Who wants to be stuck on a bus all day when you’re visiting a new country? An active vacation means seeing the sights and experiencing the people while engaging in a fun activity. I own a small bicycle touring company based in the U.S., but focused on guided tours in Europe, and people often ask what I think the best vacation for an active traveler is. I quite enjoy running, scuba diving, and hiking while on vacation, but I think cycle touring is the best. Why is that?
What’s a bike tour?
First, let me define what a bike tour is. Without going into the many options, I consider a bike tour to be traveling through a region of a country primarily by bike. Most commercially-available tours are 5-7 days long and provide transportation of your luggage and lodging at hotels or B&B’s. They are about equally split between “self-guided” tours, where you are provided with maps & directions, and you are on your own to find your way, and “guided” tours, where a representative of the touring company accompanies you during the entire ride.
There are four main reasons so many people find cycle touring to be the best way to really enjoy a vacation.
1) Biking is the best way to see the countryside
Bike touring, in my opinion, is truly the best way to really experience the countryside. I’ve driven through beautiful landscapes that I’d recently cycled through. Even in a convertible with the windows down, you just don’t feel like you’re “present” in the same way. A typical bike “touring” speed is about 12-14 mph. At that speed you can really engage at least 3 senses (sight, sound, and smell), which makes all the difference in the world. In addition, it’s so much easier to stop briefly and take a deeper look or appreciate the scent of the orchards or roses you are riding besides. Finally, if you ride on a “hybrid” bike, you can ride comfortably on roads or easy off-road trails that are inaccessible by car. Good examples of these trails are the South Downs in England (above left) or the bike paths along almost every small river in France (below).
2) Cycling lets you cover a lot of territory
Bike touring lets you cover a significant amount of ground and see the best a region has to offer. I love to stop and see the quaint villages, magnificent castles, glamorous chateaux, luxurious gardens, and fascinating historic sites of England and France, and the density of these is high enough to satisfy any appetite. There are very few trekking or hiking locales with these attractions close enough to be able to see more than a few during an entire trip. In a similar vein, covering a lot of ground allows you to experience a variety of landscapes. For example, in Kent and Sussex in the southeast of England, in a single week you can ride through rolling hills, flat orchards, wheat & barley fields, forests, seaside wetlands with towering sea oats, and tall, grass-covered “Downs” (in the U.S. we’d call them “ups”) with 360 degree views.
3) More accessible than you think
You don’t have to be a spectacular athlete or super-experienced adventure traveler to enjoy “Smell-the-Roses” bike touring. If you can comfortably bike 25-30 miles on hilly terrain at a time (at any speed, slow or fast), you would qualify as a “medium” skilled cyclist and should be able to do a bike tour most anywhere without being exhausted. You will be pleasantly tired, though, and feel like you accomplished something, and you’ll sleep well. In addition, there are many regions which are definitely easier and flatter, and are identified as such by the touring company. Finally, the advent of electric-assisted bikes has absolutely transformed cycle touring! If you can walk 4 miles at a time, and know how to ride a bike, with an e-bike you can choose how much assist you want, and ride virtually anywhere. You might even find yourself happily laughing as you easily speed by folks on regular bikes (as the woman in the above photo did without shame!).
4) Locals love cyclists
There are many more great things about cycle touring, but the last one I’ll mention here is that the local people are much, much more inclined to chat with you when you’re on a bike. You can easily stop anytime to talk, or at rest stops engage with locals who are naturally interested in hearing about what you’re doing. When I was younger (much) on a long-distance bike tour, I encountered a family outside of a cafe in Indiana who put me up for two days (including making home made ice cream and bluegrass music) when I got slightly injured. Locals generally perceive cyclists as non-threatening and sincerely interested in learning about a place, not just checking off a box while in a herd of other bus-tourists. In the photo shown here, the locals at a British tea & scone house enlighten us on the history of clotted-cream, including the local differences and debate about whether to pair it with just butter, just jam, or both!
Conclusion – Cycle Touring is the best active vacation
I love to travel, and enjoy seeing big cities as well as small towns and countryside, and I enjoy just “vegging out” and unwinding as much as the next person. But years ago I decided to go on a bike tour at least every other year. It’s thrilling, fulfilling, and satisfying. Next time, I’ll address a blog to folks who consider themselves “real cyclists”, and why it’s worthwhile to “slow down and smell the roses” on a bike tour. My final blog in this series will be whether to go on a guided versus unguided tour.