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History and Luxury in NYC

Extraordinary service and a partnership with Ken Burns
separate a Tauck trip from typical Big Apple tours

By Lucy Spicer

Vacations Magazine: History and Luxury in NYC
Marley White/NYC & Co.

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

As I sat in the golden-hued and aptly named Grand Ballroom of The Plaza hotel, listening to pianist Andrew Armstrong play Gershwin's iconic "Rhapsody in Blue" before a hushed audience, I realized that this trip to New York City would be unlike any other I had experienced. This jazzy performance closed out the welcome dinner on the first night of "The Tauck New York City Event," which took place Oct. 5-9.

A cocktail reception kicked off that Thursday evening's schedule. Nametags worn by attendees facilitated the flow of conversation, as did the list of guests' names and hometowns that was provided upon my arrival. A spirit of conviviality pervaded the room, and it was here that I learned that many of the participants had toured with Tauck before. A love of travel was the common thread that connected the 116 attendees, and even those who had explored the far reaches of the globe still were excited at the prospect of delving into New York City's history for a few days.

The reception was followed by a multicourse dinner in the resplendent ballroom, where we were introduced to the tour directors who would lead us around the city in four groups, as well as some members of the Tauck family and the company's CEO, Daniel W. Mahar. Past president and CEO Robin Tauck enjoyed the remainder of the trip with us. It's not every day that the CEO of a travel company welcomes its guests in person, I thought. I soon would discover that Tauck Events were created to go above and beyond the expected.

A booklet with arrival instructions and an itinerary appeared in the mail before my departure, along with a DVD of Ken Burns' first documentary, "Brooklyn Bridge." Transfers to The Plaza were available from three airports and two train stations, so my Tauck experience began the moment my plane touched down in New York.

The Plaza, located on the southeastern edge of Central Park near midtown Manhattan, has retained the legendary pomp and elegance synonymous with the hotel since its opening in 1907. A massive restoration some 100 years later ensured that modern comforts would accompany the regal atmosphere.

The New York landmark has appeared in numerous films and was the setting for the "Eloise" children's books by Kay Thompson. Similarly sumptuous lodgings feature in other Tauck Events; an upcoming itinerary in Washington, DC, for example, includes a stay at the Willard InterContinental, located only a couple of blocks from the White House and currently celebrating its bicentennial.

In addition to The Plaza's attentive service and the convenience of unpacking only once for the duration of the trip, Tauck's meticulously organized schedule divided us into manageable groups of 30 or so for the various educational sojourns around the Big Apple. Comfortable motor coaches shuttled us to and from our activities, and assigned seats rotated so that riders had a different view of their surroundings each day.

Large-scale meals that included all the guests had enough seating to accomodate all of us in our four smaller groups. Whether I was enjoying a leisurely solo breakfast at The Plaza's stately Palm Court (included in Tauck's package) or a lunch attended by dozens of other guests, I never had to worry about where to sit. And when a slot of free time rolled around (the packed schedule included opportunities to decompress and explore the city), the tour directors were happy to supply suggestions for eateries and activities.

"At the end of the day, we obviously want to provide exceptional service, from the hotels to the guides who are taking care of you," says Jeremy Palmer, senior vice president for Tauck Land Journeys. However, top-notch customer service isn't all that distinguishes a Tauck Event from other tours. Focused themes and unique experiences make these departures stand out even among Tauck's traditional itineraries.

"We're looking to give you a travel experience that really surprises and delights you," says Palmer. Tauck tailors these singular experiences by basing them around certain topics, and if the guests "are interested in that subject matter, they'll feel they came away with something that they couldn't get on their own."

Enter award-winning documentarian Ken Burns. Burns has partnered with Tauck to create experiences that share a focus with some of his highly acclaimed films. Past Tauck collaborations with Burns have included the Tauck Jazz Event in New Orleans, the Tauck Chicago Event (built around Burns' film about Prohibition), the Tauck Civil War Event in Washington, DC, and more.

The Civil War trip marked the 150th anniversary of the historic conflict, and Palmer points to its evening with Burns' keynote speech as an especially unforgettable moment. "Drinking cocktails with Ken in the National Archives after hours, with the Declaration of Independence right there, with no crowd, is just one sample of the type of things you would do on an experience like that," he says.

Our New York evening indeed was a treat. A native New Yorker, Burns made no secret of his love for "this, the greatest of all cities," as he stood behind a podium at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. He spoke reverently about a city of bridges, immigrants and wealth, a city that would become a character in several of his films. One documentary, "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History," felt especially relevant, as my small group had visited the Roosevelt House earlier that day to learn about the various ways the family influenced our nation.

Guests could ask questions after the speech, and Burns answered them with as much easy eloquence as if he had rehearsed the queries ahead of time, plucking quotations from Faulkner, Twain and others seemingly out of the air in order to illustrate his points. The dessert and cocktail reception that followed granted more opportunities to meet Burns and take photos.

