And After Your Vacation, Take a Vacation

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

And After Your Vacation, Take a Vacation

To fully understand the appeal of multisport adventure tours, remember this: More is definitely more.
By Paul Kvinta

But the Brochure Said...
You can't believe everything you read — or see

"I'd hoped it would be romantic," recalls one chagrined veteran of a multisport adventure. "But after the third hour of mountain biking, my fiancë threw up on my shoes."

OK, so multisport trips are not for everyone (and few qualify as romantic). But brochures for most such vacations manage to make them sound both alluring — and achievable. How can you navigate these gorgeously illustrated promotional materials to find the trip best suited to you? Begin by thinking fitness. Check the miles covered each day. You might ask if the outfitter has options for those who would like to skip a day or two. Guides will usually oblige; they don't wish to see clients keeling over midtrip. If you're at all uncertain, call the company and honestly — we repeat, honestly — describe your current fitness. The outfitter can decide whether you're a beginner, intermediate, or what one calls a "highly advanced" client.

You should also look carefully at the activities themselves. Do you prefer road biking, or off-road? Can you swim? Would you like to learn how to navigate Class IV rapids? Do you want to learn a new sport at all? Then vet the company's promises about equipment. Make sure all gear is provided and that it's of good quality; a local sporting-goods store can provide names of reputable gear manufacturers if you need them. If bicycling is involved, make sure the outfitter can provide a bike and helmet in your size. Ask if they'll reduce the price if you bring your own.

Finally, don't expect your trip to mirror the paradisiacal photos in the brochure. "People who shoot those use [special film] that makes the sky appear bluer, the trees greener, the colors warmer," says Don Pitcher, a photographer for the Moon guidebook series. "Remember, the sky is never that blue."

On the final day of the Eco-Challenge Adventure Travel Vacation in Queensland, Australia, Stewart Jensen introduces us to a new and vile concept: the "power set." We are racing another six-person outrigger canoe through heaving swells from the mainland to an island six miles away, and we are being soundly thrashed. Disgusted, Jensen, our tour guide, informs us that our exhausting, 65-strokes-per-minute pace is puny. "A power set," he barks from the rear of the boat, "is four sets of 14 paddle strokes each, going flat-out. Everything you've got."

This wouldn't be so withering if we hadn't spent the past week of our vacation sailing in a torrential rainstorm, dodging charging cattle on mountain bikes, leaping off a 25-foot cliff into a raging river, rock-climbing without ropes, trekking up and down steep valleys, and eating — or trying to eat — Vegemite. None of this suffering impresses Jensen, however. "Power set!" he yelps. We dig in. Unfortunately, we catch the competition, which only inspires Jensen. "And another," he cries.

Finally, after the 37th stroke of the fifth power set, our sorry crew tumbles from the canoe onto the sand, damp and wheezing. We limp up the beach. And there, as if in a dream, we find paradise: a white-clothed table spread with boiled prawns, lemon-baked chickens, kangaroo filets, steamed vegetables, cheesecake, and glasses of 1994 Tatachilla Cabernet Sauvignon.

Such is the schizophrenic nature of the travel option known as the extreme multisport adventure, which combines kamikaze-type activities with more conventional luxuriating. Most even deign to call themselves vacations — which requires a rather elastic definition of the term. Although it may be enough for an organized "adventure" trip to provide bicycling or diving or climbing, billing as a multisport adventure requires, well, a lotta sports. And, in an attempt to appeal to the AAA-type go-go-go personality, many of these multisport outfitters advertise their particular trips as the most strenuous or eclectic or adventurous ones available. Which guarantees that virtually every moment of a client's vacation will be jammed with aerobic activity.

Truth be told, such cardiovascular gymnastics may not appeal to everyone. Fear not. Despite brochure-speak describing full-on "adventures," most of the newest multisport jaunts more closely resemble packaged cross-training — with chateaubriand and shiatsu thrown in. So dump the image of a weeklong bivouac with powdered eggs and freeze-dried tuna casserole. Accommodations on these trips are deluxe and meals copious. "People sometimes gain weight," one outfitter admits.

All of which makes multisport adventures a good choice for those vacation tweeners drawn neither to long, lazy sprawls on the beach nor to living out of a rucksack. A few days on my vacation in Australia lent a little insight into what makes for a successful multisport trip: Most important, it must be diverse. Why pay someone money to send you on a ten-mile-long run, which you could manage easily enough on your own? What you need is an outfitter who can supply a kayak or a mountain bike, climbing ropes or an outrigger canoe. The best multisport trips include offbeat, interesting new activities, together with all necessary gear and instruction — and to my mind, a hot tub and resident masseuse.

