So many gardens to see and so many ways to travel…
how do you decide?
Garden Travel Hub lists escorted garden tours with a large or small groups, garden events and short tours for quick getaways, and also garden stays at hotels and B&Bs with a beautiful garden as part of a longer travel itinerary. Here are some tips to consider when thinking about what sort of travelling you will enjoy and tips on how to make the best of that trip ……
Is an escorted tour right for you?
How to Choose a Garden Tour
Travelling with a Non-gardener Partner
Individual and Private Tours
Packing for a Garden Tour
Travelling with Children
Photographing in Gardens
Is an escorted garden tour right for you?
Many garden lovers like the idea of garden-oriented travel but they aren’t sure whether they like the idea of going on an escorted tour. How do you decide if a garden tour could be right for you?
Here are some of the pros…
- Garden tours often have access to private gardens that individuals do not, except on a very few public-opening days each year. Good examples of this are Highgrove, (garden of HRH the Prince of Wales) the Garden of Cosmic Speculation in southern Scotland; and Mayfield in NSW, Australia.
- Garden tour hosts are a real value-add for garden visiting. Not only will they often give you garden notes about what to see when you’re there, but they’re on hand to answer questions and interpret each garden’s special values for you.
- Garden tours supplement the tour host’s knowledge with local gardening experts who will speak your language. In many countries, garden signage is only in that country’s language, or with limited English translation, so this gives you a much better understanding.
- Garden tours pick the best of what’s on offer. It can be hard to know whether a garden will have a worthwhile visitor experience just from photos. On a garden tour, you know it’s been selected after careful consideration from several on offer.
- Garden tours take all the guess work out of what gardens are open, when they are open, and how long it takes to travel between locations. Many gardens have unusual opening hours or websites with limited English translation, so it can be hard to understand exactly when you can visit.
- On a garden tour, you’re travelling with people who like gardens too and who are keen to also appreciate what you’ll find special.
- Many garden lovers have a partner who does not share their passion. Going on a garden tour makes it easy for singles to travel alone, as you’ll be with others who also love gardens and who will soon become your friends.
And the cons…
- On a garden tour, you can’t stay longer in a garden than the tour schedule allows for.
- There may be some scheduled visits in the itinerary that are of less interest to you.
- Some tours have a very intense garden visiting schedule, seeing several gardens in one day, which may not be what you’d like. On Garden Travel Hub it’s easy to compare itineraries from different companies for similar destinations so you find one that’s the right pace for you.
- Garden tours visit some very interesting gardens, but some of them will be physically demanding. Gardens in Europe, Asia and Middle East particularly can have very steep steps, uneven surfaces and no handrails. Sea cruises will often have ship-to-shore transfers into smaller vessels at sea. So a reasonable level of mobility and ability to use steps is a must even on itineraries described as ‘easy’ or ‘moderate’ in its physical requirements – unless the tour caters specifically for wheelchair access.
Preconceptions about garden tours that can be, but aren’t usually true:
- that everyone else will take too long to get on off and on the bus. Garden tourists are always keen to get into a garden and usually politely punctual about getting away.
- that everyone will be older than you. If this is a problem for you, it shouldn’t be. Older gardeners have such a wealth of knowledge and this is a prefect opportunity to find out lots of gardening tips you’ll never hear anywhere else.
- that there’s no free time. Check the tour itinerary as most will have several hours of free time each day unless it’s a long travel day.
- that you’ll be stuck sitting next to someone you don’t like. Experienced tour hosts encourage everyone to move around and sit with different people so everyone gets to know everyone else.
- that you’ll be moving hotels every night. Most tours have at least 2 and more often 3 nights in any location.
- that you’ll have to eat with your tour companions each night. Most tour companies don’t include night meals so you’ll be free to explore the town and find something you like. Alternatively, your host will give you some guidance or organise a group you can eat with if you prefer.
- that you can only travel with the group to and from your country of origin. Many garden tour companies now price their tours as land content only so you can choose your own airline, dates and travel style. Even where the tour is priced as a package deal from your country, garden tour companies are happy to negotiate alternative arrangements and pricing.
Garden cruises are becoming increasingly popular, both sea cruises such as around the outside of the British Isles or New Zealand, and river cruises on rivers including the Danube, Rhine and Seine.
