Active Travel has never been hotter as a category within the travel industry then it is right now. But it is also far more encompassing than it has been in the past, which means you don’t have to be physically gung-ho to enjoy these kinds of trips, you just have to be open to new experiences – and that is what today’s travelers overwhelmingly say they want, life experiences.
One interesting side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it fueled huge surges in participation in just about every kind of outdoor activity, from fishing to birdwatching to golf, but the biggest gainers were hiking, biking and running. Sporting good stores enjoyed record sales, and just about every available bicycle in the country was sold quickly – including indoor exercise bikes and equipment. Now life is slowly returning to “normal,” but in the biggest outdoor industry poll of consumers, 60% of those who embarked on new activities during the pandemic say they want to keep doing them going forward, and by most estimates, there are more Americans hiking and biking than there have ever been. That in turn has sparked huge interest in active travel, which historically has meant guided hiking and cycling vacations, but now means much more.
I personally have been a huge fan of these trips for two decades before the pandemic, because there are few better ways to really appreciate your surroundings, whether it’s raw nature or charming Tuscan hill towns, than at the speed you see it from your feet or the saddle of a bicycle. You get closer to the people and places you visit, but it’s also healthier – and in turn that means that the sinful sides of vacation, the wine, the gelato, the fresh baguettes, the aged cheeses, all go down with a little less guilt, because you’ve “earned” them.
Today active travel means everything from yoga and surfing retreats to guided ski safaris, and the more traditional cycling and hiking trips have been combined with other activities into multi-sport itineraries which often add things like kayaking, canoeing, sailing, horseback riding, and even spelunking to the mix. Multi-sport trips are great choices for varied groups or those who want to do physical activities and try something new but are not (yet) avid devotees of cycling or hiking. At the same time, the food side of the trips have evolved greatly, with a focus on standout restaurants along the way, local specialties, VIP wine and cheese tastings, even cooking classes, to the point of an entire sub-category of “active culinary travel.” There are also more ways to go active than ever, including the greatly increased use of boats instead of hotels.
There are many standout operators in the upscale active travel category. I’ve had the good fortune to travel with such topnotch companies as Butterfield & Robinson, Gray & Co., DuVine, National Geographic Expeditions, Tourissimo, Dolomite Mountains and others, and I would recommend all of the above. There is no one best choice, and if you pick a classic trip like cycling Tuscany or Burgundy, you’ll find every player offers them and the choice can be overwhelming.
But when it comes to choices, no company offers more of them than Backroads, America’s oldest active travel company (since 1969), and generally considered the biggest. In many cases bigger is not necessarily better, but I have traveled repeatedly with Backroads, have loved it, and they have consistently used their scale to the customer’s advantage: whole boat takeovers, better quality bicycles, more clout with hotels, bigger fleets of vehicles, you name it. In 2016 they added free GPS devices with route maps (instead of trying to read paper directions while riding a bike) and the free option of motor assisted E-bikes (many operators charge for this upgrade) across Europe, North America and Hawaii trips. Another major advantage of having such an enormous catalog of trips is that they can be more age appropriate, often offering the exact same trip to adults only (perfect for friends and couples) or families, which get further divided into those with kids and younger teens and those with older teens and twenties. As result, even on group trips, everyone can divide in ways that they and other guests appreciate.
But at the end of the day what Backroads offers that rivals cannot match is a staggering array of high-quality choices of places to go, ways to go, activities, activity levels and lengths of trips. Almost all are offered as both scheduled group departures you can join, or can be done privately for you and your family or a group of friends, which gives you more privacy and more schedule freedom (and costs more). Land based trips also come in two tiers of lodging to appeal to more budgets, with trips utilizing either “casual hotels” or “premier hotels,” the latter including top luxury brands such as Montage, Belmond and Auberge Resorts. To offer even more flexibility, while most traditional active trips have been a week or longer, Backroads added a broad slate of weekend and 4-day trips for those seeking a quicker getaway or to combine it with other travels. Choices, choices and more choices.
