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Guest post written by Karen Speirs

The light is softening, casting a golden glow on the rolling hills, when the call for dinner comes. The teens scramble up the stone stairs from the pool. A quartet of card players rise from the table, pushing back heavy iron chairs. Wine glasses are placed along the long tile table under the arbour.

Inside the farmhouse kitchen, tonight’s meal is spread across the sturdy wooden tables. Salads shimmer. Pasta shines. And the star of the show – Steak Florentine – strikes a pose for the cameras.

Stop and savour the moment. It’s another fabulous end to a fabulous day at a villa in Tuscany.

I’m taking a different approach to travel in my mid-50s. There’s more of a sense of urgency – I need to do this while I can. And I need to make the most of this experience, because who knows if I’ll get here again.

So when I was invited to be part of a group to spend a week at a villa in Tuscany, I was the first person to reply: “I’m IN!”. I wasn’t the only one; in fact, everyone who was invited accepted the invitation. No dummies in this group.

There were 24 of us who spent a blissful week under the Tuscan sun in a rambling centuries-old stone farmhouse near Greve in Chianti, about an hour south of Florence. Family and friends, we enjoyed a week of exploring, cooking, eating, swimming, relaxing and visiting. It was a magical time, made possible by some careful planning by smart people.

Here are 7 tips I took away from our trip that may be worth considering if a Tuscany villa vacation is in your future – or your dreams.

• Taste Tuscany. Menu planning, grocery shopping and meal prep took up a big part of every day. And why not? The produce is so fresh, and delicious food seemed to surround us. We all chipped in to hire a chef to prepare dinner one night. He brought his cousin, who owns a nearby winery. We had the evening to enjoy a terrific meal and discuss important questions. Why don’t you cook with butter? What’s a Super Tuscan? And how did you make that delicious salami?

• Follow the leader. Our group included 3 high school principals and even more A-type personalities. But we had the good sense to leave the details to the couple who organized the trip. There are no wrong choices when you’re in a fantastic place with great people. Let the leader lead and be grateful for the work they’re doing.

• Be a good guest. Grab a dish towel. Pick up a broom. Unload the dishwasher. The division of labour won’t be equal, but it really doesn’t matter. Respect that people will have their “go to” activities. Nadine is on the coffee. Pedro and Dave have the barbeques figured out. And the teens are great dishwashers (or so we told them!). Part of being on a group holiday is knowing when to hold back your opinion and be a good sport if the itinerary isn’t what you would have chosen. Hey, you’re in Tuscany – how bad can it be?

• Live like a local. Twice we arrived at the nearby grocery store during its afternoon closing time. What were we doing out in the heat at 3 pm anyway? (If we had an Italian Nona back at the villa, she’d give us a smack to the side of the head. “What were you thinking?!”) It must have been 40 degrees when we stepped out of the car. Stay in the pool. Grab an Aperol Spritz on a shady patio. Or, even better, take a siesta.

• Connect with neighbours. If you arrive with your group, explore with them and spend all your time together, you’re missing an opportunity to discover the true Tuscany. Learn some Italian in advance. Take a few extra minutes to talk to a shopkeeper or people in the town square. Most people speak very good English, but knowing a few phrases demonstrates that you’re interested in their culture.

• Don’t plan too much. Our advance planning included almost daily activities – hiking, cycling, wine tasting, touring and even an Iron Chef competition. Very soon after we arrived, we cut back the schedule. After a couple of days walking in oppressive heat, some of us swapped a touring day for a pool day. It’s tempting to pack in lots of activity when there is so much scenery to see and history to soak up. But you might miss wonderful impromptu conversations around the villa. You have time to slow down, swap stories. When’s the last time you had a chance to get to know someone new or discover more about an old friend? Now that’s important.

• Chronicle the experience. Looking back, you may be glad that you took time to capture memories of Tuscany. For many people, that will be photos or even videos. Others may write a daily journal with all the important details listed. We put together a book to thank the couple who organized our trip. The photos told a big part of the story, but each family also wrote about a different day, sharing their recollections and highlights. I look forward to pulling that out on a rainy November day. When I open the cover, I will remember the soft evening light, the bustling farmhouse kitchen and a long table bursting with great food, wonderful friends, love and laughter.

Karen Speirs is a Vancouver based journalist and adventure seeking gal. Learn more about her writing and previous published work or connect with her over on LinkedIn:

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