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The 10 best adventure travel bargains of 2006

Jenny Barnes was looking for a bargain. “I wanted an exotic destination, but not too expensive,” says the 51-year-old family doctor from Herefordshire, England. “I was taking my 17- and 19-year-old sons, and the adventurous spirit was important.”

Emma Fisher wanted an adventure trip where her money “actually benefited the local economy.” Her thoughts drifted to Morocco after hearing about friends’ experiences there.

Both Fisher and Barnes eventually found their way to the affordable and socially conscious Morocco Atlas Panorama mountain walking holiday from U.K.-based adventure tour operator Exodus. The eight-day small-group adventure goes for as little as $490 for U.S. travelers, plus a small local payment, and features a flexible itinerary that allows for as little or as much walking as the group desires.

The Atlas Panorama is one of the 10 best deals I found in my search for this year’s great adventure travel bargains. In sorting through trips offered by nearly 100 different tour operators, I looked for the adventures that best combine price, destination, itinerary, and positive feedback from real travelers.

Morocco: Atlas Panorama

“You get an extremely varied itinerary, from the bustling bazaars of Marrakech to the romantic Kasbah hidden deep in the High Atlas Mountains,” says Katie Fewings, Project Manager for U.K.-based Responsible Travel, which sells Exodus’ trips and awarded the tour operator a Responsible Tourism Award in 2004.

The “Atlas Panorama” includes a day in the “pink city” of Marrakech—a “maze of bustling bazaars, palaces, and mosques”—before journeying into the immense Atlas Mountains and centering the daily hikes from the Berber village of Tijhza. Walks take travelers through terraced fields, high pastures, and past lakes carved into the white, rocky landscape.

“The trip was a good value for the money,” says Barnes. “All of the potential hassle of the trip, arranging accommodation, guides, transport, and trekking was taken care of. I don’t have time to do it all myself.”

U.S. travelers can also book this trip through Adventure Center.

The nine trips that follow are the rest of the best.

Next>> Sailing the Greek Isles on a 49-foot yacht

Sailing the Greek Isles on a 49-foot yacht

One of the most spectacular trips I turned up is G.A.P Adventures’ Greek Islands Adventure for $695 plus a small local payment. This is an amazing deal that includes eight days aboard a 49-foot yacht, the services of a full-time captain, and a guaranteed departure regardless of group size (with a maximum group size of eight).

There are multiple itineraries to choose from, but the one that caught my eye is the Santorini-to-Mykonos route. These are two iconic Greek islands. Ring-shaped Santorini is known for its high cliffs and volcanic caldera, Mykonos for its whitewashed houses and fascinating archeological sites. The itinerary is just a starting point, however. “We go off the beaten path,” says Kira Zack, G.A.P’s communications and marketing director. “For example, an impromptu stop on an island for a local festival, remote villages, going to a deserted beach, or wherever the wind takes us.”

“You will not find a better deal,” says Benjamin Weiher, who worked as a senior tour leader and troubleshooter for G.A.P during the company’s inaugural Greek sailings in 2004. “Unless you have enough people to fill up your own yacht, and the capacity to book and organize, there is no other way … to put a person or a couple onto a sailing yacht in Greece for a comparable price.”

The price of the trip does not cover food, which travelers instead purchase on their own during stops at the islands’ taverna-lined harbors. G.A.P suggests setting aside about 200 euros for meals (see xe.com for current exchange rates).

Next>> Cycling in Provence

Cycling in Provence

Breakaway Adventures’ seven-day Heart of Provence self-guided cycling tour in the foothills of the French Alps starts at $1,469 for fall departures. It’s designed for casual riders who want the flexibility and independence of a do-it-yourself trip with the security and convenience of a fully supported guided ride.

