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Two approaches to the Florida Keys by bike

 

One of the best parts of working at BikeToursDirect? No two days in the office are ever the same when you’re working with almost 150 bicycle tour operators all over the globe. The people behind the tours we advise our clients on are based in Vienna and Bangkok and Cancun and Seattle and Rome and villages in between. They are operating tours appealing to a wide array of travelers and cyclists, from the leisurely-yet-active vacation crowd to die-hard enthusiasts. This spectrum of attitudes and travel styles across our many operator partners was perfectly illustrated for me recently.

A South Florida run-in

I was chatting with our buddy Alex Graham from Charleston Bicycle Tours and he told me about running into another of our partners in the Florida Keys this year. Alex and his wife, Karen, were scouting a new tour program from the Everglades to Key West when they ran across Jim Sayer, Executive Director of Adventure Cycling Association (ACA), who they knew through industry events.

Jim was in the home stretch of an epic self-contained bike tour from Charleston, SC (coincidentally, Alex and Karen’s home!) to Key West, FL. Jim was joined by his 14-year-old daughter, Lucy, on this 19-day, 1,062 mile journey. They rode through South Carolina, Georgia, and the entire length of the Florida peninsula, first with an organized ACA group tour and then independent with the use of ACA’s mapped bike routes.

Jim and Lucy reach Key West

Travel styles diverged

The final leg of Jim and Lucy’s trip covered the territory of ACA’s own Florida Keys bike tour. It’s a guided group tour, but it truly adheres to the “adventure” in the Association’s name as a self-contained tour. That means you bring your own bike, haul your gear, share food prep responsibilities with the group, and overnight at campgrounds in tents. It’s a true adventure with the camaraderie of a group ride and mutual support to be collectively self-sufficient. 

By contrast, Alex was riding through the Keys to hand-pick the finest accommodations and dining for the fully-supported tour he was designing. Guests on this Florida Keys: Everglades to Key West bike tour will enjoy van support, luxury accommodations, catered meals and fine dining. Your only job on this tour is to get to Florida, relax, and pedal — everything else is anticipated for your comfort before, during, and after the leisurely daily rides.

Facing the rain

Alex and Jim saw each other on the road a couple of times on sunny riding days, but as sometimes happens in such lush, tropical destinations, they encountered one day of driving rain. Alex quickly called on his support van to load his and Karen’s bikes and shuttle them to the hotel to dry out. As they drove through the downpour, though, they spotted a couple of cyclists enduring the elements — Jim and daughter Lucy!

The van stopped and Alex insisted that they throw bikes on the rack and join him and Karen on the short drive (but longer ride) to a dry haven — a perfect expression of the generous hospitality and reliable support provided to every Charleston Bicycle Tours guest.

Jim, though, turned down the transfer offer. He and his daughter were committed to making the full trip on human power alone and were, of course, equipped with rain gear and fortitude, embodying the hardy attitude of the Adventure Cycling Association and its mission to “inspire and empower people to travel by bicycle.” 

Having the pleasure of knowing both of these gents, I’m confident I can summarize what they were each thinking:

“He’s nuts to be riding in that VAN.”

“He’s nuts to be riding in that RAIN.”

And they’d probably both be at least a little bit correct! But I love this story because it really illustrates the spectrum of bike travel experiences that BikeToursDirect supports. Most of the tours we offer fall somewhere in the middle of these two Keys tours in terms of support and services, but these extremes of luxury vs. self-contained are a great example of the diverse experiences we work to bring to our clients to help you find the adventure of *your* dreams.

Ready to ride the Florida Keys?

Read on…

Read more about Jim and Lucy’s epic Tour de Southeast in Jim’s own words! Check out his blog post “Cycling the South: A Top 10 List.”

 


 

By Natalie Cook, Vice President at BikeToursDirect

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operator Profile: An adventure of a lifetime with Portugal Nature Trails

 

BikeToursDirect now offers 6 guided and self-guided bike tours in Portugal with operator partner Portugal Nature Trails.

Atlantic West Coast and Sintra (Guided: May 11; Aug 17, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: Year round)    
Madrid-Lisbon, the Challenging Mountain Tour (Guided: Jun 13, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: May-Oct 2014)
Mountain Bike Madrid to Lisbon (Portugal half) (Guided: Jun 21, 2014; Self guided: Daily: May-Oct 2014)
Mountain Bike Madrid to Lisbon (Spain half) (Guided: Jun 13, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: May-Oct 2014)
Portugal’s Wild Coast (7 days) (Guided: Mar 17; Oct 25, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: Year round)
Portugal’s Wild Coast (9 days) (Guided: Mar 29; Oct 10, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: Year round)

Whit Altizer, a staffer in BTD’s Asia satellite office, recently spoke with Portugal Nature Trails’ operator António Gavinho to find out more about what has made PNT a Certificate of Excellence holder from Trip Advisor. Following is an interview Whit conducted with António over e-mail. António shared what makes PNT a quality company and why you should book a bike trip to Portugal this year.

Antonio Gavinho left his job as an engineer to pursue his passion for cycling.

Tell us about where you are located?

We are located in Lisbon/Sintra region. It is a great place for a hiking tour. A fantastic coast of wide bays of golden sand rugged cliffs, the Westernmost point of Europe – Cape Roca and Unique cultural and historical sights makes this a great place to visit! I can say that we are very lucky to live in a great place like this!

How many people are on staff? Who guides your trips?

We are 5 persons, two at the office with marketing and reservations and 3 designing, organizing and running tours! Then we have 5 more guides that occasionally work with us.

We always try to have the person who knows and designed the tour running the tour with the clients to increase the client’s experience. 

How did you choose the tours that you offer? What do you look for when creating your tours? 

