"How ... the hell long ... is this hill?" I thought to myself as my breathing got heavier, my heart pounded faster and my quads started burning. My pedal rotations seemed to be stuck in a dramatic slow-motion action sequence. One by one, the cyclists behind me were either falling back from fatigue or fighting their own internal battles as we climbed the seemingly endless, winding hill through Napa Valley's wine country.
And then, suddenly, there it was. The top. Before I knew it, I was flying down the other side of the hill, shouting out hoots and hollers of childlike joy and accomplishment, gaining a slightly dangerous downward speed alongside the cars that were making the same journey toward the region's famous wineries.
The finish line was the Summers Estate winery, where awaiting us was a lunch spread of cheeses, olives, strawberries and grapes topped off with a tasting of six varietals. The only biking left after lunch was the easy half-mile ride to the relaxing Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort in Calistoga.
Increasingly, a segment of the traveling public is looking for the same kind of soft-adventure challenge -- complete with its physical and emotional highs and lows -- that I experienced last year on a G Adventures Napa Valley Active Escape fam trip, which included biking, kayaking and hiking in and around California's Bay Area, Sonoma and Napa counties.
"People are staying fitter longer," said Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, which has been offering global active adventure trips since he established the company in 1990. "People are more active than ever before. That's the demographic that we're chasing."
Napa Valley Adventure Tours, the ground operator G Adventures worked with to execute its active Napa trips, has been growing its operations dramatically since the company was founded in 2008, when it booked just five passengers. By 2009, it had expanded to 25 passengers, and in 2012, Napa Valley Adventure Tours took 65 passengers on active biking and kayaking trips around the wine region.
"Napa is wine country, so the first thing [people] think of is wine, food, spa -- then adventure," Justin Perkins, tour guide manager for Napa Valley Adventure Tours, wrote in an email. The company "has now changed the way people look at adventure in the valley."
The adventure travel market is growing about 16% every year, according to research conducted by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA). In May, the organization surveyed its members, and of the 140 that responded, 79% said they offered soft-adventure experiences and 35% said they offered hard-adventure experiences.
ATTA President Shannon Stowell said, "The reason I think this is all growing is that there is a global, cultural shift toward [people wanting] more experiences. They're thinking, 'I want to do something beyond Disney and Vegas and New York. I want to have a transformative experience.'"
Butterfield & Robinson has been in the soft-adventure space since the company was established as a walking and biking tour operation in 1966.
"We used to really dominate this arena, and now we have a lot more competitors," said Kathy Stewart, director of media and public relations for Butterfield & Robinson. The company has seen a "real uptick" in business in the past two years.
Adventure travel has historically been a term that conjures up images of a much more intense and grittier form of travel reserved for only the most intrepid and rugged explorers: mountaineers competing to summit ever-higher peaks or trailblazers tackling the grueling climates of the Arctic or Africa.
But increasingly the category has grown to include a more mainstream interpretation of adventure, one that almost any traveler looking for a little extra thrill or excitement can partake in. Adventure travel has been divided into several subcategories, ranging from extreme adventure to what is broadly known as soft adventure, probably the largest and fastest-growing division of adventure travel.
"How do we define adventure travel?" Stowell asked rhetorically. "The way that we define it is based on a consumer study we did. There were three clear pillars that came out of that. One is a connection with nature; the second one is some sort of physical activity; and the third is an immersion in culture.
"So when you look at that, you can immediately see that there's nothing in that that says it has to have adrenaline or extremity or risk or danger. On the activity side it could be walking in Ireland or bungee jumping in Brazil."
Mountain Travel Sobek, for instance, is an adventure travel company that was founded in 1969 by a group of explorers whose first trip was a trek to Nepal. They followed that up with trekking through the Cordillera Blanca mountain range in Peru, summiting the Aconcagua in the Andes and climbing Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro.
Today, however, the company is mostly focused on soft adventures.
"We've totally flipped our product mix," said Kevin Callaghan, president and CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek. Between 80% and 90% of the company's product is now soft adventure, with a focus on activities like trekking, biking and wildlife-watching. "When I look back at the company history, some of the activities might be the same, but the level of service, the quality of the experience, it's much more on the soft side. It reflects what people want."
According to Callaghan, what today's larger community of adventure travelers wants is authenticity, activity, a sense of achievement and access. He noted that contemporary adventurers span a wide range of ages and abilities, and this newer, softer incarnation of yesterday's craggy wanderers wants more comfort and convenience.
Many tour operators in the soft-adventure travel category point out that authenticity, the feeling of getting close to the destination and its culture, is an innate part of the soft-adventure travel phenomenon. More and more, what people want is an authentic travel experience, which is fueling the soft-adventure travel category and opening it up to not just specialists in mountain climbing or expert divers but to whole swaths of the population who want to get out of the bus or car, get closer to nature and challenge themselves with loftier goals.
"What consumers most value are experiences," said Jim Gilmore, author of "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want" and "The Experience Economy." "More and more people are seeking to have something that is unique vs. what other people can access."
