I’m clinging to the back of a buzzing Vespa, driven by a dude I met an hour ago. We are corkscrewing up and down the dizzying cliffside roads between Italy’s Cinque Terra seaside towns. It’s the type of holiday pursuit I’d normally roll my eyes at, before returning to my book on a quiet beach. Yet I catch occasional glimpses of what looks like a younger me in the Vespas’s rearview mirror, grinning goofily.
“It’s full sensory travel!” Darci Murray, our tour organizer, hollers in the wind-whipped air.
We are escaping a hot, humid day by ascending through olive and cherry trees. Then we descend to the village of Manarola, trailed by a whiff of wild rosemary, evergreen and earth. “That’s the macchia,” says Daniel, our guide and my driver, of the dense hillside scrub. He’s dressed with effortless Italian sprezzatura, in cargo shorts, sneakers and a fine cotton shirt, triple-monogrammed at the waist.
Our fleet of Vespas flies past terraced farms and vineyards cut into the slopes by ancient mortar-free walls, stops at rocky beaches where Italians sun themselves like seals, then parks for lunch at a spot marked only by fishing-boat license number SP4488 near Vernazza to eat the catch of the day.
Murray’s version of “full sensory travel” is the world not seen through beer goggles, rosé-coloured glasses or the fog of a hangover. I’m on the Ultimate Alcohol-Free Boot Tour of Italy run by alcohol-free travel purveyor Hooked, based in Vancouver. Founder Murray leads our group of a dozen fearless (and seemingly tireless) travellers through daily alcohol-free adventures, like an olive-oil tasting in Verona, rocking out to pop tunes on a Lake Garda cruise or hurtling through lemon-scented air on a single-chair gondola atop Anacapri.
Just outside the frame of the trip’s gazillion selfies and group shots is me, looking on with a cautious side-eye, trying to understand exactly where these globetrotters get their spirit – they’re sure not intoxicated by the fizz of a Prosecco or emboldened by a fine Barolo.
For seven days, I’m one of these bright-eyed teetotaling tourists, but in my everyday life, I’m decidedly not. I’m a drinks magazine editor. I’m a certified instructor for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. I’m trained as a craft distiller and part of the Academy for the World’s 50 Best Bars. I’d normally start a day in Italy with a caffè corretto (an espresso, cup-rinsed with grappa), followed by sunset-coloured Aperol spritzes at aperitivo hour followed by a nice bottle of Falanghina with dinner.
My incredulous friends ask if I’m packing a flask or planning to sneak out for a glass of wine at night.
Our Italian tour guide is similarly flummoxed by our booze-free itinerary and tries to point me to the best wine-pairing osterias at night. Suddenly, I notice that every street in Italy is thick with birrerias, vinotecas and cocktail bars, beckoning as a spot to consult a map or cool off under fans or misters on a hot day. But I’m here to discover not just what it’s like to travel through one of the world’s great wine destinations without drinking, but also why anyone would want to do such a thing.
Hooked is snagging a new wave of travellers and a new way of seeing the world. The non-alcoholic drinks market could be worth almost US$1.2-billion by 2030, according to stats from Grand View Research, and is estimated to grow by more than 6 per cent a year. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recommends no more than two drinks a week, and younger generations are drinking notably less. While Sober Vacations International has been catering to the teetotaling crowd since 1987, Hooked’s fresh business model means that, say, a non-drinking yogi or wellness influencer could create a unique adventure for their own followers with Murray’s help. “This isn’t a cut-and-paste business; it’s all custom itineraries,” she says.
I’d certainly need a few drinks to match the admirable, un-self-conscious energy of this raucous, extroverted group, as they spontaneously shimmy along to a salsa dance lesson happening on the banks of Florence’s Arno River one humid evening. Earlier, they broke into an impromptu round of That’s Amore over a flour-dusted group gnocchi cooking lesson in the flat of local artist and cook Anna Corcione.