An English-speaking representative “picks up the traveler at the train station in Les Arcs and takes them to the first hotel and then back to the rail station at the end of the tour,” says Carol Keskitalo, Breakaway Adventures’ director. “The representative conducts a briefing session and goes over the route notes and maps, [and] also moves the luggage via van from hotel to hotel while you’re cycling. He’s available by cell phone if there are any problems and will come out and fix or replace the bike if necessary.” In other words, it’s a highly supported cycling trip without a “sag” wagon following a group of cyclists the whole way.

Lori Edwards of Long Beach, California, went on this trip in May of 2005 and calls it one her best vacations ever. Edwards booked the independent cycling tour with a friend who had read about it and wanted to give it a try. “The most enjoyable part were the daily bike rides,” Edwards says. “We had all day to go 15 to 25 miles and we stopped wherever we wanted—to sight see, to wine taste, to have a beer at a local brasserie … It was such a relaxing trip. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

At $1,469, Breakaway Adventures’ tour is about $350 cheaper than a similar trip offered by Discover France when you factor in the cost of bike rentals (which are included in Breakaway’s package). The Breakaway trip also includes transfers from and to the rail station, dinner every night, continental breakfast every morning, route notes, maps, luggage transport, and accommodations for six nights in two- and three-star hotels.

“We keep our prices low by offering tiered prices [based on seasonality],” says Keskitalo. “This reflects the lower costs we incur from the hoteliers in the off-season and is a unique ‘budget’ advantage to our tours as you can elect to travel on a less expensive date and save up to $150 per person by traveling in the spring or fall.”

Next>> Guided hikes in Yellowstone

Guided hikes in Yellowstone

With its famous geothermal wonders like Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, its 2.2 million acres of wilderness, and its 1,100 miles of hiking trails, Yellowstone National Park isn’t just the grandfather of America’s national parks—it’s one of the most impressive wilderness preserves in the world.

There are endless opportunities for camping, backpacking, and day hiking on your own, but to really appreciate its natural and historical wonders, there’s no better way than the guided Lodging & Learning packages from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and the nonprofit Yellowstone Association Institute.

“Yellowstone is so big and diverse, and these packages help people understand and appreciate its wonders,” says Rick Hoeninghausen, Xanterra’s director of sales and marketing. “The Lodging & Learning packages make it so much easier for those who want to get off the beaten path, but aren’t comfortable doing it on their own.”

Of the packages offered, my favorite is the four-night Trails through Yellowstone, which is available this year through September 30. It includes daily four- to eight-mike hikes that take in both Old Faithful and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, instruction by a naturalist guide, two nights’ accommodations at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, two nights at Grant Village, breakfast and lunch each day, in-park transportation, and an evening wildlife expedition.

At $624 per person, it’s more than $1,000 cheaper than a five-night Yellowstone Hiker trip offered by The World Outdoors.

Next>> Snowshoeing in Eastern Europe

Snowshoeing in Eastern Europe

I’ve become a big fan of Explore trips since my recent Icelandic volcano trek with the budget adventure outfitter. One of my fellow hikers on that trip, Robert Metcalf, put me on the trail of this other Explore gem: a five-day guided snowshoeing adventure in Bulgaria.

With Bulgaria’s trackless Rila Mountains as a backdrop, this trip allows you to visit traditional Bulgarian houses, stop at the painted monastery of Rila—a UNESCO World Heritage site—and eases you into snowshoeing with instruction that should take “just a few minutes to master the easy technique.”

“Our guides led us through dense pine forests on narrow trails with no sign of foot prints. We crossed mountain tops and descended to villages,” says Metcalf. “All really beautiful with several feet of new snow and on some days, huge snowflakes floating all around us. On the mountain tops we would stop for lunch at log huts with soup and warm up in front of a log burner. The scenery was fantastic and the experience of trekking on deep snow in forests was very special.”

“I went with some friends from work and really we were after a short break that was a little different and something to mark the new year. Snowshoeing sounded like a great idea (as I don’t ski and have injured knees) so was a good compromise with trekking and skiing. I liked the idea of Bulgaria as being a little different and hoped it to be uncommercialized and unspoiled—which turned out to be true.”