Garden ocean cruises are great for:
- those who love the idea of being indulged with onboard life. The best cruises from a garden-lover’s point of view are those that hug the coast as then you’ll still get lots of time on land, without having to unpack and repack your bag every few nights. There are limits on how far from the port you’ll travel, so the itinerary obviously won’t include inland gardens.
- having independent time aboard when you can be by yourself, if that’s your preference. Most ocean-going garden cruises which have several days ‘at sea’ offer onboard sessions like gardening Q&A, presentations about the countries you’re going to visit, and lectures from high-profile guest speakers.
Downsides of ocean cruising can be
- how long it can take to get on and off the boat. Small ship cruising is the ideal, so that queuing for passport formalities and ship-to-shore transfers is minimal.
- spending days at sea with no gardens to visit.
- getting seasick, although large ocean cruise ships do have stabilisers
Garden River Cruises
River cruises pick up the best of both worlds from a traveller’s point of view:
- you’re not repacking and moving every 2-3 nights so there’s no wasted time
- there’s always something to see from the deck as you slip through the countryside.
- rivers rarely have any waves so there’s no likelihood of seasickness
- along a river there’s the added fascination of going through locks, and seeing how people live, farm and work along the river.
- river cruises also tend to include more non-gardening sightseeing like castles and towns, so that’s more variety in the itinerary for both garden lovers and any accompanying non-gardeners.
How to choose a garden tour that’s right for you.
Garden tours vary greatly between companies. Some of the things to compare are:
- Intensity – this means how many gardens and other sightseeing destinations are included each day. Some travellers like to cram in as may things as possible each day, while others prefer to have a few things on the daily agenda and more time in each one, and then time to relax and enjoy a location. Look carefully at the company’s itinerary to see how many gardens or other items are included each day.
- Duration – garden tours range from just a few days to 3-4 weeks. Bigger garden tour companies offer possibilities of mixing and matching combinations of shorter tours while still having the simplicity of booking it all through one provider. Although 3 weeks can seem like a long tour, there are some places where it’s not possible to go for less time and really appreciate the country, especially where you need to get to remote localities, or the country has a very wide range of gardening climates and styles.
- Cultural sightseeing and activities. Even garden fanatics can get garden visiting fatigue. Check whether the itinerary includes time to explore the town and find a cosy cafe, an early morning visit to the local markets, night time cultural shows, museum visits, animal and bird watching, or musical performances.
- Included meals – this can save price shock when you’re on the road but it also limits your options for exploring other eating places for yourself.
- Add-ons that give you a unique traveller experience. This could be more local guides, eating places where you can experience the local gourmet delicacies, and meeting local gardeners.
- Tour host – having a knowledgeable garden tour host makes a big difference. You can’t expect him/her to know everything, especially about identifying plants in other countries, but a good host will know lots of extra information about each garden you’re going to see, including its history, design and planting. Research the tour’s host to find out whether they’re ‘your kind of person’.
- Check if there are other available tour options that might suit your individual needs better, like whether you can join a tour after it’s commenced, or leave earlier, or if there are interesting pre or post tour add ons.
- If you like celebrity, look for tours that have guest lectures from known garden personalities.
Can your non-gardener partner enjoy a garden tour?
Obviously any garden tour will have mostly garden visits in its itinerary, but some offer a far wider range of alternative or extra activities, such as bird watching, exploring nature reserves and wildlife parks, historical castles and churches and even opportunities to play golf, enjoy the beach and, of course, sample fine food and wine of the region. This is probably true even more of river cruises than of bus-based tours. However most garden tours will stop in each town on their itinerary for two to three nights, and there’s always the option of choosing to stay in town for one of those days and make your own arrangements, rather than get back on the bus for a whole day of garden visits.
However every garden visit will have something of interest to a non-gardener, whether it’s the beauty or uniqueness of the surrounding countryside, the house or castle that the garden surrounds or just understanding the different way things can be done in another country, from tools and machinery to landscaping products and infrastructure. Many gardens also surround significant buildings, such as architect-designed homes, historic houses, castles and abbeys, giving another layer of interest.
Individual and private garden touring
If you decide that a fully-escorted garden tour is not for you, then there are always self-managed tour options. Garden Travel Hub’s Garden Guides can help you find your way around each of the nine main regions plus a wide selection of countries. They include notes about what to expect to see, the best time to go there, travelling information, local garden events like festivals and shows, and the major gardening attractions of the area.