Since travel started to skyrocket again after the pandemic lockdowns, Backroads has seen demand grow enormously and keeps adding more and more new trips and new departures dates for existing trips. 2021 was a record year that is about to be surpassed, and the number of travelers going on Backroads trips this year is up by 24% over pre-pandemic 2019 levels, and the number of trips they are offering worldwide is up 21%.
Backroads was launched by Tom Hale in his garage in 1969, and four decades later, Hale still runs the company as President. Here’s what he recently told me: “When Backroads started out more than 40 years ago, the active adventure segment of the travel industry was pretty much non-existent. Our trips attracted mostly serious cyclists and hiking enthusiasts, but the audience of people who want to travel actively and see the world a different way has expanded tremendously over the years. We’ve listened to our guests and added different kinds of trips around the world for every taste, interest and activity level. For example, we hear a lot from families wanting to travel together and spend their vacation outside on bikes, trails or on the water. Today Backroads is the only active/adventure travel company to offer age-segmented family trips. Our philosophy of encouraging people to get outside and connect with their destination by experiencing it actively still holds true today, and we’re thrilled to see so many more travelers embracing this idea.”
“Backroads has grown along with our guests in so many ways – from adding shorter trips for those who want a weekend getaway, to carving out the active ocean and river cruise market, launching Dolce Tempo trips for those who want to go at a more leisurely pace, segmenting our Family trips into three distinct age groups… and the list goes on. Whatever might differentiate our guests in terms of what they want out of active travel, we strive to offer something for those tastes. Now, more than ever, there is no one ‘typical’ Backroads guest”.
Here’s an example of the company’s evolving offerings I experienced firsthand. Several years ago I was in Kentucky for an assignment, and the state’s tourism department announced the creation of a new cycling route, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. They made a map and website and options for places to stay along the way, local bike rental shops and all the info you’d need to do a self-supported trip in the gorgeous area between Louisville and Lexington, and all the distilleries and attractions you could visit along the way. This was at the time that interest in bourbon and craft distilling was exploding in popularity, all these great new hotels were opening in Louisville, and I remember thinking, “Wow, this is a fabulous idea, riding pastoral country roads past the horse farms and bluegrass, tapping into the red-hot popularity of bourbon and Southern food, with good weather so much of the year. Except most people don’t want to do a self-supported bike ride, carrying their luggage, hoping it doesn’t rain, trying to show up and get in on distillery tours that might be sold out, booking rooms along the way, all the hassles.” I thought, “If a tour company offered this trip as a supported ride, it would be fabulous, a home run. There are tons of these trips for wine lovers, but none in this country for whiskey fans.”
Well, apparently Backroads felt the same way, because they stepped in as the first major operator to add a Kentucky Bourbon Trail bike trip, using fantastic properties like the 21c Museum Hotel and Kentucky Castle, with VIP private tours of large and boutique distilleries, live local music, full van support on the road, luggage transfers and guides and all the luxury trappings. There’s even a DIY whiskey blending experience. That was only three years ago, and for 2023 they are offering 20 different dates of scheduled group departures, an enormous amount, and they also offer it as a private trip. And that is just one of countless options.
They still offer all the classics, cycling Tuscany, Burgundy, Napa, hiking in the Alps, Alaska and Canadian Rockies, but geographically they have expanded widely, into rising hotspots like Norway’s Lofoten Islands, Chile’s Lake District, and more. Spokesperson Liz Einbinder told me that, “2022 is shaping up to be our biggest year ever, and we’re predicting that 2023 will be even bigger as people get back out on the road. New 2023 trips that are rolling out next year including Baja California, a new bike tour in Sardinia, a multi-adventure tour in the Carolinas, hiking in the Dolomites & Lake Garda, Canada and more. We will be announcing additional new 2023 trips later summer. We’re very excited about these new trips and know that our guests will be as well.” She was telling the truth: just two days ago Backroads rolled out new multi-sport trips in the South of France, Argentina’s Mendoza wine country, Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge and Wyoming’s Tetons; hiking in Sedona; and cycling from luxury hotels in Napa and Sonoma.
In addition to a hugely varied slate of hiking, biking and multi-sport trips around the globe, both scheduled group departures and privates, here are some of the specific areas in which Backroads has carved out new ways to enjoy Active Travel.