We are always looking for the perfect ride. We want to show the most beautiful places of Portugal, but especially and with our knowledge and expertise, we want to show the parts of Portugal off the beaten track! This is the biggest difference from other tours and companies! Then we look to every details to give our clients the best experience ever – accommodations chosen by their genuine character, service and charm. Good and well-maintained bikes. The best and the most genuine places to eat. Every detail tested by our experienced team!

What tour that you offer is the most popular? Why?

On bike is Portugal Wild Coast (or 9 days). This is as an incredible hybrid cycling route along one of the most beautiful sections of Portugal’s long coastline. From the outskirts of Lisbon to the tip of Europe, you’ll discover and admire the natural beauty. We promise small fishing villages and abandoned fortresses from the time when this coast was ravaged by pirates. The trip finishes at the most south-westerly point in Europe, Cape Saint Vincent, which adds a dramatic and historical full stop to this wonderful trip. This route can also be done on a touring bike or, using more difficult trails including some single-track, on a MTB.

What tour do you offer do you consider to be a hidden secret?

We use our years of experience and insider knowledge to help you explore and discover our best hidden treasures. We introduce you to places normally off limits to the individual traveller!

Our Atlantic West Coast tour is close to Lisbon and passes by beautiful scenery that people usually don’t see as they travel mostly by car. Cycle on scenic small roads mixing coast and farming areas passing by typical fisherman villages and the most well-preserved medieval village in Portugal, Óbidos. Discover Sintra – UNESCO World Heritage, a land of castles and palaces and the western-most point in Europe”Roca” Cape!

Describe some of the accommodations you stay in. What are the most interesting places to stay?

The charming guest houses – and we have a lot of the same on our tours! We always try to get the most charming and imaginative hotels on our tours. Places with a special character and well incorporated into their surroundings with a unique personality and good service. 

What is the food like? What are some of your favorite dishes you have had on your tours?

Portuguese food is one of the most pleasant surprises for tourists. With a vast coastline, seafood plays a major part in our cuisine and the quality of our seafood and freshly caught grilled fish is beyond compare. Why not try one of the mainstays of our cuisine? Dried and salted cod from the Atlantic? And to round off your meal, don’t miss one of our delicious desserts, made according to the ancient recipes of monks and nuns. A great variety of very good cheeses and our wines are of exceptional quality too. Our Port and Madeira wines are already world famous, whilst our table wines are one of the best-kept secrets.

Who is an ideal client for your trips?

Everyone can be our client. We have tours with various grades and interests. And if we don’t have what a client is looking for we are always ready and happy to tailor-make a tour. On a tailor made tour everything is designed to meet clients’ demands: the sky is the limit, we know basically every single road, mountain, beach, city and village in the country, and we are so passionate about our country that it is our mission to provide the adventure of a lifetime.

What did you do before Portugal Nature Trails? Did you ever dream of you would start your own bike tour company?

I’m a Chemical Engineer that worked in management for almost 20 years. With management training skills and experience in companies leadership for over 20, it was 10 years ago that I started this company. This is really my great passion – cycling and hiking and that culminated in the Company “Caminhos da Natureza” founded in 2004 whose development has filled in an incoming brand Portugal Nature Trails.

Why do you think Portugal is best seen by bike?

Portugal is a warm, welcoming location that provides travelers a little taste of everything. Offering a perfect blend of climate, culture and landscape, visitors here get the unique opportunity to experience outdoor adventure, rich traditions and serene relaxation all in one fascinating place. One of the very best ways to experience Portugal’s unique charm is to cycle there. Portugal is well-known for its food and wine. When travelling by bicycle, using back roads at low speeds you will stumble upon some hidden secrets, the small village restaurants where the food is made from fresh, local ingredients and cooked in the old traditional ways.

In Portugal you can also cycle all year round – spring and autumn are the best, but you can even cycle during summer in the mountains or in some fresher coastal areas. November, December, and January are our rainy months, but we still get plenty of visitors because the temperature is so moderate compared to many other countries in Europe – in these month’s we run our tours in the Algarve, where you can almost enjoy an African climate!

Operator Profile: Discover Coastal Portugal with Algarve Bike Holidays

 

BikeToursDirect now offers four self-guided bike tours in Portugal with operator partner Algarve Bike Holidays. All four tours are available to depart daily, year-round, for parties of 2 or more.

Whit Altizer, a staffer in BTD’s Asia satellite office, recently spoke with Algarve Bike Holidays’ operator Paul Beesley to find out why Portugal should be your next destination. Following are highlights from their email interview, including the delicious Portuguese cuisine and why you should cycle Portugal while it is still a well-kept secret. 

Why do you think Portugal is best seen by bike? 

The road network is not always so developed here and sometimes the bike can take you to places that you wouldn’t get to by car or by foot. There is a tremendous variety of routes and places to see along the way and you are never far from a great sea view, a delicious café, or a point of interest you’ll want to stop and see. It’s a scenic location with plenty of variety and a bike tour is one of the best ways to have the most complete experience on a visit here.

Tell us a little bit about your location. Why are you located there? 

Algarve Bike Holidays is based in the central Algarve region. The Algarve region is about 200 kms wide from the Atlantic Ocean at the west coast to the border with Spain designated by the Guadiana river. We are close to Boliqueime and Albufeira, right in the middle of the Algarve. By motorway we can be on the west coast or in Spain in around an hour, so at times it doesn’t feel like that big a place.

What did you do before Algarve Bike Holidays ? Did you ever dream of you would start your own bike tour company?

