It took Marc Osborn and his wife four hours to hike to the summit of Mount Huashan, a sacred peak in China's Shaanxi Province. The hard work paid off with dramatic views of the surrounding ridgelines and craggy peaks.
While the Seattle couple was determined to make it up the mountain, they also had a little motivation: They were in the company of a guide who knew the trail well, had packed lunch and had already arranged their overnight accommodations. The guide, an employee of the Washington-based tour company REI Adventures, also led the Osborns and 14 other travelers on walks along less-traveled sections of the Great Wall and biking trips through rural villages. For Osborn, 38, the logistical help made all the difference.
"It's one thing to say, 'I would like to bike in China,' " says Osborn. "It's another thing to have that arranged for you. It was really invaluable to have that amount of attention."
To be sure, tour companies represent a happy medium for travelers interested in an active vacation but hesitant to tackle the logistics. A guided trip eliminates the variables—and the headaches.
On a six-day kayaking tour of the San Juan Islands in Washington state, another REI Adventures offering, participants explore protected coves and islets while hoping to spot bald eagles or Orca whales. Outfitted with all the necessary gear, travelers have little to worry about. Guides transport luggage, find camping spots and consult wind and tide maps.
"Just getting a kayak on top of your car is not easy," says Cynthia Dunbar, manager of REI Adventures. Handling that sort of detail alone can make the trip worth the price, which ranges between $1,199 (for REI members) and $1,325 (for non-members). Unique touches add even more value. "There are a lot of cool elements that you could never replicate."
On this trip, guides prepare dinners in an outdoor Dutch oven and meals are supplemented with fresh vegetables and berries brought by a local farmer who sticks around to chat with the group.
Even with these luxuries, a days-long kayaking trip might sound too tough for some. Yet outdoors tour companies pay special attention to varying skill levels. Backroads, a Berkeley, Calif.-based tour company, advises clients on how to prepare for a trip and accommodates couples and families who have different ideas about acceptable distances. The company, which is offering more than 1,200 trips to 42 countries for 2008, has about 300 family-oriented packages. The activities include biking, hiking, kayaking, rafting and even camel treks.
"You don't have to start with our hardest trips," says Holly Woolard, a spokeswoman for Backroads. "We direct you to a trip that matches your interest and physical levels."
A six-day biking tour through the vineyards, orchards and small villages of France's Loire Valley, for example, averages 25 miles a day, but there are options to cut back or add distance. The price, which ranges between $3,398 and $4,398, includes all cycling equipment, nightly stays at elegant hotels and most meals. Another perk is the shuttle service that can escort children from one point to the next, leaving the parents to tackle that last hill or stretch of road.
Making it special
If the idea of having to abide by an itinerary is irksome, you can pay more to travel alone or customize the vacation.
Butterfield & Robinson, a Toronto-based tour company that specializes in hiking and cycling getaways, offers bespoke trips as well. The company's guided tours start at $800 to $1,000 a day per person, but travelers desiring customized tours will pay at least double that rate.
Cari Gray, marketing director for the company, says the increased price gives travelers the "ability to control things from the very initial start." Activities are also not limited to cycling and walking.
On a recent eight-day trip to South Africa, Gray guided a group of five travelers who decided to kayak, golf, surf and go horseback riding in addition to biking and walking. Gray and four other guides were also responsible for orchestrating non-active outings like shopping and dining. The bespoke approach to outdoors vacations may seem excessive, but Gray says the precise planning is about maximizing your time.
"It really is decadent," Gray admits, "but there's a lot of people who don't want to take any risks with their vacations. They don't get a lot of time off and they want to make sure it's perfect."