It's easy to feel like an extra from the Darjeeling Limited on a Zephyr Wine Adventures bus with Allan Wright and Reno Walsh. It's hard to decide who looks more like Owen Wilson as they switch off behind the wheel -- laughing and joking, swapping smart remarks about the passing landscape, the food and wines they're about to taste, and the hill they're about to climb.
The 42 year-old Wright has been leading active outdoor tours since 1997, when he founded Zephyr Adventures (tel. 888/758-8687; www.zephyradventures.com), based in Boulder, CO. In his latest, most spirited endeavor -- crafting active trips for food and wine lovers -- he is tapping a mostly unexplored hybrid, blending adventure travel with culinary tourism, a growing trend.
"It's a built-in success," says Wright. During Zephyr's maiden wine adventure, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon in fall 2007, Wright was amazed to see how well near-perfect strangers were laughing together and getting along even while in close quarters on the bus. "But then we realized, we're doing fun, active things and drinking wine -- so of course we'd all be laughing," he says.
No Experience Required
"On most wine tours, you go to vineyards, taste, and meet the owners, but you don't get much activity," says Wright. Zephyr tours go behind the scenes and into the fields, where participants can expect daily hiking, as well as cycling, canoeing, and horseback riding jaunts.
Despite all the exercise, you don't need to be a triathlete to sign on. The average participant age is 46, though travelers range from 10 to 76. "Every hike includes variations to accommodate different fitness levels," says Wright.
That same spirit of inclusiveness characterizes Zephyr's culinary tours. There is no pressure to sound or act like a wine expert. The guides themselves, including Wright and Walsh, are active travel guides with boundless energy and a growing knowledge of wine. "We try to accommodate everybody. Curiosity is the only prerequisite," says Wright.
Sally Belk King, a 55 year-old writer, editor, and style director for Bon Appétit and other publications, likes the fact that Zephyr builds options into their itineraries. "You can take the 16-mile bike ride or opt for the shorter eight-mile route. And the Zephyr guides and winemakers provide terrific information for rookies and veterans alike."
Participants get to play Robert Parker and taste from barrels or peer into fermentation vats, where grapes foam and emit a yeasty stink as their sugars break down into alcohol. They trek through vineyards led by the owners or grape growers themselves, learning about the process of winemaking while chomping grapes and sampling estate wines. Vineyard tours may lead to picnics in the field or communal feasts with the vintners and their closest friends. Though the food couldn't get much better, the taste improves when you're tired and hungry from hiking, and you know you'll burn off whatever you're about to eat.
Restaurants are superb but casual. "Most places we visit make you clean off the mud on your boots after traipsing through the vineyards all day, but hiking gear is OK," says Wright.
On the Oregon Multisport Adventure (Aug. 23-27, 2009), each meal is better than the next, at restaurants that specialize in Pacific Northwest regional cuisine: Think local duck and lamb, vibrantly fresh produce, porcini and chanterelle mushrooms, oysters, and wild Pacific salmon. Most notably, this tour illuminates the process of creating pinot noir -- that tricky but rewarding wine made popular by the movie Sideways.
The Oregon trip is especially personal, given the region's relative proximity to Zephyr's home base. The same could be said of the Sonoma Vineyard Walk (Oct. 26-30, 2008), which leads participants through six distinct viticultural areas, reflecting the diversity of the region's wines.
Wright's favorite international trip is the South Africa Hiking adventure (Oct. 10-18, 2008), which includes three days on safari in Kruger National Park. The group takes daily game walks and drives, viewing lions, elephants, and other wildlife after sampling South Africa's finest foods and wines in Cape Town and the Stellenbosch wine region.
Also this year, on the Spain Multisport (Sept. 7-13, 2008), the group will stroll from bar to bar eating tapas for dinner. Italy Hike & Bike (Sept. 26-Oct. 3, 2008) takes hikers through Tuscany's hilly terrain on foot, and then through flatter Umbria on bike, fueled by Italy's finest food and drink. Next year, on the Chile & Argentina Multisport (Nov. 2009), travelers will cross the highest peak outside Asia by van, stopping to hike and river raft, as they make their way from Chile's Aconcagua wine region to Argentina's chic Mendoza vineyards. At press time, tours range from $1,900 to $3,200, which covers lodging, dinners, breakfasts, local transportation, and most equipment (not air travel or lunch).
Wining & Dining Sustainably
The best thing about an active wine vacation is that you can eat your fill, knowing you'll burn off all those calories.
Zephyr's sustainable business practices also help you to travel light. "When we visit developing areas, we work with local guides and we avoid chain hotels," Wright says. "We make sure people don't know we were there after we leave."
So pack your appetite and good walking shoes -- but be sure to leave your sense of guilt at home.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Zephyr Adventures.