Greater risk, greater reward
As I sped down that hill in Napa, my first thought was that of sheer relief and joy. My second, however, was that at that speed I could have gotten really banged up had I fallen.
The inherent dangers in being more active and adventurous while traveling are part of the thrill, and that heightened sense of delight is also part of the reason for the popularity of this style of travel. With more travelers looking for soft-adventure experiences, everyone from the travelers themselves to their travel agents and the operators and suppliers operating the trips need to be aware of the risks and precautions.
The first step in that direction is properly qualifying the right traveler for the right trip.
"That is a big issue in our industry," said Poon Tip. "We've learned how to do that. For us, it's 20 years of developing really clear communication."
According to Poon Tip, G Adventures used to lump all its trips together. But now the company goes to great lengths to break down everything from the service level on the different itineraries to the level of physical ability travelers should have to enjoy the itinerary. For instance, if a trip has a physical grading of 5, that means that it will include high-altitude trekking or cycling and is suitable for those with a high level of fitness and endurance.
The Napa trip had a physical grading of 3, which means it "includes moderate hiking, biking, rafting, kayaking and other activities that require only an average/moderate level of fitness to enjoy," according to the G Adventures brochure.
G Adventures also separates its tours into four service levels: Camping, Basic, Standard and Comfort. Basic, for example, includes simple accommodations and/or well-maintained campsites, and public transportation with occasional private vans or coaches; Comfort means private vehicles, trains and planes, more inclusions such as transfers, more meals and activities, and accommodations with additional amenities and services.
"It's about being transparent," said Poon Tip.
The idea is that if the right person ends up on the right adventure trip, everyone wins. But there would still appear to be more potential risks involved in adventure travel, even its softer side, than in lying on the beach at an all-inclusive resort.
The adventure travel ethos, according to Stowell, is that if you want to be safe, stay home. But, in reality, he added, "the No. 1 risk both home and abroad is car accidents. Being out biking and hiking, the odds are actually in your favor if you're not in a car."
While soft adventure in theory might not be any more or less dangerous than any other form of travel, there are some precautions travelers and tour operators should take to protect themselves.
First off, everyone in this space highly recommends cancel-for-any-reason travel insurance. As Butterfield & Robinson's Stewart pointed out, with more active vacations, any kind of unforeseen injury the traveler endures prior to the trip will have a greater impact on their ability to participate in the trip than in less active vacations.
Beyond that, Dan Skilken, founder and CEO of TripInsurance.com, advises that travelers and their agents carefully read their insurance policies.
According to Skilken, there are a number of activities that aren't generally covered by a travel insurance policy, including driving or participating in races or speed or endurance contests, mountaineering or mountain climbing, participating in an organized sporting competition, skydiving, hang gliding, bungee jumping, scuba diving or learning to pilot any aircraft.
"Your general trip may be covered, but if you are hurt doing one of these activities, your medical expenses or medical evacuation expense won't be covered," Skilken said. "Also, your nonrefundable trip deposits for these sorts of activities won't necessarily be refunded in the event that you have to cancel for a covered reason."
To cover for medical emergencies that traditional travel insurance doesn't cover, the ATTA's Stowell recommended supplemental insurance such as Global Rescue, which is an international medical evacuation service.
But mostly, Stowell and operators with extensive experience in the adventure travel realm emphasize the importance of simply choosing a seasoned operator.
According to the ATTA and veteran adventure travel operators, depending on the type of trip or the likely age and ability of travelers, things to look out for are: whether tour operators have a doctor who comes along on the trip, the amount of training and experience the guides have and whether that includes first-aid training, the type of equipment being used and the reputation of any and all suppliers involved in the activities.
"This is where adventure travel can get sketchy: if somebody gets off a plane and says yes to the first person who says I'll take you to the Ngorongoro Crater [in Tanzania]," Stowell said.
"You should go with an operator that's trustworthy. ... You want to pick a good operator and be aware of whether you're a fit for the type of activity."
Operators in this arena also need to take necessary precautions to protect themselves in the event of injury or other mishaps clients might experience.
That means making sure clients sign the requisite liability waiver forms and working with their own insurance providers and legal counsel to ensure that those forms offer them the amount of protection they want and need.
Emerging soft-adventure trends
Soft-adventure experiences continue to evolve as more people have caught the bug for being more adventurous while exploring new destinations.
"Most of the adventure travel right now is soft and accessible," Stowell said. "I think that in most cases, the average traveler is completely capable of doing it."
Stowell noted that currently, biking is a big trend in soft-adventure travel, including downhill biking, mountain biking and more recently e-bikes, electric bikes that assist riders up hills.
He noted that hiking and water experiences such as kayaking and rafting are also very popular right now.
These softer adventures can also work as a gateway to more extreme adventures.
"We call it the transformative experience," he said. "They go on a trekking trip in Nepal and they say, 'Now I want to do Bhutan.' It does end up being a steppingstone."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.