Experience Fixers

They're the people who can turn a run-of-the-mill holiday into a once-in-a-lifetime-event. Whether you want a personal shopper in Milan or safari guide in Jordan, you need an experience fixer

Featured October 11 Words by Photo Jon Sparks
Experience Fixers

THE DESERT FOX

AMMAN Wadi Rum is real Lawrence of Arabia country: a desert landscape a few hours south of Amman that is the equal of any in the world. Bald mountains spring from the ground like islands in a golden sea and it can be bewildering in its multicoloured, wind-worn complexity, but Mohammed Hammad, born and bred in Wadi Rum, knows every contorted peak. "This is my country," says the young climber.

A qualified mountain guide since 2003 (one of only two in Jordan), Hammad regularly rubs shoulders with the rock-climbing jet-set who flock to Rum's hardest walls. But climbing here is no recent import: the Zalabieh Bedouin have always climbed, to hunt ibex or to find grazing for their goats. Hammad can barely remember learning to climb. To him, it's as natural as walking. And he smiles with pride as he tells how his father - alone and without ropes - pioneered routes that most visiting aces will only tackle in modern "sticky" shoes.

He's passionate about the place, its people and its traditions, and arranges tours on foot, on camelback or in a 4 x 4 - after which nothing beats a night in a traditional Bedouin tent, waking to the utter silence of the desert.

If you're reasonably agile and have a good head for heights, he might take you on the long scramble up Jebel Khazali, his favourite peak. "Khazali is in my heart," he says. It can be in yours, too. bedouinguides.com

The Personal Haggler

ISTANBUL Navigating Istanbul's mammoth Grand Bazaar is hard enough, but shopping there is even more difficult. Visitors looking for the perfect souvenir - whether it's a carpet, suzani (embroidered fabric) or leather handbag - can be frustrated by unscrupulous merchants and inflated prices. Enter Kathy Hamilton, an American expat in Istanbul, and her team of personal shoppers, who can help you find exactly what you're looking for - and at the right price. Hamilton spent years learning from artists, designers and merchants, and her expertise in fashion, textiles, traditional handcrafts, home furnishings and food, along with a keen eye for great finds, goes well beyond Istanbul's main streets. "We offer an insider's view of the city and expat life here," she says. "We avoid the stores that cater to tour groups, preferring to go where locals shop, which are often off the usual tourist track."

After helping family and friends find good-quality carpets in Istanbul, Hamilton formed Istanbul Personal Shopper, which offers five-hour, customised shopping trips designed to fit your interests. The most popular shopping destination is, of course, the Grand Bazaar, though Hamilton's team also scours other areas of the city, like Çukurcuma, a shopping haven for antique lovers. "After so many years as a regular in the bazaars, I have learned to judge the quality of the items and recognise the best deals," she says. istanbulpersonalshopper.com

The Mountain Man

Alpine Destinations Nigel Shepherd has been introducing climbers and skiers to the world's mountain ranges for over 30 years, and, in his view, "the more obscure the location, the better". It makes his choice of the French and Italian Alps as an operational base seem rather obtuse, since they're hardly remote, but Shepherd knows the region's mountains intimately and his knowledge of them is unparalleled. He can safely take you so far off the beaten track here, it would be easy to think you were in a remote corner of the Himalayas or Andes.

He has clients who have been skiing and climbing with him for over 20 years, and he says that being with folk in the mountains and sharing adventures creates bonds that can last a lifetime. "Clients become friends with whom you spend cherished and long-remembered mountain days. Last summer, for instance, I met a guy climbing in Pembrokeshire who told me that I had been his instructor on a beginners' rock-climbing course in 1979. Since then, he said, his passion for the sport has grown and taken him all over the world, which was incredibly gratifying to hear." nigelshepherdphotography.co.uk

The Homes Insider

Fez It was during his breaks from university in Rabat in his early twenties that Abdellatif Benhrima first travelled throughout Morocco. Now, 25 years of travelling later, he's one of the most knowledgeable guides in the country - particularly in Fez, where his Secret Homes and Gardens tours literally open doors to the hidden corners of the city. "There are many beautiful riads that have been converted into hotels, but the really historic ones are a totally different world," he says - and it's one you only get to see if you have Abdel at your side. It's through his connections with diplomats, bankers, businessman and the understated über-rich that Abdel and his clients are allowed access to these secret, private homes.

If you're looking for something sensuous to decorate either yourself or your home, Abdel can also escort you to the most select places to shop, and even to the artisans themselves, tucked far away from public gaze. Or if you want to escape the bustle of the city, simply ask and he will take you on a leisurely camel ride to spend the night under the desert stars in a sumptuously decorated tent.

Email: bkabdou@yahoo.fr

The Gourmand

Budapest Gábor Bánfalvi has one mission - to revolutionize the world's view of Hungarian cuisine.

"Many people think that our cuisine is all about grease, paprika and goulash, but these are outdated stereotypes," he says, and one of his aims is for his guests to leave the country with a new-found love of its cooking.

His Taste Hungary tours, which are unique in Budapest for their food-and-wine focus, take visitors on a memorable journey to markets and artisan foodmakers, and to the finest restaurants and wineries, all featuring Hungarian produce.

He handpicks his producers through "non-stop" research and aims to showcase the very best of local cuisine, which few visitors would get to taste without his help. Highlights include bi-monthly, small-group day trips to the Tokaj wine region, which is famous for its sweet dessert wines, visiting three of the area's finest small wineries, with lunch served in the cellar of one of them. Gábor acts as a translator, so guests can enjoy the winemaker-led tastings for an authentic local experience. He will also tailor tours to regions according to your wine tastes.