No, this is something that evolved as a business idea after I came to live in the Algarve. I realized what a great location this is for cycling, but it was relatively undeveloped as a cycling destination. This still remains the case to a certain extent, but while we’re trying to change this bit by bit, our clients can still feel a bit of the pioneering spirit as they explore on one of our holidays.

How did you choose the tours that you offer? What do you look for when creating your tours? 

Tours have a tendency to evolve from a variety of sources, perhaps a newly created cycling route, a walking/hiking route or just from a bespoke holiday created for a particular client with a specific set of criteria for a cycling holiday.

We have to think about our criteria for creating an interesting holiday: high-quality accommodations, appropriate cycling distances for the type of bike to be used, safety of routes, scenery along the way — these are all factors that we have to take into account.

What tour would you choose to do over and over again?

There is one tour that we do regularly and this is the Algarve Coastal Route.  Many of the guided tours that we offer utilize sections of this route on a regular basis. We have also completed our “Algarve Coastal challenge” twice in the last couple of years when we complete the entire route in two days. (That’s 230km in 2 days, quite a challenge!)

However, the route that I would prefer given a choice would be our “Best of the Algarve” as I believe the tour does what it says. It combines the best of the coastal cycle route with some interesting inland sections to truly offer the “Best of the Algarve.” We offer this as a 7-night/6-day tour and this provides what I would consider a great sample of the region for our clients!

Note: BikeToursDirect sells 3 versions of this “Best of the Algarve” program:

Describe some of the accommodations you choose for clients. What are the most interesting places to stay? 

We try to provide interesting and high-quality accommodations on all of our routes. Usually a hotel is located within walking distance of a number of good restaurants and the town centre where there is plenty to explore. A few favorite hotels on our various tours are Hotel Vila LidoViLAFOÎA and Marés Residencial.

What is the food like in Portugal? What your favorite dishes that travelers should be sure not to miss? 

Naturally being close to the sea, there is usually a tremendous variety of fish and seafood available throughout the Algarve. Sardines in season, clams, prawns, octopus, squid, sea bass, sea bream and tuna are amongst the wide variety of specialities available fresh everyday. Often simply cooked on a charcoal grill, these items are typically accompanied by a simple salad or seasonal vegetables.

Also available are a wide selection of locally hunted meats such as wild boar and lamb. The local restaurant scene is constantly developing and evolving and there is a growing number of quality gourmet establishments, which, combined with the traditional local places, provide visitors with a comprehensive choice of food to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets.

The Algarve is famous for its cakes — especially the dangerously addictive pastel de nata (custard tart) which is a favorite accompaniment for the morning café throughout the region. There are many cafes in the region that offer great snacks and toasted sandwiches for a quick lunch break out of the saddle.

The food is so good here — it’s a good thing that I do so much cycling, as this helps burn off some of the calories consumed along the way! 

Who is an ideal client for your trips? 

An ideal client should be inquisitive, open-minded, willing to explore and experiment with local cuisine and go with the flow if any surprises come up along the way!

Algarve Bike Holidays co-owner, Paul Beesley.

How many people are on staff? Who guides your trips?

Algarve Bike Holidays is jointly owned by me and my colleague, Fred van der Meer.

Fred and I are both involved with guiding of clients on holidays and we also offer many different half-day tours. We also have a number of locally available freelance guides that we can call upon to help from time to time. One of our part-time guides is Samantha Diamond and she also helps out with some of marketing and sales activities

 

Riding options for all in Switzerland

 

Surprisingly easy riding options

While dreams of Switzerland can often conjure up images of snow-capped mountains, steep Alpine ascents, and free-falling descents, crossing the country by bicycle can be surprisingly easy. This is thanks to geology (lots of east-west valleys) and infrastructure (an extensive network of well-planned bike routes). Of course, challenging options abound as well for those of you out there who dream of steep climbs in a good way.

But you don’t have to be in super-fit shape to take on a Swiss bike tour. John Klemme, owner of one of our local operator partners, Bike Switzerland, agrees. “The country has built a network of more than 2,000 miles of dedicated bike paths, and routes through river valleys offer the spectacular mountain vistas that bring travelers to Switzerland–but without the lung-busting climbs.” (Learn more about John and Bike Switzerland in this blog post >)

E-bikes

For those of us who prefer a more leisurely tour, electrically-assisted bikes (or e-bikes) are particularly popular in Switzerland and are available for riders seeking an extra boost. Small, nearly undetectable engines give riders a boost by providing up to 150% of their own power with each pedal stroke, helping less fit or confident riders (or those slowed by joint injuries or surgeries) maintain the same pace as their riding companions or get an assist up a challenging slope. More on e-bike tours >

Recommended tours

Here are a few tour options to help you start planning your Swiss adventure, or search all tours in Switzerland now.

leisurely biking in switzerlandThe Swiss Crossing “Lite” tour program follows the “Mittelland Route” (through the “middle of the land”) from Geneva near the French border across the entire country to Rorschach, near the German and Austrian borders. Cyclists ride through a river valley with views of the Jura mountain range to one side and the Swiss Alps on the other. There are rolling hills but no significant climbs, and the daily distances are kept to an average of about 35 miles. This is an ideal bike tour for travelers wanting to experience the splendor of mountain landscapes at a leisurely pace. Rental e-bikes are available on this and the more challenging version of this bike tour.

The Locarno and Lake Maggiore bike tour takes travelers on daily loop rides from a single hotel and through the “Swiss Riviera” along the Italian border. Palm trees and endless mountainside vineyards set the Italian-speaking Ticino region distinctly apart from the French- and German-speaking areas.

