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Serve up Surprises with Mystery Tours

The best motorcoach tours serve up at least a few surprises along the way. After all, the wonderment that comes with exploring new places is why most Americans leave home in the first place. It’s also why mystery tours have become such a hot group travel trend nationally.

Mystery tours, which whisk participants away to destinations unknown, up the adventure quotient while still allowing for the relaxation that comes with letting someone else take the wheel. They also specialize in visiting lesser-known locales that travelers may not have heard much about but will quickly fall for once they arrive.

Looking to take a group on a magical mystery tour but not sure where to head? Here are five can’t-miss ideas your travelers are sure to relish.

Coastal Mississippi

While many group travelers may not even realize that Mississippi has a shoreline, it actually stretches 62 beautiful miles, between the state’s borders with Alabama and Louisiana.

“It really is such a surprise,” said Anna Roy, public/media relations manager at Coastal Mississippi, the area’s convention and visitors bureau. “That’s the reason we rebranded a couple years ago to The Secret Coast. If you haven’t been, you just don’t know there’s so much here! It’s a place that’s poised to surprise and delight visitors.”

Though Coastal Mississippi is filled with everything from charming cities to endearing small towns, leaders might want to zero in on Biloxi, which offers a wide range of attractions, restaurants and hotels ideal for groups. Best bets for accommodations include the posh Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, which dishes out not only gaming but also great shopping, live entertainment and more. Meanwhile, the sleek and stylish Hotel Legends features 132 all-suite rooms. For superior gulf seafood prepared by a James Beard nominee, White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge, with plenty of private dining space, is always a hit.

In between sleeping and eating, groups can enjoy an educational shrimping excursion or charter a sail aboard a Biloxi Schooner through the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum. The institution will also arrange a private seafood boil on its grounds for groups.

Roy suggests leaders arrange a stop at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum. Designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry, it features the work of the famed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” George Ohr.

“They offer group tours and they also have a studio, so they may also be able to do a group ceramics class,” Roy said.

Gallup, New Mexico

With an indigenous population that’s responsible for about 80 percent of the world’s Native American-made jewelry, Gallup, New Mexico, is a haven for group visitors that love to shop. But that’s not all that makes this city located midway between Albuquerque and Flagstaff special, according to Jennifer Lazarz, tourism and marketing manager, Visit Gallup.

“Groups get off the highway, see the beautiful red rocks, and they’re also traveling down historic Route 66,” Lazarz said. “The neon signs are still up, so there’s this Western Americana feel that meets this incredible blossom of Native American art that people just don’t expect.”

Among the timeless Route 66 properties Gallup boasts is the El Rancho Hotel, which was built in 1934 and still retains its classic charm. Groups can stay there overnight or visit for lunch and a tour of fun curios like John Wayne’s hat. Richardson’s Trading Post, also founded in the 1930s, not only features a massive retail shop and museum but also offers special group tours of it, including the Navajo rug collection.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Lazarz recommends leaders plan their Gallup trip during the first weekend in December, when the Red Rock Balloon Rally takes over the area. Groups can actually crew for the balloons and might even get a chance to hop aboard one. The cost? Just five dollars per bus.

Tour participants will also love the experiential learning available at the Gallup Cultural Center, where tribes including the Navajo and Zuni “work exclusively with groups to offer Native artist demonstrations, lectures, storytellers and musicians, and more,” said Lazarz. “It’s really nice — they’ll customize an event that’s anywhere from an hour to four hours long.”

Columbus, Ohio

Most people don’t know it, but Columbus is not only the largest and fastest-growing burg in Ohio, but the 14th-most populous city in the United States. Despite its size, Columbus doesn’t really have a recognizable brand, although once group visitors arrive, they will find a wealth of diverse attractions for every taste and interest. As a result, Columbus makes for an especially great mystery destination, noted Roger Dudley, senior director of community and customer engagement for Experience Columbus. “We find many mystery tours come through Columbus,” he said.

