There are a lot of different styles of travel and reasons to travel, from laying by the pool relaxing to visiting art museums. I’ve experienced just about every kind of vacation imaginable during twenty-plus years as a travel-focused journalist, and I have become increasingly convinced that the best are active vacations. A lot of people seem to agree, as this sector of the leisure travel industry has been booming.
Traditionally, active travel meant sport-specific kinds of trips, primarily cycling, hiking and skiing, along with watersports such as scuba diving and surfing. But in recent years the options have expanded greatly, and today people also go on yoga or wellness vacations, to running camps, or on the many variations of “multi-sport” trips combining permutations of cycling, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, rafting and other pursuits.
Active travel is different from the often-hyped category of “Adventure Travel,” which in many cases involves no more effort than sleeping in a yurt or standing on the deck of an icebreaker and observing glaciers. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is not active.
There are several reasons why active vacations are so appealing. One is the feeling of accomplishment you get when you challenge yourself physically. For example, to hike every day for a week in mountainous terrain, perhaps at altitude, is exertion most of us would not do at home. Then there is the health benefit of active travel, especially given that on vacation, many tend to overindulge in food and drink. Personally, I am going to have gelato anytime I visit Italy, regardless, so it’s better if I’ve burned a few hundred calories first! Meals are sweeter, cold beer more refreshing, and generally you feel better about yourself after a day of physical effort. In addition, just the knowledge that you have a trip like this scheduled often promotes preparation and training, fitness benefits that span months for a week or two on vacation.
But these trips also self-select some of the most beautiful places to visit, active or not. For instance, the most popular classic biking vacation destinations are Tuscany, Provence and California’s wine country. Hiking hotspots include the Alps, New Zealand, and the Himalayas. Top surfing and scuba diving destinations are almost always in tropical paradises.
These types of vacations are in gorgeous scenery, and often destinations you might not otherwise visit except to be active, such as Patagonia, Norway or Chile’s awesome Atacama Desert. But seeing them by foot or paddle or pedal also allows you to explore them at a pace that lets you enjoy the locales far more intimately than you can from a car or train window. One of the world’s oldest and most established active travel companies, Butterfield & Robinson, after half a century of cycling and hiking trips, has long made its motto, “Slow Down to See the World.” There is a lot of truth to that (read my in-depth piece about B&R here).
There is also a good reason why the active trips offered by companies specializing in these draw such a high level of repeat clientele, and when I have traveled with leading companies in any of these niches, many of my compatriots were on their third, fifth or tenth such trip, and are always looking forward to the next new destination to explore actively.
I could go on virtually forever describing all the options and ins and outs of active travel, but instead I am going to recap a few major categories and the highlights of the best trips and best tour operators specializing in them. I’m intentionally skipping skiing and snowboarding, because while certainly active, these are trips you are already either going to do or not do because it’s your passion or annual ritual. However, I have written for years on ski travel here at Forbes, and if you want to learn more, just look.
Cycling: Cycling trips are near and dear to me and I’ve done many, in Europe, Asia and the United States, with a variety of tour operators, good and bad, as well as self-guided. But the biggest misconception about cycling vacations is that they are only for avid cyclists. The truth is that I have been on trips with people who do not cycle at all regularly at home, but they know how to ride a bike, are interested in fitness, and love travel. That’s really all you need, because the good tour operators offer multiple routes of multiple difficulty daily, and each itinerary is rated for difficulty from easy to strenuous, and you can choose trips and destinations accordingly. Typically, there is also the omnipresent option to cut your ride short and get a ride in the guide van. Further, the top tour operators all now offer an E-bike option, bicycles with electric assistance to augment your pedaling. These greatly reduce effort for less experienced riders.