"Everything has to be perfect," says Gábor of his tours, which The Wall Street Journal last year named among the 10 best in the whole of Europe. "When I'm travelling, the worst thing that can happen is to have a bad meal or glass of wine. We guarantee that won't happen to any of our guests." tastehungary.com

The Urban Runner

Copenhagen With its flat terrain and pretty harbourside, Copenhagen is a great city in which to run and there's no better companion than Lena Andersson. Earlier this year, the former shipping executive combined her twin passions of running and her home city to set up tour company Running Copenhagen - now regarded as one of the Danish capital's must dos.

The idea is simple: you sign up and are then taken on a running tour of the city. It's a beautifully 21st-century take on a walking tour. Her weekly programme helps people stave off the holiday-food guilt; and it aims to embody real, local experience, taking in the edgy, bohemian centres of Christiania and Nørrebro, as well as the main sights.

"I try to show people 'my' Copenhagen," says Lena, "away from the tourist paths." Runs are crafted around the needs of the participants and "no tour is the same". Anyone who can keep up the 6.30 minute per kilometre pace for 5km is welcome to join in. The only real question is: which tour to do? Many rave about the "beautifully illuminated" Night Tour, but Lena's favourite is the 7am Business Tour. "Running along the water while the city is waking up is amazing - it keeps me energised for the entire day." running-copenhagen.dk

The Style Counsel

Milan Ten years working as a fashion co-ordinator for some of Italy's biggest brands has given personal shopper Annamaria Lamanna an enviable insight into one of the world's leading style hubs. "Milan is the best place in Europe for shopping," she says. "All the styling departments of the most important brands are located here." Quite simply, if you need to know where to find the season's hottest looks, then Annamaria is your girl. She's also keen to overturn the idea that personal shopping and Milanese style are the preserve of the mega-rich. "The fashion district can offer many different proposals for any kind of budget," she says. "I help my clients find the right purchases while spending less than €100." A three- or four-hour session with Annamaria isn't just great for finding bargains - she also advises her clients on their image as a whole. "They consider the time they spend with me like a lesson," she says. "I give them advice they can use in the future. I can read in their eyes their satisfaction after our time together, especially when they spend less than they would have imagined." personalshoppermilano.com

The Dive Master

Sharm el Sheikh Almost everybody who comes to Egypt's Red Sea resorts does some form of diving, but not everyone can take advantage of the skills of Mobarak Sobeih Mobarak, or simply Umbarak, as he's known, of Shark's Bay Dive centre.

Unlike global tour operators, who have come to the area fairly recently, Umbarak - originally a fisherman - was born here. He set up Shark's Bay, the first dive school in the area, with just a boat and six tanks back in 1982. His unparalleled knowledge of the local coastline, a fleet of dive boats skippered by experienced Bedouins and a well-protected "house" reef mean Umbarak - who the editor of Sport Diver magazine calls "a true legend" - can cater for divers of all abilities.

However, the crowning glory of a trip to Shark's Bay comes after a great day's diving, when guests are treated with traditional Bedouin hospitality under a wide expanse of stars, "being regaled with tales of the past, learning about our culture and simply enjoying the silence and beauty of the desert". oonasdivers.com

The Ultra-fan

Marseille A drink with Catherine Brun at the Brasserie OM on Marseille's Old Port is punctuated by autograph hunters. "Weren't you on television last night?" a waiter asks. Brun is a mother of three, the owner of a B&B for pets, and also a soap-opera and game-show star in France's version of Survivor and The Weakest Link, among others. However, her biggest claim to fame is that she is the number-one fan of Olympique de Marseille (OM), the city's legendary football team. "I was taken to the Vélodrome [Marseille's football stadium] in my father's arms before I could walk," she says. "The whole city lives through OM - we have a very powerful sense of belonging."

Catherine offers a unique way to experience the city: OM-themed tours of Marseille that culminate in a seat in one of the virages - the ends of the stadium where local fans sit and tickets are normally available by subscription only. Fortified by a pastis at her supporters' club, you watch the match with her, learning about OM's history and traditions.

Catherine is one of the Marseille-Provence Greeters, volunteers who escort visitors to their favourite spots. Remarkably, the tours are free, apart from incidentals. The motive? Simple. As Catherine says, "I'm a real Marseillaise. I love my city and I want to share it." marseilleprovencegreeters.com

The Wedding Planner

Marrakech Marriage ceremonies in foreign climes might be de rigueur, but they can be a nightmare to organise when you're hundreds of miles away.

Step forward Rosena Charmoy, director of luxury concierge service Boutique Souk, and Moroccan wedding planner of choice, according to US Vogue and a legion of satisfied newlyweds.

Despite being a relative newcomer in the city (she came on a day trip in 2003 and never left), Irish-born Charmoy keeps her little black book chock full of exclusive experiences, and prides herself on being able to organise everything for city visitors from private dinners in the Marjorelle Gardens to without-a-hitch dream weddings.

"Most of our wedding clients want guaranteed sunshine for an outdoor garden ceremony and then dining under the stars," says Charmoy, who can supply all this, and then some.

She delights in fulfilling her clients' wildest wishes, even once creating an exotic bedroom scene fit for the Arabian Nights, complete with scattered rose petals and a pair of singing lovebirds in a gilded cage. boutiquesouk.com


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