Groups may want to begin their visits with a Columbus City Adventures tour, which can include a step-on guide and stops at popular sights like Topiary Park, with an array of larger-than-life topiaries, and German Village, featuring 200 acres of homes and businesses listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the other historic sites in Columbus are the Ohio Statehouse, providing free guided tours for groups, and Kelton House Museum and Garden. Tours there are led by a costumed guide who surprises visitors by pulling them into a secret space once used to hide enslaved peoples.

“The house was a documented stop on the Underground Railroad,” said Dudley, “and the Keltons were big abolitionists. So it adds an element to the tour that’s unexpected.”

Leaders should also make time for their groups to explore two of Columbus’ most beloved attractions: the National Veterans Memorial and Museum and the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Opened in 2018, the former is the nation’s only museum to honor veterans from all branches of service, while the latter features not just pretty plantings but also the world’s largest collection of Dale Chihuly’s glass inside of a botanical garden.

Aiken, South Carolina

Blessed with a walkable downtown lined with independent shops and restaurants, Aiken, South Carolina, is one of those small Southern cities that specialize in welcoming visitors with a hospitality not often encountered elsewhere. But though its population is only about 30,000, Aiken — which sits off Interstate 20 between Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia — serves up a smorgasbord of attractions and activities that are great for groups.

Groups of 28 or less may want to take a two-hour, guided trolley tour through the city, or leaders can arrange for a step-on guide. Stops include Hopelands Gardens, which ranges over 14 magnificent acres that formerly comprised a historic estate, and the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, tucked inside what was once the estate’s stables.

“Aiken is well known for horses, particularly Thoroughbred racing, and so we’ve got all kinds of racing silks and trophies in the museum,” said Mary Rosbach, tourism supervisor, for the city of Aiken. “Aiken also holds several major equestrian events throughout the year. I would recommend groups attend the fall steeplechase, because the spring event gets very crowded.”

Other city highlights include the Aiken County Historical Museum, offering guided tours, and the DuPont Planetarium, which can be booked for a private show. For groups looking to fuel up after all this fun, Rosbach recommends the 1950s soda shop-themed Betsy’s Round the Corner, as well as the more upscale Malia’s Restaurant, specializing in seasonal, locally procured ingredients. Both The Wilcox and Carriage House Inn provide not only luxurious stays but also a look at Aiken’s fascinating past, when it was the “Winter Colony” of wealthy Gilded Age northerners.

Mystic, Connecticut

Perhaps still best-known as the setting for “Mystic Pizza,” the romantic dramedy that made Julia Roberts a star, Mystic, Connecticut, is far more than the location of that admittedly adorable movie. Depicted in the film as more sleepy than bustling, this seaport village of less than 5,000 actually boasts “a lot packed into a small area,” said Bruce Flax, president of the Mystic Chamber of Commerce. “There’s the aquarium, the seaport, the charm of downtown, and the Mystic Bascule Bridge, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with different celebrations. There’s a lot of history here.”

Founded in 1654 and once a significant center for shipbuilding, Mystic is now home to two of Connecticut’s most popular attractions, the Mystic Aquarium and the Mystic Seaport Museum.

“At the aquarium there are beluga whales, which are spectacular, and then they have penguins and a seal show daily,” Flax said. “With some calling by the group leaders, the possibility exists for behind-the-scenes tours. At the museum there are tours groups can take, there is the re-created 19th-century maritime village, and the shipyard, where they repair ships. And then there are special exhibits that change out like any museum.”

Speaking of sailing, the gorgeous 81-foot schooner Argea is available for private charters out of Mystic, while shoppers will want to stroll Olde Mistick Village, a re-created 1700s-style Colonial village with dozens of shops and restaurants. Now recognized widely as a sublime destination for foodies, Mystic also offers eateries like S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar and Red 36 that not only dish out superior seafood and other goodies but also include private dining for groups.