Active travel is my favorite kind of travel, and whether it’s a guided group hike in the Alps, a self-guided bike tour in wine country or a multi-sport vacation that combines cycling,hiking and watersports, these trips offer guilt free indulgence. You still visit wonderful places, eat delicious things and stay at first rate hotels, but you also exercise every day and feel better about all the luxuries.
Active vacations are also outdoors by their very nature, and outdoors is where everyone wants to be right now due to the global coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, participant outdoor sports have exploded in popularity since March, and I have recently written beginners’ guides here at Forbes on hiking, on road biking and mountain biking for the thousands taking up these new pursuits. But active travel still faces many of the same hurdles all would-be travelers have to cope with right now: cancellations, fear of flying, quarantine requirements, outright travel bans and the basic decision whether it is even moral to put yourself in someone else’s community and potentially at risk.
Ultimately, whether you want to travel at this time is up to you, and if the answer is yes, than you will be happy to learn that many of the top active travel outfitters have switched gears to offer more easy to reach domestic destinations, new safety policies, smaller groups, more self-guided trips, more privacy and so on. But if you prefer to wait until things normalize, these companies will still be there for you with a slew of choices all over the world. By then, after missing travel for so long, then you might feel it’s time to treat yourself and take that dream trip, whether it’s the Bucket List bike (and gelato!) tour of Tuscany or trekking with mountain gorillas.
I’ve been fortunate over the past two decades to travel with many of the best companies in this field, and prefer to recommend only companies I know and have faith in, especially at these times when safety and experience are paramount. These are my favorites, what they are up to right now, and what they have planned for 2021.
Butterfield & Robinson: Known as the company that pioneered the entire upscale active travel industry when it started doing guided trips in 1966, Canada’s B&R enjoys a very high repeat customer rate because they do an excellent job. The award winning 5-star luxury operator is known for its attention to detail, excellent guides, great hotel curation and careful route planning, and after more than half a century of doing biking and walking trips very well, they have greatly expanded, with everything from multi-sport to safaris to yacht-based sailing trips and private villa adventures.
“For U.S. travelers we are seeing interest in domestic travel for this fall – California and Utah are the most popular destinations. Most people postponed their trips with us and others are booking now for next year, but bookings are strong for 2021, and clearly people are hoping to travel. Both small group travel (we are limited to 16 people) and private are popular,” said Vice President Kathy Stewart. For those who are venturing outside the U.S., Croatia, Greece and Turkey have been the most popular destinations, along with a surge in yacht-based trips.
The company is currently offering more self-guided options, with the same detailed itineraries, routes, top quality bikes (for bike trips), hotels and luggage transfers, but no one else with your party. They have also greatly expanded the availability of red hot e-bikes (electric motorized assistance for pedaling) to make all cycling trips accessible to more people, and also are adding more “beyond pavement” trips built around “gravel grinders,” the beefier road bikes suited for dirt and gravel roads. Because you can go to more scenic places with far less cars, gravel grinders that have been the fastest growing segment of the biking industry the past few years. The highlight of this niche is Italy’s famous Strade Bianche, the “white road,” because of the color of the gravel, home to arguably the top non-pavement annual race of its kind, ending in Siena. Now B&R lets regular folks recreate an epic but long overlooked route in the heart of the world’s premier cycling vacation destination.
In addition to the usual suspects, like Provence, Napa and Tuscany, B&R goes everywhere from Oman to Morocco, Japan and Africa. You can view the complete new 2021 trip collection, which includes such interesting places as Portugal’s Azores islands, here. B&R also has been a pioneer in the niche of “active culinary” travel, combining insider foodie experiences and cooking lessons with cycling and hiking. I did one of these in the Basque region of Spain, with a hike on the nation’s famed El Camino de Santiago, road riding across the border into seaside France, molecular gastronomy and a guided deep-dive into the epicenter of tapas culture in San Sebastian – with the most Michelin stars per capita in the world. The latest big addition to the B&R slate is snow-focused winter trips, new for 2021. I’ve been on guided and self-guided B&R trips, , and they have been unfailingly excellent.
Finally, B&R has just rolled out a new Singular Stays program which takes its typical weeklong style of active trip, which would usually visit three hotels, and instead bases it out of a single location ensuring a group’s privacy, such as a rental villa, small hotel exclusive takeover or boat. This was on tap for 2021 anyway but has proven a perfect option for the current crisis, only for private trips.
Backroads: Another venerable and well-respected specialist, Backroads also has more than 50 years experience and is America’s oldest active travel specialist, still run by its founder and true to its mission. I’ve traveled with Backroads twice, and while the lodging is not quite as decadent, the price point is a little bit lower and the company excels in several key ways, most notably with its excellent culinary focus, always picking standout restaurants along the way that would be hard to find – or book – on your own. They also offer highly experienced guides – the Washington Post wrote a feature about how it’s harder to get this job than to get into an Ivy League school – along with first rate bikes (and e-bikes), excellent routes and logistics, and trips of all sorts all over the world.
Two years ago Backroads shook up the active travel business when it added extensive daily yoga options to many of its trips across the board, an entire new layer of appeal on top of biking, hiking or multi-sport, and I wrote about this here at Forbes. I did a mixed on- and off-road bike trip with them in Maine, and a multi-sport trip with sailing, cycling, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding in the Florida Keys, and both were excellent.
