It’s not a short trip from Texas to China. So when I land in Shanghai I’m as tired as you can imagine. Picked up by a liveried driver, I peer into the night as we drive toward my hotel. Along the road, skyscrapers reach toward the dark sky, the bedazzling lights along the Bund illuminate the river with mica-like glitter. When we pull into the front of Fairmont Peace Hotel, my plan is to trek through the lobby right up to my bed. That changes suddenly when a tall man opens my car door to greet me like an old friend. “I’m Gerald Hatherly. I’ll be your guide through the Yunnan,” he says, whisking me out, grabbing my bag, and expediting my check in. Sleep still looks inviting until Gerald says: “Have you eaten? I’m taking a few guests to a famous restaurant I know on The Bund that serves the best Shanghai dumplings you’ll ever slurp.” Just as visions of plump pockets of dough dance through my head, Gerald gives me an imploring look — and I gaze longingly at the staircase leading to my room. In the end, I don’t hesitate. “Count me in,” I nearly scream with glee. And off we go, my bags up to my room and me with Gerald and two new friends to one of the best meals of my life. 

A peerless guide with insider’s knowledge and an outfitter deeply connected to a locale can take your holiday to another realm. Beyond something you read in a book or hear from a friend, the information conveyed by these insiders who can customize your experience makes all the difference. We’ve tested guides and commercial outfitters from India to Napa to Italy to bring you our list of the absolute best in the world. Some are generalists with teams across the globe; others specialize in specific hotspots.

Abercrombie & Kent

abercrombie and kent truck for touring africa
Courtesy, Abercrombie & Kent

With more than 60 years of pioneering travel under their (safari) belt, Abercrombie & Kent began in the early 1960s when co-founder Geoffrey Kent and his parents noticed a burgeoning interest in luxury travel to Africa. Employing the idea to “shoot with your camera not with your gun,” the company reimagined the previously common hunting excursions to East Africa—ushering in a more culturally immersive profile. Owning many of their own lodges, with expert trips around the world, A&K showcases places as diverse as Cambodia and Costa Rica in group and tailor-made trips, jet jaunts, and cruises. Winning myriad accolades, the luxury Egypt excursions are exemplar.

Cultured Vine

Go behind the vines in Napa Valley (and Sonoma if you choose) to experience wine country from the perspective of deeply embedded local oenophiles. Matching guests and their interests with her own friends and contacts, founder Angela Duerr runs her customized, relationship-based company with a white-glove approach. As a guest of Cultured Vine, you’ll enjoy wine world adventures with vineyard owners and local chefs. These “money-can’t-buy” experiences might include a wine dinner in a cave with entertainment, a wine-paired lunch prepared by a private chef in a vineyard, fly fishing with a fly fishing guide, exotic car excursions, among other delights tailored for both expert and nascent wine lovers. 

Micato Safaris

dazzle of zebras in africa
Courtesy, Micato Safaris

It’s not just the jaw-dropping pillow gifts, best friend-like guides, and fantasy-filled itineraries to Africa and India that bring guests back for their second Micato Safari. It’s the way Micato weaves guests into their world. Travelers with Micato Safaris to East Africa may be greeted by founders Jane and Felix Pinto in their Nairobi home that’s paired over lunch with local dignitaries, celebrities, artists, and luminaries to deepen their immersive experience. In India, the Pinto’s closest family friends run the show, equally drawing you into that country’s scintillating web as only insiders can. Widely and repeatedly awarded every best in the book, Micato specializes in India and Africa, operating an in-house training school for its guides and taking luxury to the next tier thanks to their uncanny ability to read your mind, astonish you with cultural delights, and reveal the unexpected secrets of a destination. A bonus in this age of conscientious travel? Micato pays for a child’s education for every safari sold.


Founded in 1979 by Tom Hale, Backroads set the standard for innovative, immersive forays for the active set. Pampered in characteristic inns at night, guests hike, bike, paddle, and trek in groups small enough for flexibility and intimate conversation but large enough for imparting that euphoric party spirit. Known for their surprises, such as lavish picnics arranged atop hills, the company employs a cognoscenti’s consideration to every detail from equipment offerings to dinner hotspots. Case in point: their custom bike fleet comprises 9,000 professionally maintained titanium bikes, including e-bikes, carbon pro bikes, and more. From the Alps to Vietnam, the program’s Backroads proposes takes guests through myriad locales. Choose from multi-adventure tours to women’s adventure trips to family trips designed for distinct age groups.

Up Norway

the northern lights in norway above cabins
Courtesy, Lyngen Lodge

Gin-clear waters, spellbinding fjords, rugged coastlines, soaring mountains, Viking history, and the chance to see the Northern Lights temptscores of outdoor enthusiasts to Norway. Visitors can navigate the untrammeled nature by train, on foot, via boat, by bike, or car, but there’s nothing like exploring the Scandinavian nation with a local. Widely awarded, Up Norway takes an insiders upscale approach with itineraries that deeply unravel the enchantment of the Land of the Midnight Sun. Whether staying in a renovated lighthouse or a five-star hotel, skiing a local’s secret slope, or casting a line from a private beach, this quality conscious company presents Norway in all its glory.

ROAR Africa

elephant grazing in front of mountain in africa

Bringing connections that date back to 11 generations of family history in Africa, CEO and Founder Deborah Calmeyer sees her company ROAR AFRICA as the consummate way to share her home. Going beyond providing a list of destinations or the classic take on the storied continent, she offers specialist guides and unique perspectives such as annual Women’s Empowerment retreats meant to bring gravitas to women and their role in the safari industry. Consider the annual Greatest Safari on Earth aboard Emirates Executive Private jet, which holds just ten spots, priced at $195,000 per person.

Access Italy

All the truly best outfitters seek to treat guests as family. But imagine a family who has already embraced Oprah as an honorary member? Would that mean if you travel with them you’re automatically related to Oprah? We like to think so. If cooking classes, wine tastings, cocktail parties at Fendi, truffle hunts, yachting treks to Ponza, VIP shopping experiences, rooftop cathedral hikes and behind the scenes tours to the Vatican (and other museums) interest you, Access Italy, Oprah’s favorite outfitter (and “adopted family”), awaits. You’ll join an array of family members including founder Angelo and his sons Simone and Marco as you partake of bespoke itineraries, while staying in Italy’s most lavish hotels from Como to Sicily.

Featured image courtesy of Micato Safaris