Father’s Day is just around the corner (Sunday, June 21!) and we know what you’re thinking. What in the world should I buy Dad this year?
BTD content specialist and staff dad, Whit, takes his son for a ride along the bike paths of Korea.
Consider this: a bike tour, perfect for any dad who likes to explore, travel or be active. It’s a wonderful way to give a gift and spend more time with your father (or husband) in a fun and memorable way!
We have lots of great options for every kind of dad out there. Here are a few suggestions.
For the history buff: Bruges and the Belgian Coast: A 7-night self-guided bicycle tour along the Belgian Coast full of World War I history. Cycling averages 33 miles per day and the tour is rated leisurely.
For the beach comber: Portugal’s Algarve Coastal Route: A 7-night self-guided tour along the coast of Portugal that features charming fishing towns and beautiful beaches. Tour averages 25 miles per day.
For the adventurer: Land of the Maharajas in India: A 10-night guided tour through colorful and remote rural Rajasthan, India, featuring a visit to the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal and quiet country villages of rural India.
Beautiful countryside. An intrinsically rich culture. Warm and kind people. Macedonia has all this and more, as BikeToursDirect president Jim Johnson discovered while on tour there last fall. Now, he’s inviting you to join him on this inaugural Discover Macedonia bicycle tour, starting August 25, 2015, to explore this ancient, remote and stunningly beautiful Balkan country. Read more from Jim below.
Jim Johnson, founder and president of BikeToursDirect
How I met Macedonia I was part of a group organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and sponsored by United States Agency for International Development to help develop sustainable tourism in the Western Balkans. To fit in our full schedule, we experienced much of the country by van. Along the way, we sampled a number of activities including cycling, hiking, horseback riding and even paragliding.
We started our tour curious and excited. We ended it moved and amazed.
Europe of old
It was Europe the way much of the continent must have been centuries ago: untouched nature, villages practicing centuries-old traditions, people open and welcoming to guests from afar. All that in a setting of soaring mountains (16 of them topping a mile high), vast forests and more than 50 crystal lakes. And in a country barely a third the size of Massachusetts.
Due to its location, a crossroads of sorts, Macedonia presents a mix of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Greek history in a setting that feels both Balkan and Mediterranean. As we describe it on our tour page, “it is a land of hospitality, mixed cultures, splendid wines and delicious cuisine. With nearly 300 sunny days each year and ideal temperatures, Macedonia is the perfect place to be.”
We crossed the border between Albania and Macedonia by bike, pedaling to the Monastery of St. Naum, a complex dating back to 905 A.D. Our hotel on the monastery grounds was newer but still historic and full of Old World charm.
We traveled by boat across the crystal-clear waters of Lake Ohrid to the town of the same name. The town of Ohrid, built primarily from the 7th to 19th centuries but with history dating back 5,000 years, is one of Europe’s oldest human settlements. We had too little time there. As I wandered the streets, a new wonder seemed to reveal itself at each turn: ancient monuments, Byzantine churches, a medieval fortress, a Roman theater, and again and again views to the turquoise waters of the lake.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
It’s no wonder that UNESCO named the “Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region” a World Heritage Site. As UNESCO states, “this city and its historic-cultural region are located in a natural setting of exceptional beauty, while its architecture represents the best preserved and most complete ensemble of ancient urban architecture of the Slavic lands… The town’s architecture represents, with its old typical streets and houses and its particular atmosphere around old squares, the best preserved and most complete ensemble of ancient urban architecture of this part of Europe.”
The next day, we transferred by van to the mountaintop Treskavec Monastery, where we met Father Kalist, an Orthodox monk who captivated us with tales of the historic site, once a temple for Apollo. Our next stop was Krushevo, at 4,429 feet, the highest town in Macedonia, where we enjoyed a short hike. The last stop of the day was Mavrovo National Park, home to Macedonia’s highest peaks. At the Hotel Tutto in Janche, where we overnighted, we learned about building techniques using local materials and enjoyed a feast featuring local foods. And then we danced, learning steps from Tutto himself, and toasting our hosts with local wines.
An outdoor paradise
The park nearly overwhelms with outdoor options by horse or by bike, on foot, and even in off-road vehicles. Along the trails and back roads, we encountered shepherds tending their flocks that occasionally became fluffy roadblocks. Our guides explained traditional cheese making, which we enjoyed during lunch in the mountain village of Galichnik: kashkaval, a local yellow cheese, and belo sirenje, a local salt-brine white cheese.
The tour ended in the capital of Skopje, which Lonely Planet aptly describes: “Easygoing Skopje remains one of Europe’s more unusual capitals, where constant urban renewal has made the city a bizarre jigsaw puzzle whose Turkish old town, ancient fortress, communist-era centre and contemporary building spree combine to create a multifaceted city that never fails to surprise.”
