Fitting in with Tours of Provence

What immediately follows are two letters from ITN readers who each took a 2-week tour in France with Tours of Provence.

Seven seasoned travelers came together on June 30, 2006, for a much-anticipated 2-week immersion into the culture of Provence led by Rohan Hindman of Tours of Provence. Prior to arriving, we all were exhorted, by e-mails and phone calls, to read, understand and bring a document called “LeGuide,” prepared by our host.

The “LeGuide” itinerary for our day of arrival stated, “at 8 p.m. we normally take a walking tour of Avignon, two hours maximum.” For our tour, however, Mr. Hindman decided the walking tour would begin at 5. Because of my scheduled flight times, I could not arrive that early, thus I would be left stranded.

Mr. Hindman had e-mailed me describing where at the Parish House, our accommodations for our stay in Provence, to find a key. It would be up a well-worn 14th-century stairway and behind a stone. Keep in mind that I would have to haul my luggage and carry-on up the stairs in order to keep it secure while I searched for the key.

I e-mailed back that this arrangement was not acceptable. Also, because of my traveling connections, I would not be able to procure a phone card to contact Mr. Hindman, should I encounter any problems, as he requested. However, this was the only arrangement offered.

Concerned for my safety, two members of the group came back to the Parish House after their walking tour and found me standing at the door waiting to be admitted. We all looked, but none of us could find a key. Mr. Hindman later insisted it was there.

On touring days, we listened to Mr. Hindman’s choice of music in the van even though it did not fit the eclectic tastes of the clients. He played the same CD for the entire two weeks because, he told us, it helped him achieve Zen. On one touring day our host was asked to turn down the excessive volume of the CD. He responded with a flat-out, “No!”

“LeGuide” states, “The Host is NOT responsible for keeping track of your whereabouts. YOU are responsible for keeping up with the group and being at reassembly points.”

Not once was any person in our group late. However, in Arles Mr. Hindman directed us to meet at a specific corner at a specific time. He was the one who did not show up. We waited in 90-degree weather for 45 minutes before calling him to resolve the issue. He claimed he had told us to meet in a restaurant, when in fact all of us met at the corner near the museum we were to visit. There was no apology, only insistence that he was correct in where to meet.

Mr. Hindman, in “LeGuide,” talks about a couple who helps tidy up at Parish House. They were not in evidence. The eating room generally sat uncleared for the 12 hours he was gone. We offered to help, but our offer was declined rather rudely. None of us is phobic about germs, but this place would never pass muster in the States; it was filthy.

The company’s website states, “nine day trips: 72 hours of touring.” While we did tour for the 72 hours, it was in only five days because there were two groups that needed to be accommodated. We were very surprised about two groups sharing the same time, since Mr. Hindman in the description of his tour said repeatedly that the difference between his tour and “the rest of them” is that we were to get personalized service for our group alone. Instead, each of the two groups traveled every other day. We saw many wonderful sites, but the days were grueling!

All things considered, Provence and our stay in Avignon was a memorable experience. Living in Avignon showed us a very positive side of the French people. Our accommodations inside the ancient walls gave us easy access to museums, churches, restaurants, shopping areas, markets, gardens, areas of historical interest and theaters on our free days. This went a long way toward developing a positive attitude regardless of what happened on each touring day.

“LeGuide” stresses the fact that our host does not appreciate “prima donna” travelers, but in the end only our host was a “prima donna.” Alas, we cannot recommend Tours of Provence.


Green Bay, WI

I took a 2-week Avignon-based tour led by Rohan Hindman in May 2006. I paid $2,400 plus a single supplement of $400.

This one-man company advertises in ITN. Also, the tour was described by Ed Kinney in the December 2002 through March 2003 issues; he seemed to like the tour and this was one reason I took it. My experience was far from positive.

Before Mr. Hindman accepted me for this tour, he sent multiple e-mails (I received 106 pages!) describing all aspects of the tour. His “LeGuide” (35 confusing e-mail pages) was required reading.

In “LeGuide” and in his e-mails he frequently referred to the fact that he insisted on having congenial, cooperative, considerate people on his tours. He was especially adamant about not wanting any “prima donnas.” He also “interviewed” me on the telephone. Once I had passed the test and sent him the signed agreement saying I had read and agreed to all his terms, only then would he accept me.

Our group consisted of two elderly couples traveling together and three “single” ladies. We three singles tried to make the best of it, but as incident upon incident piled up, we became increasingly frustrated and angry.

At the Abbaye de Senanque, Mr. Hindman would not allow us to go in (even though we were paying all our own entrance fees) but instead sat us down in the foyer and lectured us on what was inside.

In Les Baux, he gave the three of us who wanted to visit that important ruined city 45 minutes, where an hour and a half would barely have sufficed. Then, after hurrying back to the pickup point, we waited about 15 minutes for Mr. Hindman to show up.

Of course, if we had been late we’d have had to buy drinks for everybody (one of Mr. Hindman’s rules spelled out in his e-mails). When he was late, this rule apparently didn’t apply.

