Choose Your Own Adventure
A trio of search engines devoted to adventure tours and active vacations
Fancy a horseback trek in Hawaii? Specialty Travel Index can fix you up with the Hawaii Ecotourism Association.
When you tire of sightseeing tours or veg-on-the-beach holidays and are looking for some excitement from your next trip, it’s time for a specialty tour.
Maybe you want to take cooking lessons in Provence, mountain-bike through Morocco, learn Spanish during a Mexican home-stay, or tour Turkey with an archeology professor.
It's a wonderfully enriching way to travel, but the well-known, widely advertised specialty tour outfits tend towards the deluxe—trips where you learn to roll pasta from a Medici countess in her Tuscan villa, or spend every night of your week-long walk through France's Dordogne Valley at five-star hotels.
That all sounds lovely—until you see the price tag. Luckily, three Web sites act as clearinghouses for thousands of specialty tour operators, outfitters, and packagers so you can pick the dream experience that best fits your budget.
One significant caveat: None of these sites rate, review, or pass judgment on the operators listed. Tour companies pay to be included and often write their own descriptions, so the summaries aren’t objective. That doesn't mean these sites aren't still useful: just think of them as searchable bins of company brochures.
At InfoHub, paddlers can find 15 outfitters running kayak and canoe tours in Europe, from Sweden to France and Turkey to Transylvania.
InfoHub (www.infohub.com) casts one of the largest nets over the industry, listing some 14,000 tours offered by 4,000 operators in more than 100 categories––everything from artists' workshop to llama trekking, nudist resorts to biblical tours, language schools to personal guide services.
InfoHub's search engine can be a tad buggy—when I searched on "Italy" and "Bicycle," three of the 41 trips were actually in France—and it lists by trip rather than by company (those 38 Italian bike tours were offered by just 15 companies).
I also had a devil of a time getting it to search for something that, frankly, is so popular it should have a category of its own: Italian cooking schools. I resorted to browsing through all the "Cooking School" results for the ones that also specified "Italy" to find the total of 19 outfits offering this experience.
Despite its difficulties, InfoHub has one massively useful feature none of its competitors can boast: It lists the price right on the results page, so you don't waste time chasing down trips beyond your budget. It also has one odd drawback: for some trips (but not all), there are no direct links or contact info on the companies themselves.
InfoHub asks you to complete an on-line form, and the operator then contacts you. You can, of course, always Google the company, but forcing you to take those extra steps is hugely annoying.
InfoHub found 15 bike tours in Utah from five outfitters—including this one, on the slickrock outside Moab run by Rim Tours.
No such digging is necessary with Shaw Guides (www.shawguides.com), which provides direct links to its collection of "educational travel and creative career programs." The site list some 5,800 operators in roughly 130 categories from cooking and wine to photography, cultural tourism, languages, arts and crafts, writer's conferences, and tennis and golf camps.
You can browse by focus, skill level, month or season, and destination. Shaw Guides is much stronger on cultural pursuits than physical ones; In Italy, it lists 817 recreational cooking schools...and just one bicycling outfit.
The "High Performance & Discovery Programs" category hosts the (frankly paltry) assortment of active vacations, in 39 categories from caving and dog sledding to underwater sports and martial arts. It does, however, do the best job of collating not only the major operators, but also the tiniest local outfitters providing walking tours of Florence or on-site safaris in Kenya.
The results are less vetted than at InfoHub or STI (below), but the veritable stampede of hits from most searches leaves you spoiled for choice.
The venerable Specialty Travel Index (www.specialtytravel.com) lists a mere 300 or so companies, but they are among the crème de la crème of specialty tour operators. You can search by destination (401 countries, regions, and states) and interest/activity (341 of these).
The site is set up to lead you to an appropriate outfitter—in my peddle-versus-pasta test sampling, eight Italian bike tours to 17 cooking classes—but all you get is a paragraph about each company, including contact information. The rest of the research is up to you.
A few spiffy features: a "Special Offers" section mixes last-minute deals and sales, as well as travel stories written by pros—a nice touch, since, while articles about multisport tours of Costa Rica or golfing the great greens of Scotland are a dime a dozen, it isn't always so easy to find tales of skiing China, touring the rock churches of Ethiopia, or goat trekking in Utah to help you decide whether a particular specialty tour is right for you.