About this time each year I can expect a telephone call from Hal Taussig, the ex-university professor turned tour operator.
Ever since he gave up the classroom in Pennsylvania his life has taken on new dimensions. Taussig, faithful readers recall, packages what he describes as the Untour to Europe and Britain, a vacation that is a combination of counseling by Taussig and the do-it-yourself approach to travel.
The idea is to ensconce oneself in a chalet or apartment on the Continent or Britain and enjoy two or three weeks of leisurely travel without the constant frustration of packing and unpacking, moving on to a new destination every day or so. None of that business of bags outside the door by dawn and barely time to slurp down a cup of coffee before boarding a bus for another long, and often exhausting, day of touring.
Instead, Taussig's approach involves using one's chalet or apartment as a base, traveling by day (by rail, car or bus) after which the traveler returns to this temporary home away from home each evening.
Someone suggested to Taussig several years ago: "Do to tours what 7-Up did to Coca-Cola and Pepsi."
Taussig thought it was an effervescent idea.
The latest news from Taussig is that the whole scheme has taken off like the Concorde. Originally, he intended to keep the Untour small and intimate. But the word got around and from six travelers 10 years ago the idea spread to more than 1,300 travelers last year.
What's more, the prospects for '85 appear even greater. This concerns Taussig. He never wished to get rich. He intended to live the simple life. Do some traveling himself and bring joy to others. Now the little educator is more intent than ever that the Untour program will retain the original premise of travel without all the usual fuss and hangup.
Taussig contends that Americans don't really want to be herded about like sheep or cattle. Not those who seek his services, at any rate. They are searching for vacations that are relaxing, and this is exactly what Taussig delivers.
The countries he has chosen are Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Britain. It was in Switzerland that he lined up half a dozen inexpensive chalets 10 years ago between Lucerne and Interlaken. These were rock-bottom rentals that have grown to number 75 today.
What's more, for the fifth consecutive year Taussig has lowered his prices. Accused of being a trifle soft in the head, he argues that money has little meaning to him. He enjoys counseling Americans who have lost track of the art of relaxing while traveling. Nothing more. His finest chalet in Switzerland figures out to roughly $14.50 per person per day, double occupancy. And if a family of six or seven shares the shelter the rate shrinks appreciably.
The Swiss chalets are hidden in Alpine settings that can be described only as picture-post card perfect. One package offered this year ranges from $1,191 during the low season to a summer high of $1,399 and includes the round trip air fare from Los Angeles, the chalet, a Swiss rail card, free trip advice and newsletters (tips on shopping, sightseeing and touring).
What's more, upon arrival in Zurich the travelers are met by Taussig or one of his representatives and sent off by rail to the village of their choice. From these home bases, vacationers can reach nearly every corner of the little country in a single day--and be at home in time for dinner.
In the beginning Taussig concentrated on the villages of Hergiswil, Sarnen, Sachseln, Giswil, Lungern, Goldern, Meiringen, Reuti, Wasswerwendi and Hohfluh in the German-speaking area of Switzerland that takes in the Bernese Oberland. The program this year has been extended to French and Italian-speaking cantons.
In one Swiss-Italian village four apartments are available on Lake Maggiore, a lifetime removed from the jet set settlement of Locarno on the opposite shore. Taussig describes the village on the lake--apartments have their own private beach--as "totally untouristy."
Hairpin Turns From here Taussig's flock travels aboard a bus that makes more than 100 hairpin turns en route to a remote village that's described as a relic from the Middle Ages. Goats cling to the hillsides while shepherds who've never been off their mountain wave to visitors and the sky is such a smoldering blue it appears one can see forever.
Besides Zurich, Taussig and his representatives greet travelers at airports in London, Frankfurt and Salzburg. During orientation sessions vacationers are taught to use the public transportation systems and are given maps and newsletters describing day trips. Also, for the meek, someone is available by telephone throughout their stay.
In Germany, vacationers settle in villages along the Rhine. One apartment built in the 1500s features a timbered facade and is crowded with antiques. Castles appear nearby and vineyards unfold for miles along the river. Rentals lie between Bingen-am-Rhein and Koblenz, providing easy access to excursion boats and castle country along the Rhine.
