The bicycling travel world is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the invention of the bicycle (in Mannheim, Germany in 1817) by offering tons of deals for great-sounding international bike treks like these.
If you’re thinking, “But I haven’t ridden a bike in years” or that you’re too old or out of shape to even balance yourself on a bike, well, the cliché “It’s like riding a bike” exists for a reason. It really is one of those skills that once you master, you never forget.
Why think about doing it at all? My husband, Warren, tells me he’s never seen me smile so much as when gliding along on a bike in a lovely vacation spot. (Note: we do not own bikes back home.)
Biking on vacation
Of course, you don’t begin with a 10-day crouched trek across Ireland, no matter how nice the brochures look. Rather, start by “cruising” – the kind of cruising that happens on an upright bike with a wide cushioned seat, fat tires, 5 speeds and easy handbrakes. (A wicker basket and cute pink handlebar bell are nice but not necessary.)
One easy turn of the pedals (no muscles necessary) and you’re covering ground. Once you’re sailing along on one of these easy comfy contraptions, cooling breezes flowing around you, you’ll never be entirely happy with trudging down a sidewalk again.
If you have the desire to incorporate a little fun biking into your travel, here are 3 suggestions to get you started biking (and there are many more ways).
1) Biking’s a beach: Where to do your first biking
For your initial foray in the saddle, you want “flat,” “easy” and “picturesque.” The perfect place is a shoreline area, with an island being a particular sweet spot. Islands often have plenty of flat shoreline roads (that circle back to the start), beautiful nature or gorgeous homes to look at, and nearby bike rental companies.
For first rides, you’ll want to rent your cruiser by the hour (cost can vary widely from $5 an hour to $40, depending on popularity and the competition at your location). You’ll be amazed by how much territory you can cover in just one or two hours. (Tip: Remember to ask for a map and factor in the “return to home base” time.)
My reacquaintance with the pleasures of bike cruising began on a trip to Hilton Head Island, where we couldn’t help notice all the walking/biking trails. We found a bike rental store online that delivered two cruisers with baskets to our rental building for the week. I hadn’t biked since leaving home for college, so my first time up on a bike in decades was a bit wobbly, but very quickly I was turning corners and braking smoothly with the best of them.
I had a great time on Hilton Head’s paths, drooling over all the shoreline gardens and vacation homes. One day we ventured onto the famous “hard-packed” sand of Hilton Head Beach. It was a joy to ride right alongside the gentle waves and we sped down that flat, solid beach for a few miles, pushed along by a hearty sea breeze.
Turning around to come back, though, wallop! Try as I might, I could not make any headway against the shoreline’s stiff southerly wind. As I realized that going home was going to take hours, tears of frustration sprang to my eyes, then were quickly whipped away by the wind. Luckily my husband (having a bit of trouble himself) eventually had the bright idea to push our bikes off the beach in between two mansions, and pedal home on a non-breezy road.
Since those first rides on Hilton Head, we’ve ridden rental cruisers on Coronado Island (San Diego), Mackinac Island (Michigan), Mount Deseret Island (Maine), Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, as well as along the beaches of Redondo, Santa Barbara, Delray, Key West, North Miami, and Hammonasset State Park in Connecticut, to name a few. The dazzling colors, brisk breezes, fragrances and vistas of a beachy ride can’t be beat.
2) A great lodging amenity: Free bikes
When I’m perusing the plethora of choices on TripAdvisor or Airbnb for places to stay, if a place says “bikes included” or “free bikes,” my choice is suddenly clear. There’s nothing better than having bikes stashed on the premises for convenience and fun, and the lodging will point you in the direction of the best bike paths.
Most of the time, using “bikes included” as a key criteria for choosing a lodging works out great.
We’ve gone back to the Normandy Inn B&B in Spring Lake, New Jersey, three times just because we love their always-available bikes (and the breakfasts) so much. The free beach bikes at the funky Brisas del Mar inn in Santa Barbara introduced us to the Cabrillo Bike Path alongside the ocean, a great morning ride.
