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SPOTLIGHT : OUT THERE : Adventurers Can Begin by Exploring New Frontiers at an Action Travel Expo

March 30, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Rick VanderKnyff is a member of the Times Orange County Edition staff.

A dventure is a marvelous word.

It speaks of distant, exotic lands, of close brushes with mortal danger, of risk and romance intertwined. It is John Wesley Powell on a wooden boat braving the Colorado River to become the first to navigate through the Grand Canyon, and a Victorian Englishwoman named Mary Kingsley wandering parts of West Africa never before explored by a European. It's Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."

But our dreams of adventure, alas, run smack into the reality of the two-week vacation, and the risk that's part of the dictionary definition of adventure is hopelessly incompatible with careers, kids and car payments.

But that's where the travel industry is stepping in with increasing vigor. Many Americans, it seems, are tired of lying on the beach, sipping mai tais and reading pulp paperbacks on their vacations. Enough with this relaxing stuff. We want to do something.

Planned adventure, that apparent oxymoron, is the new niche that tour operators are rushing to fill. Call it adventure travel; call it eco-tourism, or call it--as industry types do-- soft adventure.

Whatever you choose to name it, it's now a commodity, packaged and ready for consumption. And one place to go shopping for ideas is the third annual Action Adventure Expo, in town Saturday and Sunday with about 100 tour operators and equipment manufacturers. Also included are a tank for scuba and kayak lessons and a wall for sampling the pleasures of rock climbing.

You want adventure? How about kayaking the wild shores of Alaska? Running white water on a wild river in Chile? Riding elephants on safari in Botswana? It's for sale here, at the WalMart of active travel.

Anyone who walks the aisles of the Action Adventure Expo--or browses the full-color catalogues of some of the larger tour operators--will find trips to just about every corner of the earth. Some are oriented around an activity, such as the ones mentioned above; some focus on wildlife; some observe indigenous peoples, and some do a bit of everything.

The expo came to Orange County last year on the grounds of the old Lion Country Safari but moved to a building at the Orange County Fairgrounds to get out of the weather and be in a more central location. Organizers say it is one of the largest such events in the country.

Unlike other forms of group travel, in which most people make arrangements through travel agents, adventure-travel clients tend to book directly with the tour operator. One of the expo's purposes, said producer Gigi Giraudo, is to give adventurers a place to comparison-shop and to introduce neophytes to the field.

The $8.50 daily adult admission includes free lessons in kayaking, scuba, rock climbing and a "ropes course" like those used at some outdoor leadership retreats--lessons that could otherwise cost $50 to $100, Giraudo said. It is recommended that participants sign up for the half-hour scuba and kayak lessons as soon as they arrive (for rock climbing and the ropes course, you stand in line).

The lessons won't make anyone an expert, but they will--organizers hope--give people the confidence to try one of these active vacations.

"People who have always dreamed of doing this type of trip, but don't feel they've been equipped for it, we'll teach them how to scuba dive and to rock climb," Giraudo said. "It helps people see that these kind of trips aren't out of their league."

Free seminars will be offered on a continuous basis, including primers on particular geographic areas, presentations on how to select a reputable tour operator and personal reminiscences from adventurers such as Royal Robbins, who was the first to climb Yosemite's El Capitan solo. There will even be performances by world music groups.

While the travel industry is growing at an annual rate of 3% to 4%, adventure travel--which started gaining steam in the late '80s--is expanding more than 30% a year, according to Greg Malver, director of Laguna Beach-based NatureQuest, one of a growing number of companies catering specifically to adventure travel (and one of the exhibitors at the Action Adventure Expo).

"There is definitely more of a desire on the part of the traveler to be more active, to learn more about the place they're visiting and the people, as opposed to sitting on a beach and getting a suntan," Malver said. "Our focus is on natural history, wildlife and the cultures of the places we're visiting. Most of the things we offer are considered soft adventure, where you don't have to have a special skill."

That doesn't mean the trips offered by NatureQuest and other operators are cushy.

Visiting the rain forests of Brazil might entail hiking in near-steambath conditions and sleeping in jungle lodges that (though they may be clean and even picturesque) aren't going to challenge the Ritz-Carlton on the creature comfort scale.

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