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Combine fitness and tourism with adventure travel

If Tampa lawyer Jeanne Coleman is tempted to slack off on her training regimen, she has this memory to stay motivated: Pedaling a fully loaded bicycle up a Pyrenees mountain road so steep, she had to stop every mile to catch her breath. Waiting for her at the top: all the cyclists who had passed her on the way up, but stopped to applaud her.

"That set the tone,'' Coleman, now 62, said of the 2010 adventure. "I said, 'Okay, I can do the rest of the Pyrenees.' And we did.''

Whether you follow Coleman's Tour de France-level efforts or go for something more sedate, planning an active vacation may be just the ticket to keeping your fitness resolutions long after January ends.

Depending on your tastes and ambitions, a trip could be the reward for months of working out and eating right at home. It could be a spa-style vacation or spiritual retreat where you get the kick start in knowledge and motivation that has been eluding you.

It could be simply finding a new hike or renting a bike close to home, or arranging a bike-and-barge tour of a country you've never seen.

It also can be a great way to meet like-minded travelers that you stay connected with long after the trip ends.

•••

It's no accident that the TV ads you see for cruises these days often feature rock-climbing walls, not endless buffets.

"There's a health and wellness zeitgeist these days. It's a part of the times,'' said Julie Snyder, a Wisconsin travel consultant who did her first biking trip back in '90s. "I've been loving this type of vacation for many years, and I've seen the interest go up.''

People who go on an active vacation tend to get hooked, said JoAnn Bell, vice president of programs at Road Scholar, a nonprofit that offers educational and adventure trips in 150 countries, including trekking in Nepal, skiing in Utah and biking just about everywhere in Europe. Formerly known as Elderhostel, Road Scholar now caters to travelers of all ages, though most are at least in their 50s, she said.

"The idea of setting a trip as a goal for health is fantastic — you're rewarding yourself for getting fit. And once you've had that sense of accomplishment, you can do harder trips and longer trips,'' said Bell.

The active trips get more repeat business than any other in the Road Scholar catalog, she said. Travelers are increasingly diet conscious, too. Starting next year, Road Scholar will require its tour operators to offer gluten-free, low-fat and low-salt options. "China, Russia, everywhere,'' Bell said.

"But the really interesting thing about our programs is, we have people of all ages,'' she said. "It's a product not defined by age, but by ability.''

Just ask her colleague Stacie Fasola, 51, who worked hard to get in shape for one of Road Scholar's toughest adventures, a four-day hike on the high-altitude Inca Trail to Peru's Machu Picchu in October.

Fasola was surprised to see a 69-year-old man in the group there with his 40-something son, but her initial reaction quickly turned to respect. The older man ''ran 7 miles a day to get ready,'' she said. "He worked hard, he was consistent and he finished the hike.''

So did Fasola, who called it ''one of the hardest things I've ever done.'' Now she's getting ready to run and walk her first marathon — in Paris this spring, with her 21-year-old daughter.

•••

If all this sounds intriguing, you may be wondering where to start. Step one, experts agree, is knowing yourself.

• Where do you want to go? Do you want to stay in-state or roam around the world?

• Do you want to travel solo or with a group? What kind of group?

• How much of a challenge do you want? Do you want a group that travels with a backup van for when you need to take it easier?

• What's your budget? Whether you go solo or on a tour, you can find all price ranges.

The beauty of all-inclusive tours is that once the planning is done, you always know where you are staying, and frequently your luggage is carried for you in a van.

Or you may find all that confining. Coleman not only eschews tours, she doesn't even make reservations.

"I put everything in panniers (saddlebags), and just have an idea of where campgrounds and hostels might be. I don't want anybody telling me where to go.''

But she does advise newbies to start with a bike tour, such as Bike Ride Across Georgia, an offshoot of RAGBRAI, a ride across Iowa that she also recommends. "You get used to mileage every day. That's the hardest thing — you've got to get on that bike every day.''

Coleman gets in her hill training with day trips to nearby San Antonio in Pasco County and weekends in Dahlonega, Ga.

Julie Snyder has another tip for flatlanders who want to take a hilly bicycle trip: Join a gym that offers spin classes.

"The first time I took a spinning class years ago, I was crying by the end of it,'' said Snyder. "But it's amazing how quickly one can get in shape.''

Make sure you get used to real-world cycling. Bell tells the sad story of a woman who trained at the gym for a bike trip in Holland. But she never learned to ride in traffic — or keep the bike balanced — and had to go home.

That, Bell said, is extraordinarily rare, but it's a cautionary tale that's wise to heed. Expect your travel consultant to ask about your current level of fitness and what you hope to attain. Be honest with them and yourself. You can always go for a tougher trip next time.

And remember that physical endurance isn't the only kind of fitness you can get on your adventure vacation.

Amy Stefanou, an adventure travel adviser based in North Carolina, says this time of year, her clients look for getaways to help them set all kinds of intentions for the new year.

She raves about a trip she took in 2013 to the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif.

"It changed everything, not only on a fitness level but on a personal and spiritual level,'' she said.

How, specifically?

"I didn't expect that anybody would be able to get me to start meditating in the morning. It has been such a marvelous tool for being able to center myself.''

You might have goals for a trip such as fitness, sightseeing, family bonding, you name it, and that's a fine thing. But as Stefanou notes, it's even finer to be open to the surprises.

"Oftentimes, something new is given to you that you never expected,'' she said, "and that is the greatest gift of all.''

Charlotte Sutton can be reached at sutton@tampabay.com.

Create your own travel adventure

Here are some tips on planning and preparing for a trip to help you keep those New Year's resolutions:

1. Plan ahead so you have time to get in shape for your trip — physically and fiscally. The trip won't be fun if you return injured and in debt.

2. Do your research. Search the Web and ask friends for ideas. Talk with consultants, letting them know your goals and abilities.

3. Be prepared. Popular operators like Road Scholar (RoadScholar.org), Backroads (Backroads.com) and CW Adventures (CWAdventures.com) offer detailed itineraries, including distances and level of difficulty, to help you prepare.

4. Be realistic. If you want to hike but aren't ready for a four-day trek at high altitudes, seek a gentler option.

5. Start small. Go for an easier tour, or map out close-to-home trips to see how you do on consecutive days of activity.

6. Make your own tour. Consultants like Amy Stefanou specialize in creating packages for groups such as yoga classes.

Sources: Julie Snyder (RideBikeHikeTravel.com) and Amy Stefanou (MagnificentJourneys.com)

Combine fitness and tourism with adventure travel 01/09/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 9, 2014 4:37pm]
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