Backroads just rolled out an entire new category of trips called Dolce Tempo, which are more luxurious and less arduous while still being active, described by the company as “easygoing.” These use exclusively e-bikes and offer more of a vacation with exercise than an exercise vacation. The trips are for small groups and there are almost 30 new Dolce Tempo itineraries worldwide for 2021.
Like most peers, Backroads is currently seeing a boom in domestic travel, as spokesperson Liz Einbinder told me. “For 2020, it’s our Tetons and Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and Grand Canyon (or any of our Canyons trips) and Puget Sound. For 2021 it’s the Canadian Rockies, Croatia, Italy’s Dolomites, Provence, Glacier National Park, Portugal, Brittany & Normandy.”
When Backroads trips resumed in mid-June after a brief suspension, the focus was on select domestic destinations with lots of space, mostly National Parks, and they added a lot of new policies, from daily cleaning of everything – all vans and surfaces and every piece of gear, including GPS units and hiking poles. Guides have received enhanced food safety and handling training to meet CDC and WHO guidelines. Trip leaders are taking the temperature of participants before starting all trips, hotels utilized have been revaluated with an emphasis on cleanliness and space, trip sizes have been reduced, single supplements have been lowered so solo travelers can get their own private rooms, and dining logistics have been revamped to offer more solo and room service options.
Like Butterfield & Robinson, they offer a lot of private and small group options where those who choose to can avoid any unknown traveling companions altogether. Backroads also has a special category of active culinary trips and snow-based winter active travel.
Gray & Company: No active travel company is better suited for these times than Gray & Co., an elite luxury specialist that has never had any group or scheduled departures at all and does nothing but bespoke single party private trips. I wrote about female founder and owner Cari Gray and how her company does such a great job here before at Forbes. She basically helps you do what you want, where you want, anyplace on earth, and do it very, very well – they won the lofty title of World’s Best Tour Operator – of any size, in any category – from Travel + Leisure magazine.
“Travelers have a newly gained appreciation for the great outdoors and active vacations BUT there are limited fabulous lodges. Getting space will be an issue, and our connections and savvy insights are more valuable than ever,” Gray told me. “Right now, a lot of our safety conscious travelers have simply been curbing their wanderlust – if they think it’s too risky they dream and research now, for travel later. We are focused more on 2021 and booking before the onslaught of queries comes when destinations open up. We are working with suppliers and keeping our many global connections alive to gain favorable booking conditions and limited space. We also expect plenty of multi-generational active requests since grandparents have been so deprived!”
“Those that want an escape now are doing domestic trips, especially rural destinations and guest ranches. People are loving the outdoors in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, the really special places like Amangiri, Amangani, Brush Creek Lodge, the new Auberge Lodge at Blue Sky, Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain. These places are having the best seasons ever. People are traveling in small bubbles with close friends and/or family, they appreciate exclusive takeovers of hotels and home rentals, and they are understanding the importance of adjusting expectations to make sure all is clean and safe – more take out than dining in restaurants.”
Micato Safaris: Micato is not famous for active travel, they are famously known as the world’s best safari operator, and the number of awards they have won is almost embarrassing – such as an unprecedented and unrivalled nine time winner of Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Safari Company. I have traveled repeatedly with Micato and they are unbelievable, as good as their lofty reputation, and one of the most interesting active options they do is gorilla trekking in Rwanda, perhaps the most physical African wildlife experience there is. To see the gorillas you have to trek onto their turf, through dense foliage on steep mountain slopes, often for a couple of hours, and it is a far cry from just sitting in a Land Rover looking at animals. But it is also one of the hardest trips to arrange because permits and rooms are extremely limited and increasingly in demand, especially from the fast growing, newly wealthy travel markets of China, Brazil, and Russia. This is a trip that should be planned over a year out, which is perfect for these times, but even with advance warning it also requires using a company that has the local infrastructure, expertise, and insider connections to do it right, all of which means Micato.
Want to climb Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Summits and the highest peak on the continent, the “Roof of Africa?” Micato does that too – in the best style you can imagine. Though I haven’t done that trip, I have friends who went with them. Micato’s guides took me on epic full day hike up Cape Town’s Table Mountain, mountain biking in Kenya, hiking along Victoria Falls, and tracking endangered rhinos on foot in the Kalahari Desert. Safaris are awesome, one of the truest must-do “Bucket List” trips, but because it is so easy to be sedentary on a safari, the way around that is to go with a company that will cater every day and every stay and every lodge to your desire to be more active, with daily walking safaris and much more. That’s Micato, and all of the best trips are ones you should be planning for a year or more in advance, when hopefully things are normal again.
National Geographic Expeditions: Unfortunately Nat Geo is discontinuing the epic hiking trip I did with them last year, the Tour de Mont Blanc, a weeklong circumnavigation of the highest peak in the Alps, through three countries, Italy, Switzerland and France. Known as the TMB, it is often – and fairly – rated the best multi-day hike on earth. But even though they won’t be doing the TMB, National Geographic did a fantastic job, with the best hotels, guides, meals and logistics for the complex trip of any of the many top active companies I researched. Almost all of the fellow hikers on out trip had been with the company before, from the Himalayas to Peru, and over and over gain they told me they booked the TMB specifically because of their great previous hiking experience with Nat Geo.
For 2021, they are offering an incredibly diverse array of trips worldwide, including their signature exploration cruises to the polar regions on ice hardened vessels, but for the active traveler, the company’s real specialty is epic 9 to 13 day hiking trips, which have been reduced, but for 2021 highlights include Patagonia and New Zealand.
Stay active, stay safe!