Call of the Wild

Luxury adventure travel combines the challenging with the pampering in exotic locales.
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It takes all kinds, and that's the case with luxury adventure travel. One person's daring feat may be recreational sport to another.

And what could be more subjective than the idea of luxury? Well, we know it when we see it -- even if we all don't see it the same way.

Luxury adventure travel is hard to define, since it's comprised of so many activities and far-flung destinations. But it's the latest buzzword in the travel industry, and it definitely offers something for everyone.

The term was coined by travel companies that wanted to attract the attention of curious, active globe-trotters of all ages. And no matter your level of fitness or the degree of pampering you desire, it's possible to find something that suits you.

Among luxury adventure destinations, Africa's game parks, Egypt's pyramids, Peru's

Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands are classic picks. Newly popular locations include Iceland, Antarctica, Central and South America, Australia,

New Zealand and China, as well the more remote national parks in the western U.S.

The activities in this travel category are also all over the map. Much of the appeal may be trying something completely novel in a part of the world you've always wanted to see.

The trips always have an active element -- even a luxury jeep safari has a bone-jarring ride; hot-air ballooning can entail helping to spread out the balloon and roughing it back to the start in the back of a pickup. And there is a vast range of intensity, from strolling in the Italian countryside to hiking the

Scottish Highlands to trekking in the Himalayas. Some adventures have water themes, with recreation including canoeing, kayaking and river rafting or

sailing, snorkeling and

scuba diving.

"What people are looking for are authentic experiences -- but they also crave relaxation and comfort," says Shannon Stowell, president of the

Adventure Travel Trade Association.

According to Stowell, much of luxury adventure travel's growth is due to what the industry terms the "done-in-a-day" phenomenon. The trend describes exactly the type of getaway that appeals to the vast majority of vacationers: Once the day's activity is done, travelers relish returning to the most upscale accommodations available to unwind and enjoy exceptional dining and fine wines.

Mass Appeal

Statistics are hard to come by, but most travel-industry experts agree that the luxury adventure travel segment has been growing steadily since the early 1990s.

And the category no longer caters solely to young and single people: Baby boomers, too, are maintaining an active lifestyle as their careers peak and retirement begins. Increasing numbers of multigenerational families are participating in off-the-beaten-path journeys, from small-boat expedition cruises up the Inside Passage to Alaska to trips to see penguins firsthand in Antarctica.

However, that's not to discount individual travelers as a significant portion of the luxury adventure-travel category.

With work schedules and other obligations, it's often difficult for families and couples to orchestrate vacations together. Individual travelers are increasingly likely to seek out a group tour so they don't have to travel entirely alone -- and also because once the destination is chosen, it's a carefree way to travel.

The stigma that group travel may have had in the past is definitely an outdated misconception on most luxury adventure tours. Depending on the location, most tour operators offer free time each day, including some meals, as part of the schedule.

This eliminates the feeling of being herded around and allows for enjoying favorite individual pursuits, whether shopping, writing or sketching ... or napping.

One disadvantage that still persists in group travel, however, is the discriminatory single supplement. Tour operators continue to tack on an extra daily fee unless individual travelers are willing to share a room with a stranger for the duration of the trip.

Defining Luxury

No matter what your destination, today's luxury adventure travel is a first-class experience.

Even if you're hiking and camping in Kenya's Masai Mara Game Park, you can expect first-class amenities, including porters to tote your gear, well-situated campsites, cozy tents with comfortable cots and luxurious linens, and well-appointed dining tents. In addition, the food will undoubtedly be far superior to any camping fare you may have prepared in the past.

Adventure-travel groups are generally quite small, and luxury ones even more so, usually ranging between six and a dozen or so travelers at the most. Depending on the difficulty of the activity and the demands of the area in which you travel, there's a very high guide-to-guest ratio, including professionals skilled in the featured activity and experts well versed in the geography, history and culture of the locale.

Perhaps the most luxurious factor, though, is that the tour operator handles all the details, logistics and any hassles that may arise. You're truly on vacation, relieved of any responsibility other than enjoying yourself.

Not surprisingly, all this comes at a price -- from a relatively modest $300 to $500 to a jaw-dropping $2,500 and up per day.

Who to Go With?

Hundreds of touring companies offer luxury adventure vacations, and their numbers will only increase as the segment continues to grow in popularity. A number of the more established companies, however, have been in the business for decades:

Abercrombie & Kent,

Austin-Lehman Adventures,

Butterfield and Robinson,

Lindblad Expeditions, and

Mountain Travel Sobek.

These tried-and-true firms have hosted many families, but only

Thomson Family Adventures has made it a specialty, even offering convenient departures scheduled to coincide with school vacations.

Grandtravel focuses on creating lasting memories for grandparents and grandchildren traveling together. Both specialty companies have been offering tours for more than 20 years.

At the beginning of 2006, five highly experienced luxury adventure travel companies, including Austin-Lehman Adventures,

Wildland Adventures,

Euro-Bike & Walking Tours,

Western River Expeditions, and

AAVE Teen Adventures, launched the

Trusted Adventures' Alliance. The group offers one-stop-shopping for luxury adventure travel, with a Web site that offers 220 unique trip itineraries to over 70 worldwide destinations -- and a perfect way to start your own journey.

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Barbara Koeth is an independent corporate communications writer and consultant who's always up for an adventure. A former resident of New York City, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She has worked with many Fortune 100 companies, and has published articles in Crain's New York Business, BuySide and Modern Bride.