Mr. Hindman’s e-mails had promised us nine days of touring and four free days. We actually had seven days of touring (one day was 10½ hours long, so he counted it as days seven and eight) and six free days.

In the restaurants (all of which he chose), Mr. Hindman never ordered anything for himself. When there were some shared dishes, he helped himself. At our very first meal out, he grabbed French fries off my plate without asking.

He told us early on that we shouldn’t leave tips. However, on one occasion the two couples left tips as the waiter had been especially helpful. When Mr. Hindman saw this, he grabbed the money off the table and scolded the couples. He said he would hold a lottery for the money, which he later did.

The e-mails said that if we each brought $200, it would be enough for two weeks. While this sounded unrealistic, I was not prepared for spending $673 on restaurants, groceries, entrance fees, getting to and from the train station and paying the $50 cleaning fee for the Parish House.

We also felt he was hinting that we should pay for gas for the van, with remarks like, “I used my last sou to pay for gas.”

As an earlier departure time from the tour would have entailed an expensive and complicated restructuring of my itinerary, I stuck it out. Caveat emptor!


Alexandria, VA

ITN sent copies of the above letters to Tours of Provence and received the following reply.

Running a tour business in the south of France has been an interesting experience over the last 15 years. You meet all kinds of people.

At the Parish House in Avignon we endeavor to only sign up people who have wide travel experience. At the very outset we send potential clients a 10-page “Initial Overview” that scopes out for them the kind of flexible “safari” tour that may not be for everyone. The Parish House is medieval, the suites are monastic and there are no “chocolates on the pillow” when you arrive.

We also send out a 30-page “LeGuide” which enumerates the basic tenets of “mutual consideration” that will make sure that a like-minded group of eight travelers will have a good time together.

Ninety-five percent of my clients have a good time and leave with an experience of a lifetime. For the other five percent, it’s a selfish exercise in having their own way.

On the Beatrice Clegg tour, three people in the group, the leader in discontent being Ms. Clegg, made it clear that the tour was not to their liking. They nitpicked their way through the entire two weeks, so much so that for the protection of the others, I separated the tour into two distinct groups.

The malcontents got what I must candidly call “the contract tour,” 68 hours, making sure I hit every item that the itinerary describes as “contract sites.” Ms. Clegg’s group toured seven days, not five, by the way.

In “vetting” our guests, we try to make sure that everyone is reasonably fit, physically. Two of these guests were careful to dissimulate their infirmities; one was beyond obese at over 300 pounds, and another had a knee injury so bad that she could not get into the van but with great difficulty and walked with a cane, again with extreme difficulty. In all other respects this woman was very accommodating and apologetic for her condition. Nonetheless, this slowed this mini-group down measurably and prevented them from seeing some of the “optional” sites on the itinerary.

The reasonably fit members of the Clegg group became increasingly hostile to my decision to split them off with these people. The other, “fit,” group, that I toured separately, was overjoyed. The happier they were, the more the Clegg group seethed.

At the appointed restaurants on the tour I would stay with them long enough to translate the menu, making sure they had ordered, and then I would leave to rejoin them at the appointed hour.

In the Arles day trip that Ms. Clegg mentions, when I went back to the restaurant I found out that they had all finished early and had left “to go shopping.” Each guest in “LeGuide” is strongly advised to carry a telephone card for emergencies and to contact me in case of separation. I sat down and waited for them either to call or come back to the restaurant.

Finally, Ms. Clegg called and said that they were waiting in front of the museum, which they knew was the next step on that day’s itinerary. They were furious because they had “wasted 45 minutes waiting.” They could have called at any time. They should have been at the restaurant at the appointed hour, as instructed.

As for the Parish House being “filthy,” I would suggest that an account of cleanliness come from one of the other guests, because this kind of vilification is simply mean.

I established early on that I put music on in the touring van in order to drive in a more “Zen-like” state. After the first day, Ms. Clegg was constantly on me to “turn the music off” or “turn the music down.” I turned it down, but I didn’t turn it off. It was soothing music, a lot of it inspirational, some Gregorian —

appropriate for relaxing.

Their attitude went south on the first day. Why? Because Ms. Clegg didn’t arrive until well after 8 p.m. She requested via e-mail, before she left the States, that we wait for her so that she “wouldn’t miss any of the walking tour of Avignon.” I told her she could find a key that I would stash for her or, in the alternative, she could give me a call using her telephone card and I would come back to the Parish House from giving the other guests the walking tour.

She ended up not getting the telephone card because she “didn’t have a chance to get it.” She could easily have had her taxi driver stop at a tabac, as instructed in “LeGuide,” and gotten the card.

When the rest of us stopped in about 8 p.m. at the prearranged restaurant, I started to excuse myself to walk back to the Parish House to see if she had arrived. One of the women vociferously insisted that she walk back to meet her friend and bring her to the restaurant. By the time Ms. Clegg arrived, she was livid.

When I asked her, “Would you have wanted the entire group to wait for you for four hours and cut their walking tour short?,” she glared at me with eyes full of hate.

