For as long as I have known Cari Gray, she has been one of the world’s leading authorities on cycling, hiking and active vacations. She still is.
Before heading out on her own, Gray worked for many years at Butterfield & Robinson, widely regarded as the founder of the guided luxury active vacation category, way back in 1966. Five-star B&R, as its loyal and often repeat fans know it (I’ll be going with them to Japan shortly for my fourth trip, including my wedding anniversary!), is awash in accolades, and ten years ago it seemed like there was no place to move upwards from this gold standard – until Gray launched her own company. While Butterfield and its chief competitors like Backroads and Trek Travel all offer custom bespoke trips in addition to scheduled group departures, and run a lot of them, Gray & Co. does nothing but. No catalog, no dates, no booked nights to fill at certain hotels. For an exclusive clientele, Cari Gray does nothing but meticulously construct one of kind, perfect itineraries with every facet tailored to the likes of the individual traveler. This has paid off – three years ago Travel & Leisure magazine named her tiny specialty company the World’s Best Tour Operator – of any size, in any category!
Gray & Co. trips feature support teams unlike those you might expect – not just guides and drivers, but mechanics, trip planners/managers, even nannies. Even though itineraries often visit new destinations, staff preview trips on dry runs to avoid unpleasant surprises. Whether guests like to sleep in, hit the ground running, meet with local artists or linger over coffee at each enticing roadside cafe, she figures out how to make it happen.
Budget-wise, I may not be Cari Gray’s target audience, but I was still able to ask her advice. Because her customers tend to be avid cyclists and/or hikers, they’ve usually done the basic A-list destinations like Tuscany and Burgundy, often more than once. So, one of her special strengths has been suggesting otherwise uncharted or lesser known destinations that are excellent. Her very first trip back in 2009 was through South Africa’s wine country, and having visited the region myself, I can say she hit it out of the park.
I went cycling through Tuscany, and I loved it – it’s a great place with a lot of charm, but it’s also jammed with tourists of every description, not to mention tons of cycling tours. There’s something not so fun about sharing the road with many other guided bike groups from all over the world, each equipped with escort vans and pulling into the same small towns at lunchtime. So, I imagined the next Tuscany, and asked Cari to recommend some awesome active travel destinations that are up and coming, overlooked or just plain awesome for those of us who want to go beyond the low hanging fruit. Many people pay top dollar for this expert advice – today it’s yours for free.
5 Hiking and Biking Dream Vacations by Gray & Co. (in no particular order):
Japan (Road Cycling):
“Located approximately 200 miles northwest of Tokyo, the Noto Peninsula features well-maintained roads with few cars, low speed limits, tiny rural villages, forests, temples and shrines. The region offers the chance to stay in beautiful ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). One of our favorites is Lamp No Yado, nestled in its own bay surrounded by cliffs. This simple 14-room property first opened as a hot spring ryokan around 430 years ago. We also like the modern, yet traditional Hyakurakuso Ryokan – a 16-room ryokan featuring views over Tsukumo Bay.
More great roads await further south near Hiroshima in the nearby Onomichi region. Often referred to as the ‘Mediterranean of Japan’ complete with palm trees and orange groves, we bike between islands in the Seto Sea, crossing dramatic bridges and along the undulating coast. Our base is the Bella Vista Spa & Marina.”
Mallorca, Spain (Multi-sport – Hike, Bike, Kayak, Golf, Tennis and More):
“Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands off Spain’s east coast, is a Mediterranean paradise for adventurous holidaymakers, foodies and above all, cyclists and hikers. With terrain that varies from charming towns nestled in the UNESCO World Heritage Tramuntana Mountains to the secluded calas (beaches) hidden among gorges and orange, olive and almond groves, there is no shortage of beautiful places to explore on two-wheels, on foot or with a paddle in hand.
Some favorite bike routes:
From the small town of Alaro through the Orient Valley to the traditional village of Bunyola.
Riding through the wine-growing area in the centre of the island.
A dramatic route along the winding coastal road through the chic, artsy hilltop village of Deià, to the hilltop town of Valdemossaand onto Banyalbufar, a picturesque town surrounded by ancient Moorish citrus and grape terraces.
Some favorite hikes:
The Camí de S’Arxiduc trail, near Valdemossa, follows the crest of the Puig des Teix mountain peak and offers stunning views.
From Soller to Cala Tuent passing through forest, farmland, olive groves and along the coast. We like to stop en route at the charming Finca d’Avall farmhouse for freshly squeezed orange juice before heading up the Coll de Biniamar, followed by a descent into Cala Tuent.