A dozen apartments are up for grabs in Austria, the cheapest figuring out to $280 per person (double occupancy) for three weeks. The Austrian villages lie in the Salzach River Valley barely 30 minutes by rail from Salzburg. Apartments on the Continent all feature kitchens, private baths, linens and laundry facilities and are totally separated from quarters occupied by the owners.
In Switzerland I spent a couple of memorable days in a chalet whose occupants lived one floor below. A stream flowed by the door and there was a meadow with cows and a view of Alpine peaks, a glacier and magnificent waterfalls. It is a scene that remains etched in my memory to this very day.
Also Arranges Flights Besides apartments, Taussig arranges for economical flights between the United States and Europe, using Swissair, Lufthansa, British Airways and Balair, a subsidiary of Swissair. In addition, the Untour people prepare the paperwork for car rentals and rail passes.
From their bases in Switzerland, vacationers make excursions to a cheesemaking village and folk festivals, and there are dinners with yodeling, folk dancing and an oompah band complete with an alpenhorn.
Some villages are lost among snowy peaks. Others face lakes and meadows with the melody of cowbells. Vacationers sleep beneath thick eiderdowns and attend summer festivals and dine on occasion with the burghers in whose villages they are guests.
In London, Taussig lists literally hundreds of apartments renting for as little as $356 a week per couple. Others in the countryside are available in 500-year-old farmhouses in Breconshire, Pembrokeshire and Wales. And there's the medieval home in the coastal town of Rye that accommodates eight guests and prices out to $1,200 a week.
Rail-Hotel Packages With business booming, Taussig offers new options to vacationers that involve one-week rail-hotel packages from Switzerland to neighboring countries, taking in Innsbruck, Salzburg, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Rome, Munich, Berlin and Paris. For approximately $350 extra, this includes the rail, hotel, daily breakfasts and a return to Zurich by air.
Taussig admits that the growth of the Untour is "a little scary."
He wants to retain the intimacy of the original idea while offering new adventures. With a staff that's grown to seven in the home office at Media, Pa., and nine others in Europe, Taussig says he plans to be "deliberate, slow and careful"while expanding. Presently, plans are afoot for two-week Untours in Paris and Rome.
Still, Switzerland continues to head the popularity polls among Taussig's Untourists who shop with villagers, visit them in their homes and join them on hikes to Alpine retreats.
One thing Taussig promises: Untours' guests will live in a quiet village uncorrupted by tourism. After leaving Switzerland, one vacationer wrote: "I long to be back in my lovely home in the Alps."
Another who'd vacationed in Austria told how "Our hosts became like family to us."
One couple described a visit to Germany as "the best vacation we've ever had."
Taussig produces pages of testimonials from hundreds of Americans following their Swiss vacations. One woman who went to Switzerland wrote: "One can never know if another trip might have been better, but let's say I just can't imagine how it could ever happen."
'Spoiled Me' She went on to wax enthusiastically about her experience during the Untour: "My trip has completely spoiled me. For myself and my 12-year-old daughter it was a truly memorable experience."
The "luxury," though, she added, was having a "home base" and the advice, hiking and festival information provided by Taussig and his team as well as the companionship of other American families staying in homes in the same village.
"To be completely on our own and yet to have familiar faces around us was a very good feeling," she wrote. "Our experience in Switzerland gave me assurance and as we headed to Paris later--this time completely on our own--it was with the confidence instilled by Mr. Taussig and the Untour. It was a summer I will never forget. I would heartily recommend the Untour to anyone who wants to really enjoy a country and its people. Not for everyone, perhaps, but for us it was perfect."
Taussig confides that he gets scores of letters like that one. "People are tired of being herded and pushed onto crowded buses and learning little about the country--or countries--they are visiting. It is for this very reason we are successful. When someone returns home after taking an Untour, they are rested, relaxed and know very well where they've been."
Contact Hal Taussig c/o Untours (Idyll Ltd.), P.O. Box 405, Media, Pa. 19063. Telephone (215) 565-5242.