Roughing it, indeed
By JUDI DASH
The cause for change: A harsher world.
Adventure outfitters are changing, too.
"With all the traumas we've gone through -- from terrorism to economic crises -- many Americans have hit the limit of how much stress they're willing to put on themselves and their loved ones, physically or emotionally," says Judy Randall, a travel researcher from Mooresville, N.C.
In fact, in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and this fall's sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area, wilderness may actually seem a safer place than civilization to many people, she said.
"We are definitely ready to venture out, especially for unique, awe-inspiring escapes in nature," Randall says.
"The catch is, we want our nature experience to be controlled enough so we feel safe, comfortable and hassle-free," said Randall, president of Randall Travel Marketing. "We want the freedom to feel we're having an adventure -- with all the insulation of a cruise ship vacation."
Consequently, even hard-core adventure firms, which for two decades have been goading vacationers off their duffs and into the wilds on ever-more demanding excursions, are ratcheting down their programs.
Their goal is to entice less-energetic types, reformed fitness fanatics who no longer find wearing themselves out an attractive vacation concept, or family groups with varying abilities and interests.
Easier, if not easy
A hiking or cycling trip with a company such as Backroads Adventures used to mean demanding daily routes covering miles of muscle-cramping terrain. That's all changed in the kinder, gentler world of outdoor adventures, circa 2003.
"We've shortened the routes and flattened the hills," trumpets Backroads' new "Easy Explorations" catalog of tours. The Berkeley, Calif., outfitter even promises "less physical activity and more relaxation" on 26 new excursions, from Cape Cod to Georgia's islands, California's Death Valley and the Canadian Rockies.
There will be extra vehicle support for participants who want to limit their legwork and spend more time shopping, lingering in restaurants or just hanging out.
Even infants are welcome on Backroads' designated family trips, with an extra kids' counselor provided to give parents more private time.
Guests sleep not on the hard ground but in snazzy lodges, and they eat in restaurants.
On raft and kayak trips that do involve camping, there is no need for the customer to schlep his or her own tent or sleeping bag. The company supplies and sets up everything, and dining is strictly with table and chairs.
Fear, where there was none
A poll of more than 2,600 self-described active travelers, commissioned by Outside Online, the Internet edition of the wilderness adventure magazine Outside, found that 85 percent of respondents planned to travel as much or more this coming season than a year ago. And 60 percent were inclined to stay in North America.
Many outfitters are appealing to nationalism (and perhaps even a little xenophobia) with "homeland journeys" that stick to North American turf. The advantages:
The language spoken is English, the basic cultural values familiar and the stresses of overseas travel -- from long, multiple flights to questionable sanitation and potential anti-American violence -- are substantially reduced.
"The fear factor is a larger element than it might appear on the surface because for many people, it didn't used to be there at all, and now it is," said Dan Austin, director of Austin-Lehman Adventures.
"It's not that we feel particularly unsafe at any given time, but that we have to remind ourselves to think about it, and we would like not having to deal with those thoughts, at least when we're on vacation," he said.
The Billings, Mont., company runs easy-going, six-day, lodge-based excursions (including family trips where children age 7 and older are welcome) to 31 North American destinations, from British Columbia's Vancouver Island to Maine's Acadia National Park.
All the trips include a combination of hiking, cycling, kayaking, rafting and/or horseback riding, because, said Austin, guests like to get a taste, but not necessarily a full plate, of different kinds of new experiences and challenges.
"We have a maximum of 12 guests with two guides, and those guides know every trail, every horse, what's behind every hill, every stretch of water, and every room at the lodgings," said Austin.
"They're not bodyguards but they do give a strong sense of security."
Fly-bys and wine-tastings
Reinforcing the shift to more protected (more "handled") travel experiences is the fact that baby boomers -- the driving force behind the surge in more independent, adventurous travel the past two decades -- are getting older. For some, that means creakier and crankier, said Randall, the travel and tourism researcher.
"Our feet hurt, our knees hurt and we need elastic waistbands," she said. "We're not interested in being cold or wet, or vulnerable in any way -- even to bad weather.
"Smart outfitters are sending out the message: "Hey, folks, you don't have to prove anything. Just have a good time; we'll take care of you and make things fun and new and exciting, but also simple."
O.A.R.S. is on-board with that.
The company's one-week "Ultimate Southwest Vacation" in Utah's Cataract Canyon starts with three days at the chic Red Cliffs Lodge on the banks of the Colorado River. The lodge has a pool, gym and on-site winery. Then the "adventurers" rev up the adrenaline on three days of whitewater rafting, surrounded by towering red rock cliffs, en route to Lake Powell.
At the end of the rafting, though, they don't worry about having having to bounce around in trucks or vans on bumpy roads back to the put-in point -- the traditional return. O.A.R.S. will fly them back to Moab, with plenty of photo opportunities as the plane swoops over the river and Canyonlands National Park.
