Larry Olmsted | Special to USA TODAY
One positive side effect of the coronavirus pandemic was a spike in participation in active, outdoor and fitness activities. According to a 2021 study by the Outdoor Industry Association, “Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, more Americans have turned to the outdoors, some for the first time and others for the first time in many year.
More than 60% of those who started or resumed walking, bicycling, fishing or running/jogging intend to continue even after restrictions lift. Walking and hiking saw the biggest spike, followed by running, cycling and camping, but participation in just about every outdoor activity – from skiing to kayaking – grew. Meanwhile, purchases of home fitness equipment such as exercise bikes and treadmills saw 170% growth during the pandemic, according to a study by ResearchAndMarkets.com.
As the travel industry rebounds and Americans start vacationing again, there is increased interest in active trips. Companies specializing in active travel such as Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads , DuVine and G Adventures are reporting record bookings for 2022 and beyond.
“We knew that there was going to be a boom in active travel once lockdowns eased, given pent-up demand and the incredible growth of biking and hiking around the world. But we didn’t know just how big it would be!” says Tom Hale, founder of Backroads, which bills itself as the nation’s largest active-travel tour operator. “We’re experiencing unprecedented demand right now. Our business is up more than 100% when comparing 2022 to 2019, the last full year of travel before the global pandemic.”
Not so long ago, this niche revolved around weeklong cycling or hiking trips to a handful of popular destinations such as Tuscany, Burgundy and California wine country, aimed at dedicated enthusiasts. These days, choices abound, as destinations and variety of trips have exploded.
Now there are niche trips for every desire and ability, to established and emerging destinations worldwide. There’s truly something for everyone who enjoys being active outdoors, whether they have a closet full of lycra or not.
There are now out-of-the-box active vacations that many consumers might not be aware even exist, and these are five surprising areas that have seen growing interest.
Bike, hike & boat
Traditional guided trips stay a couple of nights at a hotel and then move to the next, but a recent trend has been to substitute a floating home base that moves with the group.
“If you’ve ever taken a point-to-point trip, you know it can feel as though you spend your time unpacking and repacking,” says Andy Levine, founder of DuVine, an outfitter focused on cycling, hiking and gourmet dining experiences.
Ships also allows exploration of otherwise hard to reach areas. “The goal of every DuVine tour is to show travelers places they might not find on their own. We felt that in places like Greece and Turkey, the routes we really wanted to show were scattered across islands, so centering the trip around a private yacht allows us to moor in less populous, hidden ports,” he notes.
DuVine has “Cycle + Sail” group trips (as well as private charters) in Greece, Turkey and Sardinia.
Backroads has been a big pioneer in “Active Cruises,” especially European river barges . These smaller vessels allow guests to explore inland European cities along famed waterways such as the Danube, Rhine, Duoro and Seine.
The company’s newest thing is “full ship departures.” On these, “Backroads secures a luxurious river ship exclusively for their guests, who enjoy classic biking enhanced by the camaraderie of 150 like-minded travelers,” explains spokesperson Liz Enbinder. There are nine new full-ship trips being added for next year, including Bordeaux wine country and Holland and Belgium.
Hut-to-hut hiking, skiing and mountain biking
A signature of the Alps, rifugios (Italian for “refuge”) are high-mountain restaurants, many of which offer lodging. These are individually-owned and traditionally focus on regional cuisines – fondue and raclette in Switzerland, polenta and sausages in the Dolomites – usually at very reasonable prices and with stellar views. They are beloved by hikers as a place to have a wonderful hot lunch you don’t have to carry, or a rest stop for coffee and dessert or beer and wine.
But increasingly, they are being used as waypoints for multi-day mountain trips in summer and winter that maximize time in nature and eliminate transfers from trailheads to hotels in towns below. More full-service inns up on mountains than “huts,” rifugio accommodations range from dorm-like to luxury. Some offer hot tubs and saunas but almost all feature decks, views and delicious alpine fare. Yet, they are often more affordable – and memorable – than conventional hotels.
“You become more engaged with your environment than when you’re at a hotel,” said Kimberly Rubio of Dolomite Mountains, a specialist in ski, hike and bike vacations in Italy’s Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage area. Because the Dolomites have an especially large concentration of rifugios and are home to the world’s largest interconnected ski lift and trail network, Dolomiti Superski, this is one of the most popular areas for hut-to-hut trips, and Dolomite Mountains trips for alpine or backcountry skiers, cyclists (road, mountain or e-bike) and hikers.
Hut-to-hut trips are special because of the combination of elements: beautiful landscape, fantastic cuisine and beverages, cozy rifugio accommodations, welcoming hosts, actively experiencing nature, yet enjoying creature comforts – all without having to carry a heavy pack” (tour operators move your luggage).
While week-long hut trips are very popular in the Dolomites, elsewhere in the Alps, huts are often combined with town hotels on famed hiking routes such as the Tour du Mont Blanc (Switzerland, France and Italy).
There are similar rifugios in South America and Patagonia, while more rustic huts are widely used for multi-day trips in the Rockies, Norway and Iceland. Wildland Trekking is a leading operator offering hut trips globally.
