As more and more people travel and become more discerning about what they want from their time away, specialized tours have become increasingly popular. Many of the traditional big players have jumped onto the bandwagon and present their own versions; however, you're better off going through an agency that focuses on just one or two specialties, rather than a jack-of-all-trades. The following are recommended.
Academic Trips & Language Classes
With Academic Travel Abroad (U.S.), groups are typically of 20 to 30 people and tour leaders are Mandarin-speaking Americans, with additional specialty study leaders. The company has been operating tours to China since 1979, and operates educational and cultural tours in China for The Smithsonian (educational, cultural) and National Geographic Expeditions (natural history, soft adventure). For more information, check the website at www.academic-travel.com, but book through individual sponsors. The Smithsonian: tel. 877/EDU-TOUR;fax 202/633-9250; http://smithsonianjourneys.org. National Geographic: tel. 888/966-8687;fax 202/342-0317; www.nationalgeographic.org/ngexpeditions.
Elderhostel (tel. 800/454-5768 in the U.S.; www.elderhostel.org) takes groups of around 20 people and tours are developed in cooperation with Chinese educational institutions. Excursions and activities supplement the educational theme of each course, and options include working vacations and an opportunity to teach English in Xi'an.
Adventure & Wellness Trips
Bike Asia(tel. 0773/882-6521 in China; www.bikeasia.com) is based out of Yangshuo in Guangxi province and is one of the best bike tour operators in the country. Bike Asia's Trail of the Dragon Tour was featured in National Geographic's 25 Best New Trips 2007, and they operate a host of other itineraries from Hainan to Mongolia.
Bike China Adventures, Inc., U.S.-based, with an office in China (tel. 800/818-1778 in the U.S.; fax 515/322-0300 in the U.S., or 01388-2266-575 in China; www.bikechina.com), is still one of the leaders in this field, with great organization and some of the best guides. Cycling group sizes range from one to eight participants, who have ranged in age from 18 to 86. The company is based in Chengdu and tours are accompanied by a bilingual local or foreign guide. More than 50 tours operate both around the company's Sichuan base, and further afield, always using local hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants so there's no camping or cooking.
Grasshopper Adventures(tel. 087/929-5208 in Thailand, 818/921-7101 in the US, 020/8123-8144 in the U.K., and 03/9016-3172 in Australia; www.grasshopperadventures.com) is a relatively new company that presents an interesting range of small group (maximum 12) adventurous tours across the country led by specialist Australian and European tour leaders with real in-depth knowledge and passion for their destinations. Many itineraries are unique, and Grasshopper also operates cycling and photography tours in China. Full disclosure: Simon Foster, who wrote this chapter, runs tours for Grasshopper in Taiwan, India, and along the Silk Road in China.
Myths and Mountains (tel. 800/670-MYTH in the U.S. or 775/832-5454; fax 775/832-4454; www.mythsandmountains.com) is an adventure travel company that specializes in getting inside the culture of a country. Their customized trips focus on the themes of China -- the culture and arts, religions and holy sites, ethnic groups and trade routes, and environment and how people have adapted to it. Tours range from the eastern coastal cities and villages all the way west and north into Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and other less-traveled areas, such as Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai.
You might want to consider WildChina (tel. 8888/902-8808 in the U.S.; www.wildchina.com), one of the few online booking agencies I'd recommend for travel in China. Run by a returnee ABC (American-born Chinese) from Harvard, Wild China acts as a clearinghouse for specialized China tours. Great attention is paid to comfort and the site's collection of press articles is particularly encouraging. Wild China recently won National Geographic Adventure magazine's "Best Adventure Travel Company on Earth."
Food & Wine Trips
Mongol Global Tour Co. (tel. 866/225-0577 in the U.S. or 714/220-2579; www.mongolglobaltours.com) offers custom tours for adventurers, gourmet food and wine-lovers, lovers of culture, and more. Their tours offer many sites and experiences not generally offered and can be designed with economy in mind. There are local guides in each city and a national guide accompanies tours of 10 or more people. For specialty groups there is often an international guide as well.
Volunteer & Working Trips
i-to-i (tel. 0800/011-1156 in the U.K.; www.i-to-i.com) is the original volunteer travel company and offers a whole host of volunteer and working trips around China. For those keen to give something back, this is a great way to do it, and if you don't have the skills needed, you can learn them there. TEFL courses can be done online before you go, and they offer a host of placements and durations (from teaching primary school and university students to conservation placements -- a favorite being 2 to 4 weeks working on panda conservation near Xi'an).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.