If you’re planning to travel through North America this summer, you can always hop in the car or book aboard a tour bus – but both ways often seem too stuffy, too crowded and too sedate — not to mention that the world beyond the safety glass goes by too fast.
So how about the fresh-air alternative of touring by bicycle? From coast to coast, there’s a huge range of locales to explore by bike, and almost as many tours and tour operators geared to both the practiced handlebar jockey and those who haven’t been on two wheels in years.
But if you think a bike tour means you’ll be gasping for breath as you strain to pump a baggage-laden bike up steep hills and keep up with the rest of the pack, think again.
The vast majority of tours are geared more toward leisurely rolls down the road than any two-wheeled marathon. Most tours offer van support (a well-equipped vehicle tags behind your tour, carrying gear, repair equipment, cool drinks, snacks and the not-so-occasional weary cyclist), as well as scheduled stops at points of interest, and more-than-decent accommodation at the end of each day.
Groups usually consist of about a dozen or so cyclists plus guides and the tours average 35 to 80 kilometres a day. More experienced cyclists can often take some self-guided detours along the route. And while the terrain may be varied, the pace is rarely more than brisk. The idea is to get the most out of being on the bike in the fresh air and glorious scenery, and to leave the details (and the heavy luggage) to the tour operators.
So where should you head? Here are five of the best North American tours available, chosen for their mix of scenic attributes, emphasis on regional history, superior accommodation and fine cuisine, and reputations of the tour operators.
Banff to Jasper
- Nature is the star of this six-day tour that runs between the Banff and Jasper, Alta., national parks. It’s no novice run, however: The tours combine intermediate-level biking along occasionally hilly roads with some uphill hiking to reach the spectacular views found in alpine meadows and by glacier streams.
- There are two versions of this extremely scenic ride. The first is an inn tour going to Banff from Jasper south, including a ride along the Saskatchewan River and a visit to Lake Louise. It averages 65 cycling kilometres a day and beds down each night in mountain lodges.
- The second option, a gourmet camping tour, goes the other way, to Jasper from Banff, taking in the Columbia Icefields, the Sunwapta Pass and Athabaska Falls. It averages 58 kilometres of biking and some hiking a day but, come evening, your tent will be set up for you, a fire started and a gourmet meal (barbecued salmon, Mexican delicacies, steak and vegetarian fare are all on the menu) will be prepared as you laze about under trees.
- For both versions, you can rent a 21-speed hybrid mountain bike or an 18-speed touring bike, complete with handlebar bags, toe clips and rear-view mirrors for the safety-conscious. Group sizes run from 10 to 18 people. The inn tour, including all meals except one dinner, runs $1,385 a person, double occupancy, or you’ll pay $850 for the camping tour, including all meals; bike rentals run an extra $120.
Northern California camping and cuisine
Another food-and-drink-oriented tour (at least you get your exercise!), this camping and cycling trip starts and finishes at Point Reyes, a scenic oceanside preserve in west Marin County, northwest of San Francisco. The tour heads north to the picturesque Abbott’s Lagoon and onward to the Tule Elk Reserve, a nature preserve, stopping at Bodega Bay for two nights of camping on the beach before circling back to Point Reyes, a total distance of about 240 kilometres.
The tour has a strong emphasis on healthy campfire-side meals featuring regional and MexiCal cuisine (shrimp in tomato, grilled chicken, organic vegetables and fresh-baked breads).
Other attractions include plenty of local history, particularly for those keen on geology (the tour goes through Olema, the epicentre of the infamous 1906 earthquake) and native ethnology (it also goes through a replica of an Indian village), local fauna (grey whales haunt the shores) and a mix of seaside and rolling hills.
Foodies will enjoy a visit to the Marin Cheese Factory, which specializes in soft ripened cheeses, and to Tomales Bay, famous for its oyster fisheries. Distances average about 40 van-supported kilometres a day, although those wanting to work up an appetite can choose to break away from the main group for longer, unguided (maps are provided) alternate routes through the hill country that can run up to 80 km a day. Groups top out at 20 people.
The trip, which still has bookings available for an Aug. 11 start, includes five nights of camping (again, the tour operator sets up for you) and all drinks, snacks, breakfasts and dinners; lunches are on you. Rentals of various makes of 21-speed hybrids are available. At $499 (U.S.) per person, double occupancy, the trip is a relative bargain; tack on about $90 for a bike rental. For more information, contact California-based Country Spokes Bicycle Tours at 510-939-6130 or on the Internet.
Rambling through P.E.I.
Here is a perfect example of relaxation in motion, with short, scenic rides over easy, but eye-catching terrain. The emphasis during this week-long tour of Canada’s pocket province is on local colour, history and maritime cuisine.
The tour rambles from Charlottetown through to Summerside in a lazy circle, with stops at Fort Amherst, the Acadian Museum in Miscouche, Cavendish and the L. M. Montgomery homestead for the nearly obligatory Anne of Green Gables visit. There’s plenty of lobster, country inn accommodation and ceilidh music along the way.
P.E.I.’s landscape ranges from rolling to flat, and in lieu of challenging riding (don’t expect to pedal more than 50 to 56 km a day), the route immerses tourers in the flavour of the countryside. Group sizes average 12 to 16 mixed singles and couples.
The $1,095 (U.S.) price includes all meals except lunches. Optional rentals of 21-speed Trek 750 hybrid bikes are $115. The tour leaves Aug. 19. Contact Boston-based Easy Rider Tours Inc. at 1-800-488-8332 or on the Internet.
Easy does Nova Scotia
- If you’re looking for an intimate cycling tour or have reservations about your own fitness level, this tour is ideal. The trip takes the scenic route at a leisurely pace of up to 40 kilometres a day, with guides following a loose — and open to spontaneity — itinerary. Another plus: Groups are kept comfortably small at a ceiling of a dozen.
- The tour starts in Halifax and takes in a visit to Annapolis Royal, the first European trading post in North America, as well as a level ride up the rich Annapolis Valley, a half-day of whale-watching, and a hike to a remote beauty spot atop cliffs where you can take in the full tidal bore of the Bay of Fundy. Altogether, it’s a relaxed itinerary of lobster feasts and quiet roads, wrapping up with an inner-tube ride down the Gaspereau River.
- For $1,095 (Canadian) a person, double occupancy, the tour includes six days and five nights of accommodation at bed and breakfasts and country inns, five breakfasts, four lunches and three dinners, and all ferry, van and whale watching expenses. You can rent 21-speed Trek hybrid bicycles for $96. There’s still room on tours leaving Aug. 3, 18 and 31. For more information, get in touch with Freewheeling Adventures Inc. in Hubbards, N.S.
Gulf Islands getaway
If you preferred the scenery to the acting in the old Beachcombers TV series, you’ll love this tree-and-sea tour of B.C.’s Gulf Islands.
The six-day, all-amenities-included tour leaves from Victoria. Highlights include a tour of Victoria itself, a visit to the horticultural attraction Butchart Gardens and ferry trips to Mayne, Galiano and Saltspring Islands. A bonus is a catamaran trip to Saltspring, and an emphasis on heritage buildings for overnight stays in country inns and guest houses.
Like the others, the trip includes van support and is limited to 12 cyclists. You’ll cycle about 60 kilometres a day through about a 70-to-30 ratio of flat to hilly terrain. It also comes with optional unguided off-road and distance challenges for the more experienced rider.
Healthy breakfasts and picnic lunches at scenic spots en route are on the schedule, while dinners are ordered a la carte at the inns at night. Don’t bring your bike. The price includes the use of a 1995 Specialized mountain bike, an Etto cycling helmet and cycling gloves.