By contrast, the Aare Cycle Route tour follows a leisurely itinerary along the Aare River from the popular destination city of Interlaken and through the capital city of Bern, ending at Lake Constance. Another great option, the Constance – Zurich – Interlaken tour, winds its way around many picturesque lakes and presents riders with postcard-perfect vistas along each mile.

bike tour switzerland

Cyclists who do want a true challenge should consider the Tour of Mont Blanc, a mountain bike tour that travels a loop around the full 165-mile (265-km) base of the massive mountain, passing through three countries.

Have a question about any of these tours? Be sure to e-mail us at info@biketoursdirect.com.

 

Search all Switzerland bike tours >

More info on bike touring in Switzerland >

Operator Profile: Bike Switzerland takes cyclists cross-country

 

BikeToursDirect now offers two guided and self-guided bike tours in Switzerland with operator partner Bike Switzerland.

Swiss Crossing (Challenging) (Guided: Jul 7, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: Apr 1- Sep 30)    
Swiss Crossing (Lite) (Guided: Jun 19, 2014; Self-guided: Daily: Apr 1- Sep 30)

Whit Altizer, a staffer in BTD’s Asia satellite office, recently spoke with Bike Switzerland’s operator John Klemme to find out why you should cycle Switzerland. Following is an interview Whit conducted with John over e-mail. John shared what brought him to Switzerland, why he never left and why you should come too.

 

Iowa native and Bike Switzerland operator, John Klemme, has called Switzerland home for the last 20 years

How did you develop Bike Switzerland’s tour offerings? 

This is our tenth year. The first year our only tour was what we now call “The Challenge Tour”. This itinerary follows, for the most part, Swiss National Route #9. I thought this would be the best itinerary for our program since it allows cyclists to see a lot of the big sights in Switzerland: Lake Geneva, Gruyère, Gstaad, Interlaken and the Jungfrau, Lucerne, etc.

But this itinerary was a bit too demanding for some and so we began to develop a second, more “do-able” route. We then called that itinerary “The Lite Tour” and the other “The Challenge Tour.” Those names alone seemed to stream people into the correct tour.

People liked both routes and soon we had lots of clients who were repeat customers asking for something new and so we developed a third itinerary that is a loop through the Jura mountain range. That’s our most challenging route.

How do your tours introduce travelers to Switzerland?

The itinerary is “curated” so that people can have experiences, but I don’t like to be too didactic in my approach. So, for example, the first day of our Challenge Tour is in the town of Chexbres. This town is high above the vineyards of Lake Geneva. We bike through the vineyards and so it makes sense that we stop and drink some wine at some point.

There are lots of places we could do this, but there is ONE that feels particularly special. It’s been around for 80 years or so. It’s a cave with stone walls, so it’s cool and they serve glasses or bottles of cold fruity white wine and chunks of sausage. We sit and drink a glass or two and eventually the locals start interacting with the cyclists and they have a nice experience. I guess we could do something more instructive, like a proper wine-tasting, but by the end of the day we all just want a drink, a shower and a good dinner.

The guides are there to answer questions and know a lot of course, but the cyclists themselves are encouraged to “discover” things on their own. We give everyone a GPS and a telephone so they can feel independent and BE independent if they choose. There’s also a pack of information outlining each day’s points of interest (which are also on their GPS).

Tell us about the Bike Switzerland team. What makes your guides special?

A lot of people write or walk into the shop and ask if they can be a guide or if there is an opening at the shop, but it’s not that easy. Liking to bike is not enough of a qualification. I don’t say that because of any laws or restrictions, but because I’d never hire someone who didn’t know the roads, the language and the culture.

This year our principal guide for the three guided tours is Chris Patient and he certainly lives up to his surname.

He probably rides close to 10,000 kilometers a year on many of the same roads we’re taking on our tours. He’s lived here for the last 20 years, speaks good French and Swiss German and knows a good bit about bike mechanics.

Describe some of the accommodations you book for clients. What are the most interesting places to stay?

After the scenery and perhaps the bicycles themselves, the overnight spots are the most important part of the trip. The accommodations we use are very different from each other. We use a big 4-star hotel in the city center in Lucerne and a small family-run auberge in the village of Sax (population 60 inhabitants).

And we never look for the cheapest place or most convenient place. Those are really never considerations. Sure, there are some places I would like to stay, but can’t because they would make the trip too expensive, but in general, the places we stay are the “best” places. But to answer your question…interesting places… we stay in a medieval hospital, a monastery, a refurbished château…and those are just three of the places on the Lite Tour.

What is the food like? What are some of your favorite dishes you have had on your tours?

The food is important — Our driver goes shopping every morning or evening and buys a big spread that he lays the following day for our picnic.

I tell the driver to buy lots of everything the first day and then to be attentive and ask questions after Day 1 so that he can give riders what they like and need.

I mentioned earlier that I try NOT to be too instructive, but I may try a little too hard in this department when it comes to the evening meal.

For starters, I like eating at a European hour…7:30 pm at the earliest. And I like to sit at the table, drink, talk, drink, eat. I like to have riders try things they might not have otherwise: raclette, wild mushrooms, goat cheese, schnitzel, snails. If I’m on a tour visiting with my riders, I tend to make it so that we eat this way.

My favorite place to eat? Actually, the restaurant in Sax (on the Challenge tour) has the best food. Most interesting? Perhaps at the monastery in Fischingen. The monastery itself has boring food and they like to eat at 6pm, so we go into town and eat at this strange little RUSSIAN restaurant. I’m not sure what that place is doing there in the middle of nowhere, but the food is excellent and authentic (according to my Russian wife).

 

Tell us about Geneva as a cycling destination. Why are you located there?

Our most popular tours cross Switzerland from West to East, and since Geneva is the most Western part of Switzerland, it’s the perfect place to begin these tours.