The outfitter's "Wine on the River" series in California, Oregon or British Columbia includes serious wine tastings, meals prepared by chefs, and lectures on that vital wilderness concern: which wines to pair with which foods.
There's no easy way around the heart-stopping plunges of Class VI River Runners' whitewater raft trips down West Virginia's Gauley and New rivers. But the outfitter's new "Whitewater Yoga Retreats" aim to slow pulses back down with daily massages, meditation, and nice, long shvitzes (induced sweating) in riverside saunas.
Austin-Lehman's Dan Austin said many clients are looking for North American experiences that feel exotic "so they still get bragging rights back at the water cooler.
"People who, in less unsettling times, may have gone to some otherworldly place like Morocco are signing up for trips to Alaska and the Canadian Rockies rather than, say, Yellowstone. The feeling is, 'Hey, I did Yellowstone with my parents when I was 10, but in Alaska or outback Canada I can feel like I've accomplished something new -- like climbing a glacier or kayaking a fjord.' "
Of course, some diehard adventure outfitters and their guests continue to go where few tourists have ever gone, considering it their duty and privilege as citizens of the world to break new -- even shaky -- ground.
The 2003 catalog for Wilderness Travel includes a demanding 12-day trek up Mongolia's highest peak, and an expedition in Cameroon tracking rain forest elephants with pygmy guides.
Distant Horizons, meanwhile, has scheduled cultural excursions to Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia and Cuba -- don't even look for U.S. or Canadian destinations.
"The very basis of civilization lies in seeking the new and learning from the experiences of others," Distant Horizons president Janet Moore said. "There will always be a human need to explore, to go beyond our limits and experience the unknown."
How delightfully 9/10.
Signing on for easy adventure
Prices are per person, based on double occupancy, and do not include airfare. Some meals and incidentals may cost extra. Discounts usually are provided for children, but always check minimum age requirements. All (800) numbers are toll-free.
Austin-Lehman Adventures: 1-800-575-1540; www.austinlehman.com. Six-day multisport trips in nine states, Nova Scotia and the Canadian Rockies. Special family trips accept children from age 7. From $1,898.
Backroads Adventures: 1-800-462-2848; www.backroads.com. Easy Explorations, including many specifically designated for families, in locations including Nova Scotia, Yellowstone/Tetons, California wine country, Mississippi/Louisiana, Georgia's barrier islands, Martha's Vineyard/Nantucket and Cape Cod. From $1,198.
Class VI River Runners: 1-800-252-7784; www.800classvi.com. Three-day whitewater yoga retreats in West Virginia. About $900.
Classic Journeys: 1-800-200-3887; www.classicjourneys.com. Six-day walking trips in the Pacific Northwest, Quebec, Napa Valley/Sonoma Coast, Santa Fe/Taos, Montana's Glacier National Park, other locales. From $2,095.
Footloose (a division of TrekAmerica): 1-800-221-0596; www.trekamerica.com. Excursions in North America geared to ages 38 and older. Among the programs: National Parks trip to Zion/Bryce/Arches/Canyonlands/Grand Canyon; and Appalachian Trail expedition from New York to Maine, with driving between hikes. From $640.
National Wildlife Federation Expeditions: 1-800-606-9563; www.nwf.org/expeditions. Wildlife experts lead excursions to see baby harp seals of Eastern Canada's St. Lawrence Gulf; wolves, bears and geysers of Yellowstone; Maine's coast and highlands; Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. From $1,795.
New England Hiking Holidays: 1-800-869-0949; www.nehikingholidays.com. Two- to six-day walking trips with stays at inns around New Hampshire's White Mountains, northern Vermont, Massachusetts' Berkshires, North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia's Shenandoah and more. From $525.
O.A.R.S.: 1-800-346-6277; www.oars.com. Lodge-based and luxury camping whitewater excursions on rivers in Utah, California, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia. From $1,095.
The Wayfarers: 1-800-249-4620; www.thewayfarers.com. Walking excursions around the California Coastal Trail (San Francisco to Muir Woods and Point Reyes), Santa Barbara, Washington's Olympic Peninsula, New Mexico and more. From $2,195.
Distant Horizons: 1-800-333-1240; www.distant-horizons.com. Cultural journeys to far-flung places, including Iran, Cuba, North and South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. From $3,830.
Wilderness Travel: 1-800-368-2794; www.wildernesstravel.com. Worldwide adventures. From $1,495.
Resources for finding an outdoor adventure
Specialty Travel Index: 1-800-442-4922; www.specialtytravel.com. Largest listing of adventure trips for all abilities and interests. $10 for two issues a year.
Outside magazine: 1-800-678-1131; www.outsidemag.com. Fine resource for independent and guided trips. $18 for 12 issues. Well-written features and gear guides.
Internet Travel Planner, by Michael Shapiro ($17.95, Globe Pequot Press). Excellent how-to manual for researching travel online, including finding guided adventure trips, by the Times' online travel columnist.
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