The one time it wasn’t so great was when I picked a certain Airbnb “beach cottage” in Santa Monica because it promised free beach bikes. The bikes were indeed there, rusty beaters yoked to a tree in a run-down Melrose Place-type courtyard. Unfortunately, we were visiting during a record-breaking heat spell in this oceanside community and our tiny apartment had no fans or air conditioning. (“Weird weather, dude,” semi-apologized the Airbnb’s owner to us later.)
So the bikes had misled me to a dog of a place, but on the good side, they got us out and riding along the beach boardwalk where the bike-generated breezes finally cooled us off.
3) Biking excursions: Exercise for body and mind
When I say “excursions,” I’m not talking about those multi-day cross-country treks, but rather a nice compact bike tour of a town or park led by a guide.
These bike excursions have all the pluses and minuses of any tour. With a guide, you learn more than you might on your own and you don’t have to worry about getting lost. But you’re also forced to travel a certain path at a particular pace, and deal with other people in the group. The real bonus is that tour operators provide bikes, helmets and water, plus any assistance you need along the way. All you have to do is show up.
When I’m on ship cruises, I always try to book one of the short bike tours offered, just to have a change of pace from trundling around a ship or port town.
In the past few years I’ve booked half-day hosted bike excursions in Bar Harbor, Newport, Skagway (Alaska), and Boston. Except for the one in Alaska, where our group inched down a mountain in a downpour, most of these bike excursions were a great combo of a flat shoreline tour with urban highlights. The guides know their crowd: We’re not looking for adventures, really; just a way to see a lot of territory without wearing out our shoes.
Bike tours, even ones that last only a few hours, aren’t cheap, but I learned the value of a good one during our most recent tour, on a July afternoon visit to Vancouver. I picked out a tour operator at random using TripAdvisor reviews, and we really lucked out. Our tour guide, funny and patient Jeremy of Vancouver Bike Tours, was a lifelong resident of Vancouver who owns a bike shop there. We and another couple had a grand time checking out this “city of glass” with Jeremy, punctuated by his interesting city factoids and photo ops.
But my favorite part of the city tour was when we entered Stanley Park.
After getting the lowdown on an outdoor totem pole museum and some hidden lake surrounded by ancient giant sequoias, our guide led us on a speedy-but-easy ride along the gorgeous Vancouver Seawall overlooking the harbor.
With the sun on our backs and the harbor breezes rushing by, I had one of those “perfect” moments that we all seek on our travel.
If my stories have convinced you that you too should incorporate a little biking into your travel, check out Irene S. Levine’s excellent article on PBS Next Avenue, “Bicycle Vacations: Boomers’ Latest Travel Trend,” on the practicalities of going on a bike tour – from how to find a reputable company to what to wear.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- The over-50 luxury traveler will find that cycling is one of the most pleasurable forms of transport ever invented.
- In cities, you can dart through traffic jams and park anywhere. In parks and on seashores, the palpable sense of surrounding nature will delight you.
- It doesn’t matter if you’re weak and small or large and uncoordinated – on a cruiser bike you’ll feel young and free again.
- It can be difficult to take photos on a bike tour, since you’re mostly on the move.
- A helmet helps protect your head if you should fall, but it can mess with your hairdo! (A small price to pay though for enjoying a nice bike breeze safely.)
IF YOU GO
- Hilton Head Island Convention and Visitors Bureau: Biking FAQs
About bicycling on vacation:
- On Sand in My Suitcase: Cool Tips to Spice Up Your Cruise. Like… Take Your Folding Bicycle!
- In the New York Times: New Trip for the Bike’s Centennial
- On Backroad Planet: A Solo Bike Ride Across the Southern Tier
*All photo credits (except for lead photo and those noted otherwise): Laura Kelly
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Have you rediscovered the joy of biking on vacation? Share your stories in the comments below!