But there’s more to it than just that. Geneva is the closest major airport to the famous alpine cols of the Tour de France. But we’ve got some great challenges right at our doorstep: Mont Salève, la Faucille, Col de Saxel. All of these are epic climbs that can be reached within 30 minutes from our shop.

But there’s also less “steep” cycling. The 180-km tour around Lake Geneva is something that every cyclist here tries to do at least once. And there are numerous country roads going through the wine villages within the canton itself.

What did you do before Bike Switzerland? What made you fall in love with Switzerland?

I knew that I wanted to live abroad, so I studied to be a teacher and got a summer job at a camp in Switzerland, which then lead to a full-time teaching job at a boarding school. I taught for ten years before doing Bike Switzerland full time.

 

Learn more about bicycle tours in Switzerland >

Biking, wildlife, history & whisky in the Cairngorms National Park

 

Experience adventure in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

4,528 square kilometres in area. Five out of six of Scotland’s highest mountains. Home to 25% of the UK’s most threatened bird, animal and plant species. Over one million visitors a year. It’s safe to say that the Cairngorms National Park is a truly special place.

The mountains of the Cairngorms were formed over 40 million years ago, and during the last Ice Age the glacial erosion created rounded summits and rolling valleys which make for gradual climbs and excellent descents. There are trails to suit mountain bikers of almost any level, which is why we’ve based ourselves in the National Park for our fabulous Cairngorms Adventure mountain bike tour.

Here are a few particular highlights of this unforgettable Highland adventure:

Unlocking Loch Garten

The legacy of the glacial impact on the Cairngorms means that it is a patchwork of lochs and rivers. One of the most significant of these, in terms of a natural habitat for native wildlife, is Loch Garten. Not only is it home to the famous Osprey, but you can also spot the extremely rare Crested Tit, found only in this part of the Scottish Highlands. Keep your eyes peeled for both!

As well as experiencing the beautiful wildlife, you’ll be steeped in natural history as you pedal the trails around the loch. You will ride through Glenmore and Abernethy Forests, home to some of the last remaining native Caledonian Pine forests in Scotland, and further highlighting the uniqueness and importance of the Cairngorms National Park to the ecology of Scotland, and indeed, the UK.

Trail Utopia

As well as the mesmerising scenery and wildlife that you’ll experience on your Cairngorms Adventure, we have made sure that this is perfectly complimented with some outstanding mountain biking trails.

The Cairngorms are home to some of the most enjoyable and flowing singletrack trails that Scotland has to offer, and they’re also perfect for building skills and confidence on the bike.

Trail highlights include swooping down singletrack at the fantastic new trail centre at Glenlivet; negotiating the forest around Feshiebridge; and – on your day in the Inverness area – an amazing descent to the banks of Loch Ness. Having such world-class trails within an area of such beauty and history will guarantee that a smile will be etched upon your face all week!

A “dram” good trip!

One of Scotland’s finest traits is the amazing selection and diversity of its whiskies. This is particularly evident in Speyside, home to the largest concentration of whisky distilleries in the country. The geography and glacial formation of the Cairngorms producing mountains (literally!) of fresh water means that this is ideal whisky country, with approximately 50 distilleries in operation in the area. Of course, we wouldn’t let you leave our tour without sampling some of our best brands!

Aberlour’s famed distillery will tell you of origins dating all the way back to the Druids and Celtic ages, where they believed the burn next to today’s distillery site spoke words of wisdom to them, hence the name Fairy Hill. In the 19th century, James Fleming started work on the distillery that remains today, with the iconic waterwheel used to power the whole building right up to the 1960’s still standing. Once you have been sufficiently wowed by the history of the distillery, you will of course take part in a tasting session and have the chance to bottle and label your own whisky. Cheers to that!

However, this will not be your only whisky experience of the day, as we take you through to the charming village of Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands, and home to Whisky Castle. With over 100 years of trading all over the country, the shop now boasts over 500 single malt whiskies. Needless to say, this is as close to a whisky Mecca as you can get for the enthusiast!

This is but a taster of the week that awaits you in the Cairngorms. Other activities you will enjoy along the way include a a day’s guided canoeing on the river Spey, a wildlife walk in the Caledonian Forest and even some time for Nessie-spotting on the banks of Loch Ness. The whole tour is fit to burst with amazing stories, culture, and of course mountain biking. When you join us on our mountain biking adventure in the Cairngorms National Park, what tales will you take back with you?

By Catherine Shearer, co-owner and operations director H&I Adventures. This blog originally appeared on H&I’s blog here.

Operator profile: Bike Asia takes you to “pinch-yourself places”

 

Whit Altizer, a staffer in BTD’s Asia satellite office, spent a week cycling in Korea with Bike Asia owner Scott Spencer. Following is an interview Whit conducted with Scott this week, chatting about why he picked China as the base for Bike Asia, Scott’s favorite Asia bike tour destination, and how he runs this family business to host travelers from all over the world.

BikeToursDirect now offers three guided bike tours in China with operator partner Bike Asia (running May through November).

China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge
Southwestern China: The Trail of the Dragon
The Magic of Shangri-la

 

Tell us a little bit about your location. Why are you located there? 

We’re located in South West China. Yangshuo, Guangxi Province to be exact. If you can imagine a classic Chinese watercolor painting with towering limestone spires poking through swirling mist, water buffaloes working rice paddies with broad bamboo woven hatted farmers following them with wooden ploughs, emerald clear rivers snaking through bamboo groves and towering cliffs — then you have the picture. It looks like the “Peaceful Valley” in Kung Fu Panda basically.

Scott and Bono riding along the trails around Yongshuo.

