiful in France, such as Gordes, Venasque and Roussillon, so often the inspiration for artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh and Chagall. We visit some of the great art galleries of the contrasting cities of Aix, Marseilles and Nice, as well as some of the more unusual artistic exhibition venues of the region, such as the converted quarries of Baux-de-Provence. We view ancient Gallo-Roman remains such as Vaison-Ia-Romaine, picturesque mediaeval abbeys, such as Senanque and breathtaking Mediterranean gardens such as the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.

We travel by coach, boat and narrow gauge railway to see the most stunning panoramas. We stroll lazily through narrow winding streets dotted with ochre-coloured houses, shady squares and ornate stone fountains. We pause to sample some of the colourful local dishes and taste some of the fine regional wines.


05 June - 13 June 2019

The island of Corsica is the fourth largest island of the Mediterranean and combines a stunning juxtaposition of mountain and coastal scenery. The island has a history of conflict with France but has now come to some sort of accommodation with its dominant, continental neighbour to whom it belongs and yet there is still some talk of independence from France among the Corsicans.


In the Middle Ages, Corsica was a colony of Pisa and later of Genoa but enjoyed a brief period of independence in the 18th century under the revered leadership of Pasquale Paoli. Therefore, the sale of the island by the Genoese to Louis XV of France for 40 million francs in 1769 has been a source of resentment for the islanders ever since. Ironically, the island was the birthplace of perhaps the most famous Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte, and French and other visitors outnumber the locals approximately six to one in the busy periods of July and August. For all of this, Corsica remains one of the last unspoiled corners of the Mediterranean: it is impoverished and depopulated but remains awesomely beautiful, old-fashioned and doggedly aloof.

We complete a tour of the island to explore the Corsican towns of Bastia with its Genoese citadel, the historic resort of Porto-Vecchio; Bonifacio, dramatically sited on a limestone cliff, and Ajaccio, with its Imperial Chapel and impressive Fesch Museum. We discover awesome ancient sites, such as mysterious Filtosa with its 4,000-year-old, life-size stone warriors. We also experience the island’s superb rugged mountains and UNESCO protected, dramatic coastline. We learn about the island’s ancient civilisation, its mediaeval colonial occupation and its present-day relationship with France.


27 August - 19 September 2019

We experience the diverse culture and the mountain, coastal and island scenery of the Adriatic’s Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

The Adriatic countries have been torn between eastern and western cultural influences including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Turks before being incorporated into Tito’s Slavic Communist regime. These emerging independent countries reflect this historic dichotomy. We experience Slovenia with its Julian Alps containing such scenic gems as Lakes Bled and Bohinj and immortalised by Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; the Adriatic Coast, once part of the Venetian Republic, with red-roofed towns and ports with Italianate piazzas, churches and campaniles; and the nearby karst region with its extraordinary cave formations and Lipizzaner horses, before exploring Croatia, which enjoys some of Europe's most dramatic coastal scenery and which has been ferociously contested since ancient times. Here we experience a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Palace of Diocletian in Split, Plitvice and the fortified port of Dubrovnik - one of Europe’s best-preserved mediaeval cities. We also take in the attractive islands of Hvar and Korcula, as well as the natural beauty and historical highlights of Montenegro and the vibrant Croatian capital, Zagreb.


07 September - 26 September 2019

The mountainous land wedged between the Caspian and the Black Seas is home to the countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Lying in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains, this region has formed a crossroad between East and West. Invaders and merchants from past great empires including Greek, Persian, Roman, Venetian, Ottoman and Russian have conquered and interacted to create a wonderful mix of cultures. Each shares a border with the other two, yet each could hardly be more different. Three unrelated languages are spoken here, and two different religions hold sway. All have robust pagan roots, a love of life and a strong culture of hospitality, family and home.

Wine producing Kakheti Region, Georgia

We begin in Baku, Azerbaijan on the shore of the Caspian Sea. The old town centre is now a World Heritage site dating back to the 12th century, while the modern city boats some of the world's most cutting-edge architecture. We also learn about the bold and bright designs of Azerbaijan’s carpets. In Georgia, we savour red wines, enjoy its unique cuisine and experience the country's diverse landscape, from the lush shores of the Black Sea to some of Europe's most dramatic peaks. In Armenia, the world’s first Christian state, we admire the sculpted stone khachkar crosses which dot the green hillsides and, in both Georgia and Armenia, we visit stunning mountain monasteries.


26 September - 13 October 2019

This exciting 17-night program explores a fascinating and largely unexplored corner of Europe. In recent times, Bulgaria and Romania have been largely hidden from our view behind that great Iron Curtain that cut Europe into two. However, each of these countries has a rich and diverse culture with some of Europe’s most outstanding scenery and unspoiled towns and villages. They are countries all undergoing great changes but, for a short while, still offering us a unique insight into the time capsule of their past.

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

We start our program in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, before discovering the great diversity of former Thrace, Wallachia and Transylvania in modern day Bulgaria and Romania. We study the Ottoman threat to both countries and the rise of nationalism in the 19th century together with the events leading up to the Great War and the complex and tragic history of this region in the 20th century.

We explore the fascinating and very different cities of the region from Sofia to Bucharest via ancient Plovdiv, Veliko Tarnovo, Brasov, Cluj Napoca and Sighisoara. Our program also allows us to discover some the rugged and unspoiled Romanian and Bulgarian countryside, as we visit UNESCO preserved mediaeval towns and monasteries, fascinating painted churches, fortified castles and quintessential villages.


04 November - 16 November 2019

The autumn season in Japan is visually stunning and this tour is carefully arranged to experience an authentic Japan with an insightful look at the culture, both old and new.

Shrine in Kyoto, Japan

A variety of autumnal gardens, the artisans, architecture and the delicious food are but a few of the highlights. First travelling north to Nikko National Park, where ancient monuments and buildings, such as those in the Toshogu complex, are explored, you then experience an onsen (Japanese Spa) stay, nestled on a spectacular coloured hillside overlooking a river, before travelling back to Tokyo for a contrasting experience in a modern culture. These days are full of discovery as our Program Leader helps us uncover some 'hidden gems' in this much loved city.

A visit to the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum in Mt Fuji National Park is always a highlight, where a series of dyed kimonos representing scenes of Mt Fuji are displayed. Matsumoto Castle, and Tsumago & Magome protected heritage villages are also visited en route to Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, where you visit many stunning World Heritage sites.


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2019 Guaranteed Departures

2019 Guaranteed Departures

New guaranteed departures for 2019!

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Meet Our Program Leaders

Meet Our Program Leaders

Our Program Leaders are based in New Zealand and Australia, so have an understanding of the needs of our New Zealand and Australian participants. They are all well-travelled with a…

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Gold Rewards Program

Gold Rewards Program

Our Gold Rewards Membership Program allows you to experience the Uk, Europe, Asia and beyond as a local with "Live Like a Local" experiences in addition to many more benefits.

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Refer a Friend Rewards

Refer a Friend Rewards

Receive a $200 discount off any Golden Compass tour when your friends or family book with us! Your friends will also save $100 off their own booking and there is…

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Japan Cherry Blossom Tour: 30 March - 11 April 2019

In April, when the cherry trees blossom throughout the country, Japan welcomes the return of mild weather. Excitement mounts as hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics are planned in celebration and close attention is paid to the daily 'cherry blossom front' forecasts which are included in the weather forecast. Our tour has been designed to take us through several of the cherry blossom 'front zones', to ensure we will enjoy this beautiful spectacle for which Japan is so well known.



Inclusive of field trips, local guides, gratuities and many meals.