Outdoor Adventures in Europe
For most visitors to the Continent, going off the beaten path means finding a restaurant that's not yet in the guidebooks. But Europe is, in fact, the birthplace of adventure sports. Mountaineering was invented here—people have been going to the Alps, in search of a thrill, for hundreds of years. British author Horace Walpole wrote an early appreciation of mountain travel in 1739, describing a trek through the Alps in terms that mixed near-religious awe with fun-house chills. Though horrified when his dog was eaten by wolves, he still loved the scenery. You can find similar adventures (minus the pet-munching wolves) today, plus many more possibilities than there were in Walpole's time, from whitewater canoeing to sea kayaking to bicycling and beyond. Other trips, of course, would seem familiar to the young Brit: horseback riding in Spain, Corsican trekking, an Alpine hike. Some things are simply timeless.
Level of Difficulty: high | The Mont Blanc trail has been called "the Chanel of Alpine hiking": a classic with enduring allure. The walk has attracted Romantics for almost 300 years—poets Byron and Shelley were among the early enthusiasts—and it's easy to see why. REI Adventures follows the traditional clockwise route around Europe's highest peak, traveling through some of the most spectacular scenery in Switzerland, France, and Italy. One advantage to the trail's centuries of popularity is that you don't have to rough it: there's a network of inns along the way. But don't let the well-trodden path fool you—passes are at nearly 9,000 feet, and snowstorms can hit the north face even in summer. rei adventures, 800/622-2236; www.rei.com/travel; guided trek, six departures June 16—August 25; $1,995 for members, $2,195 for non-members, including accommodations, ground transportation, and most meals.
Level of Difficulty: moderate to high | For three weeks in July, all of Europe stops to watch the Tour de France, one of the world's most grueling sporting events. More than 2,000 miles long, the bike race winds through mountain passes, fields of violets in Provence, and never-ending hills in southern Burgundy. Competitors, of course, don't get a chance to enjoy the views, but you can. A Butterfield & Robinson trip lets amateur riders follow the pack along the most beautiful stretches of the Tour. And on key days, like the final individual time trial, you'll catch up to the race and watch the action. This year, cheer for Lance Armstrong as he goes for his fourth straight victory. butterfield & robinson, 800/678-1147; www.butterfield.com; three trips July 12—20; $4,950, including accommodations, meals, gear, and support vehicle.
Level of Difficulty: low to moderate | Backroads' seven-day bicycle trip across southern Portugal's Alentejo region takes you where life hasn't changed in a hundred years. After following gently rolling hills through vineyards, olive groves, and cork forests, the tour ends in Sintra, the mountainous summer home of Portuguese royalty. Along the way, you'll stay in 400-year-old convents and pousadas transformed into luxury hotels—some things have changed for the better. backroads, 800/462-2848; www.backroads.com; five departures May 15—October 9; $2,698, including accommodations and most meals, bicycle rentals $150 extra.
Level of Difficulty: moderate | Endless fields of sunflowers, 20-mile stretches of white-sand beach, and windswept dunes. Hidden Trails saddles up for an eight-day ride in Spain's Coto de Doñana, the largest biological reserve in Europe. Travel into the heart of Andalusia and Spain's traditional sherry region, and through the forests around El Roc’o, the final destination for the thousands of pilgrims who have come via horseback and carriage every year since the 17th century. Finish with a ride along the coast—the Atlantic on one side, cliffs on the other. hidden trails, 888/987-2457 or 604/323-1141; www.hiddentrails.com; guided trip, five departures May 9—October 20; $1,095, including accommodations, meals, and gear.