The five-day winter escape starts at $590 plus a small local payment.

Next>> Hiking the Alps

Hiking the Alps

Nancy Bale and her husband Andris Lapins wanted to hike the famous Haute Route in the European Alps, but they weren’t interested in a guided trip. “We wanted our experience to be our adventure, not one where we are led about by a guide,” says the 51-year-old Bale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, Washington. “We wanted to try to speak the language, mingle with the locals, and have the freedom to relax and take in the sights without being on someone else’s time.”

They also wanted a good deal. That led them to Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures, which pioneered the concept of self-guided hiking trips (with luggage transfers, customized maps, and pre-booked accommodations) more than 15 years ago. “Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures specializes in inn-to-inn hiking trips throughout the Alps of Western Europe,” says Chris Pranskatis, the company’s general manager. “We can amend any standard itinerary, or build entirely customized tours from scratch, in order to meet the needs of our guests. In short, you tell us when you want to go, what you’d like to see, and how you like to sleep, and we’ll do the rest.”

Ryder-Walker’s self-guided Hiker’s Haute Route lists at $1,625 (compared to $2,800 for the guided version). Bale and Lapins chose the self-guided option. “We were able to utilize all of the knowledge that Ryder-Walker guides had of this area. They coordinated all of the logistics for lodging, luggage transportation, bus schedules, train schedules, plus breakfast and dinner every day. They also provided all of our maps plus very accurate written detail of each day’s hike. They even helped us plan our return trip into Paris, so that it would be convenient for us,” says Bale. “We considered this trip an excellent value for our money.”

Next>> Costa Rica hiking, biking, and rafting

Costa Rica hiking, biking, and rafting

Costa Rica is one of the top adventure travel destinations in the world—a tiny country with a huge variety of adventures that can be sampled in as little as a week. Typical Costa Rica multi-sport packages sell for somewhere in the $2,000 range, but Amazon Adventures offers a unique approach that cuts the cost almost in half. The company’s two Costa Rica Multi-Sport Tour options sell for $1,035 and $1,215, respectively.

These trips from Amazon Adventures begin in San Jose, Costa Rica, and feature activities such as hiking, rafting, walking in cloud forests, horseback riding, and visiting several of the country’s volcanoes. Tours include accommodations, transportation, and some meals.

Unlike most adventure packages, these trips can begin any day of the week—allowing travelers to start the trip when it best fits into their schedule. “We put these trips together so they could operate on any day,” says Jim McDaniel of Amazon Adventures. “We utilize [local] day tours that operate every day. It’s economical because the tours aren’t private and there is no escort traveling around with the people the whole time.”

Amazon Adventures works primarily with local tour operators, which allows the company to offer better prices and a more authentic feel. Aware that skeptical travelers might have doubts about a company whose prices are routinely half what the competition charges, Amazon Adventures joined the Better Business Bureau. No complaints have been filed within the past three years—as far back as I could track in the Better Business Bureau’s report.

Next>> Trekking and rafting in Nepal

Trekking and rafting in Nepal

“It was a match made in heaven,” says Forest Michaels, a 26-year-old New York City resident who discovered adventure outfitter Intrepid Travel last year while researching a trip with her brother. “I cannot say enough good things about the company.”

Michaels booked Intrepid’s 15-day Nepal Adventure, which goes for $700 plus a $200 local payment. The trip has one of the most varied itineraries I came across in my research. “It has a little bit of everything,” says Jen Bird, communications manager for Intrepid. “A three-day walk in Kathmandu Valley, a short trek in the Siklis region, rafting the Trisuli River and relaxing by the lake on Pokhara. Many other trips to Nepal are focused on certain activities, whereas the Nepal Adventure offers a taste of it all.”

“I really loved Intrepid’s approach to travel as well as the respect the company seems to have for the local culture,” adds Michaels. “They hire knowledgeable, pleasant guides who do a good job booking totally livable lodgings, and they are clear when you won’t be staying in a palace. The group number is kept low so you don’t feel like you’re schlepping around the country in a really conspicuous way.”