You cover more ground and see more daily by bike than on foot, but still get to stop and smell the roses and see the scenery and culture at a leisurely, immersive pace. The luxury 5-Star gold standard for the industry is Canada’s Butterfield & Robinson, the company that pioneered the category since 1966 and has won many industry and consumer awards. Gray & Company is an award-winning ultra-luxury operator that skips the catalogs and does nothing but one of a kind, bespoke private trips for the most demanding clientele (read more about luxury bespoke travel outfitters like Gray & Co. here).
Other top choices with great track records that I can personally vouch for are Backroads, America’s longtime leader in the space since 1969 (learn more here), and Trek Travel, originally a division of the famous Wisconsin-based bicycle maker, Trek. All have trips to all the top destinations such as Italy and France, as well as all over the world, from Cuba to Vietnam. Spain is a great but less high-profile cycling destination, and South America, especially Argentina, has been on the rise. At a lower price point, Tourissimo is a Boston-based specialist in cycling and active travel to Italy, with less fancy hotels and bells and whistles, but great bikes, guides and in-depth local expertise, as well-as food-centric cycling trips led by famous chefs (which I have written about here).
Hiking: The appeal of hiking is its accessibility: if you can walk, you can hike, and not a lot of special expertise is needed. However, if you plan to tackle one of the more challenging trips, such as the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc, an 8-12 day circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest peak through three countries (Switzerland, France and Italy) or trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, you will definitely want to get some real hiking under your belt first.
Just like cycling, trips are rated by exertion level, and they usually also detail daily mileages, hours and altitude gain and loss. Choosing the right trip for your abilities is important, but there is no more elemental way to explore beautiful landscapes than on foot, and hiking takes you where roads cannot. Some of the most desirable other destinations include the South Island of New Zealand, Peru, the American Southwest with its jaw-dropping red rock landscapes, and Italy’s Dolomites.
National Geographic Expeditions is a leader in high-end trips to some of the more challenging destinations, from the Inca Trail to Patagonia, Machu Picchu to the Himalayas, and is especially known as the gold-standard for the famed Tour du Mont Blanc. Other well-regarded companies include REI Adventures, a division of the eponymous outdoor sports gear retailer, and the top cycling companies, especially Backroads and Butterfield & Robinson, also offer a wide slate of topnotch hiking trips.
Safaris: Wildlife safaris have surged in popularity in recent years, and for good reason, and I’ve written at length about the topic here at Forbes (see “Why an African Safari is the Trip of a Lifetime”). I think the African safari is the pinnacle of the so-called Bucket List, a true (at least) once in a lifetime trip you simple cannot miss. But for most safari-goers, the experience is anything but active, pampered in luxury camps with great food and wine while viewing animals from four-wheel drive vehicles.
However, there are a few options to really up the ante physically. Almost all the top safari camps include early morning and late afternoon game drives, between which most guests lay by the pool, read or nap. But almost all also offer the option for midday ranger guided walks in the bush, which can be fairly active, yet in my experience (about ten African safari trips), surprisingly few guests opt for these. Try it, because you will get some exercise and you might also see something amazing.
More and more lodges now offer midday mountain biking excursions as well – I did one last year in Kenya and it was awesome. Specialty safari tour operators also offer specifically active trips, such as safaris by foot or canoe, and some destinations like the Kalahari Desert (read more here) and Victoria Falls offer more active options.
But the pinnacle of combining wildlife viewing and exertion is gorilla trekking, which requires you to hike, typically for two to four hours, often uphill and in rugged terrain, always on foot, to see the majestic mountain gorillas. This is a one of a kind, unforgettable experience that requires a level of fitness, and is best done in Rwanda, with the second choice being Uganda, while some trips visit both.
There are a lot of topnotch safari companies, but more than in any other niche of travel, based on my numerous experiences, I firmly believe the very best is Micato Safaris, which is what I unequivocally recommend to my family and closest friends, and if you can afford it, you cannot do better, regardless of your destination in Africa (or India, if you want to see tigers). Micato has been the safari choice of everyone from Warren Buffet to Hillary Clinton to British royalty. You can read more about what makes Micato so great here. But specifically for gorillas, National Geographic Expeditions is also a great choice, particularly because they have departures hosted by acclaimed scientific experts, and a local partnership with the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund, so guests visit the organization’s museum and headquarters and meet with researchers. Nat Geo also offers active good gorilla trips for photography buffs.