While Ken Burns was the biggest name attached to "The Tauck New York City Event," he was one of many experts who lent their knowledge to the tour. Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of The New York Times and close friend and collaborator of Burns, kicked off the "New York Innovation" themed day with a fascinating lecture about the construction of Rockefeller Center, including the artwork within and without. Thanks to The Plaza's proximity to Rockefeller Center, our coaches drove past the complex and its gilded door reliefs several times, allowing us to glimpse some of the subjects of Okrent's lecture. Later that same day, we visited the Top of the Rock observation deck, which rewarded us with sweeping views of the skyline after a speedy elevator ride.

The "First Families" day welcomed another expert figure, Geoffrey C. Ward, award-winning author and a scriptwriter for many of Burns' films, including "Statue of Liberty" and "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." Before a tour of the Roosevelt House led by employees of Hunter College, our small group gathered to hear Ward talk about his great-grandfather, Ferdinand Ward, a con artist who ran a pyramid scheme with reaches as far as President Ulysses S. Grant.

Docents and guides throughout the trip also displayed their individual areas of expertise. While the Tauck tour directors painstakingly took care of the trip's logistics, they also introduced us to charismatic guides for every stop on the tour, including Grand Central Terminal (don't let a New Yorker catch you calling it a "station"), Wall Street, the Lower East Side's Tenement Museum and the Gilded Age mansions of Millionaire's Row.

Superior customer service and impressive guest lecturers ensured that the New York tour was stress-free and enlightening, but the singular nature of the Tauck Events concept also allowed for fun extras and exclusive experiences.

The itinerary was flanked by a welcome dinner and closing gala, both of which invited all 100-plus attendees into their elegant settings. Whereas the welcome cocktail hour and dinner took place at The Plaza, the farewell evening required a ferry ride to Ellis Island, where Tauck had rented out the entire Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration for a private send-off. The cocktail reception gave us free rein to explore some of the exhibits, including a short film highlighting the sacrifices and hardships faced by immigrants to New York.

The welcome dinner set the bar high by presenting musical accompaniment from an acclaimed pianist. The goodbye dinner rose to the entertainment challenge; Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, who have been featured on the soundtracks of television shows such as "Boardwalk Empire," played big-band jazz standards to the delight of listeners and dancers alike.

The detailed five-day itinerary, which was distributed to everyone upon their arrival to The Plaza, delivered a wealth of pertinent information but held back some pleasant surprises that would be revealed to us as the trip unfurled. For instance, when I returned to my hotel room after the day's activities, I would find an unexpected perk from Tauck on the dresser. On two occasions these were signed books by our guest speakers, "Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center" by Daniel Okrent and "A Disposition to be Rich: Ferdinand Ward, the Greatest Swindler of the Gilded Age" by Geoffrey C. Ward.

Another fun surprise was announced at lunchtime on the "Land of Opportunity" themed day. After a gourmet meal at the River Cafe by the Brooklyn Bridge, we would set sail on the Eastern Star, a 1960s yacht that would treat us to a leisurely journey to Chelsea Piers. A bar was on board for those who wished to toast our day. A delight like this yacht cruise is a typical luxury inclusion on Tauck Events.

Tauck Events only pop up two or three times a year and always are designed around a theme, like one of Ken Burns' films, or an occasion like the Kentucky Derby. Sad to have missed out on "The Tauck New York City Event"? Fear not, because some trips repeat depending on their popularity. For example, the 2017 New York sojourn was the tour's second iteration, having debuted in October 2015.

Next up is "One Nation: The Tauck Washington, DC Event" which departs May 20. Prices start at $5,490 for this five-day tour, which, according to Palmer, will examine the fundamental ideals that have driven our nation's government. This journey also is in partnership with Ken Burns and will include a keynote address by him.

Most of the Tauck Events are domestic, but some European ones have taken place (these are not part of the collaboration with Burns). The "Roman Holiday" escape, for example, explored popular sites in the Italian capital and included such exclusive experiences as a private dinner in Vatican City. A
Tuscany visit is on track to take place in 2019.

Tauck's upscale guided vacations cover all seven continents and include land tours by motor coach, African safaris, European river voyages, small-ship oceangoing sailings and adventurous expedition cruises. Its immersive Culturious itineraries in Italy, France and Wyoming average 24 guests, while BBC Earth Journeys in southern and eastern Africa, Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands and other locales employ field equipment like thermal imaging cameras to provide unique perspectives.

Tauck also has a line of family-friendly vacations called Tauck Bridges, providing engaging activities for young travelers as they explore the national parks of the American West, the Incan treasures of Peru and more.

For more information about Tauck's trips, contact the tour experts at Vacations To Go.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Spring 2018. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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