Especially for you
Local tour operator Ride Macedonia has customized the “Discover Macedonia” tour especially for BikeToursDirect, incorporating the best of a local tour operator’s road bike, mountain bike and hiking tours. The portion on roads will take up most of the tour and allow us to experience a significant amount of area. The mountain biking, all on easy, non-technical forest roads and wide trails will allow us to visit remote villages. The hiking takes us to off-the-beaten-path natural treasures.
After nearly three decades of bicycle touring around the world, I fully expect this tour to land on my “Top 5” list, perhaps even as No. 1.
“We found the river unexpectedly beautiful—wide and full of wildlife,” Julane said. “Every hotel exceeded our expectations, and the maps/directions were 99.99% clear and easy to follow; kind people offered assistance when we occasionally puzzled over directions.”
“The bike tour company, Radweg-Reisen, did an excellent job finding interesting routes and cities, and the bikes they provided were well-outfitted and in good condition—they didn’t even need saddle or handlebar adjustments!”
Check out these photos below from their tour, and see their complete album here, which offers a great glimpse into this Bavarian Danube tour with beautiful photos and interesting captions.
It is nice to be off the busy road for our first ride.
Julane is standing by a history of the railroad and this tunnel. I could understand a little of the German.
At this T intersection, we turn right to enter Old Donauwörth. The next day, we will turn left to continue on to the next town on our route.
I loved taking this route along the Wörnitz river out of Donauwörth because it exposes us to more beauty that remained hidden while we explored inside the walls of the town.
Our boat is bike-friendly
The train is on time as usual
We're moving on one pedal stroke at a time and loving the sunshine.
Beautiful family-owned vineyards. Delicious cuisine. Bountiful country roads. The Burgundy region of France is perfect for cycling, and there is no better time to book a bike tour in France than now. With the dropping Euro and some amazing tour options, France has never looked so good! Our local operator partner Active Tours offers leisurely and affordable bike tours in the region.
“With warm, comfortable weather most of the year, cycling in Burgundy can be an outstanding activity for travelers seeking self-guided tours in wine country,” said Catherine Brossais of Active Tours. “Wines, wonderful cuisine, a remarkable network of quiet country roads and just a few hours away from Paris — all this makes Burgundy an ideal location for a cycling holiday!”
Top picks for Burgundy
Best of Burgundy Tour: This 7-night self-guided tour takes you from Dijon through Beaune (the wine capital of Burgundy) to Macon. You’ll enjoy the best of local cuisine – snails, Charolais beef, Bress chicken and wonderful cheeses. And of course, the wonderful wines! From €800/person.
Burgundy Wine Trails: On this 6-night self-guided tour, you’ll ride through some lovely French towns such as Pouilly Fuisse, Saint-Veran, Givry, Santenay, Puligny-Montrachet, Pommard and many more. Cycle along a peaceful bicycle path while taking in Burgundy’s natural beauty. From €625/person.
Flexibility and a leisurely pace
These tours offer you the freedom to go your own way! For example, you can add extra nights in any of the overnight locations if you want to build in a rest day without cycling.
The relatively short daily riding distances offer leisurely 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. starts on travel days, and like all self-guided bike tours, you set the pace once you’re rolling. Your only job is to pedal, absorb your surrounding, and make it to the next hotel by nightfall, where your luggage will await!
Pièce de résistance
Add-on options include:
- Cooperage workshop (how to make a wine barrel)
- Truffle search with a dog followed by a meal based on truffle products
- Hands-on cooking classes
- Wine tastings at small, family-owned wine estates
- Wine tasting lunches
Planning a trip to the American Northeast this year? Be sure to include some bicycle touring in your plans. There’s no better way to see the region. Just ask Jeanne Rummel, with Great Freedom Adventures, a BikeToursDirect tour operator partner in the region.
“What’s great about bike touring the Northeast is the diversity of scenery, the abundant natural beauty and the wealth of cultural interests, all found within a relatively compact area,” Rummel said.
“That means that in the space of one tour, guests may cycle past scenic ocean or river vistas, heritage farmland, estate vineyards, 40+ room mansions, colorful sugar maples, outdoor concerts, farmers markets, fine art galleries, covered bridges, gourmet cafes, and so much more,” she said. “Guests tell us they love how each bend in the road reveals something new to see and experience.”
Cyclists love the biking routes along the Hudson Valley with its quaint towns and beautiful river.
What guests love: The biking routes are fabulous (“some of my very favorites,” Rummel says). Visiting some of the country’s preeminent historic mansions. Eating at world-class restaurants with CIA trained chefs and chefs who have migrated north from some of NYCs top restaurants. Tasting award-winning wines at vineyards. Cruising the Hudson River by boat. Exploring Hudson (a hip town with a vibrant arts scene) and Rhinebeck (a super quaint town with high-end shops and restaurants).