Level of Difficulty: low to moderate | On Crete, the painted houses range from sugar cube—white to Venetian pastels. The landscape alternates between stony mountains and lush farmland. The water, however, is all perfect Mediterranean turquoise. Northwest Passages' sea kayaking expedition starts in the once-notorious hippie haven of Matala—Joni Mitchell sang about the joys of cave-living there—and heads out to sea. While tourists crowd the beaches, you'll be paddling into quiet sea caves on crystal waters and making stops at sights such as the Venetian fortress Frangokastello, the ruins at Knossos, and the Samaria Gorge. northwest passages, 800/732-7328; www.nwpassage.com; guided trip, four departures weekly May 18—September 29; $1,995, including accommodations, most meals, and gear.
Level of Difficulty: low to moderate | The most compelling thing about the Lofoten Islands is their location on the northwest coast of Norway, which is perhaps one of the best spots in the world for kayaking. The waters are warm—at least, for a place at the same latitude as the North Slope of Alaska—and the seafaring history dates back centuries. Tofino's kayak trip starts out in the fishing village of Å, where cod still dries on pine racks and old wooden fishing boats line the shore. From there, you'll paddle through cobalt water past quiet beaches, glacier-carved granite spires, and villages hidden in pine forests. And in summer, you can see it all late into the evening by the light of the midnight sun. tofino expeditions, 800/677-0877; www.tofino.com; weekly departures June 16—August 18; $2,350, including accommodations, meals, and gear.
Level of Difficulty: high | Perren Benedikt, chief Swiss guide for Alpine Ascent International's Matterhorn expedition, has been a mountaineer for more than 20 years. That means he won't do what Edward Whymper's guide did in 1861 when the young Englishman tried to become the first man to climb the Matterhorn: wring his hands and exclaim, "Oh my God, we are lost!" Instead, you'll get personal instruction on a series of three increasingly technical practice climbs. After that, accompanied by your own guide, you'll make an assault on Europe's third-highest peak. Bonus: At the end of each day, instead of huddling on a cliff, you'll sleep in a luxurious hotel. alpine ascent international, 206/378-1927; www.alpineascents.com; July 27—August 10; $4,900, including accommodations, meals, instruction, and some gear.
Level of Difficulty: low to moderate | If you want to get to know the Scottish Highlands, the river approach is best. Since the towns grew up along the waterways, you'll see them the way they were meant to be seen. "You get the hidden views," says Sunrise Expeditions guide Martin Brown, "the parts away from the roads." On this 10-day trip, you'll paddle the River Orchy through the foothills of Ben Nevis, Britain's tallest mountain, and pole your boat across Rannoch Moor, one of the Highlands' most stunningly remote areas. And there's no better way to reach a pub in the heart of single-malt country than on the same water they use to make the whisky. The prospect of the next day's whitewater should be an incentive not to overindulge in the local product. sunrise expeditions, 800/748-3730; www.sunrise-exp.com; guided trip, September 12—21; $3,150, including accommodations, meals, and gear.
Level of Difficulty: high | Corsica's Grandes Randonnées 20 (a network of long trails) runs along knife-edged granite ridges, over 7,300-foot mountain passes, and down into glacial valleys and peat bogs. Geographic Expeditions has put together a "greatest hits" of GR20, selecting the trail's most dramatic sections. The company's porters and pack animals do the heavy lifting; luxurious city stays at both ends of the trek give you a soft takeoff and landing. But this is still the wildest walk in the wildest place in France. geographic expeditions, 800/777-8183; www.geoex.com; June 15—July 1; from $3,995, including accommodations (from hotels to inns to tents), most meals, and ground transportation.
Level of Difficulty: low to moderate | Even with its sweeping vistas and romantically crumbling Roman ruins, Umbria doesn't get as many visitors as neighboring Tuscany. Country Walkers runs a tour that lets you compare the two, beginning in Siena and ending in Orvieto. Far from the touring crowds, you'll walk from one medieval town to the next along centuries-old farmers' paths and take dirt roads past vineyards. And if the timing is right, as you make the descent from Montalcino you'll hear the monks at Sant'Antimo Abbey singing mass. E. M. Forster would approve. country walkers, 800/464-9255; www.countrywalkers.com; guided trip, seven departures June 10—October 28; $2,998, including accommodations and most meals.