Mother Nature Beckons: Hiking, Biking and Fresh-Air Fun in Europe

"Mother Nature" is proving a top draw for travelers in search of the perfect European vacation in 2021 and 2022. Increasingly, travelers desire outdoor activities, eco-adventure and "fresh air" fun, we learned when we spoke to numerous tour operators.

Here's what they had to say:

Finding Nature on an Escorted Tour

More and more, outdoor activities are being integrated as options within fully escorted European tours that head beyond big city centers. "We include a lot of optional outdoor activities on most of our Europe tours, whether it’s bicycle riding or walks and hikes and nature exploration," says Joanne Gardner, vice president, worldwide operations, Tauck. 

During one day along Italy's Cinque Terre, Tauck's guests can opt for a spectacular coastal hike through the terraced vineyards overlooking the sea between Monterosso and Vernazza. Alternatively, they can choose a milder walking tour with a local guide. Also during this escorted tour, travelers can go bicycling and take a cooking class in Lucca; soar above the Umbrian countryside in a hot air balloon; and view art and architecture accompanied by a local expert in Florence. This tour is priced from $4,490 per person, double occupancy.

Sometimes an entire tour is created around a destination with an unusually strong outdoor eco-adventure draw. That's the case for Iceland, which Stefanie Schmudde, vice president of product development and operations, Abercrombie & Kent, describes as having "more of an active, outdoor focus, versus the typical cultural focus of Europe tour."

Schmudde notes that the destination is proving popular with couples and families alike, and it's open to Americans who are vaccinated without quarantine. “It’s also quick to travel to Iceland from the U.S., without the typical jet lag,” she adds.

A&K just had one large, extended family of 14 people book one departure of its eight-day "Iceland: Geysers & Glaciers" itinerary. They'll travel to western Iceland to gaze at volcanic landscapes, thermal swimming pools and glacier rivers. The group will also make a private visit to a local family farm, and taste the Icelandic foods produced there. They'll head out to explore the Nordic landscape, viewing lava caves, hot springs, waterfalls and fjords. Last, the family will walk inside one of Europe's largest glaciers and cruise Reykjavik Harbour looking for whales.  

Air/Hotel Packages

Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal - SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Lisbon, Portugal // Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images    

Some European vacation packages include air tickets, a hotel stay and, if desired, optional activity tickets—some are escorted, others hosted or for independent exploration. United Vacations offers air/hotel packages for dozens of cities across Europe—from Oslo, Norway to Stuttgart, Germany, from Shannon, Ireland to Lisbon, Portugal and many other destinations.

For example, United Vacations' guests heading to Lisbon, Portugal in 2022 will receive roundtrip air and a stay at their choice of hotel—perhaps the Lutecia Smart Design Hotel, the Hotel Metropole Lisbon, Masa Hotel Almirante Lisbon or Hotel Marquês de Pombal. Travelers can then layer on outdoor and other activities, including an Old Town Lisbon walking tour.

Each year, Travel Impressions takes travelers to European mountain areas for winter sports holidays. Its packages appeal to both beginner and experienced skiers or those seeking a fun family trip or a festive après ski aura. Among the Travel Impressions' wintertime resort and hotel choices are the Carlton Hotel San Moritz in Switzerland, Kempinski Hotel Das Tirol in Austria and the Lefay Resort & SPA Dolomiti in Italy, among others.

Sky Vacations, a U.S.-based tour operator specializing in custom crafted itineraries for individual and group travelers, expanded its global portfolio in late March, adding in new options and flexibility. "Travel experiences are not static, they aren't fixed one way or another," says Richard Krieger, director of Sky Vacations. "Instead, they should be curated to the interests of each traveler,”

So, in Europe, for example, Sky Vacations is now offering new self-driving itineraries in Ireland and elsewhere; a new six-night "Andalucia in a Glass" wine tasting adventure (from $3,399 per person, double occupancy) and other wine options in Italy, Spain, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other spots, as well as a new global collection of villas and boutique hotels.

Family Eco-Journeys

Fräkmüntegg // Photo by Rahul_Lakhmani/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

It's not just solo travelers or couples heading for eco-adventure and outside fun in Europe. Gardner points to her group's eight-day "Alpine Adventure," a Tauck Bridges family journey. "Families can experience summer fun in Europe’s Alps within three countries—Switzerland, Austria and Germany," she emphasizes. 

On this family-friendly tour, parents, adult siblings, children, grandparents, cousins and other relatives will head to the Swiss hillside resort of Fräkmüntegg on the northern slopes of Mount Pilatus.

Outdoor fun? Gardner cites the ladders, platforms, cables and log bridges of central Switzerland’s biggest suspension rope park, the Seilpark Pilatus. In addition, family members will likely have a hoot of a time barreling down the tracks of the Fraekigaudi Rodelbahn, the country’s longest summer toboggan run, or riding an inner tube down a mountain slide.

In Austria's Ötztal Valley, families can visit Area 47, one of the Alps' largest adventure parks with whitewater-rafting adventure, swimming, slides and more. Also on this Tauck adventure, Gardner says families "can go hiking at the foot of a glacier, go mountain biking, go rock climbing" and even compete in such traditional sports as ski racing or the crossbow.

Cycling Through Europe 

Schwetzingen, Germany // Photo by rmitsch/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

For independent travelers or small groups of people traveling together, many themed routes throughout Europe beckon. Some have hiking or biking “trails” that focus on wine regions, culinary specialties, eco-sites or historic attractions. 

For example, foodies might head out by bicycle to independently explore the  67-mile “Tour de Spargel: The Asparagus Route" between Bruchsal and Schwetzingen in southern Germany. This biking trail is flat and easy to ride, and the best time to visit is during the peak season from mid-April to late June. Along the route, taverns and restaurants serve freshly picked asparagus prepared in many ways. It can be ordered hot with Hollandaise sauce, cold with vinaigrette or partnered with ham or salmon. 

Year-round, biking enthusiasts riding this trail often visit the Schwetzingen Palace and its impressive gardens, where white asparagus is said to have first been grown more than 350 years ago in the king's garden. 

Among the tour operators offering organized cycling tours within Europe is Intrepid. One of its itineraries will take cyclists into the tiny Hungarian village of Hedervar, near the Slovakian border and off the normal tourist track. This village has a 13th-century, Baroque-style castle. Surrounding countryside is brimming with sleepy villages, riverbanks, lowland forests and lush farmland. Cyclists will also pedal to Lipot, even smaller than Hedervar.

In addition, Intrepid Tailor-Made will design private bike tours for a minimum of two guests, so cyclists can pedal through the country of their choice, whether that’s Croatia, Estonia, Portugal, Lithuania, Spain, San Marino, Italy or elsewhere. The Tailor-Made team will create a customized itinerary to fit travelers’ interests and fitness levels, plus arrange for overnight accommodations, bike and safety equipment rentals, private tours, dining and wine tasting.     

So, as more vaccinated travelers get ready to travel in 2021 and beyond, Europe's outdoor activities and eco-adventure await.

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