Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide
Where in the World?
From trekking in the Andes to sea kayaking in Samoa, 21 family odysseys
Pedaling Through Tuscany
A funny thing happens on family bike trips: Under the influence of their kids, hammerheads actually become human. The mileage-obsessed hard-core rider, urchins in tow, has no choice but to sit up, slow down, look around, and smell the roses — or, in the case of Ciclismo Classico's inaugural eight-day Tuscan Fantasy family trip last June, to smell the chamomile, fennel, and witches'-broom.
With kids around, the performance-based pecking order dissolved; when ten-year-old Elizabeth gave up in frustration after three hilly miles on the first day, she received not disdain but an award at dinner from a guy who once rode 870 miles in nine days. "Hey, those hills were pretty steep," he said in admiration. "And she didn't even have gears!"
Lauren Hefferon, Ciclismo Classico's founder/owner and the trip leader on the first Tuscan Fantasy ride, is the mother of a two-year-old fireball named Lorenzo. (Funny how outfitters introduce family trips shortly after they hear the pitter-patter of little feet.) She quickly learned that it takes more than reduced mileage and SpaghettiOs to make a family bike trip. Ciclismo's strategy is to ride day loops and return to the same digs each night, thereby lightening the logistical load on parents.
Home base for the Tuscan Fantasy trip is the elegant 15th-century Fattoria degli Usignoli (Nightingale Farm), set between a vineyard and a horse paddock in the Tuscan hills just west of Regello. Usignoli seems designed by God for families: two-bedroom apartments with kitchens, acres of lawns, two swimming pools, a playground, boccie courts, a tennis court, and a soccer field. Even the food is perfect for kids — traditional Tuscan fare like tagliatelle con funghi is really just sophisticated SpaghettiOs, after all. Meals are served outdoors at a leisurely pace that allows for energy-burning sprints to a nearby fountain between courses, while the boring old grown-ups just sit there talking and drinking wine.
Standard bike routes cover a modest 25-35 miles each day along lightly trafficked country lanes to nearby villages like Loro Ciuffena and Vallombrosa. (There are also low- and high-mileage options each day; 10-15 miles for younger kids and 50-60 miles for hammerheads who feel compelled to revert to form for a day.) And of course the sag wagon driver is geared up for extra duty.
Mindful of young attention spans, Hefferon schedules a noncycling day and two free mornings with optional cooking lessons, picnics, a tour of the local gelato shop, Italian lessons, and a soccer match with kids from the nearby village. During our stay, an inspired Team Ciclismo was just nosed out, 15-14 , in overtime.
But the trip highlight for most of the 14-strong Ciclismo group was joining a Pedalate de Mezzanotte, a ten-mile night ride en masse through the streets of Florence. Some 300 locals, ranging from hard-muscled racers on 17-pound Bianchis to a little old lady carrying two toy poodles in her wicker handlebar basket, wound along the Arno River past medieval churches and boisterous sidewalk cafes. Ten-year-old Sarah's postride comment nicely captured the ups and downs of family bike trips: "I'm sooooo tired. But it was still fun!"
— David NolandCiclismo Classico's eight-day family bike trips this summer include two each in Umbria and Veneto (June 26 and July 2) and three in Tuscany (June 29, July 3, and September 4). Prices are $2,375 for adults, $1,425 for kids ages 3-16, and $200 for kids under three. Call 800-866-7314.
A House Swap in France
When you live in another family's house for a time, you assume, if not their identities, at least pieces of their day-to-day lives.
For the Esquirols, Claude and Rosaline, the French family who used our home in Colorado as a base (infrequently, I would imagine) while caroming from the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World, and so on across the American Southwest, the lure of a vacation home swap turned on rent-free digs and the keys to the family car. We, on the other hand, inherited Mamie, Rosaline's ancient mother, who rode out from town most days to tend her garden and cook lunch for us. In the sun-drenched, Roman-era village of Ornaison, hard by the Mediterranean border with Spain, Grandma came with the territory.
We couldn't tell whether Mamie approved of us or not, or even if she fully comprehended who we were, but she did bring us vine-warm tomatoes and plums and peaches and figs, and she showed my wife, Ellen, and our two girls how, in the orange, late-afternoon heat, to snip sprigs of lavender to sew into sachets.
Thanks to the Esquirols and the Vacation Exchange Club (now HomeLink), in whose catalog we had found the listing for this house, our Ornaison neighbors knew all about us before we had met any of them. Within days of our arrival, our presence was required at the annual fête champêtre, or country party. Strangers extended rough farmers' hands across long tables set under the stars and welcomed us to the community. Ellen, whose French had been honed in Paris, worked gallantly with the heavy southern accents. Cloe, age 10, Cecily, seven, and I nodded and smiled a lot ("Oui, c'est bon. C'est délicieux. Merci.") while downing huge quantities of grilled sausage, tiny pickles, and onions along with draughts of the local red wine.
That was another thing. The grapevines that surrounded the house — a modern, tile-roofed affair with a pool — were tended and harvested every year by the local winemaking co-op. And every year the landowners (Rosaline and Claude and, by extension, us) received the finished product, a rich, young vin ordinaire, in payment. The winemaster proudly led us through the winery and doled out our monthly allotment, which we kept in the garage and decanted without reserve at every meal.
Every third day or so we piled into the Esquirols' VW Golf for day trips: to the warm green water of Collioure on the coast; to the walled "fairy-castle" city of Carcassonne; to the mountains of the nearby Pyrenees; or to Narbonne for a barge ride up and down the locks of the Canal du Midi. Most of the photos I took were on these tourist adventures. But many of my strongest memories are of days "at home" in Ornaison. The girls, wide-eyed, watching Roue de la Fortune, the French Wheel of Fortune, on TV. The girls in the pool with a new friend, 12-year-old Nicholas, who would launch either a cannonball or a jackknife splasher into their giggling midst.
Claude and Rosaline had asked Nicholas's parents, Jean-Claude and Cathy, to check in on us. Now they were our friends, too. Jean-Claude, speaking slowly so that I would understand (and never once flinching at my infant French) taught me to play pétanque — a game of steel balls rolled across hard-dirt pitches that dominates afternoons here — with old masters in blue berets waiting their turns in the shade of huge plane trees.
Weekends, we'd sit with the neighbors, surrounded by ripening grapes, sipping wine, watching the kids go happily, bilingually nuts. Having magically usurped the lives of people we hardly knew, we hoped that they were just as pleasantly usurping ours eight time zones away.
Membership in HomeLink (800-638-3481) costs $88 per year.
— Peter Shelton