2. Vermont 3-Day Cycling Tour: This 2-night guided tour still has availability for the May 29, July 24, August 7 and October 2 departures.
What guests love:This itinerary draws from decades of biking back roads all over Vermont. People also love the covered bridges, Woodstock, Quechee Gorge, the brewery, and the Calvin Coolidge Homestead and Historic Site.
What guests love:Block Island is stunning and offers easy cycling, lighthouses, kayaking on the Great Salt Pond and it’s estuaries, sunset sailing with beer or wine and cheese, walking oceanside nature trails filled with wildflowers, Newport, mansions, Cliff Walk and the famous Ocean Ave.
If you’ve booked a bike tour in Europe, then you probably already know it’s chock full of cultural variety. So much in fact that you want to sample as much as possible during your trip there. Luckily, transportation is convenient, and you have a lot of options to get around the relatively small continent.
Getting to and from your tour
You’re responsible for travel arrangements between your arrival/departure airport and your bicycle tour’s start and end points. However, there will be information on the best ways to get to and from your start and end hotels in the tour documents that you’ll receive 3-4 weeks before the tour starts. (Some of this information also appears on many tour pages under “How to Get There.”)
Taking a train from city to city in Europe is the traditional way for travelers to get around. Rail Europe offers multi-day or -country passes as well as simple point-to-point tickets, which are usually sufficient. One smart solution for long-haul train trips: book an overnight train. You won’t lose valuable sightseeing time to daytime travel, and the train fare will double as your hotel budget for the night!
Seeing Europe by train can be a great experience for shorter trips, but flying is usually advisable for longer distances. Europe has many airports with frequent connections through the major international airlines. But it also has a thriving budget airline industry that you should consider if you want to minimize travel time and money. These no-frills airlines typically fly into more remote airports instead of major metropolitan centers, but are connected to the cities by rail and bus service. If you watch the fares, you can often find deeply discounted rates. (We like flycheapo.com because it shows all discount airlines and the possible route combinations.)
Beware a few considerations with discount airlines, though. You can’t check luggage through for onward flights with major airlines, and there’s no recourse if you have a flight delay and miss a subsequent flight with a major airline. That’s why we advise only using these airlines if there’s a day or more between flights. (For example, flying into London one day, spending the night, and then flying onward across Europe with Ryanair the next day.)
Major European airports are well connected with public transportation networks, usually including both trains and buses. Check your arrival airport’s website to learn about transportation connections. You should be able to devise a route from the airport to your bike tour’s starting point using the safe and convenient public transportation. The same is true of your return trip – you should be able to plan a route with trains or buses to get from the bike tour’s end point to your departure airport. Be sure to leave plenty of time before your flight, though, in case of missed connections or other delays.
If you’re not going too far and don’t mind spending more, the airports are always staffed with plenty of taxis ready to help with luggage and deliver you to the doorstep. You can also book transfers (as well as local sightseeing tours, cultural events and other activities) through Viator. Rental cars are an option, but not the most economical if you’re only driving from the airport to the bike tour start point. The one-way rental surcharge can be very high.
Bus service runs everywhere in Europe, though is best for travel in and around large cities rather than long-distance trips. Buses are also useful and more economical than taxis if you need to get beyond the furthest train service to an area.
Extending your trip
Some of our clients opt to extend their trip, adding a few days before or after their bicycle tour to get to know a start or end city better, relax before or after a long flight, or travel to European destinations not on their bike tour route. More on hotels >
The Mosel River region is a beautiful spot to explore by bike and enjoy local wines.
It’s that time of the year again — the trees are blooming, the grass is turning green, and some of us in the kinder climates are even stepping out on our porches to enjoy a glass of wine while we dream and plan our upcoming summer bike trips.
With cycling and wine on the brain, we asked some of our local tour operator partners around the world what their favorite bottle of wine is, and how you can sample it yourself. Here are their picks for great local wines and the tours you can enjoy them on!
Favorite wine: Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling from Ormoz Winery in NE Slovenia
Why? ”Because they are fruity, fresh, typical of the variety, full and harmonious. Best enjoyed in their natural background – famous Jeruzalem hills of ‘Slovenian Tuscany‘.”
Special offer! Get 10% off self-guided Wine and Wellness in Slovenia tour!
(Discount on base package only. Valid for 2015 travel. New bookings only. Mention this offer on your booking form!) – Sašo Skalič, Helia Tours
Celebrating the end of the bike tour by stomping on grapes at a family winery in Alentejo, Portugal.
Favorite wine: “The ‘Syrah da Peceguina’ from Malhadinha Nova Estate, a family wine producer from Alentejo. The wine is made with 100% Syrah and the schistous soil gives a strong, full body red wine that I love to drink on its own with friends around!”