The “Group B” (Ms. Wrobel’s) complaints all center around two single women of a certain age, like the above. Set in their ways, they showed up trying to have their own way.

This group consisted of two couples, who knew each other, and three single women. One of these single women had to listen to Ms. Wrobel constantly complain and would roll her eyes at me, which I interpreted as, “Please give her what she wants.” The other two I didn’t like much, at all.

Did it affect the way I toured them? Not much, because, unlike with the previous group, I couldn’t split them into two groups.

On the first day, the two couples decided that going to one of Le Marmiton Cooking School’s classes was something they wanted to do. We had stopped at the Marmiton on our walking tour, Ms. Wrobel and the other two single women staying outside while the rest of us inspected the kitchen and talked to the chef; they made it clear that they were uninterested.

Nonetheless, I took it upon myself to change the scheduled day trips so that these four dear hearts could do their culinary thing. The three women weren’t happy because the schedule had changed for the couples and they made sure I understood that no one had asked them if this was okay with them.

Regarding the other complaints, Ms. Wrobel and the other two singles opted to walk a congested Les Baux against my advice. The rest of the group was content with my recommendation to view it from a promontory, from which I lectured for a half hour about its checkered medieval history.

I gave them 45 minutes to walk its ruins. I returned in an hour, and they were forced to wait 15 minutes while the others finished viewing a presentation that I had recommended. As the others gushed about following my recommendation, Ms. Wrobel et al seethed that they had been “made to wait.”

At the Abbaye of Senanque, a huge tourist venue, I advised everyone that they were welcome to take the tour, a French-language-only pedagogic explanation of every turret, column and architectural detail, or they could listen to me, from the benefit of a quiet, secluded spot in the shade. At least with me they could ask a question in English. Everyone opted for my approach except, predictably, Ms. Wrobel. To say that I “would not allow” my clients to visit the abbey is not true.

Ms. Wrobel intimates that she was misled about the promised nine days of touring. She knows perfectly well that the group chose to do a double day in which we combined two days into one in order to go to the Mediterranean, being already halfway there by virtue of going to Aix-en-Provence. She says the double day was only 10½ hours, but she fails to mention that the four hours that were not performed that day were subsequently added to other days of the tour.

And I will leave it up to the readership to determine whether anyone would grab French fries off of a guest’s plate without being asked.

In their defense, I don’t think these ladies realized to what extent I would go to make sure that their attitudes didn’t ruin my other guests’ having a memorable experience. If you show up with an attitude that it is the tour operator’s job to make you happy, you’re going to be disappointed in taking our tour.

ROHAN HINDMAN, Tours of Provence, 3385 C-Rd., Palisade, CO 81526

While working on the above letters, ITN received the following letter.

We are two couples who had not met previously and, for our first trip to the south of France, each booked a May 1-15, 2007, package with Tours of Provence.

Both couples chose this because of the concept of a small, flexible tour that could get into the out-of-the-way places to better meet the people and learn about the culture of Provence in addition to visiting the main tourist sites.

Provence highly recommends itself and we agreed that it’s about the prettiest region in all of France, where we all have traveled a number of times before. However, on this trip we were very dissatisfied by the attitude and behavior of the tour operator, who often made the tour days an unpleasant experience.

Supposedly planned day events were impulsively dropped or changed with little or no explanation. We often did not know what was going on or why and were made to feel awkward and reluctant to speak up. A couple of tour days were abbreviated and we ended up back in Avignon without any options offered to make up for the truncated day.

More than anything else, the tour operator’s demeanor made us feel very uncomfortable, even though we all tried to the utmost to be flexible and pleasant in every way. Nonetheless, he readily took offense at any perceived thing he deemed critical, even when it was totally innocent, like reporting a toilet was not working properly.

At times, he was very moody and contradictory, ignoring and even being rude to his customers. As very experienced, longtime travelers, all of us strongly recommend that people interested in Provence avoid Tours of Provence and its unpleasant operator.

JOHN & SANDY HICKS, Te­­hachapi, CA, and LOU & CORY PEPOY, Holland, MI

Mr. Hindman provided to ITN the following reply to the above letter.

Both of these parties showed up with the attitude that it was my job to make them happy. If there is anything the ITN readership should get out of this letter of complaint, it is that you can’t please everyone.

People who are demanding, who want to have their own way and who think that (the credo) “the customer is always right” gives them the right to direct traffic should not come on my tours. I direct my tours, firmly. If, like in this group. there is from the inception an attitude of ‘We’ll show you who’s boss, my friend,’ well, their tour is doomed from the beginning.

With these two couples, if I gave them suggestion A, they asked what B was. They always took B, as if to say, ‘Who needs your advice?’ This went on for the entire two weeks. After a while, I stopped asking and just stuck to the itinerary.

If (this and the previous) letters keep someone from coming to the Parish House, perhaps it is good. All in all, ITN people are affable travelers who value and honor local knowledge and their hosts, who work long and hard to provide a meaningful travel experience.