Yangshuo is one of China’s adventure hotspots too. Sublime biking in the aforementioned countryside is the main reason we are here, but world class rock climbing, great hiking and river rafting make for a great outdoors scene that complements what we do perfectly. All the press is about how China is rapidly developing but Yangshuo is a place where you can escape the bustling cities and relax in a rural retreat and absorb some classic Chinese culture.

 

You are a true family business. How is it working with your wife and with a young son? 

It’s pretty exciting but demanding at the same time. And that’s just the kid! The business is great for us. It’s a nice organic way for my wife and me to raise a kid and remain stimulated with our work as well. We both like the outdoor lifestyle and we work well together. The job means that often we are apart if one of us (me at the moment) is on tour, but that’s balanced out by lots of quality time together when there’s no tour-leading commitments.

I guess we might have to wait to see how young Mason goes leading bike tours before we can officially regard ourselves as a true family business – he still needs to learn to ride a bike first…he’s only 11 months old! There is a real sense of “family” though among our leaders, guides, office staff, accommodation owners, drivers, cooks, mechanics in all the locations we go which is really valuable to us. They are basically all our friends now. 

 

How did you choose the tours that you offer? What do you look for when creating your tours?

Above all the usual must-haves such as great accommodation, interesting culture and food, beautiful scenery and, of course, amazing biking, we look for regions that are unique, and we design tours that we would love to do ourselves. Little travelled places we like a lot and famous places we look to showcase the little known aspects of.

 

What tour would you choose to do over and over again?

Mongolia hands down. The place itself and the style of the tour just suit me down to the ground. It’s all off-road riding and camping outdoors. The people and the landscape are some of the most wonderful I’ve experienced. Far away from the trappings of civilization you can really see nature work its magic on our clients. I’ll stop now because I can talk about Mongolia all day! 

Mongolia! "Far away from the trappings of civilization you can really see nature work its magic on our clients."

Describe some of the accommodations you stay in. What are the most interesting places to stay?

Definitely the smaller family run places. It’s hard to pick among them, but two favorites are a small guesthouse in Pingan village in the Longji Rice Terraces not far from where we are based in Southern China. We wind up a snaking 6km switchback climb up to a Zhuang minority village to end in Pingan to be greeted by a view of cascading rice terracing, big mountains on the opposite side of the valley and a cold beer. The owners are old friends and really make an effort to welcome us.

Another guesthouse I really like is also in China in Yunnan province. Again it comes after a superb ride into a huge gorge, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and arriving at a quaint, friendly place where you can reflect on a great day of cycling whilst looking at two kilometers of vertical wall on the opposite side of where the Yangtze River flows at it’s narrowest point. These are “pinch-yourself places.”

"Cycling back roads you will experience the extraordinary natural wonder of Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the most spectacular gorges in the world, with its towering walls and dramatic beauty."

What is the food like? What are some of your favorite dishes you have had on your tours? 

Mostly nothing like people expect, and always surprisingly good. In any region. Food really is part of the adventure and we really encourage people to try all they can. Well, not quite everything that’s on the menu! I’m going to vote for my local comfort food option, a humble noodle and broth dish, Guilin Mie Fen. Found on every street in the region I live, it’s the dish I miss most when I’m away. Rice noodles in a pork broth with pickled veges and chili to taste…mmmmm!

 

Who is an ideal client for your trips?

Oh we don’t discriminate! People have come from all walks of life on our tours and all ages too. We encourage people to put their reservations aside and take a leap of faith and go for the adventure anyway. You don’t have to be super fit but an open mind and a sense of humour certainly doesn’t hurt!

 

What did you do before Bike Asia? Did you ever dream of you would start your own bike tour company in a foreign country?

I spent a bit of time at uni studying communications and psychology. I was involved in theatre for a period too. This took me on travels through remote parts of the Northern Territory in Australia where the travel bug bit. I’ve worked in tourism for about 15 years now. Did I ever think I’d be running cycling tours based in China…absolutely no way! Wouldn’t have it any other way though:)

 

Why do you think China is best seen by bike?

Almost everywhere is best seen by bike, but China just works as it is closest to the pace of life in the rural areas. You can explore all the little village paths and trails and stop for the million interesting, zany or dumbfounding things that you’re likely to see each day. Lots of people in China are trading in their bikes for cars, we’re doing our best to get them to trade them back.

Client profile: George Byam set for his 22nd bike tour

 

The prospect of shipping off to a foreign country for a week to pedal around can seem overwhelming. But take it from George Byam—a bike-touring expert who’s logged hundreds of miles—touring on two wheels is the best way to travel.

Byam, 73, of East Grand Rapids, Mich., a husband and father of three children, is retired from running his business, the Terryberry Company, which specializes in employee recognition programs and jewelry. He’s been on 22 BikeToursDirect tours so far!

We sat down with Byam to learn about his best touring days, and to get advice for the road.

spain bike tour friends

George Byam with new friends in Ecija, Spain

How would you describe your fitness level?
Oh, my cycling ability is minimal. I choose tours that are classified as leisurely or easy. I’m in great condition, but I hate hills. I never look forward to a nice steep climb.

I think bicycle tours are the ultimate recreation. When I’m touring, I probably go an average of nine miles per hour and I stop about 60 times a day to take photographs, and I like to ride about 35 miles a day. I also enjoy meeting locals on tours and getting in conversations even if I can’t speak the language. One of my mottos is to never take a bike trip in a country where I can speak the language—even English-speaking countries aren’t the same as speaking English in America. It’s always fun to communicate with people when you don’t use the same sayings.

How long have you been taking cycling tours?
I probably took my first foreign trip in 15 years ago. While I’ve taken all-inclusive tours with sag wagons and guides, I really prefer the style of tours available through BikeToursDirect. These tours give me more flexibility and freedom.

