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TRAVEL INSIDER

As boomers' muscles soften up, so does adventure touring

With their clients aging, active-trip outfitters are easing itineraries for the hiking, biking and kayaking set.

May 04, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Remember the gung-ho, trophy sports vacation? Fifty miles of biking followed by some kayaking, hiking, a little rock climbing -- and that was just the morning schedule. Or so it seemed.

If that kind of punishing itinerary has kept you from trying an active vacation, take heart. Outfitters are starting to fit their trips to Americans' pampered lifestyles.

Consider the new thrice-monthly "Howling Urban Adventure" in Vancouver, Canada. After checking into a suite at the Pacific Palisades Hotel, run by the hip Kimpton chain, you are driven to English Bay for two hours of kayaking under a full (or nearly so) moon.

Feeling weak? No worries. There's a "gourmet snack": chilled bottled water and fresh-baked croissants, Danish and muffins. Then it's back to the hotel for martinis and tapas before snuggling under the covers. The price: about $309 per night for two, including the room.

Backroads, a 24-year-old tour company based in Berkeley, and best known for its bicycling trips, this year began an "Easy Explorations" series of cycling, hiking and multisport journeys with fewer hills and miles.

At Mountain Travel Sobek in El Cerrito, Calif., known as a "pretty hard-core trekking company" in the 1970s, the most popular trip, to the Galapagos Islands, is one of the least taxing, says marketing director Robyn Gorman. "If you can walk, you can go to Galapagos," she says. Next year the company will offer an easier version of its most arduous European trip, in the Alps.

Not that there aren't still options for the fitness fanatic. Backroads this year added an "Epic Journeys" biking series, promising "the challenge of two phenomenal rides, each over 100 miles," on a national park tour of Bryce and Zion in Utah and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

But the company has abandoned its "Go Active Sampler" line, which demanded grueling half-days of hiking, rock climbing, windsurfing, in-line skating and more. "Apparently it was more exhausting than it needed to be," says President Tom Hale.

Jerry Mallett, president of the Salida, Colo.-based Adventure Travel Society, which runs a trade association for adventure tour operators, says, "We're seeing more interest in cultural tourism rather than the Indiana Jones-type trip. I don't know of anyone who books Class V rapids anymore."

On many adventure outings these days, "the biggest danger you'll find is weight gain because of the great food, or maybe sunburn," he says.

Industry experts have several theories about the trend toward gentler options. Baby boomers, who provide most of the revenue for adventure and active-vacation companies, are aging and becoming less tolerant of discomfort. Up to three-quarters of the clients -- a growing number -- are women, who tend to be less interested in extreme sports. More families are signing on, asking for activities that grandparents and small children can handle. Liability for accidents is also a growing concern.

Our fitness level is not so great and getting worse. More than 64% of American adults are overweight, compared with 56% in 1994, when Backroads introduced its "Go Active Sampler" trips, according to the latest report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are some companies that are adapting their trips:

* When Ocean West Expeditions, the outfitter that leads the "Howling Urban Adventure" kayaking trip, was founded in 1994, its clients had to pitch tents every night. Now it typically offers lodge stays before or after trips or even midway through.

"In the last two or three years, as the demographic gets older, the appeal of tent camping is gone," says President John Reed. The age range of his customers, once late 20s to mid-40s, is now mid-30s to early 60s. "They're the people that have the disposable income," he says. (Ocean West's trips average $200 per person per day for camping trips, $300 for lodge trips, all inclusive.)

Reed has also added yoga and wine tasting to the lineup.

* At Backroads, camping, which appeals especially to budget-conscious families traveling in the United States, has grown more popular lately, Hale says. Tent camping with the high-end company never really required clients to rough it, but now it's even more comfortable, he says. Helpers put up the tents for you and roll out your sleeping bag.

The average age of Backroads clients, 45, has inched up from the late 30s since the company's founding in 1979. That may reflect, in part, a cultural difference. "It's somewhat more popular to be active in that age group than in some younger ages," Hale says.

The "Easy Explorations" line, with cycling trips that average 15 miles per day versus the company's 30- to 40-mile average, is "directed at the base of what you might call the fitness pyramid," he says -- somewhere above the couch-potato level. "We are going at this in a fairly big way" to expand the company's appeal, he adds.

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