BOSTON — If river rafting on the Dolores River in Colorado is a little too much of a "wow" for you, how about a string quartet from the Los Angeles Philharmonic coming along for the ride to soothe your rattled nerves?
"River Rafting in the Classic Style" is offered by Bill and Jaci Dvorak of Dvorak's Kayaking & Rafting Expeditions, based in Nathrop, Colo. Imagine being soaked to the bones, then drying off at a rock canyon to the strains of Handel's "Water Music;" or falling asleep under the stars to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
Such a trip is part of a growing industry known as "specialty travel."
These trips offer something unusual or are specifically designed around personal interests or themes. They can be cultural, educational, even spiritual retreats, say those who have participated.
"Very often the focus of the trip is the major motivator over and above the destination," explains Ann Waigand, founder of "The Educated Traveler," a newsletter out of Chantilly, Va.
From garden tours chasing butterflies to jungle treks encountering gorillas, from birdwatching to bungee jumping, many vacationers are looking for more than a bake on the beach.
"The bottom line is people want something different. They want to participate and they want added value," says Mara Delli Priscoli, whose company, Travel Learning Conferences, will host a special-interest travel conference in Washington next month.
While official numbers are vague, industry observers and tour operators say the field is expanding by the minute.
"Based on the feedback I get, the business is doubling every five years," says Steen Hansen, publisher of the Specialty Travel Index.
Several factors are driving the trend. Baby boomers are heading toward retirement and are poised for travel.
"As the educated segment has more time and more expendable income, they have more curiosity about their country and their world," says Amy Kotkin, director of Smithsonian Study tours and Seminars, the largest museum-based travel program offering some 350 trips a year in the United States and abroad.
Also, many baby boomers are sophisticated travelers; they've snorkeled in the Caribbean, seen the cathedrals in Europe. Now they want more.
"We have a generation that believes learning is a lifelong process," Ms. Waigand says. These travelers are interested in being and doing. "If they go to Costa Rica, they become birdwatchers."
"We're always looking into what's new and different," says Ms. Kotkin, noting that there aren't too many new places in the world, but there are newly accessible places and conveyances. You can take a nuclear-powered Russian ice breaker to the North Pole, for example.
This April, for the first time, Smithsonian Study Tours will launch its most successful "Smithsonian-Oxford" trip off campus and out to sea: A charter cruise ship will motor around the Greek Islands. Appropriately, scholars and students will focus on "the classics."
Programs within a program also add enrichment, notes Kotkin. And they can provide access the average traveler would never have.
The Smithsonian's Telluride Film Festival trips, for example, feature lectures and seminars by directors such as Mike Leigh, Wim Wenders, and Ken Burns.
Some people make the distinction between cultural or educational trips - such as those offered by museums - and adventure-oriented excursions.
But they can very well overlap. Ecotourism and volunteer vacations, for example, combine learning and adventure as well as an opportunity to "make a difference," whether it's helping scientists study dolphins,
rebuilding a war-torn community, or working on an archaeological dig.
The result of the expanding market is a web of choices. You can almost pick your interest and find a trip.
Your focus could be mode of transportation (dog sled), activity (photography), or the place to stay (ice house). Waigand stayed in a Stone Pineapple in Scotland, for example.
Other examples include parachuting onto the North Pole or taking traditional music tours of France, Ireland, and Zimbabwe. Expect to see specialty travel broaden even more. "I don't think we've reached a limit by any means," says Waigand.
Also, consumers will probably see special-travel concepts pop up in more-mainstream getaways. Commercial cruise lines have added enrichment lectures, on topics such as world affairs, computers, and finance. "It's gone way beyond bridge lessons," says the Smithsonian's Kotkin.
Even Club Med is helping vacationers narrow down their choices, such as listing the best Club Meds if you are a fan of horseback riding.
Travel agencies are also looking into training employees to be experts in certain genres of travel. As Waigand points out: "Vacation time is precious, and it's going to be worthwhile to go to someone who will help find the right trip for you."
The expansion has also brought a good share of quirkiness and ultra-specialization. "Stalking the Snub Nose Monkey in Vietnam" is a trip featured in "The Educated Traveler," for example.
"Zorbing" vacations revolve around a unique form of transportation invented in New Zealand. One person walks inside a plastic ball that is encased in another plastic ball that rolls. "It's absolutely absurd," says Hansen of the Specialty Travel Index.
Then there's the Bureau of Atomic Tourism, "dedicated to the promotion of tourist locations around the world that have either been the site of atomic explosions, display exhibits on the development of atomic devices, or contain vehicles that were designed to deliver atomic weapons."
So how about it, Nevada test site anyone?
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Smithsonian Associates
Study Tours and Seminars
1100 Jefferson Drive, SW
Washington, DC 20560
The Educated Traveler
P.O. Box 220822
Chantilly, VA 22022
Specialty Travel Index
305 San Anselmo Ave.
San Anselmo, CA 94960
* Many special-interest trips are run by small operations, so it's good to check their credentials before sending in any type of deposit.
* More choices means you have to do more homework. Try to know what you're looking for. Newsletters, books, web sites, and special-interest groups are all resources to consider.
* Even seasoned travelers need to be discerning. If a tour company just slaps a professor on the trip, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bona fide "learning" vacation. Ask what the leader- or scholar-to-traveler ratio is.
* Different levels are for different people. How much do you want learning or the "special interest" to fill the hours? Take the example of a cooking vacation. One program may involve just a few hours of cooking demonstrations a day, while another may put you to work in a hotel kitchen for eight hours.