For hardcore adventurers, Intrepid’s Everest Base Camp Nepal trek is another great bargain. It’s a 15-day trip for $615, plus a $200 local payment. “This is one of our most challenging itineraries with a physical grade of five, our highest,” says Jacquie Burnside, Intrepid’s Vice President, Sales & Marketing. “It’s one of those iconic journeys that stirs even the most die-hard of travelers.”

Next>> Cycling in rural China

Cycling in rural China

Planning a trip to a country as vast and culturally unique as China can be daunting for even the most experienced travelers. That’s why Americans typically opt for tour packages that include a guide. Unfortunately, many of those packages are of the cookie-cutter tour bus variety, and those that aren’t tend to be prohibitively expensive.

Not so with Peregrine’s 10-day Cycle China adventure, which is both unique and affordable at $1,370. “By getting away from the tour buses and exploring China by bike, we get right off the main roads and into scenic remote regions where life moves at a slower pace,” says Cathy Ashton, advertising and publicity coordinator for Peregrine.

“Another big difference between Peregrine trips and other adventure tours is that all of our tour leaders are local. On this trip, the tour leader will be Chinese—born and bred—so he or she can speak the language, which is great for translating menus and helping you interact with local people. The guide will also understand street signs, and will know the history and culture of the region intimately.”

The trip starts and ends in Hong Kong, where a boat takes travelers to the mainland and a plane flies them further inland for a cycling route through rural China—among villages, hills, and rice terraces. Accommodations, transportation (including a support vehicle), arrival transfer, and many meals are included in the price. American travelers can book this Peregrine trip through Adventure Center.

A more expensive option that adds a little more variety (and some more “mainstream” attractions) is Intrepid Travel’s 14-day China Hike & Bike package. It goes for $1,710, plus a $200 local payment, and takes travelers to the Forbidden City, the famous Terracotta Warriors, and along a less-touristy segment of the Great Wall.

Next>> Whale watching in Baja California, Mexico

Whale watching in Baja California, Mexico

“It’s the moment of a lifetime,” says Terry Pritchard, president of Sea Kayaking Adventures. Pritchard is referring to the moment when friendly whales swim up and nudge the hulls of his company’s motorized skiffs, which happens frequently during the four-day “Gray Whales of Magdelana Bay” trips that head into the deep waters of Boca de Soledad in Baja California, Mexico.

Sea Kayak Adventures has an exclusive permit to use the campsite at its Isla Santo Domingo base camp, located in the heart of a whale-calving area in Baja California. “As whales breach and spy-hop just offshore, guests can explore whalebone-littered beaches and look for herons, egrets, dolphins, and spouting grays,” adds Pritchard. “Boca de Soledad has the highest concentration of gray whales of any Baja lagoon, and our camp is situated at the edge of a deep channel where the whales cruise mere yards from the beach.”

The “Gray Whales of Magdelana Bay” is a bargain at $799 ($719 for kids ages 17 and under). It includes camping equipment for two nights at the base camp, naturalist guides, meals, daily motorized skiff excursions, airport transfers, and two nights’ hotel accommodations.

“There was good food, good leadership, and a variety of activities that included whale watching, bird watching, hikes, and swimming,” says Gary Rogers, a 66-year-old traveler from San Luis Obispo, California. “Of course seeing the whales was a highlight. They came right up to the boat and we were able to touch them.”

“It was a very enjoyable and educational trip with a nice balance between free time and organized activity,” agrees Susie Gillatt of Tucson, Arizona. “Great guides and good food, too.”

For a few hundred dollars more, the $930 Six-day Quick Adventure from Sea Kayak Adventures is a great value for travelers who want a bit more action. It includes four days of kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking in the Sea of Cortez, three nights’ camping, and two nights’ hotel. A similar trip from Mountain Travel Sobek goes for $1,390, or almost $500 more.

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