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Meet Cheryl Alexander of Italian Excursion in Carlsbad

Today we’d like to introduce you to Cheryl Alexander.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Cheryl. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
About 22 years ago, I was invited to travel to Italy with 3 other friends, artist and historians, for a month. The opportunity changed my life. At the time, I was managing director of a social services department in San Diego, from which I retired just 5 years ago and wasn’t planning to take on a new career. However, I was so enthralled with what I found in Italy that I began planning another trip on the plane ride home from vacation, in just another 6 months!

For the next 2 years, I traveled twice a year, Spring & Fall, to a rather untraveled region of Italy, known as Lazio, also taking exploratory side trips to southern Tuscany and western Umbria, two other beautiful regions nearby. Sometimes I traveled with friends, but more often on my own, making friendships with local Italians and ex-pats that are still part of my Italian community today. I was also connected to an online community of independent travelers where I was able to glean much information about places I visited or discovered for myself.

By year 3, friends of friends started asking me to accompany them on trips to these lesser traveled areas in this beautiful country, to share the art, culture and history I’d come to love. It became apparent that if I wanted to continue my trips twice annually to Europe, as now I’d started to take in trips to other countries as well, I’d need to fund my travel. So, I had a website built in the late 1990’s and began charging friends of friends (whom I invariably didn’t know) to take on small groups of 4-8, for week-long tours to the Italian countryside.

The surprising thing for me was that I began to have inquiries from people all over the Unites States, Canada and Australia about joining my tours. As I was still working full time in my chosen field I limited the tours to just one each season. I was now spending a total of 6-7 weeks per year, mostly in Italy and funding my travel with just 2 weeks of tours. As I spent more and more time there I came to appreciate the lovely way in which Italians live life. They are less concerned about consuming and more about preserving traditions. It is still exciting for me to discover artisans of many crafts such as cheese or salami making, weaving, leather craft, ceramics, wine-making and other culinary specialties. It’s never tiring to share all of this with my tour guests because the artists are so enthusiastic about what they have inherited.

Sometimes, I have hired native or local guides to help me manage a tour as it’s a 24/7 sort of job. We typically stay in one place for the week, a villa, boutique hotel or casita, depending on the size of the group, in a small village or town. I’ve given up visiting the large, more traveled cities like Rome, Venice or Florence as they have become overwhelmed with tourists.

My home base has become a lovely hill town called Orvieto, half-way between Rome and Florence, where I meet the guests at the tiny train station, then drive out to the countryside in Umbria or Lazio to where we will stay for the week. “Slow travel” is the foundation of my tours; enjoying Italy as an Italian does. Each day after a short yoga session or early walk and breakfast, we drive off for a morning adventure until lunch. Sometimes we visit a local archeological site or maybe a hill town with a special museum or exquisite cathedral like the one in Orvieto. Lunch is 2 hour, slow affair, to enjoy the fresh, local, family owned trattorias and restaurants I’ve come to know and love. Picnics and easy hikes are another way to enjoy the countryside and some days, there are 2 excursions, one taking place after our leisurely lunch. There are so many different sites and experiences that each tour is different. Staying in self-catering allows us to hire a local cook for breakfasts and to have a chef come in to offer a cooking class. Some tours are “themed” and we will collaborate with an artist or photographer who gives daily lessons in drawing, painting or photography. One upcoming tour, which will actually be for 10 days, is to take place in a remote area of Tuscany and we will be exploring the world of wool, weaving and natural dying; the entire process from sheep shearing to the end products of the loom. This craft has been going on for centuries.

This is a relatively small business which started out as a hobby and a support for my love of travel. It was quite accidental in its inception but has become an integral part of my life. My interest in preserving tradition and the ecology it entails on a small scale, hiring locals, buying and consuming locally, which I try to do even in my hometown of Carlsbad, is an important aspect of my tours. What’s I’ve not mentioned are some of the many stories and adventures I’ve had such as buying a small property and trying to build on it, the many friendships I’ve been fortunate to forge over the years and the numerous changes to tourism that I’ve witnessed. Oh, and the interesting, unbelievable stories of certain guests that have traveled with me.

I’m retired now, from social work, but I can’t really see myself retiring from offering small group tours to the Italian countryside. No, I’m not planning to live there full time as my family is here in San Diego. I’ve got the best of all worlds and I have a lot of catching up with my Italian language skills!

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There were times when it was very easy and smooth and then those times when it seemed a struggle, like any venture. Making ends meet and not ending up in the “red” meant having a certain number of guests on each tour and then finding, through my many sources in Italy, the best prices for keeping the budget margins in line. That is a constant struggle, as things change, marketing and the costs associated can be a major barrier to success.

Then one must consider that taking care of a group of travelers, sometime as many as 15, involves not just managing time but also personalities. There have been some very interesting stories and incidents involving travelers in the different groups. Sometimes families have unresolved dynamics that tend to show up while away from the comfort zone of home. Or if the group is made up of guests who start out as strangers, just signing up as they do, on the website from different places, there can be conflicts that the group leader (me) must manage or help resolve.

There have been times in the past, at the end of a long week that I have questioned whether or not I want to do yet another tour. That question only comes up if it’s been a difficult group or very bad, unexpected weather (it once rained the entire week). But the question passes quickly when I remember the joy and wonder or some expression of gratitude from a guest.

One other thing that has hindered business is an economic downturn or political instability. There have been only 2 years without tours, due to these obstacles, which seem out of one’s control.

Please tell us about Italian Excursion.
Small group tours to the Italian countryside, in the style of “slow travel”. Much of what I do was written about previously when talking about how I got started. But the first line above is essentially why this business is special. Off-the-beaten-track is another way to describe Italian Excursion.

Small group tours are exclusive and cater mostly to people who have seen all the usual sights in Italy, like Rome, Florence, Venice, etc., and want to go deeper into the culture or to “live like an Italian” for a week or 10 days. These travelers want a different experience than crowds, overpriced menus and the like.

It is also for travelers who are not confident traveling in a foreign country. We show these travelers how to use the public transportation, order in restaurants where possibly no one speaks English, navigate the countryside so they become comfortable, independent travelers once they leave. One service offered is that I can help them plan for an extended visit after our tour. That may include an itinerary, according to their interests, suggestions for lodging, guides, restaurants, etc.

I am most proud of the fact that I can offer guests an authentic experience of this country, at a reasonable cost. Italian Excursion treats each traveler as though they are a guest, with caring and their comfort in mind.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My favorite memory from childhood was taking trips with my parents, both across country and in Asia, where we lived for several years. My father was an avid, enthusiastic traveler and he imparted that joy to me.

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.italianexcursion.com
  • Phone: 760.470.8852
  • Email: aparnaca@gmail.com
  • Facebook: Italian Excursion
  • Twitter: Italian Excursion


Image Credit:
Cheryl Alexander

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