Be aware that different countries have very different ideas about the days and the times when it’s appropriate for a garden to be open and then when it should be closed, so you need to research your itinerary very carefully so you don’t get caught out arriving at the exact day and time when the gates are shut.
Many of the world’s great gardens are difficult to access by public transport so if you don’t plan to drive, you’ll be quite limited in what you can see, unless you can afford the odd taxi. In major cities there are often smaller companies that offer bespoke short tour itineraries for either a single day of garden visits by walking tour or by bus, such as a day tour to Monet’s garden at Giverny from Paris, or to the gardens of the Blue Mountains west from Sydney. There are also many short 3-4 day escorted tours where you can travel a bit further afield without committing to a long tour.
Packing for a garden tour
After more than 20 overseas trips, my best advice is to pack light!! If you’re on a tour, your bag gets taken off the bus and to your room but for self-managed travellers, many hotels, especially in Europe will have steep stairs, no lift, and very small rooms.
With some good choices and lots of restraint, you should be able to travel for several weeks with only 14-16 kg (30-35lbs) in your main bag. Don’t try to use up the international airline maximum limit and don’t ever pack more than you can lift and carry for at least 10 minutes, including up and down stairs. If you try and take more, you will regret it after only a few days.
Garden visits go on regardless of the weather so you could spend hours each day out in the rain or hot sun. Even if you aren’t feeling hot, the UV intensity in some countries, such as southern Australia, will be much higher than you might have experienced before if you live in the higher latitudes of Europe or the UK, so beware of getting sunburnt as it could be a one-way ticket to days of pain or even a melanoma.
Protective gear: In many gardens it is totally impractical to reply on an umbrella for protection from the rain or sun and in some smaller gardens you won’t be allowed to put one up at all. Lightweight, waterproof gear and a wide-brimmed hat or eye shade/peak is essential so you don’t feel either soggy and uncomfortable, or get sunburned to a crisp. In countries with very clear and clean air and low humidity like parts of southern Australia you may find that the sunlight seems uncomfortably harsh and intense so invest in some polarising sunglasses or even some blue blocker glasses.
Shoes: a pair of lightweight waterproof boots is ideal as you never know what the weather will hold. Joggers/trainers might feel like comfortable walking shoes but they’re not usually waterproof and the chunky soles don’t grip wet cobblestones and paths nearly as well as shoes with ripple soles. Ara and Ecco make several style of low-heeled waterproof Gor Tex boots that are stylish enough to wear out in the evening as well.
If it’s likely to be hot you could wear sandals but many gardens will have uneven surfaces, lots of steps, fine gravel and rough ground so the sandals need to be of the industrial, rather than going out, variety with a thick, chunky sole. A pair of closed-in, slip-on moccasin style shoes is better in hot weather.
Tops: during the day, layer a long-sleeved cotton shirt with a collar you can turn up for sun protection over the top of short and/or long-sleeved crew-neck T-shirts. Uniqlo have a great range or long and short-sleeved T-shirts in a rainbow of colours.
Bottoms – jeans and chino pants take a long time to dry if they get wet. Lighter weight fabric trousers are better or, for women, leggings and a long-line top. Trousers that zip off to shorts are more comfortable and practical than you might expect. One pair of plain black trousers/pants or skirt will cover night time dress requirements.
Coat: a lightweight, longline waterproof jacket that’s loose enough to go over the outside of a warmer coat is ideal.
Scarves: for women, adding several cotton scarves to your bag gives you a colour lift and outfit variety without much weight, or the worry of having valuable jewellery with you. Scarves are ideal to warm you up in windy weather, or keep you protected in burning sun. They are also useful for when you need head covering for visiting some churches or temples, or as a wrap for evening.
Selecting clothes to pack:
Lay out all the clothes you’ve decided you want to take. Do all the colours go together? Or are there some obvious outlier items with a distinctive colour that only go with one other thing? These are the things to discard or replace.
How to pack:
Roll roll roll! Don’t fold your clothes, roll them. This way they will come out of your suitcase much less crumpled, you can fit more in a smaller bag, and it’s much easier to see where everything is, rather than lifting layers of clothes to find what’s buried underneath and crumpling everything when you try and pull them out. Fold t-shirts in half crossways and then roll them into a long sausage shape. Fold trousers/pants over once and roll them up. Fold shirts like they are when they’re packaged (buttoned-up and the collar sitting flat) and then roll then from the bottom up. Tuck all your clothes ‘sausages’ neatly against each other across your bag.