A few years ago, all the leading cycling companies started adding the option of choosing an e-bike, electric assist motorized models that still require pedaling but do a lot of the work for you. This facilitated multi-generational and multi-ability trips, as occasional cyclist grandparents could keep up with their more active children and grandchildren and less-enthusiastic cyclists could travel with avid friends.
But e-bikes became so popular that some companies have started running exclusively e-bike trips., Leveling the playing field removes any feelings of judgement or competition and appeals to travelers who may be intimidated by the idea of joining a group of hardcore enthusiasts.
Butterfield & Robinson, the outfitter generally credited with inventing the entire genre of cycling trips in 1966, and now the leader in all e-bike departures, notes, “E-bike technology brings the peaks within everybody’s reach.”
For example, its 8-day Ishikawa cycling trip in Japan is rated activity level 4 (Avid) on the company’s 5-point scale, but the same itinerary for an all-e-bike trip is level 2 (Recreational). Butterfield currently offers six different group all e-bike trips on roads, plus a self-guided e-mountain bike trip in Italy’s Dolomites. Other e-bike destinations: Morocco Switzerland, the Spanish island of Mallorca, Switzerland and the eastern French city of Alsace. And of course, it also offers cycling’s classic trip: Tuscan wine country.
Celebrating 30 years in business, Escape Adventures offers several affordable domestic all e-bike tours, noting, “Our e-bike (both road and mountain bike) vacations are created specifically for both first-time cyclists and experienced enthusiasts who want to bring their partners who don’t bike nearly as much.”
Their signature destination for both road and mountain biking is stunning Southwestern Utah, including Bryce and Zion National Parks, while they also have a mountain bike trip in Moab, Utah, one of the world’s most famous off-road destinations. Uniquely, they also offer single-day e-bike road tours outside of Las Vegas, reflecting another emerging active travel trend, the growth of urban mini-adventures.
Some people like to shop, sunbathe or visit art museums while on vacation, but the one thing every single traveler does is eat. Interest in all things culinary has been booming for years, so it makes sense to combine this with physical activity for two great kinds of travel in one trip – plus, many feel better about “earning” indulgences like gelato while working out.
For years, Tourissimo, a Boston and Italy-based specialist in hiking and biking trips to Italy, has hosted a series of trips led by acclaimed chefs. Guests get to interact daily with food celebrities they might only see otherwise on TV, joining them for cooking classes and special meals.
One famous cycling chef who has hosted multiple annual Tourissimo trips is Mary Sue Milliken, cookbook author, co-founder of the Border Grill restaurants, co-star of television’s long-running “Too Hot Tamales” and winner of James Beard and Julia Child Awards. “What could be better than guilt-free eating that comes from the workout you achieve every day?” asks Milliken. Four regional chef cycling trips are offered for 2022 including Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Sardinia and a Piedmont trip that’s also open to hikers.
Backroads runs “Active Culinary” hiking and walking tours in France and Italy, showcasing market and farm visits and private cooking classes, while DuVine also offers several regional “Chef on Wheels” bike tours in Italy.
“I believe every region is revealed through its cuisine and terroir. All our tours have a culinary-forward focus, but we know gourmand experiences can be the driving factor for certain travelers. We saw the opportunity to amplify the exclusivity and wow-factor, and our Specialty tours were born,” says DuVine’s Levine. “These trips put the emphasis on food-and-wine-forward activities, filling every moment off the bike with culinary activities – and sometimes on the bike too, providing an opportunity to ride alongside our special guest!”
Most top active travel operators heavily stress regional food and drink and include activities like winery visits and tastings, and Backroads includes Michelin-starred meals on many of its regular itineraries. Dolomite Mountains offers a special food-centric “Gourmet Ski Safari,” as well as a summertime hiking version, combining traditional meals at rustic alpine huts with Michelin-starred restaurants in town.
Rather than being devoted cyclists or hikers, many travelers today are interested in trying new and different physical activities.
For this reason, the major active tour operators have greatly expanded multi-sport tours, combining days of different pursuits, usually including cycling and hiking but also adding other options, such as kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, zip lines or via ferrata (a cable-connected, safer form of climbing), whitewater rafting, yoga or surfing lessons.
A few years ago, Backroads added a new lineup of winter multi-sport trips that combine snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, winter hiking, horseback riding and crampon-equipped glacier walks, in locales ranging from Wyoming’s Tetons to Canada and Scandinavia.
G Adventures is an active tour company offering more affordable trips that has a slate of multi-sport trips worldwide including oddities such as spelunking (caving) in Spain and rappelling in New Zealand.
But perhaps the most unusual multi-sport mashup is DuVine’s recently added Scotland Golf + Bike Tour. Says Levine, “It marries two very different leisure pursuits, but you’d be surprised at the overlap of interest! With the home of golf in St. Andrews, Scotland is an obvious must-do for golf tourism. But it’s also a gorgeous setting for cycling, and between playing on championship courses, you may be cycling on the coast or biking to landmarks like castles and cathedrals.”
Editor’s note: Travel and food writer Larry Olmsted has led culinary-themed trips with Tourissimo, one of the trip outfitters mentioned in this story.