Why cycling and not cruising, or traveling by train or bus?
When you travel by train, you’re typically zipping along too quickly to take in the countryside. Walking trips would be too slow. The bike tours allow me to cover a good range of landscape and I can go whatever speed I want.

canal du midi bicycle tour

Cycling along the Canal du Midi, France

What makes a bicycle tour great? 
I prefer a variety of rolling hills and flat stretches and changing scenery to keep it interesting. Really the people you meet and the places you go make a good tour. The route, the people, the restaurants, the weather—all of these make a great tour, including rain!

What makes a great tour isn’t what’s planned—it’s the unexpected. My rule is that things only become memorable when they don’t go as outlined. When sometimes goes wrong on a tour, if it’s a mechanical problem or poor directions, the trip becomes very memorable. You learn more about yourself and how you cope with problems in those situations than any other time.

Do you have a favorite tour? 
No, I don’t really have one. I’ve really enjoyed the tours I’ve taken in Italy, including Bolzano to Venice, Friuli-Venice-Giulia and Apulia.

What are the advantages to touring alone? The advantages to riding with a companion?
Touring alone allows you to create your own schedule. I can start whenever I want in the morning and stop as frequently as I please. Traveling with another person adds conversation and you can share meals with a touring companion. With a larger group, you may encounter extra hassle with decision-making.

Do you prefer self-guided or guided tours, and why?
I prefer self-guided tours, with no question about it. I started touring with guided outfits because I didn’t want to get lost. But now, I’ve come to love reading a map and trying to decipher what the locals really mean by what they’re saying. Most of the countries I’ve visited to a stellar job of signing the road—sometimes better than the signage we have in the United States.

How would you advise someone to choose a tour?
I always take into consideration the time of year a tour is offered, the temperature and skill level. Some tours utilize a combination of roads and dedicated bike paths, and some are all on dedicated bike paths. In all of my touring history, I’ve never had a car come close to me while riding. I don’t consider riding on European roads to be nearly as dangerous as American roads.

austria bicycle tour

Passing through the Drau Valley, Austria

What’s your best advice for someone going on a first tour?
I suggest just going and learn by doing instead of trying to figure out a tour before hand. If the weather is going to be questionable, keep your upper body dry and warm. Pack at least three different weights of shirts, including a T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt and a heavy sweatshirt. Also, I like to bring a windbreaker or something that makes me more visible to cars if I’m traveling on roads.

Depending on the weather, some cyclists prefer to wear long riding pants for colder rides. I always ride with a handlebar bag or rear rack to carry any essentials. On warmer tours, I’ve found it’s essential to carry plenty of water on your bike. Consider the distance between each town or village and bring enough water for the day. You never know how far it may be till you pass a filling station or convenience store.

Why do you like to work through BikeToursDirect?
Working with the owner, Jim Johnson, is a real pleasure. He is very prompt with e-mail communication, which makes it so easy to book tours and ask questions. The communication aspect is excellent. I’ve had a problem on the road before and I had to call Jim, who put the touring company in touch with me very quickly to resolve the issue.

Interview by Laura Jane Walker 

Tastes and Trails of Scotland: The highlights

 

With Scotland being voted Best Biking Destination in the Outside Travel Awards 2014, we thought we’d put the spotlight on one of our newer Highland adventures, aimed at novice bikers, and share with you the highlights of our Tastes and Trails of Scotland experience.

This holiday is the perfect combination of effort and reward. Our expert local guides will share with you some of the most remote and beautiful corners of the west coast of Scotland, and your adventures aren’t just limited to the bike.

Relax on the Jacobite (Hogwarts) Express steam train
Continually voted one of the most impressive train rides in the world the Jacobite Express steam train will take you from Fort William, along the coast, to the beautiful fishing village of Mallaig. You’ll be spellbound by the breathtaking scenery and the true scale of the Highlands and, if you’re a Harry Potter fan, the highlight of this trip on the ‘Hogwarts Express’ might well be the famous 21 arches of the Glenfinnan Viaduct.

The Jacobite Express steam train

In the shadow of a giant
Situated at the foot of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, Glen Nevis is another Scottish landmark steeped in a turbulent yet fascinating history. With some truly staggering views awaiting you at every corner, it’s easy to see why this is another favourite with movie makers, with the majority of Braveheart filmed in the Glen. It is also home to one of Scotland’s highest waterfalls, Steall Falls, offering you further spectacular photo opportunities. 

Hand-dived scallops from the west coast of Scotland.

Over the sea to Skye
Following the path of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s we’ll take the ferry from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye. You will have time to soak up the atmosphere, majesty and natural beauty of one of Scotland’s most famous islands. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of some of Skye’s more celebrated residents, including seals and otters. After a scenic walk you’ll be amply rewarded with a Michelin-starred lunch and wonderful dining experience at Kinloch Lodge. And, of course, no culinary visit to the Isle of Skye would be complete without a distillery tour and there’s none better than the Talisker Distillery on the north west of the island, where you’ll enjoy sampling some of the finest malts

Mountain biking Glenelg Scotland

Iconic castles
If the walls of Eilean Donan Castle could talk, they would have one heck of a story to tell! Inhabited from as far back as the 6th century, and undergoing at least four different builds and rebuilds, the castle has played host to Irish Saints, various medieval clans, and was subject to a Jacobite uprising, the result of which left it in ruin. Thankfully, the castle was restored to its former glory in the early 20th century, and is now regarded as one of the most iconic and picturesque castles in Scotland. A history lesson not to be missed.

Carefully woven into this itinerary of fabulous Highland experiences, are some of the most enjoyable and picturesque biking trails in the country. Our guides will give you hints and tips along the way to help you become a better mountain biker and ensure you get the most of your Tastes and Trails of Scotland experience.