Active Cruises: This has become very popular very quickly and more itineraries keep getting added. In fact, Backroads started Active Cruises only seven years ago with the Danube and now covers about ten countries from Asia Pacific to the Atlantic to the Amazon, across Europe and the Mediterranean. Typically, they book a number of slots for their group on a scheduled cruise, but the category has been so popular for them that they now offer whole boat charters where everyone on the ship is a Backroads participant. Most are river cruises, which use smaller boats with more space than ocean cruises, which have had great appeal since the pandemic, with lots of personal space and intimacy indoors and out, and options for private dining in room or open-air dining on deck.
But the real appeal is that you pack and unpack only once during your trip as opposed to the average three hotels, while traversing bigger swaths that include some of the great cities, towns and wine regions of Europe. The most traditional routes are the Seine, Danube and Rhine, but Backroads also does waterways of Belgium and the Netherlands, the Amazon, and the red-hot Douro River valley of Portugal, along with a slate of ocean going offerings, including Iceland, Tahiti, Venice to Croatia, Antarctica nd the Galapagos. They partner with top tier cruise lines, including luxury industry leader Ama Waterways for most European rivers, and the most luxurious French cruise line, Ponant, for the Mediterranean, Iceland and Polynesia (read more about what makes Ponant so special here).
Dolce Tempo: Because of growing interest from newcomers to active travel, Backroads decided to re-invent the wheel with an entirely new category of easier-going trips that were more accessible to the less avid. The Dolce Tempo (Sweet Time) collection of trips have the same deluxe trappings, including full van support, great guides, a slate of insider VIP experiences tours, tastings and top hotels, and even more decadent cuisine, but are “Easygoing by Design.” Examples include E-biking the California coast from Santa Barbara to Ojai, walking (rather than hiking) Italy’s unbelievably gorgeous Cinque Terre, walking the naturally stunning Lake Louise and Banff, Canada’s oldest National Park, along with many more destinations, including Utah, Switzerland, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, Alaska, New Zealand, France, California Wine Country, Costa Rica, Ireland, Iceland, Maine, Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, Norway, Morocco, and more.
To give you an idea, the Dolce Tempo easygoing walking tours typically include 2-3 hours of walking per day, approximately 2-7 miles. All the Dolce Tempo cycle tours feature motor-assisted E-bikes and average 2-4 hours of biking per day, approximately 10-30 miles. For those who want, regular road bikes are also available. The welcoming nature of the Dolce Tempo trips has made them quickly wildly popular, many more have been added, and Hale credits them with fueling the record number of customers Backroads is now serving.
Active Culinary: Because eating and drinking well and places like Italy and global wine country regions go hand in hand with active vacations, the providers in this active travel space have all been falling over themselves to add more food-focused trips for gourmets and Backroads is partiality adept in a couple of ways. The company has always been known for great insider picks, and on the trips I have done with them, they have unfailingly included some meals at hidden gems that I would never have found on my own, with a real local sense of place, and also had great recommendations for the nights on your own. All trips include extras like wine tasting, private vineyard visits, and deep dives into specialties from balsamic vinegar and olive oil to cheeses and cured meats. But they also have a separate slate of “Active Culinary” trips with even more foodie appeal, which feature guided market visits, cooking classes, farm visits and meals, Michelin-starred restaurants and more.
Cold Weather Active: In recent years Backroads has been a pioneer among active travel specialists yet again, by giving up the cycling and hiking altogether on what it calls “Snow Adventures,” trips that feature activities like snowshoeing, glacier walks, skating and more while seeing the Northern lights, moose, reindeer and even sleeping in ice hotels, from Canada to Finland & Sweden to Wyoming to Antarctica.
With so many different kinds of trips of widely varied length in so many places – and more being added all the time – it is no surprise that Backroads enjoys a high repeat guest rate, as you could do a couple of trips a year and never make a dent in the catalog. For this reason, like hotel chains or airline, they even have a free to join frequent guest program to earn rewards, BEST, Backroads Extra Special Travelers Club. But even compared to the most challenging active trips, the hardest part of all is just choosing where and how to go.