Why: ”Syrah is one of my favorite grape varieties and this wine became my favorite after a long tour, on the last day, my colleagues and I celebrated the end of the tour and all ended well enjoying a bottle of this wine all through night. Celebrating cycling and friendship!”
Why this tour pairs perfectly with the wine: “The Alentejo Vineyards Colors tour ends precisely at this family estate, which is also a country house with a few rooms and feels like you are staying at a friend’s house. At the time of harvest, we can always participate in some of the harvest activities, and even get t
o stomp on the grapes. It’s a family atmosphere and the ideal setting to finish an awesome bike tour!” –Joana Sousa, from BikeToursPortugal
Favorite wine: Life from Stone, a Sauvignon Blanc from Springfield Estate near Robertson, Western Cape, South Africa, 150 km East of Cape Town.
Why: ”I love this wine because it is a well-balanced round wine. It is very mineral rich due to the mainly quartzite rocks where it grows. This complements the taste and doesn’t oppose it, making it a very unusual wine. Only the natural wild yeast that one finds on the skin of the grapes is used for fermentation. Therefore the fermentation takes longer than in most other wines where commercial yeast is used to speed up the process. Interesting note about the vineyards: dynamite was used to blast the rocks to prepare the grounds for planting!”
Best tour to experience this wine: Garden Route to Cape Town in South Africa. They also have a 17-night version of this tour that they highly recommend. – Jens Deister, African Bikers Tours
Favorite wine: Il Grechetto from the Tili winery in the Assisi D.o.c. area.
Why: ”It is an organic winery making an excellent quality of wines. The Grechetto wine is the most important white berried grape of the green heart of Italy and the one at Tili winery is delicious!”
Toast to this: On the Cycling and Wine Tasting in Valle Umbra, it’s also possible to rent an E-bike, and to try lots of other great wonderful Umbrian wines. –Petra de Lind van Wijngaarden, Ecologico Tours Umbria
Special offer! On the classic 7-night Danube Bike Path from Passau to Vienna (Category B accommodations), a special wine tasting in the Wachau Valley is included in the tour cost!
(Valid for Category B accommodation packages booked through the end of April 2015. Mention this offer on your booking form.) –Hubert Simader, Radreisefreunde
Favorite wine: A beautiful Rioja red by the name of Marques de Riscal.
Why? ”It’s a fantastic wine produced in the most spectacular winery, an architectural wonder designed by Canadian architect Frank Ghery.”
Why the tour pairs perfectly with the wine: ”In our Cycling to La Rioja tour you have a chance to cycle along small roads through the vineyards of this ancient winery and stop at the town of El Ciego, where the wines are produced. Spectacular!” –Jaime Bartolomé, Senderos y Pueblos
Favorite wine: A younger wine from the lesser known Languedoc region, the AOC “Terrasses du Larzac.”
Why? “The “Terrasses du Larzac” has an AOC certification that is grouping 30 French villages due to their unique climate, elevations, and soil. There are five types of grapes that are used in this wine that are chosen based on soil type in order to get the most out of the grape. This and a large difference of day and nighttime temperatures of almost 70°F (20°C) allows the grapes to mature slowly and steadily, making a wine that is fresh with a nice aromatic bouquet.
There’s nothing quite like having a glass at the end of the day, reflecting on your day’s ride and different experiences you’ve had along the way. Absolutely wonderful!”
Best tour to experience this wine:Carcassonne, Languedoc, and Narbonne. “This bike tour travels through St. Guilhem le Desert in the heart of Terrasses du Larzac. Apart from the wine, you’ll also discover five UNESCO World Heritage sites on this tour, leading to an unforgettable holiday while leisurely riding along on your bike. A truly great experience.” –Chris Lucas, Active 4 Adventures
The wine cellar at Domaine Lucien Jacob in Echevronn, that you can visit along this bike tour.
More details on the wine: The Domaine employs a sustainable method of production, highly respectful of the environment with minimal chemical intervention. The grapes are hand-picked, sorted, 100% de-stemmed, cold macerated for three days and fermented for 14 to 16 days. Once the fermentation has finished the red wine is aged in oak barrels (aged from new to 4 years) for up to 15 months, and the white wines are fermented in oak barrels for up to 13 months ( except for the Bourgogne Aligoté which is bottled young directly from stainless steel tanks). The wines are all bottled at the estate. –Catherine Brossais, Active Tours
Traveling by bicycle allows for flexibility both in how long it takes to reach your daily destination, and in what you do with your time once you get there. Norine and Michael Bevan have really connected with the set-your-own-agenda appeal of bicycle touring over the past several years. Working with BikeToursDirect, they have organized bike tours in Europe for friends of a wide range of ages and abilities.
