By Nichola Saminather
Lois Gruendl, from Virginia, and Karen Schmidt, from Alaska, decided to splurge on a two-week adventure trip to New Zealand to celebrate their 50th birthdays this year.
Gruendl, a U.S. Navy retiree, and Schmidt, a civil engineer for the U.S. government, went sea kayaking and rafting, swimming with dolphins, hiking, walking on glaciers and horseback riding. But they also stayed in five-star hotels and fancy resorts, ate three- and four-course meals suitable for a gourmand and swam in indoor pools.
This combination of adventure during the day and soft beds, fancy food and relaxation at night is what more adventure travelers are seeking today—not surprising, given that today’s typical adventure traveler is a 47-year-old woman, according to the Web site of Marybeth Bond, a travel consultant and editor of TravelGirl Magazine.
The changing demographics mean that more travelers today are opting for “soft” adventures, like kayaking or river rafting, hiking or trekking, rather than “hard” adventure, like scaling a rock face in Arizona, said Jim Forberg, chief operating officer of Unicomm, a company that organizes adventure travel expos.
Adventure travel is expected to increase 10 percent this year, becoming a $55 million business, and making it the fastest growing segment of the travel industry, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA).
The number of families going on adventure trips is also on the rise, according to ATTA, as they look to tour operators to manage details and keep everyone, from the arthritic grandma to the sprightly 7-year-old, comfortable.
Josh Lewis, 44, a seasoned traveler from New York, has taken three white-water rafting and hiking trips in the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho with his family. Lewis, who has gone on many trips by himself, used outfitter Canyons Inc., which provides everything from flights in and out of Boise to a choice of rafts, canoes and kayaks, from beer and wine (albeit boxed) to sodas, juices and mineral water.
Meals are fully cooked and might include eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes for breakfast; sandwiches, spicy taco and curried chicken salads, fruits, snacks and cookies at lunch; spinach lasagna with pine nuts and roasted prime rib of pork for dinner, followed by rich pecan rum cake, brownies and tiramisu. The tour operators can also accommodate people with special diets.
Lewis said having all the details of the trip arranged for him played a large part in his decision. “I’m traveling with my family, so I want to spend time with them, not outfitting myself,” he said.
What also appealed to him was the “nice balance” Canyons struck between “caring for you and letting you take care of yourself,” he said. Travelers pitch their own tents. Utensils and meals are provided, but Canyons draws the line at fancy sit-down dinners and power showers.
“I’ve spent days living on power bars,” Lewis said. “I think the idea of putting linen tablecloths in the wilderness is silly.”
Not so for clients of Middle Fork River Tours, which also offers rafting tours on the Salmon. Here, outdoor dinnerware and a cocktail bar with vodka, gin, bourbon, mixers and juices are standard.
This year’s menu includes a cheese and fruit tray, artichokes, chips with Mexican dip and salsa for appetizers; a mixed grill of pork tenderloin and duck, halibut and filet mignon for the main course; and apple pie, cobbler or tiramisu for dessert—all cooked in Dutch ovens.
The “soft” treatment does not stop at the food. Travelers have to bring only personal effects. The company provides tents, sleeping pads, sleeping bags and pillows.
Gayle Selisch, who runs Middle Fork River Tours with her husband, Kurt, says the company uses a 22-foot-long boat that goes ahead each morning to the next camp site, carrying six coolers filled with food and gear for the 23 guests who typically go on each trip.
The guests use their rafts to get to their destination after the day’s activities on the river, and arrive to find their food cooked, the dining tables set with white linen tablecloths and tents pitched.
Kaye Bradley, 54, who has taken two trips with the company, said the luxury played a large part in her return. “We thought it would be more wild, that we’d have to take care of ourselves,” she said. “But we had gourmet food and our camps were set up. It was a nice surprise.”
These surprises come at a price, though, with trips ranging from $950 a person for an early-season (May to mid-June) four-day tour to $1,750 a person for a regular season six-day tour.
Susan Eckert, who runs Adventure Woman, a travel operator catering to women over 30, said that when she started camping 25 years ago, the experience was a lot more rugged. “I started off doing pretty heavy-duty adventure trips then,” she said. “Camping, carrying canoes from lake to lake.”
Today, “it’s not a vacation to work so hard,” she said.
So Eckert has dropped all but one camping trip--in the Grand Canyon. Her tours now range from the New Zealand one that Gruendl and Schmidt went on, to a safari in Botswana; from sailing in the Caribbean to hiking in Nepal.
Domestic trips include a glacier park hike, a skiing trip and a rafting, hiking and fly fishing trip in Montana; a desert hike in Arizona; and a safari and bear viewing in Alaska.
The comfort element is key in all these trips. For example, in Botswana, guests stay in luxury tented camps in suites shared by two people, with bathrooms that have claw-footed bathtubs, a bedroom with two queen-sized beds, a sitting room and deck. And sailing on the Caribbean, the women traveled aboard the world’s largest trimaran, with 10 air-conditioned double rooms, each with its own bathroom.
Gruendl, who went on Adventure Women’s Nepal trip, said that the company had Nepalese porters carrying the travelers’ packs as they hiked from lodge to lodge. “We felt horribly guilty that they were carrying all our stuff on their backs, but they don’t even break a sweat,” she said.
Costs range from $2,695 for a weeklong rafting trip in the Grand Canyon to $6,995 for the Botswana safari.
For Donna Allison, 49, whose initial foray into adventure travel was with the more hard-core Outward Bound expeditions, Adventure Women was a nice contrast.
“For someone who is just jumping right into it, who’s never experienced camping, Outward Bound was really hard,” she said. But with the Adventure Women trips, “It’s like getting pampered at night, after a day of pushing yourself.”