From the dozens of multisport offerings that met these criteria, we culled five of the most intriguing, including the Eco-Challenge. Each provides plenty of both scenery and sweat, a variety of aerobic activities, and swank dining and accommodation options. Those pleasures don't come without hazards, however: Spoonfuls of noxious Vegemite and high-intensity biking, for example, do not mix well. Trust me.


A Stateside Sports Sampler
In the early days of multisport adventuring — say, two years ago — trips usually involved long journeys to far shores. But now that many outfitters find it necessary to offer the full-on slate of sports, you can often buy the experience without breaking out your passport. The result is generally more aerobic than exotic: Witness the tour company Backroads's self-proclaimed Ultimate Multisport Adventure, a northern California jaunt that packs 12 workouts into four days. It involves little in the way of adventure — though it's not without perils of a sort: "A fishhook caught me in the leg while I was jogging down the Berkeley Pier," recounts one trip veteran.

Belying the "adventure" in its title still further, the trip begins at the upscale Claremont Resort in Oakland. From there, you fan out to scale walls at the City Rock climbing gym, cycle 15 miles through the Berkeley hills, and then rush back to the Claremont, where, the brochure says, "There's time before dinner to play tennis." And that's only day one. Later, there's aerobics, boardsailing in San Francisco Bay, in-line skating through Golden Gate Park, hiking along the Marin Headlands, trail running in Muir Woods, sea kayaking, and finally, exotic waterbiking (actually, pedaling a floating, recumbent-like tricycle).
Recovery involves meals at such restaurants as Chez Panisse, whose chefs turn up on TV with Julia Child. Who signs up for a trip such as this? "It seems to attract people celebrating birthdays ending in zero, like 40," says Backroads publicist Valerie Gilbert. "They want to prove to themselves, 'I still can do it.'" ($1,898 per person. 800-462-2848.)


Cattle Call in Utah
"We drove the cows back to the ranch for the branding," recalls trip client Janine Allison with a hint of squeamishness. "You pretty much got the whole sensation — crying calves, braying mothers. It was...memorable."

Arguably the most offbeat of the activities offered by any multisport outfitter, ranching is the focus of a nine-day high-country trip from Holiday Expeditions. Oh, you get to bicycle and raft, too. Plenty of companies offer that combination, but no other puts you on a horse and sends you out to find lost cows — at your expense. For two days you stay at an isolated, high-altitude ranch in Utah's ponderosa country, having arrived via bush plane. Then, as cattle low plaintively in the background, you can ride, rope, and even brand calves if you have the stomach for it. Afterward you get to sit in front of a big stone fireplace in the bunkhouse, pull a Stetson over your eyes, and snore — just like the movie cowboys.

The more typical multisport aspect of the trip involves mountain biking along the undulating sandstone lip of the Yampa River Canyon, followed by whitewater rafting on the river itself. Sandstone spires swell upward in the channel here, the waters swirling around them. For five days you navigate around such obstacles before finally roaring down Warm Springs Rapid, one of the country's longest drops. To celebrate, you get to switch to yet another sport as you cast for your own dinner entrëe. ($1,415 per person. 800-624-6323.)


Adrift in Belize
"When we weren't sea kayaking or snorkeling, we were playing beach volleyball," says Sarah Symons, a Boston musician. "Then we'd eat again."

So much for serious adventuring. Despite its name — Belize Adventure Week — Slickrock Adventures Inc.'s nine-day tour of this gorgeous little nation blithely involves as much hedonism as heroism. For four days, you're expected to crisscross Belize on "every form of transportation imaginable," according to Symons. You bike through rainforest to the top of Vaca Plateau, a rise of 600 vertical feet in half a mile; bounce along the Class IV rapids of the Macal River Gorge; and drift through the darkened underground limestone caverns of the Caves Branch River. You're rewarded for all this activity with authentic Mayan cooking at luxury jungle outposts.

Then the real self-indulgence begins. For the next five days, the trip moves 35 miles offshore to the tiny green island of Long Caye. Each day, you're offered an aerobics palette that includes sea kayaking, scuba diving (certification instruction is available), boardsailing, and snorkeling. But the most favored activity occurs each evening, as competitions erupt for longest occupation of the resort's hammocks, which overlook the beach and the blue waters beyond. ($1,795 per person. 800-390-5715.)