The Bevans prefer traveling by bike because it gives them plenty of opportunities to grow familiar with locales that the typical bus or train tourist would never discover. Thanks to the camaraderie fostered by the laid-back pace of touring Europe by bike, the Bevans and their friends have enjoyed hotels and restaurants far removed from the beaten track. They’ve also participated in many, many “Picnic Races.”
Wait, what’s a Picnic Race?
In Germany, most shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays, so on Saturdays, we gather supplies for a picnic. We start from one spot and everyone has a specific assignment. One couple might be in charge of finding beer, another might need to find a certain kind of bread or cheese. The idea is to come back with something interesting.
Aside from the bounty of the Picnic Races, what do you get when you tour by bicycle with friends?
The Picnic Races are just one thing we do to make it fun. We’re comfortable with everyone and it’s an adventure. We just laugh the whole time. When you travel, it’s not just about the destination, it’s about the people and the journey you’re on. It’s almost not about the cycling and where we are, it’s about having a great time doing what we’re doing.
A lot of people dislike not knowing where they’re going, but we all enjoy it. We have a saying: “You’re never lost; you’re always somewhere.” We enjoy getting lost – it’s part of the fun. It’s exploring.
Also, everybody contributes. If somebody’s got a problem with their bike, six people can jump in and help. We know we can help each other.
You’ve got a tour of Germany coming up in with your friends. Tell us a little bit about how you organized it, why you chose the self-guided option, and what you’re most looking forward to.
We’ve done about 18 trips on bicycles. The first 3-4 were guided and great experiences, but the group you’re with is just so integral to the experience you will have.
Booking self-guided tours for our groups allows us to travel more freely with people we know – and they’re more affordable. That said, when we go to a country like Vietnam, we still want to be guided because it helps with language barriers. Private departures of guided tours allow us to travel just with our friends but have the benefit of riding with a guide.
To organize these tours, Michael and I do every trip on our own first. We go over and check it out, then pick out a trip that will be appropriate for the people who we know will be coming. Our group of tour friends has every level of cyclist, from triathletes to people who don’t ride at all, so we think about appropriate routes and accommodations for our friends.
When we’re choosing places to visit later on the tour, Michael and I establish relationships with people in the towns and look for things to do in the area. We develop main events – like wine tastings and special restaurants to visit. If we find a place that’s really interesting, we make sure we can accommodate that. We know what our group likes.
Can you share a specific memory of a moment on a tour that epitomizes your BikeToursDirect experience?
Last May, Michael and I did the Mosel-Saar trip to prepare for our upcoming tour in September. We got to a little town called Piesport. We couldn’t find the hotel where we’d planned on staying, but eventually found one. We always talk to people who own the accommodations and try to get their life story. It turned out that the man who owned this hotel that we’d just found was building a new restaurant. He took us over there and we looked at everything – the chairs, the finishings, the floor coverings – because that’s actually the line of business we’re in.
We spent a couple hours with the owner and decided we wanted to stay there when we came back with our group. So BikeToursDirect helped us modify the tour program to include this particular hotel, and we’re going to rent out all 8 rooms in the hotel. The restaurant is open now and the owner will be making a special meal just for our group.
It’s nice to have those connections. It’s something you can typically only get traveling on your own. I don’t know if a guided tour would get that opportunity. But with self-guided tours, you tend to talk to everyone you’re exposed to.
Also, Jim, Simon, and everyone involved at BTD were very cooperative in organizing this night in Piesport. They helped us make it happen.
What keeps you coming back to BikeToursDirect?
With Jim and BikeToursDirect, we know that everything’s vetted very well – the bikes, the tour guides – BTD gets the truth for us. We can just call them and get the real truth about the tour.
We’re incredibly excited to offer this brand new Bike and Train in Namibia tour that lets you see Namibia’s leading conservation efforts and diverse wildlife from two unique perches—the saddle of a bike and the comfort of your private chartered train, the Desert Express!
The tour is 12 nights, and departs August 11, 2015, from Nambia’s capital city of Windhoek. Experience the country’s vast beauty while enjoying the highest standards of service and comfort. Visit Fish River Canyon (Africa’s longest), traverse the apricot colored dunes of the Namib Desert, and have the chance to see mountain zebras and desert elephants, along with giraffes, rhinos and lions.
After cycling each day, you’ll sleep on the train or in scenic lodges along the route. The train travels the longer distances during the night, making it possible to see more of the country and allowing plenty of time during the day for bike trips.
Two knowledgeable guides accompany you aboard the train and on each day’s easy rides, which average less than 25 miles/40 km per day, and a support vehicle is always nearby to shorten the riding or give a helping hand. Or you may choose to stay aboard the train, a great option for non-cycling companions or a taking a rest day mid-tour.
