Not your grandparents' vacations

High-mountain Swiss trails are easy enough for a mother and stroller - and for seniors.
High-mountain Swiss trails are easy enough for a mother and stroller - and for seniors. (JOHN MACDONALD)
Posted: January 06, 2014

"What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play . . . "

The opening words of the hit song "Cabaret" might be appropriate for this month's column.

We seniosrs may be getting on in years, but that's no excuse for pulling in our horns when it comes to travel we might at first think a bit on the risky side.

Trips that might have been considered dicey or even unthinkable for older travelers a decade ago aren't necessarily so today.

For one thing, we seniors are in far better physical shape than our parents were at this age. And adventure-tour companies know we have the money and time to travel. Because they want a part of our action, they've transformed trips that a decade ago were only for the young and virile into experiences most of us can have no matter what our age or desire for comfort.

Adventure doesn't have to mean death defying or primitive; it just has to be out of the ordinary. Think ballooning in Turkey's famed Cappadocia region, helicoptering to stand on a glacier in Alaska, listening for lions snuffling around at night outside a comfy safari shelter in Africa or walking or bicycling the back roads of France.

Interest in biking tours has skyrocketed, especially among seniors who've kept up bicycling through the years. Even though biking may not be in the cards for many seniors who fear they can't perform the balancing act as well as they once did, for some experienced bicyclists, no matter their age, the joys of seeing a foreign land on two wheels can't be beat.

Consider Cindi and Stephen Schwegman of Highland, Ind. Both biked as kids. A brief weekend bike trip when they were about 40 rekindled the interest, but it wasn't until they reached their mid-50s that they got the big itch.

"It was those 'rails to trails' programs in our area [where abandoned railroad beds are turned into bike trails], that got us going again," Cindi said. Easy and flat.

Before long, they were off on a self-guided bike tour in Austria.

"We know that biking can be a little tricky," Cindi said. "We tell friends to choose a trip that suits their ability."

Then there's Charles Feaver of Winnepeg, Canada, who is completing a three-month, 4,764-mile bike ride from Shanghai to Singapore with a group of retired folks, some experienced bikers, some not.

A veteran biker in his mid-60s, Feaver e-mails from the road that he long ago lost the love of camping and prefers "a good shower, a good dinner and a full night's sleep every night and no problems with bugs."

Feaver writes: "If something sounds really interesting, although it is a bit of a stretch, at our stage in life, we should say 'YES' and get engaged rather than worrying about what could go wrong."

Adventure-tour companies offer a multitude of options for seniors to get out there - from easy to difficult terrain, from long days to short ones, from tent camping to near-luxury accommodations.

And better equipment has made many adventure tours easier and safer. Electric bikes give bicyclists in many parts of the world a boost going up hills. And well-designed, self-bailing rafts are readily available for safer, drier river adventures.

Though wildlife African safaris may not be the cheapest of trips, we've not met anyone who has said the thrill of seeing lion families and an elephant herd up close wasn't worth every penny. If you can get in and out of a van, you can do it. Lodgings vary from tents to fancy resorts. And several firms offer safaris especially for disabled travelers.

Our week of easy hiking in the majestic mountains of Chile's Patagonia region was no more difficult than walking most golf courses. Guides did all the work and cooked the meals. Our yurt had a queen-sized bed. We just hiked and stared at the scenery.

Zip-lining above or through a dense forest or jungle began as a young-person's thrill ride. No longer, if for no other reason than the safety harnesses used today are sturdy and dependable.

Ski areas have been smart in luring seniors, whether or not you ever strap on a pair of skis. A ride up the chair lift or gondola most likely spits you out at a spectacular viewpoint. If you ski, there's usually an easy route down. If not, you can enjoy the view, the cafe and the ride back down on the lift. And if you like to walk, you might love snowshoeing - easier than skiing and you're enjoying winter outdoors.

Hiking (whether just walking or more heavy duty trekking) is probably the most popular travel activity for folks of all ages.

Looking at the craggy peaks of Switzerland a few years ago from a high vantage, we at first wondered whether we had misjudged our ability to hike from here to there. But a funicular rail took us into the high country, and a smooth gravel trail led us gently down picturesque slopes. Along the way, we came upon a young mother pushing an infant in a stroller.

In the Peruvian Andes, we took a rickety bus up a narrow road with dozens of switchbacks to get to the high-mountain ruins of Machu Picchu. At the road's end, we shared our first view of the abandoned city with two seniors who were finishing a two-day hike up the difficult Inca Trail on uneven stones laid down centuries ago.

We took the easy way; they mastered a challenging hike. We all got what we wanted - a sense of adventure and a look at one of the world's most exotic places.

There are plenty of adventures out there to satisfy us all. Easy or challenging. Take your pick. But go.

John and Sally Macdonald are freelance writers who live on a houseboat in Seattle.

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