Sculls and Skulls in Borneo
Sure, you can find your own hiking trails and hire your own kayak guides and even attract your own share of leeches in Borneo without help from an outfitter. But you won't have the full Borneo experience if you don't see a hanging skull. This is a nation, after all, that promotes its headhunting past to tourists. So Outer Edge Expeditions's 16-day Borneo Sports Spectacular helpfully includes an early stopover among villagers who'll break out grandpa's skull collection before you set out to hike the "Headhunters Trail" in the jungles of Gunung Mulu National Park. (The trail has kept its picturesque name though headhunting, obviously, hasn't been practiced in Borneo for generations.) Next you'll kayak the Paku River, raft the Class III Padas River, strap on headlamps to spelunk one of the world's most extensive subterranean labyrinths, and climb to the top of Mount Kinabalu, the highest spot in southeast Asia. The trek up the 13,455-foot mountain's side is spectacular: Dozens of colors of wild orchids dot the landscape, together with insect-devouring pitcher plants and giant red rafflesias, the largest flowers in the world. ($2,390 per person. 800-322-5235.)


Australia and the Power Set
The most taxing of the current multisport offerings — it borrowed its itinerary from this year's running of the rigorous endurance race of the same name — the Eco-Challenge Adventure Travel Vacation in Australia does make a few welcome concessions to its clients. For one, unlike Eco-Challenge racers, you aren't expected to go seven days without sleep while eating only GU. In fact, the people on our trip who displayed the greatest endurance were the gourmet chefs who assembled candlelight dinners for us at every stop.

We needed them. A good clue to the Eco-Challenge vacation's many demands: On the day before the trip officially began, our guides encouraged us to spend the designated "jet lag recovery day" helicoptering into the mountains, biking ten miles through the forest, and crewing a sailboat in a Sidney Harbor regatta.

The Australian itinerary — which will remain in place for upcoming departures, even as the Eco-Challenge race itself moves elsewhere — starts in the outback with a search for vampire bats in volcanic lava tubes, followed by a 12-mile roller-coaster bike ride through a local cattle station. You then hike and boulder to 300-foot Blencoe Falls, where you cross a section of the spectacular churning waters by simultaneously swimming and clinging to a jury-rigged rope system. The final three days are spent rafting the rapids of the Tully River and muscling outrigger canoes around, Hawaii Five-O style. Thank goodness for the emu-liver pétë, smoked salmon, red claw yabby bisque, and Aussie cabernet. Oh, and the silverware and china. Paying to sweat doesn't mean you wish to be uncivilized. ($3,275 per person. 800-571-1102.)

The Vines Got Him
Scoping out the multihazards of multisports

Most multisport adventures proudly proclaim themselves to be "extreme." But what the outfitters don't mention is that extremity often involves jaunts into hostile territory, where plants are malicious and body parts get pummeled. In the interest of full disclosure, we checked in with some multisport vacation veterans to find out the greatest, unsung hazards of their trips.

Spear Grass Australia If this thin grass, with its barbed tips, nails your palm, it will burrow through your entire hand. Remove spear immediately. Don't ignore the barbs; the entire sheep population of Queensland was wiped out when the burrowing grass pierced vital organs.
Fire Coral Belize The sting of this finger coral is worse than a jellyfish bite. Apply something acidic, such as vinegar. "If you're out snorkeling, there's not much vinegar around," says Cully Erdman of Slickrock Adventures. "Urinate on the sting. That works."
Saddle Sores Utah Because the affected area rarely gets such hard use, blisters or sores develop. Keep riding; the affected anatomy soon toughens. "Cyclists get it too," says John Wood of Holiday Expeditions. "By the second day, you need to stand up on the pedals."
Wait-A-While Palm Australia Rubbing against this thorny vine is like being snagged by a fishhook. Remove hooks one at a time, a procedure that requires a pocketknife and high pain threshold. Duck. "My friend was riding in the back of a truck," says a trip guide, "and a palm thorn hooked him by the neck and yanked him out."
Avoirdupois San Fransisco After-workout recovery here involves duck confit, pasta with cream sauce, and rich mashed potatoes. Don't overpack the spandex. Book your next vacation at a spa. "No matter how much we worked out,"says one multisporter, "I put on the pounds."

Paul Kvinta is a frequent contributor to Destinations.

Illustrations by Mark Matcho

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