Experiencing leaders’ stories
Throughout the tour visit, you’ll meet many key players behind Namibia’s conservation success story, including John Kasaona, a leader in the drive to reinvent conservation in Namibia by turning former poachers into protectors of endangered species. (Check out his TED talk on the subject!)
You’ll learn first-hand how tourism has made the country’s conservation success possible by generating sustainable income for local communities—and why your travel here helps improve the lives of the nation’s people and save the lives of its wildlife.
Onboard the Desert Express This train holds a maximum of 48 guests in 24 compartments, each accommodating up to three passengers. Each compartment is fully air-conditioned and heated and has a private bathroom. Relax in an elegant lounge, a unique bistro bar, and a spacious restaurant serving the best of Namibian cuisine. Expansive windows throughout the train let you absorb the breadth of the spectacular Namibian landscapes!
Jim cruising by Namib Desert dunes
Our president’s take Jim Johnson, president and founder of BikeToursDirect, traveled to Namibia in 2013 and biked in some of the same areas this tour will take you through: “It’s probably the most impressive and memorable setting I’ve cycled in,” he says. “The landscapes were breathtaking: vast deserts with some of the tallest sand dunes in the world, remote coastlines, and deep chasms offset by towering mountains.
“And this Desert Express tour will transcend even that amazing experience. You’ll get to see Namibia’s unique landscapes and extensive wildlife from the unique vantage points of bicycle and train, and it’s a rare opportunity to spend time with many of the individuals responsible for making the country such a conservation success story. It will be the trip of a lifetime.”
Namibia was the first African country to incorporate protection of the environment into its constitution, and the government gave people living in communal areas the opportunity to manage their natural resources through the creation of communal conservancies. These conservancies – as well as governments, nonprofit organizations and other entities – have restored populations of lions, cheetahs, black rhinos, zebras and other native wildlife to the world’s richest dry land. Through initiatives such as ecotourism, restoration has generated sustainable income for their communities.
This post, written by recent BikeToursDirect clients Paul and Cheryl Miniato, was originally published on their blog “No Pension, Will Travel.”
“Pshaw!” said Cheryl. “They won’t blame you.” I wasn’t so sure.
Our long-awaited late-September boat and cycle trip through the southern Dalmatian Islands was to begin the next day. After two previous European cycle trips on our own, Cheryl and I had invited members of our outdoor club to join us in Croatia this year. We’d hoped for half a dozen. When the boat sold out 11 months ago, we had 17 in our group. Fantastic.
The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.
Or was it? What if the trip wasn’t what we’d advertised to our friends? A mismanaged trip, or even a bad guide, and our names could be mud. The weather was threatening as well. We’d arrived in Dubrovnik a few days earlier only to wade through an unseasonal deluge that one fellow-traveler described as “biblical.”
This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.
We were also a nervous about the hills. This had been the biggest single topic of discussion among our group during the planning stages. While most of us were cyclists, we did range from late 50s to early 70s, so it made sense to be prepared. Like many in our group, Cheryl and I made sure to get several trips under our belt over the summer in the islands near our home – but they averaged less than half the heights we were expecting here.
Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs.
Departure day dawned with bright sunshine. Arriving at the Port of Gruž by bus, Cheryl and I were buoyed when we spotted the elegant and modern yacht, the Harmonia, with more than 30 bicycles arrayed out in front of her on the dock. It was time to meet our two guides, the crew of six, and our 30 fellow-travelers. Besides our own group members, arriving in Dubrovnik on various itineraries, there were another 15 from other parties.
Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.
Of the 32 passengers, there was one American, a few each from Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark – and the rest were Canadian. On the previous week’s sailing, the majority had been German-speaking. The crew and the ride-leader guides were from various parts of Croatia, and like many Croatians we met, they all spoke excellent English. A good thing, as we found Croatian impenetrable.
Cheryl and I unpacked in our air-conditioned stateroom, which was bigger and better equipped than some hotel rooms we’ve been in. After that, our guides, Petra and Neven, introduced us to our bikes. While many in our group had brought their own pedals or seats, Cheryl and I decided we would live with whatever we got. After a few test rides around the dock, we were all satisfied: comfortable, easy-shifting, almost new, and well-maintained. Two of our group and a few of the others had elected to reserve e-bikes, and they were promised a complete lesson before the first ride.
Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it. Try to avoid the crowds.
Our first formal activity was a tour of Dubrovnik with a professional guide. For some on the ship, this was their first visit to the city. Even though others of us had already spent two or three days here, we saw new parts of town and learned more of its thousand-year history. After some free time in town, we enjoyed the first of many tasty shipboard dinners featuring Croatian seafood and other specialties. The first evening also included wine and schnapps on the captain. “Živjeli!”
Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.
The follow morning Captain Josip set course across an incredibly azure Adriatic towards the first of our island destinations, Šipan. This was our test ride: fairly level and about 45 minutes each way from the harbour to the small town of Suđurađ. Everyone would have a chance to iron out any kinks in their bicycles … or legs.