Stuff your shoes with socks and underwear.
Buy travel-sized bottles and decant a small amount of your shampoo etc
Travelling with Children
If you are travelling with kids you will need to find some activities to break the pattern of walking and looking. Some large public gardens will encourage kids in by having special children’s gardens, interactive activities or playgrounds and these can be a welcome diversion.
You can also develop some great garden visiting games, such as finding plants with certain colour flowers or unusually-shaped leaves, hunting for butterflies, and bird spotting. Fallen flowers, leaves and bark can be made into impromptu and harmless garden art.
Encouraging young children to run around in open grassed areas is the best way for them to let off some travelling ‘steam’, and rolling down grassy hills is fun for any age! (My mother used to say it was better than sherry). Most botanic gardens or larger public gardens will allow this however you should expect that public gardens in high density countries like in Asia will often have all the grass areas roped off.
Be aware that some private gardens will prohibit small children for fear of damage or also not be pushchair/stroller friendly.
Photographing in Gardens
Everyone who visits a new garden likes to have photographs to look at later but there are some real dos and don’ts when it comes to garden photography.
- Don’t assume it’s OK to take photographs. Some owners of private gardens will not allow photographs to maintain their privacy and sometimes there’s no photography for security reasons, such as inside HRH Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove. Ask permission before you take any and it may be allowed only if you don’t publish them in any way, for example on a blog or in a newsletter.
- Most cameras now have only screens rather than a view-finder. This means that people are even slower at taking photographs, and less observant of what’s happening around them, for example that many others are waiting for the same photographic opportunity. It’s much better practice to take several quick shots in succession than labour over one perfect photograph, as very often the ‘perfect’ shot will be spoiled by something. If you’ve quickly snapped 3 or 4, then there’s a much better chance one of them will be what you hoped for.
- Bright sunshine makes it very difficult to see what’s on a camera screen. You might want to add a stick-on filter to your camera screen so you can have some idea what you’re photographing, or find some way of shading it, like a camera pop-up shade hood accessory – or a DIY version, like peaked cap.
- iPads and tablets are becoming more popular as cameras, but remember how big that screen is, which means that as soon as you hold it up in front of you in the garden, it will obscure the view of that garden for anyone around you. If you’re going to use a tablet camera, you have to be extra fast at taking your pictures so you don’t annoy and block the view of everyone around you. Quick photography is essential at busy garden shows.
- If you’re using your phone as your camera, investigate whether you can set it up so one of the buttons operates as a shutter, as that can reduce how much you jiggle it when you take a photo.
- Buy several smaller memory cards rather than one bigger card. That way if you lose your camera, you won’t lose all your photos too. If you’ve got a tablet or laptop with you, download your photos each night.
- Each time you’re about to enter a garden, get into the habit of checking that your camera is on the right setting before you take any photographs. Camera dials have an amazing way of turning themselves on to a setting you didn’t choose.
- Take a selection of some closeup photos and wider-angle views where you try and get as much of the garden in as possible. That way you’ll get a better sense of what the garden was about.
- Use a large (or ‘fine’) file size when photographing gardens. That way, each of your photos can be cropped to a smaller detail or section of the photo without losing definition.
- Don’t hog that pretty seat in the middle of the garden. You might enjoy sitting there but everyone else is trying to photograph that focal point without you in it.
- Don’t expect everyone should have to get out of your way so you can photograph the garden as if there’s nobody there but you. In fact, having people in a garden photo can give it scale, and also show how people like to use and enjoy it. If you want to take photos without people in them, you must accept that you’ll have to be patient and also that you need to become very VERY quick at taking your photos.
- Experiment with holding your camera at different heights when taking garden photographs, like at waist height, on the ground, or high above your head.
- Photographing red flowers and white flowers or variegated foliage is very difficult to get right, especially on a bright, sunny day. Reds tend to ‘blow out’ and look to bright and orangey. Underexposing the shot will usually result in better reds. When photographing white flowers, they will lose all their detail in bright sun. Underexpose the shot and try reducing the ISO on your camera to 100, although be aware that will often result in a slower shutter speed so you’l need to hold the camera very steady.