Story by Dennis Lewon
Kathy Singleton took one look at her itinerary for a three-week trip in New Zealand, and her eyes popped out of her head. The 46-year-old Colorado resident had unwittingly signed up for a multisport adventure outing and discovered that her trip's menu of activities read more like the scorecard for an adventure race than a vacation: trekking, mountain biking, sea kayaking, whitewater rafting and horseback riding, with a little caving and glissading thrown in for good measure. "I love the outdoors," Singleton recalls thinking, "but I'm no triathlete."
A week after returning home, Singleton now laughs at her pre-trip jitters. "It was an amazing experience. so much variety. I still can't believe how much we did, and we never felt rushed." Not only did Singleton and her friends enjoy all the sports their Active New Zealand kayaking tour promised, but they even started creating a few of their own. "We were kayaking in Milford Sound when a pod of dolphins showed up,' says Singleton. "We started riding the wake." dolphin surfing became a bonus activity during this eventful swing through New Zealand.
Tropical beach and multisport trips, which combine several activities into one action-packed tour, are the latest phenomenon in adventure travel. And private islands are another. It's the answer for anyone who wants to squeeze every ounce of experience and electrolytes out of their vacation. If numbers are any indication, it's the right answer, too. Multisport journeys have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry. At Backroads, the adventure giant, multisport departures increased by 60 percent in 1998 -- and the company has since added 12 more of the trips to its new catalog.
What's the appeal? Variety, for starters. With the help of a precision timetable, a slew of high-tech gear and expert leaders (and maybe a extra cup of coffee every morning), a multisport adventure delivers far more diversity in a short amount of time than, say, a typical trekking or biking tour. As in Singleton's case, a three-week trip can become a smorgasbord of once-in-a-lifetime activities. "One day I was rafting down the Clarence River; the next day I was pedaling through a flock of sheep in the mountains and galloping on horseback down a secluded beach," she says. "I couldn't have done half the things we did if I'd planned it myself."
The smorgasbord approach multiplies trip highlights for any given destination. On a Backroads Wyoming outing, for instance, travelers are treated to a taste of the best rod and mountain biking, river rafting and hiking in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. And the logistics of fitting all these pieces together are out of your hands. "It's more complex from a gear and scheduling perspective, but it's well worth it," says Backroads guide Christopher White. "I love leading the Yellowstone trip because it's so exciting for everyone. We get to do the best of everything in a week. "For most travelers, it's the only way to take their favorite sports on the road without the hassle of schlepping gear all over the world.
"We do a lot of biking, rafting, and hiking at home," says Rob McAlister, who decided to take his family on a trip to Belize. "So we definitely wanted an active trip and we were also looking at private island vacations." They got one. On a nine-day Belize all inclusive tour with Slickrock Adventures, the McAlisters went biking through a tropical rainforest, hiking to Belize Mayan ruins, rafting a Class IV river, paddling an underground stream and sea kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving along the world's second largest barrier reef. McAlister could have added windsurfing to the list, but he opted for a training session on a hammock instead. Another Slickrock trip examines the Mayan civilization in more depth.
If this all sounds like a trip for Type AAA personalities only, as the McAlisters learned in Belize, smart operators schedule enough hammock time (or an equivalent) that travelers won't need a vacation when the vacation ends. "We never had to get up at four a.m. or finish late at night," says McAlister. "Everything was set up, so it was easy to go from one activity to the next."
The combination of go-go-go and rest-rest-rest can result in somewhat schizophrenic balance of hard play and hedonism. A long day on difficult single track might culminate with a stay at a luxurious jungle lodge complete with cocktail hour and five-course dinner. This philosophy of extremes has struck the right chord for travelers who like the rewards of a rigorous day with a soft landing at the end of the trail.
Susie Anderson and Mike Richardson found the combination a perfect balance for their honeymoon trip. They didn't want the typical newlywed beach package ("we'd get bored"), but neither did they want to rough it on a trekking or camping tour. They settled on a multisport trip to the Yucatán. "It was the right amount for a relaxing, active vacation," reports Anderson. "Hiking and biking allowed us to get off the road and see the country the way we wanted to."
Multisport trips fall into two general categories. Some, like the New Zealand and Belize jaunts, specialize in variety, stacking half a dozen different activities into a typical itinerary. Other outings, like the Backroads Yucatán trip, take a lighter approach. By toning down the activity load, these trips aim to provide a little more time for each of them. "We want each ingredient to be at the absolute top end of what's available," says Glenn Rowley, director at KE Adventure Travel, which offrs a Nepal tour with three activities. The 20-day package includes an ambitious trek in a little-visited Himalayan region, a white-knuckle whitewater descent of the Marsyangdi River and a mountain bike tour above the Kathmandu Valley. "It's just the right mix," reports Los Angeles-based Patricia Christie, who joined KE for the inaugural trip. "You get into a groove at something and you get to keep doing it. But you also see a lot of varied geography by switching sports."
Naturally, the physical demands are a consideration when planning this sort of trip. You don't need to be a fitness instructor, but it's worth checking out the particulars. Find out how many days are spent on each activity, what sort of equipment is included, and if you have to pay extra for rentals. Find out how many miles are covered per day. Are there qualified instructors for the technical portions of the trip? Are rest days scheduled? What are the options for participants who need a break or want to skip Class IV whitewater? Then ask yourself what your fitness level really is. Be honest.
Most multisport adventures are tailored to the moderately active, and, while it's best to do your own homework, operators usually go to great lengths to match clients with the right activity level. Some may go even further. Latitudes, a San Francisco-based tour operator specializing in Asia, New Zealand and Australia, is collaborating with a local gym to create customized training programs for clients who sign up for a multi-adventure trip.
The constant change of pace itself may turn out to be a benefit for freshman multisporters. Singleton found the daunting variety of activities on her New Zealand tour to be a blessing in disguise: "We were constantly working different muscle groups so I never got very sore," she says. "it was like cross-training."
Of course, this can be an expensive way to cross-train, so remember that what you're paying for are experiences you can't create on your own. Look for outfitters that not only provide a late-model mountain bike -- in your size -- in the deepest jungle, but can also offer offbeat activities that add to the overall diversity. For example, on a Burmese journey, Latitudes include a unique sailing segment. You can also strap into a climbing harness for a rainforest canopy tour in Costa Rica (Active Journeys), saddle up for a camel ride in Morocco (Backroads) or paddle an underground river by headlamp in Belize (Slickrock Adventures).
A whirlwind of activity awaits you, but it's all part of a simple theme. As every traveler knows, it's not just where you go, but how you get there.