If all this has whet your appetite for adventure, join us on our Tastes and Trails of Scotland tour this summer!

Catherine Shearer, co-owner and operations director H&I Adventures. This blog originally appeared on H&I’s blog here.

A day in Oaxaca City

 

I love Mexico. There, I’ve said it. I love the people, the landscapes, the food (oh, the food!), the history, the pace of life, the cities… I could go on. One place, in particular, for which I have a special fondness is Oaxaca. One of our fabulous mountain biking adventures explores the state of Oaxaca, taking you high up into the beautiful Sierra Norte mountains, but it’s Oaxaca City itself that I’d like to focus on, to share with you a splendid day I had there, just going with the flow and taking in everything this gorgeous city has to offer.

Oaxaca City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is fantastic because it means that the beautiful, multi-coloured, graceful, Colonial buildings will be preserved for us and future generations to enjoy.

Early morning in the city is a special time. I strolled through the streets at my own pace; admiring, thinking before, as if by the flick of a switch, the city bursts into life, with traffic, people, carts everywhere. On my first morning in Oaxaca City I was intrigued by the elusive little bird that kept tweeting tenaciously on the corner outside our hotel – much to the amusement of my husband, who pointed out that it was the pedestrian crossing signal. I did feel slightly stupid; but how nice to be led safely across the road by the chirps of a [mechanical] bird than the usual non-descript beeping heard in most other cities!

Oaxaca is world-renowned for its fabulous cuisine, and breakfast menus in the city’s many cafés and restaurants are replete with local specialities such as tamal, omelette oaxaqueño and, of course, delicious corn-based hot chocolate.

Delicious local corn hot chocolate.

We chose a café on el Zócalo, one of the main squares in the city, and sat down to enjoy a breakfast of champions, with a side order of people watching. Every time I come to Mexico I’m touched by the care with which even the simplest dishes are prepared. The food doesn’t need to be fancy – although Oaxaca City does do fancy, but we’ll come to that later – because the ingredients are so good and it’s cooked so well, with all the little salsas and garnishes, that it just tastes fantastic and is a joy to eat.

Local men catch up on the news whilst having their shoes polished at El Zócalo

A big part of life in these sorts of squares are the street vendors. Almost every square inch of real estate in the square is taken up by someone selling something: clothes, souvenirs, shoe-shining, and lots and lots of colourful inflatable objects. Inflatable toys on wheels, inflatable cartoon characters, unidentified inflatable objects (UIOs), and the old favourite, the balloon. The Oaxaqueños seem to be crazy about helium-filled toys and balloons, possibly because they are absolutely mad for a good party and love celebrating loudly and wildly, which we were to experience in all its glory that evening!

Taking in the sunrise over the Sierra.

When we could no longer claim to be ‘finishing our drinks’ we reluctantly left our people-watching post and headed off for a bit of culture and retail therapy. We stopped first at the Mercado Benito Juarez, situated just behind Zócalo, which is largely a food market, but also has local art products and general souvenirs. There’s plenty of fresh fish, fruit and veg, sweets, and poultry which, if you’re not of a strong constitution, might best be avoided. If you’re looking for traditional, high quality arts and crafts, this isn’t the place. There are many other shops in the city that will cater to your tastes, such as an amazing little gallery we stumbled upon, called Javier Servin, where they made the most exquisitely designed and crafted ceramics. Perhaps it’s a good thing that airlines have such stringent baggage allowances.

Eco-tourism communities of Oaxaca.

All that walking and shopping really works up an appetite, so our next goal was to find somewhere for lunch. There’s almost too many choices in Oaxaca, but we opted for a little place near the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, where we had some lovely tacos and salad.

Since we were so close, it seemed rude not to make a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo, perhaps Oaxaca City’s most lavish cathedral, which was once a monastery, but now forms part of the cultural fabric of the city, along with the museum and Ethno-botanic gardens. Run by the Dominicans, you can take a guided tour of the cathedral or simply admire the work that must have gone into creating the grand interior and exterior of the church, and what’s required to maintain it in such a way.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán in Oaxaca City at night

Oaxaca is a great city in which to just walk around. You don’t have to have a great purpose, although there are plenty of things to see and do, and there’s always something going on, like the coffee festival or the festival of local Oaxacan arts and crafts.

Festivals and celebrating are a large part of Oaxacan culture and they love any excuse to break out the fireworks!This we discovered during dinner at a wonderful restaurant called Los Danzantes, which specialises in traditional Oaxacan dishes with some modern international twists, and has an open roof so that you can watch the fireworks over your rosemary-scented crème brulée (highly recommended)!

Celebrating a wedding, Oaxacan style!

On stepping out of Loz Danzantes after a fabulous meal and onto the main pedestrian precinct, we were almost blind-sided by an enormous papier mâché bride and groom who were leading a long procession making its way loudly down the street. This was just the first in a conveyor belt of weddings pouring out of the churches and cathedrals, each more elaborate and with more fireworks and musicians than the last. I did say that the people of Oaxaca loved to party, and what better reason for celebration than a wedding?!

Unexpected sights in the forest.

After dodging fireworks and brass bands, we eventually followed the last procession towards our hotel, giving silent thanks when they headed off in the opposite direction at the last second (we were pretty tired). It was certainly a very happy way to round off a day in Oaxaca City and served, rather aptly, to reaffirm my love of Mexico.

If you’d like to experience the wonder of Mexico for yourself, join us in October on our magnificent mountain biking adventure in Oaxaca!

Catherine Shearer, co-owner and operations director H&I Adventures. This blog originally appeared on H&I’s blog here.

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