Active travel, meaning biking, hiking and multi-sport vacations, have been skyrocketing in popularity since the pandemic. The major tour operators specializing in this field are reporting record traffic and bookings for 2023 and 2024, and this makes a lot of sense, as the pandemic caused a lasting spike in participation in many outdoor sports. Additionally, there are many benefits to active travel – exercise, guilt free indulgence, and seeing the world more deeply at a slower, immersive pace. But within this red-hot category, one niche in particular has been attracting more and more active travelers, both veterans and first timers, and that’s active cruises.
I’m not talking about regular big ocean-going cruise ships with yoga classes or gyms. I’m talking about dedicated and guided active travel itineraries like the ones long found in cycling and hiking hotspots such as Tuscany, Burgundy, Peru and the Alps, but using a cruise ship rather than hotels.
I have been writing on active travel for decades, and these are among my very favorite kinds of vacations. I’ve done active trips to celebrate big anniversaries and birthdays, and I’ve traveled with the top companies that win the big awards, including Backroads, Butterfield & Robinson and DuVine, as well as lesser-known specialty companies such as Italy’s Tourissimo and Dolomite Mountains. I’ve done guided, self-guided, road cycling, mountain biking, hiking and multi-sport.
But until this year I had never done an active cruise, so to check out what it is all about and why the category is so popular, I went with the biggest player in the sector, Backroads, on a road cycling trip from Paris to Normandy, cruising the Seine River (I had previously done a small group “Cycle + Sail” by sailing yacht trip with DuVine, who offers a variety of these as a specialty of the company. It was an awesome, luxurious and very special way to reach Mediterranean islands otherwise inaccessible to cyclists, I highly recommend it, and wrote about it here at Forbes, but it’s not really a cruise).
Backroads is generally considered the largest player in upscale active travel, with a staggering number of itineraries, group and private, across myriad categories, from women-only to winter snow trips to African safaris. They were the first of the big companies to really embrace the cruise concept (Butterfield & Robinson now also has some active crusies but I have not done one), and while they have been running active trips since 1969, they only tried the notion of partnering with a top luxury river cruise line eight years ago on the Danube. The trip was so successful that they now have around 100 annual cruise departures covering nearly 20 countries on multiple continents (France, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Ecuador/Galapagos, Argentina/Antarctica, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and even Tahiti and Bora Bora in French Polynesia).
The kinds of cruise trips are as diverse as the locations. They have “standard” bike trips on river cruise ships, as well as hiking trips, multi-sport adventures, all E-bike trips, easy going itineraries from their lower output Dolce Tempo (sweet time) collection, trips for families, trips for families with young kids and trips for adults. The most common offering is a Backroads group booked on a scheduled cruise alongside non-Backroads guests, but now they also offer whole boat takeovers with multiple cycling groups, each with its own guides, so that everyone on the ship is a Backroads participant. Most are river cruises, which use smaller ships with more cabin space and far fewer passengers than ocean cruises.
The biggest appeal of active cruises is the “floating hotel” for the entire trip rather than changing lodging every night or two as is more the norm in the industry. Everyone from repeat guests to Backroads founder and President Tom Hale to travel agents to competitors gave me exactly the same answer when asked why these cruises have become so popular: “You only pack and unpack once.” Besides the convenience of this, it also allows for familiarity with all the features of the boat, including the crew, the food and drink service, and logistics such as where the gym, spa and hot tub are.
As an added bonus, you get the best of both worlds, the cruise and the Backroads experience. On nights in port where you are on your own to dine, you can go into town and explore the local dinner scene, or for the less adventurous (or the tired), simply opt to dine on the boat, already included in the fare. Likewise, the ship has its own shore excursions, as does Backroads, and both are accessible to you at no extra cost.
For example, on my trip, the biggest day culturally was the visit to the D-Day beaches, which is the main event for tours to Normandy. Backroads hires an excellent local private guide it works with regularly to do a battlefield and cemetery tour, and afterwards, the trip leaders continue the day with a ride. However, if you want to skip the day’s ride and dive more deeply into World War II history, you could opt for one of the multiple tours offered by AmaWaterways, the operators of the ship, including longer and more exhaustive battlefield visits.
This flexibility lets you zero in on your own passions and preferences, but also gives you a hedge against everything from exhaustion to injury to bad weather, as on any given day there is an alternative to cycling or hiking.
You also tend to cover a lot more ground by boat, as you can continue moving even when you are sleeping, something no hotel offers. Some of the European river trips visit four or five countries in week, offering a lot of varied experiences. On the first day of our trip, we left Paris, one of the world’s great tourism cities, and rode to the fabled Palace of Versailles. The next day we woke up and cycled through Normandy. And when we were not cycling, tasting wine, eating cheese, or visiting historic sites, we were often sitting on the open top deck, watching castles and small towns and the gorgeous countryside roll by, all while sipping wine or a cocktail, something you can’t enjoy from a van.
For most of its European trips, Backroads partners with AmaWaterways, in turn one of the most highly regarded luxury river cruise companies. Rooms were spacious and comfortable, and most ships have balconies for every passenger. There is a gym, spa, daily fitness classes, multiple free shore excursions, entertainment, and perhaps most importantly, a focus on local food (some cruises serve international fare that leaves you disconnected from the area you are traveling to). Whether you are an active traveler or not, if you contacted a top travel agent and asked about the best luxury European river cruises, the result would be a short list that includes Ama (Backroads and AmaWaterways are both members of the Virtuoso consortium of luxury travel advisors and travel providers).
Likewise, for trips in the Mediterranean, Antarctica and Polynesia, Backroads uses world-class small ocean ship specialist Ponant, generally considered the most luxurious French cruise line, and 2022 winner of Conde Nast Traveler’s award for Best Small Ships and Best Expedition Ships. Like Ama, Ponant is known for its oversized cabins, balconies, excellent cuisine, and a wide selection of included (free) shore excursions (very unusual in the ocean cruise industry, beginning in late 2024).
I’ve been on a number of Backroads trips before, and there are always a lot of repeat customers, because the company has a very loyal following, but the group on the cruise was different. Several of them told me they had done nothing but active cruises since they first experienced the concept, and most were wildly enthusiastic about the combination of cycling and the ship. I think the whole boat takeovers would be even more enjoyable, with the added camaraderie and ambiance of like-minded travelers.
Personally, to be honest, I still prefer hotels to ships and don’t mind the packing and unpacking. I love being in a small Tuscan town or vibrant city with some time to explore on my own. For these reasons I am not going to limit my active travel to cruises, but I absolutely get the appeal, which adds both convenience and comfort – and I would certainly do it again.
At the end of the day, the real appeal of an active cruise is that you get two great vacations in one, and anytime you can do that, you come out ahead.