From Soller through the stonewalled hamlet of Biniaraix then ascending through the mountains along a stream called Torrent de Biniaraix up to the Cúber Reservoir. There will be an optional detour to the summit of L’Ofre (just over 3,280ft), which offers 360-degree views of the valley (then we hop in the van to transfer down to Fornalutx, one of the most picturesque villages in Mallorca for lunch at a local restaurant known for its lamb and other Mallorcan classic dishes!)
If tennis is your sport, local celebrity Rafael Nadal opened an impressive center.
The island features countless amazing golf courses.
Kayak or SUP along the coastline of the Tramuntanta Mountains, stopping for a snorkel on one of the secluded beaches.
Epic (and technical) mountain biking in the mountains – watch out for lambs, donkeys and goats!
There is no shortage of fabulous accommodation on the island including La Residencia in Deia, Son Brull in Pollenca, Castell Son Claret, Cap Rocat and several chic properties in the city of Palma. It’s a large island so people turn to us to sort the best place to be based for the activities they love.”
Cape Town, South Africa (Multi-sport – Hike, Road Bike, Kayak, Swim with Penguins and Mountain Bike):
“With stunning hotels, varied landscapes and wild coastline, Cape Town is among the best active destinations on the planet. In and around Cape Town, we’ve found some of our top ten global rides. Wake up early for a morning spin from Simonstown across Cape Point Nature Reserve and a rewarding coastal finish in Kommetjie. Just outside of Cape Town, there’s the stunning coastal road between Kleinmond and Gordon’s Bay to the warm-up along the Slanghoek Valley which leads to the Bainskloof Pass lined with boulders and rock overhangs, and lastly the dramatic Franschhoek Pass followed by a rewarding ascent into quaint Franschhoek.
There are also countless hiking trails leading up the majestic Table Mountain, Silvermine or Lion’s head, all right within the city limits. Or, take a day trip out to the Cape-Dutch Franschhoek for a hike in the Mont Rochelle Reserve or along the coastal trail in the whale capital of Hermanus.
If you seek more adrenaline, the city also offers incredible mountain biking (it is home to some amazing mountain bike races), kite surfing, rock climbing and surfing. There are so many lovely places to stay – from La Residence in Franschooek to Ellerman House in Cape Town.”
Pucón, Chile (Multi-sport – Hike, Bike, Horseback Ride, Raft, Fish and More):
“In the heart of the Chilean Lake district, a land of rivers, lakes, forests and volcanoes and a Mecca for adventure sports enthusiasts, lies the town of Pucón. AndBeyond Vira Vira (Relais & Châteaux) is set along the shores of the Liucura River in a 23-hectare native park, which makes it an ideal base for outdoor activities. There are plenty of smooth and quiet roads to explore on two wheels, sweeping views of the area’s three volcanoes, Mapuche villages to explore, flowing rivers, crystal clear lakes plus plenty of rolling farmland.
The hike up Villarica Volcano to see its glacier is epic as is the hiking through a thousand-year-old Araucaria forest into Villarica National Park, one of the most popular in the country due to its three volcanoes (Villarrica, Quetrupillán and Lanín).
Other fun activities:
Rafting the Trancura River for an exhilarating rafting experience down grade II and IV rapids passing through native forests, waterfalls and stunning landscapes.
Horseback riding with a Chilean huaso (cowboy).
Fly fishing galore.
You can also combine Pucon with a visit to the vineyards outside of Santiago where Vina Vik is the best place to stay. Bike, hike and horseback ride among the expansive vineyards of the Colchagua Valley. Even further north lies the Atacama Desert and so much to explore!”
“It would be impossible to narrow down Australia to one particular destination, so we’ve listed a few of our fave spots.
Tasmania – This small island offers a number of Australia’s top hiking routes including the Bay of Fires, Cradle Mountain, Freycinet Wine Glass Bay and Maria Island. Surprisingly, there is also some beautiful road cycling in and around Hobart and Freycinet National Park where Saffire Lodge is the perfect base. Don’t miss their Tasmanian Devil encounter and unique oyster experience.
Kangaroo Island – With wildlife a plenty, this island has so much to offer from wildlife encounter walks, coastal walks, bike rides out Flinders Chase to the Remarkable rock formation. Don’t miss Southern Ocean Lodge’s Kangaroos and Canapes experience!
Margaret River – We love the road biking around Western Australia’s Margaret River, known as one of the country’s premiere wine growing destinations. Spin through eucalyptus forests, along rugged coastline, through the wines and out to white sand beaches. There’s easily four days of great riding. If you prefer hiking, the Margaret River Cape to Cape Walk is one of Australia’s great multi-day walks, easily broken down into shorter walks. We recommend staying at Cape Lodge.”
It’s a big world – enjoy it!