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Filling That Free Weekend

Pleasure usually takes a back seat in business travel. But Julie McCormack, a San Francisco entrepreneur, would prefer that it at least ride shotgun.

Her year-old company, Worldwide Escapes, specializes in quickie adventure-travel packages in China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Cambodia for B-travelers who want to unwind for a few days. The packages, which start at $599, are all-inclusive, with round-trip transfers from Hong Kong, Bangkok, Manila, or Beijing (though she's flexible).

McCormack came up with the idea after four years of traveling to the Far East on business. "At first, I thought it was great to have a job that sent me to all these cool places," she says. "But it became a real drag because I was never able to see much." She'd get a weekend off, but outings were always a struggle to plan, especially on short notice. She met plenty of others who felt the same way: "Too many people end up spending their days off sitting around their hotels watching TV."

The Worldwide Escapes Web site (www.wwescapes.com; 800/958-8524) lists an assortment of two- to five-day trips. They can be customized, varying from easy to challenging; a trip will never be canceled because of too few people.

"That surprised me," says Linda Orandi, a consultant for Hewlett Packard who found herself alone with three guides on the two-day Phuket Sea Canoe and Mountain Biking excursion. "It was strange at first, but the guides were very nice--I can't say I suffered from lack of attention."

Both Orandi and another client, Kevin Tinto, who went on the Guilin Escape trip in southern China, describe McCormack's itineraries as more offbeat than physically challenging. Tinto, the senior partner of a ski marketing company (who also booked a Vietnam trip with Worldwide Escapes), liked the fact that in Guilin, McCormack set up a bike trip with a local female tour operator who had nothing to do with the government. "A lot of tours in China are so regimented; you feel so controlled," Tinto says. "Guilin wasn't like that at all. We felt we were getting to see the real China, not the one the government wants you to see."

Though she's first looking at expanding her Asia offerings, McCormack is not counting out the rest of the world. She's about to leave for South America--it's for business, but she says it will be a pleasure.

Worldwide Escapes' Most Popular Trips

1. Phuket Sea Canoe Adventure Leave Bangkok 6 p.m. Friday, return 6:30 p.m. Sunday ($649 per person).
Paddle your way through caves and lagoons in Phangnga Bay--at times you have to lie down, the passages are so narrow. Take a break to snorkel, swim, or sunbathe.
2. Guilin Escape Leave Hong Kong 7 p.m. Friday, return 10:30 p.m. Sunday ($949 per person).
The region is home to spooky limestone pinnacles; you'll hang out in the village of Yangshuo, take a river cruise, and bike through the countryside.
3. Hill Tribes of the Golden Triangle Leave Bangkok 7 a.m. Saturday, return 6 p.m. Monday ($1,049 per person).
The itinerary includes an elephant ride, a hike to visit Lisu and Akha hill tribes in Thailand, and a walk across a bridge to the Burmese town of Tachilek (for a little black-market browsing).

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