Like many young Australians, my first glimpse of Europe was from the windows of a Contiki Tour bus. I was 20 years old, a travel consultant by day and had long held a desire to see Europe. Travelling with my boyfriend (now husband), I wasn't the stereo-typical Contiki passenger - I wasn't a raging party-goer or drinker and I wasn't on the lookout for a holiday romance - but having booked many, many clients on Contiki tours and hearing nothing by rave reviews, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Our six week trip to Europe included two Contiki tours - the first, a 14 day whirlwind tour of 6 countries and the second, an 8 day cruise around the Greek Islands - both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The tours were a great way to see Europe with the added security of being part of an organised group and I soon came to see why they were so popular with young travellers.
Last week I had the pleasure of hearing John Anderson, the founder of Contiki Holidays, speak at a conference I was attending with my husband. It was the second time I'd heard John speak (the first was about eight years ago) and once again I was moved by the passion of the man who created such an iconic brand that continues to grow some 52 years after its humble beginnings.
As John spoke, I was reminded of the fantastic experiences of my Contiki tours and the discovery of one little village that stole my heart and has had me returning to Europe time and time again.
The village is Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland and we had a two night stay in wooden huts at Camping Jungfrau. I was interested to learn, when reading John's book 'Only Two Seats Left', that it was the very first Contiki tours back in 1962 that were the reason for the camping ground being built.
After spending the first couple of years pitching tents in a farmer's paddock, the farmer then built some facilities for his Contiki guests in what was the beginnings of a campground, now the largest one in the area.
Today, Camping Jungfrau has continued to expand and Contiki passengers still stay on-site, now in a purpose-built 100 bed chalet. The camping ground is also popular with independent travellers, and after our initial stay with Contiki, my husband and I have returned with our family on four other occasions.
So what is it about Lauterbrunnen that captured my heart? I guess, to me, it's everything I imagined Europe to be. The village is nestled in a valley between two steep mountain faces each adorned with waterfalls.
Rising above, at the end of the valley, are the towering snow-capped peaks of Eiger and Jungfrau. With its quintessential Swiss chalets, cows with the obligatory bells munching the lush green grass and the roar of a rushing stream never far away, this is the Europe I adore.
After that first visit way back in 1988, I vowed to return again to Lauterbrunnen. Yes, we'd visited Paris, Florence, Venice and Amsterdam on our Contiki tour but Lauterbrunnen was calling my name.
In 2000 when we returned with our two kids in tow, it was like coming home. We'd planned a three night stay but soon extended that to six, and on subsequent visits to Europe I've always tried to include Lauterbrunnen in our itinerary.
After raving about it to them for the last 25 years, it was a real thrill to take my parents to Lauterbrunnen last year. Yes, we stayed at Camping Jungfrau and yes, they were as in awe of the little Swiss village as I am.
So, with a passion for travelling to Europe that seems to increase with the years, I blame Contiki for starting this addiction. It's an addiction I'm not going to try and kick any time soon. Thank you, John Anderson, for getting me hooked!
Footnote: After hearing John speak last week, I chatted to him and told him how my Contiki experience had fuelled my love of Europe and even led to me starting this website so that I could share my European travel experiences. He asked me for the website name and I was thrilled yesterday to receive the following email from him:
"Hi Carolyn, Have just checked your brilliant website. It's amazing! Just sorry our meeting was so short. You deserve success with this - Best wishes John"
What a thrill! To receive a compliment like this from such a successful businessman was truly an honour.
Have you been on a Contiki tour? What were the highlights for you? Please share them in the comments below.