The Adventure of the Year A hike in the mountains or a walk in the park? With outfitters tailoring trips to all ages and fitness levels, there's no limit to where your vacation can take you.


Nearly 30 years ago an upstart little company called Muntain Travel took its first group of intrepid outdoorsfolk trekking 18,000 feet up to the base camp of Nepal's Mount Everest. These young, rough-and-tough vacationers were perfectly content with rustic camping and basic gruel, and expected little more out of their trip than to make it to the top and back, propelled by their own muscular legs.

Three decades and some 5,000 additional adventure outfitters later, everyon, it seems, is seeking an active vacation of some sort, and few are content with the rewards of simply making it there and back. They must also be enlightened and entertained, returning with their minds as stimulated as their bodies. They want good food (wine would be nice, too), comfy beds and a wake-up call that's not too early. They also might want to bring the dog -- an option available on Europeds' new weeklong Doggie Walks amid the farmlands and medieval castles of France's Dorgogne or Provence regions.

And while foot travel remains a key player in the adventure travel business, these days it is far from the sole means of movement onward and upward.

The 1998 travel year brings cycling excursions in China with Backroads, horseback trips across Florida with Royal Palm Tours, tribal-village visits by sailing tall ship in Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands with ElderTreks, a 1,100-mile run down Mexico's Baja Peninsula in off-road racing cars with Wide Open Tours, icebreaker explorations of Alaska and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions, motorcycle safaris through southern Africa's wildlife parks with Tours for Africa and elephant treks with mountain biking in ancient Gorkha, Nepal, with REI.

Also on a roll are inline skating jaunts through the Netherlands, Minnesota, northern California's wine country and rural areas around Washington, D.C., with Zephyr Inline Skate Tours.

If those trips sound too down-to-earth, maybe you're a candidate for Space Adventures' zero gravity flights out of Moscow in cosmonaut training jets -- with real space "cruises" being sold now for an anticipated 2001 to 2003 departure.

Meanwhile, back on earth, scrappy little Mountain Travel is now Mountain Travel/Sobek, the largest adventure outfitter in the world, with more than 100 excursions worldwide. And brawn is no longer required to get into the action. The company's 1998 trips range from undemanding family-oriented natural-history cruises in Ecuador's Galapagos Islands and Alaska's Inside Passage to a moderately challenging sea kayak and hiking expedition in Greenland and a killer trek in Peru's Cordillera Blanca -- the Himalayas of South America.

Less sweat, more comfort

Mountain Travel/Sobek is not the only adventure outfitter that has seen the commercial wisdom of offering trips with fewer physical demands. This season Trek- America, a longtime leader in challenging expeditions for the young and fit, launched a less vigorous collection of excursions under a new company wing called Footloose.

"One day during a planning meeting we looked around the room and realized many of us baby boomers were too old or just not in good enough shape to do our own tours," says North American sales manager Jeff Hall. "We created new trips that eliminated some of the sweat and added hotel stays to camping nights, and Footloose was born."

A 10-day tour from Denver to Los Angeles includes hiking at the Arkansas River, Colorado's Rocky Mountains and Grand Canyon National Park, whitewater rafting and Navajo-guided horseback riding in Monument Valley Navaho Tribal Park. A three-week, cross-country swing from New York to Los Angeles includes whitewater rafting and hiking in Tennessee, swamp tours in Louisiana, country and western dancing in San Antonio, and a little risk-taking bungee-jumping, parachuting or casino hopping in Las Vegas. Transportation is by 11-passenger van -- the maximum number of guests.

For women and seniors

While some boomers may feel the need for more slack in their track, women and older folks, who at first tiptoed into the softest adventure sphere, are feeling their oats and demanding more.

Rainbow Adventures, one of the veteran purveyors of trips for women only, has just launched its Born to Be Wild series because, says ownder Susan Eckert, "our repeat guests want more challenge and have gained the confidence to know they can do more."

Among the options are a 10-day horseback-riding excursion in Icenia and a 16-day walking safari among gorillas in Uganda.

Saga Holidays, which caters to travelers over 50, has launched the Road Scholars program for clients who want more physical activity as well as an educational and cultural bent.

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