“For anyone who’s gone through recovery, and gotten past guilt and shame, they don’t really care what anyone else thinks of them,” Murray shrugs, offering an explanation for the free spirit of some of her non-drinking customers. She gently corrects me when I use the pop-culture term “sober-curious” to describe the potential demographic for her trips. Though the Dryuary and Sober October crowd throw the word around, “sober” has a more specific and serious, meaning, to, say, the travellers from some Vancouver-area Alcoholics Anonymous groups who joined this tour. “I prefer to say alcohol-free,” says Murray, “because there are a lot of reasons why people might choose not to drink while they travel.”
When I join the group bright and early one day in Northern Italy, Murray cautions: “We start earlier and probably see more than most groups.” We pile onto the bus around 8 a.m. and just keep going. One day we leave the grubby streets of Naples, cruise to Amalfi and back, tour the archaeological site of Pompeii in baking 40-degree heat, then arrive in Rome about 12 hours later … only for many to race up the Spanish Steps or out to capture the Colosseum at night.
On these trips, “you need to replace the time” that might otherwise be spent boozing in the evening hours, Murray says. That’s where her signature “full-sensory experiences” come in. While most Italian tours beeline from Venice to Rome, hitting the big-city highlights, this trip also goes to lesser-seen spots. For instance, we market-tour and chomp the famous charcuterie in Bologna, then side-trip to experience moments like a seaside classical music concert in the Ligurian town of La Spezia. An afternoon in the gorgeous walled Tuscan village of San Gimignano is squeezed in en route to Florence. During a few free hours in Pisa, when I might normally park myself at a café with a carafe of rosato, instead I walk and walk, seeing the pretty collegiate city beyond its famous tower and tacky tourist district.
Daily itineraries offer sensory bombs of opportunity to smell, taste, hear and touch things most travellers wouldn’t access. I’m emboldened to try things I normally would not – say, a ride-along on an expert-level Vespa trek or cooking in a stranger’s house – without the crutch of a cool glass of vermentino or a cold Peroni to smooth any discomfort. As we ogle the aquamarine waters and stalactite-dripping grottos on a cruise around the island of Capri, spotting the holiday villas of Sophia Loren and Giorgio Armani, a fellow traveller marvels about the times they missed views like this on trips because they were hungover.
I discovered that booze-free dolce vita can be found everywhere, starting with the excellent coffee that the Hooked group guzzles at every opportunity, and Italy’s ubiquitous public water fountains, which we greedily drink from at every stop. Peroni’s alcohol-free Nastro Azzurro 0.0 chills alongside Italy’s iconic lager at every convenience store. At meals, I order brightly coloured miniature glass bottles of bitter Crodino or San Bitter alcohol-free aperitivos, in ice-filled glasses topped with bubbly water and a citrus-slice garnish, like a spritz. When our tour bus parks at Italy’s iconic Autogrill rest stops, shiny slim cans of San Pellegrino Zero alcohol- and sugar-free cocktails are chilling.
While pasta and wine typically pack on some pounds during a trip to Italy, I returned home from this tour feeling practically cleansed.
If You Go
B.C.-based Hooked Alcohol-Free Travel (hooked-on-travel.com) has an upcoming trip to Nashville in Sober October and an outdoor-adventure November itinerary to Sayulita, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Tanzania, Morocco and Iceland are on the 2024 calendar.
ITA Airways (ita-airways.com) flies direct to Rome from several major U.S. cities and connects to Canadian airports via codeshare flights with Delta.
In Florence, imaginative mocktails are on the menu at most top bars, like a refreshing, grapefruit-kissed Ciao Bella at Café La Terrazza, the chic rooftop restaurant of Rinascente department store.
In Rome at Drink Kong (drinkkong.com), teetotalers can choose from drinks like a Lato, made from Tanqueray 0.0, honey syrup and a bright housemade cordial; or a Sfera, a tall glass of cranberry juice, bittered with non-alcoholic Campari and bubbled with San Pellegrino.
The writer was a guest of ITA Airways and Hooked, which did not review or approve this article before publication.