Neven gives a rider a lesson on the e-bike.
The promise of this ride was encouraging. The bikes performed well. The roads were quiet, and with a few exceptions, well signed and in good repair. Just in case, our guides had provided each of us with maps of the island, with our route hand-traced. Along the way, we passed vineyards and other crops, fascinating churches or occasional ruins, and figs and other fruit growing along the roadside. The quiet coffee stop at the picturesque waterfront town of Suđurađ was an excellent introduction to the many small island villages we would be visiting over the week to come. As we dug into our hot lunch back on the Harmonia, we got under way to our next destination.
Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan
About the only thing that had been missing from the Šipan ride were panoramic vistas. On Mljet, that would be remedied. We would pay for it in lengthy hill climbs and “undulating” roads, making it the “hardest ride of the week.” That turned out to be smart strategy on the part of the organizers, although some of the e-bike riders who hadn’t quite got the hang of their rides elected to sun themselves on the Harmonia as she sailed the length of the island to meet us. For the rest of us, as we contemplated the island summits each morning, we could always say, “Well, it can’t be as hard as Mljet!”
Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra. Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?
The crew and the guides on these trips work long hours and hard. Yet somehow they manage to remain up-beat and friendly all the while. Besides three hot meals a day and the on-demand bar, great Croatian coffee was always ready before seven, and the last drinks were served after 10 pm. Once and often twice a day, the entire stock of 35 bikes had to be unloaded from the hold and readied for the next ride. (Those e-bikes are heavy.) There was always something interesting for us to do while the staff worked.
Before our ride on Lastovo, some of us toured decaying Cold War era tunnels on the small connected island of Prežba, until recently an off-limits military base. Others kayaked lazily around the bay, or sunned themselves top side, while taking in the spectacular scenery.
On Lastovo, we had another glimpse of the challenging job of ride leaders. As fifteen of us are in the same outdoor association, many of us have had experience leading bike trips of from ten to thirty individuals. We know how challenging it can be to provide suitable guidance, watch out for road safety, and still allow riders to set their own pace and enjoy the ride. When we arrived at the town of Lastovo, it came out during coffee and beer, that one of the riders had continued through town and not returned. His companions had become concerned when he didn’t show up, mentioning that he was “getting on in years.” Petra and Neven managed to spend a couple of hours searching the far end of the island, while coordinating others of us to help, and the rest to get back safely to the Harmonia. In the end, the wayward rider showed up unassisted at the ship, having spent a couple of hours drinking beer and discussing wines with a local farmer in his barn. All in a day’s work for our hard-working guides.
In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home’s social status
There was a little bonus from the adventure. While Cheryl and I were out searching Lastovo with a friend of the missing man, we stumbled upon a tiny home-based winery, and were invited in for sampling and a mini-tour. Our companion was happy to buy a very inexpensive bottle of a very local wine. By policy, the tour company does not do winery stops in order to avoid dangerous afternoon riding conditions.
Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.
Our next trip was the first of two across the island of Korčula. Although the rides on Korčula were not as long as Mljet, they included some of the biggest hills of the week. A couple of them were more than five kilometers of uninterrupted climb, although never more than a 10 percent grade, and more often six to eight. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge if you aren’t used to hill climbing. Our club members all made it, but some of the other passengers sometimes pushed their rides, or made use of the e-bikes (which often meant they led the pack.) On most days, the guide who was “sweep” at the end of the group would start out with an e-bike so that they could swap if someone tired on their regular bicycle. This was not advertised, but it really showed the effort taken by Petra and Neven to ensure the trip worked for everyone.
How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica
Hey, did I mention the swimming? Most days, there were one or two opportunities for swimming off shower-equipped back of the Harmonia. It was impossible to resist. The water was stunningly clear, and that distinctive azure blue that characterizes the Adriatic in this area. It was also warm enough to get in and stay in. That despite the late September date following the “worse summer in decades.”
The water’s great at Prigradica on Korčula
After three days of hilly cycling, some of us were glad of a day off for a side trip to Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others might have preferred not to break up the rhythm of the cycling. On the one hand, it was a two-hour bus ride each way, with lengthy stops at both Croatian and Bosnian customs in both directions. Mostar was hot, and rather overrun with tourists. On the other hand, it’s an iconic place, in terms of both its ancient and recent history.
Our guide, Senad, was interesting and informed, and I found it engaging to discuss with him some of the aspects of the recent ethnic conflict, together with his hopes for the future. With a little effort, we were able to visit places with fewer tourists, such as the interiors of some of the mosques that dot the city. In the quieter spaces, one could reflect on the significance of the cross upon the hill, or the war-damaged buildings. We could appreciate our return to our peaceful port that evening. “Mi smo tako sretni!” We are so lucky!