Destination Fitness Resorts: There is an entire category of resorts dedicated to working out, and these places typically combine a vast slate of classes (stationary cycling, yoga, aerobics, Pilates, cardio-boxing, strength training, etc.) with outdoor activities such as hiking, and healthy food the entire time. Some people go to lose weight, some to kickstart a new fitness regimen, and some just go over and over to get stronger. This kind of vacation is different from other active travel in the sense that you are not going to explore a region or culture or reward your day’s efforts with gelato, but they are definitely active vacations, and many of the top spots are excellent facilities.
Some of the best regarded include the Ranch Malibu, with satellite locations at the Four Seasons Westlake Village and in Italy’s Dolomites; Miraval, in Tucson, Austin and Massachusetts’s Berkshires; Canyon Ranch (Tucson, Berkshires, Woodside, CA); and Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.
Multi-Sport: While cycling and hiking trips tend to draw people who are already fans of those activities, the multi-sport trip is a mixed bag of variety for those who want to be active on a great vacation to a great destination without being wedded to a full week of one pursuit. These trips typically mix a few days each of cycling and hiking with other activities as varied as sea kayaking, dog sledding, horseback riding, caneing, snowshoeing, and even spelunking. It’s a great choice for a first active vacation, or for families with diverse interests, as there is something for everyone and the constantly changing mix makes every day a new adventure.
Multi-sport trips are offered all over the world, but classic spots include Costa Rica and Belize in Central America, New Zealand, Italy’s Dolomites, and South America, especially Chile and Argentina. Not surprisingly, the companies specializing in cycling and hiking trips like Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads and Trek Travel also offer multi-sport options, and because they often have trips focused on all three activities in the same areas, they have the best guides and infrastructure.
Adventure Lodges: This is an especially great way to combine the exploration of a local culture and natural setting with physical activity, yet one that fewer American travelers I speak to really know much about. The best of these are in iconic outdoor destinations such as Patagonia, and combine first rate lodging, food and wine with a stable of in-house guides who are expert in the region, and a vast slate of daily activities all of which are included in the price. Basically, these are luxury boutique resorts that exist simply to offer one-stop shopping for adventures in the great outdoors, and the variety is enormous.
Unlike a multi-sport trip, which still has a daily itinerary, each day you can choose from a number of hikes of different lengths, bike rides, horseback trips, watersports and more – all from one comfortable home base without packing and unpacking. The model is growing but is primarily based in South America, where the pioneer of the genre is Explora, a Chilean family-owned chain that was created to showcase the natural wonders, culture, food and wine of the nation. Explora is exceptional, I have been to three of their properties and cannot wait to go to a fourth, and they have grown into Peru and Argentina, and also offer organized moving trips across the Andes. Explora has a lock on the absolute best way to visit what I personally consider one of the most fascinating places in the entire world, Easter Island, and I cannot recommend visiting this property enough (read more here).
Their model has inspired other South American luxury adventure lodge groups, most notably Tierra, which I have also been to and found excellent (Chile’s Patagonia, Atacama Desert, and Chiloe, in an island archipelago) and the even more upscale Relais & Chateaux member Awasi, with private guides and four wheel drive vehicles for each guest (Atacama, Patagonia, and Iguazu Falls Argentina). The model is very similar to that of a luxury all-inclusive African safari camp, and not surprisingly, one of the most well-regarded safari lodge operators, &Beyond, just moved into this arena with its first South American property, Vira Vira, on an organic farm in Chile’s lake district.
There are lots more active travel options, but if you try even one of the suggestions above, there is a good chance you will get the bug and you can start working your way through the genre.
Why The Best Vacations Are Active Travel Vacations – Forbes