NEW YORK (AP) ― If travel expert Peter Greenberg does not like his tour guides when he explores different countries for his new public television series, he really has nobody to complain to.
That is because he is starting at the top, everywhere. “The Royal Tour” features Greenberg, the CBS News travel editor, visiting memorable sites, accompanied by that nation’s leader. In the episode that airs this week, on Thursday in most markets, is about Mexico and features Greenberg accompanied by President Felipe Calderon.
The two men walk to the top of the Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, explore sites hidden within pyramids, zip-line above a rain forest, go whale watching and rappel down 110 stories into the Cave of the Swallows in San Luis Potosi.
Leaders that are featured know that tourism is a big business for their countries and that Greenberg is essentially giving them a glitzy travelogue seen on television in a country filled with wealthy travelers. In Mexico’s case, “The Royal Tour” enabled Calderon to show that there is more to his country than beaches and dusty border towns menaced by drug violence.
“I thought I knew a lot,” Greenberg said. “I didn’t know a lot. I saw much that I haven’t seen before.”
Greenberg is a television veteran who has worked across the networks, including a lengthy spell at the “Today” show. He covers other news besides travel, and has interviewed Calderon on Mexico’s drug problems. The Mexican president has an easy rapport with his travel partner, and a low-key sense of humor. When they stop at an elaborate sand sculpture contest in Puerto Vallarta, the reporter finds Calderon has ordered up a sculpture of Greenberg.
In this image released by “Mexico: The Royal Tour,” Mexican President Felipe Calderon and CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg (right) walk on the beach in Cozumel, Mexico, while filming the “The Royal Tour.” (AP-Yonhap News)
The series’ roots date back to 1998, when Greenberg was doing a special on Jordan for the Travel Channel. He needed to rent a helicopter, and was directed to a prince who arranges such things. The two became friends, and the prince is now King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Greenberg later thought of having him lead a tour of Jordan for a series; the only difficulty was piercing the layers of people around him. Greenberg traveled to Jordan and waited in the lobby of a hotel where he knew the king was making an appearance, greeted him when he entered and proposed the idea.
Abdullah’s people tried to talk him out of it, but he shut them down with three words: “I’m the king.”
For the Discovery Channel, he did a short series that included Jordan, New Zealand, Peru, Jamaica and, although it was not quite a kingdom, California with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his then-wife, Maria. Public television has revived “The Royal Tour” for six episodes, coming about twice a year. Greenberg is not revealing the other countries he is visiting at this time.
The leaders become just another citizen when the bubble that surrounds them is stripped away, he said.
“They become human,” he said. “They’re born and raised there. They’re locals. Who better to be a tour guide?”
Although Calderon took Greenberg to some surprising and unique spots, exploring the roots of the Mayan civilization, the host insists upon going to places that average travelers also have access to. Of course, the nation’s leader has a fleet of helicopters at his command. No waiting for shuttle buses.
One reminder that Calderon was not just another tour guide came when Greenberg persuaded the president to climb to the top of the Temple of Kukulkan, not an easy task because the pyramid’s steps are narrow. When they reached the top, Greenberg put his hand on a short wall to steady himself and felt the muzzle of a machine gun. Security. “The president said, ‘what are you doing here?’”
Being lowered into, then raised up from, a gaping cave was a physical challenge, too.
“There were a lot of things that I wanted to do that his people didn’t want him to do,” Greenberg said. “I solved the problem very easily. I just asked him.”
Greenberg has limits, though. The king of Jordan wanted to skydive during their visit, and his assistants would not let him, “to which I said, ‘thank God.’”
He hopes the series will appeal to the present-day American traveler who, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the economic recession, are looking to have memorable experiences with family and friends where the location is almost incidental.
“I don’t look at myself as an elitist traveler,” Greenberg said. “I look at myself as an everyman who, when people watch this, they’ll hopefully say to themselves, ‘I can do that.’”