A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera
The entire tour had a satisfying cultural component. In addition to Dubrovnik and Mostar, we also had a professional guide in the old town of Korčula. For all the other islands and towns we visited, Petra gave an interesting historical or cultural presentation somewhere along the way. Although I’m sure she was well-versed in Croatian culture, it was obvious she put a lot of preparation into her job. Often, the guides went beyond the strict requirements of the job description. One morning, a half-hour Croatian language lesson lasted for 90 minutes; we were such eager students, she said.
“Good Morning!” While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.
One evening, as a special treat, Petra spent several hours giving us her personal view of some of the challenges of life in Croatia. The country suffered considerably during the multi-year war that followed its declaration of independence in 1991. Many industries have yet to recover, and the very personal scars of the war run deep. The country was hit hard again in the global crisis of 2008. Unemployment currently sits at over 17%, and the average gross income is less than $18000 per year. Petra had spent several years working as a nanny in the UK and the US before returning to the country she loved. As an independent guide in a seasonal industry, staying employed was always a challenge. Yet, she also knew that she was better off than many of her compatriots who would have to leave Croatia to find work. Croatia’s recent EU membership was not embraced by everyone. There have been some losers.
It was an engaging evening, and we definitely appreciated Petra’s frank and sometimes emotional delivery. We felt we were getting more than just the canned tourist spiel, and were grateful for it. Perhaps in return, we all opened up a bit more. On this trip, I learned things from some long-time friends that I’d never heard before.
Back on Korčula again for one of the longer rides, the hills no longer seemed so forbidding. They were just part of the journey, and we knew that each one led to views more stunning than the previous. At the end of the longest climb, it was a cool delight to encounter a roadside fruit stand, where we quickly demolished more than one juicy watermelon. Riding along the seaside into Korčula town that evening, I felt a little sad knowing we had only one more day of riding.
A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town
That last day, for the first time all week, we woke to gray skies and whitecaps on the water. Given all we’d heard about the eastern Adriatic’s “year without a summer,” we thought ourselves lucky to have enjoyed the past six days of blue skies and sun on our shoulders. Our final day of riding took us through the old town of Ston, a salt-drying region since Roman times. The surrounding countryside is protected by a huge wall, second only to the Great Wall of China. Leaving Ston, we had to make a decision on whether to climb the final hill, which, on clear days, would offer “the most spectacular view yet.” Just then, the sky darkened and we heard the rumbling of an approaching storm. Our guides explained that coming down the hill could be dangerous in the rain, and advised that we might do better taking a shortcut down the Split-Dubrovnik highway. What to do?
We broke up into groups of three or four, and cycled down the paved shoulder at two-minute intervals. It was busy, although not as harrowing as I’d expected. In the end, it was almost certainly the better option. The storm broke just as we reached the ship. Had we gone over the hill, we would have found ourselves right at the top just when the deluge hit. Although riding in traffic is something I try to avoid, the last half hour in traffic reminded me that, for the entire rest of the week, we’d had the roads almost to ourselves. We often rode for an hour or more without seeing a single car. I even wondered why they kept such well-maintained roads for so little traffic. Whatever the reason, this was one of the best weeks of cycling I’ve ever enjoyed.
A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads
I needn’t have worried about letting our group down. Comments ranged from “awesome” to “best trip ever!” September is a great month for riding here, and the best month for swimming. Apparently, this is true even in an off year. This was a well-organized tour; the crew and guides were personable and highly professional. A beautiful part of the world, with history stretching back for millennia, the southern Dalmatian islands are a great place to swim, boat, and cycle. Or just to sit in the sun, watch the world go by, and enjoy a coffee, beer, or ice cream – national favourites, all. Some of us will be back.
“This trip was awesome! When’s the next one?” (aboard the Harmonia)
If you want to follow in our tracks:
The tour company is Island Hopping, based in Germany. They operate similar tours in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, and Vietnam. Others in our club have been on a number of these; all reported great trips. Their organized approach is evident. As with our Dalmatian trip, Island Hopping charters local ships and crews, and contracts independent ride leaders and guides. Their tour list sounds like our bucket list.
We booked this trip through BikeTours.com (formerly Bike Tours Direct.) This is the second trip we’ve booked through them. You pay the same rate whether booking directly or through BikeTours.com, but we have done well going through a company we know, and in our time zone. The small team at BikeTours.com are all riders themselves – sometimes they’re spread a little thin when they’re out reviewing rides, but that’s the good news. They know a lot about the tours they sell. Simon & Richie did an excellent job of helping us coordinate the plans of 17 riders. (That may warrant a post of its own!) We look forward to dealing with them again. Meanwhile, here’s the tour: “Dalmatia from Dubrovnik”