LOS ANGELES — Lynda Moore swam with wild dolphins on her vacation. And rode horseback into the Central American rain forest.
"We hiked into caves where we found pottery shards left by the ancient Mayan civilizations," says Ms. Moore, a scientist at the University of Toronto. "We saw fire pits that were 1,200 years old."
These activities were part of a two-week trip Moore took to Belize with Ecosummer Expeditions, a Vancouver-based adventure travel company.
"We saw tapirs, scarlet macaws, and crocodiles," she remembers. "I would prefer all my holidays to be active ones like that. I live in the city, and I yearn to go to some place quiet and wild."
It's a philosophy that is increasingly winning out with travelers. Fifty percent of Americans took an adventure-travel vacation between 1992 and 1997, according to a report from the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). Today's adventure traveler wants comfort, challenges, and variety -and often wants to bring the family, experts say.
"People are looking at adventure travel as a viable alternative to the usual beach-house vacation, or a trip to Grandma's house, or a tour of Disney World," says Dave Wiggins, president of American Wilderness Experience (AWE), an adventure-travel company in Boulder, Colo.
This yearning has spawned a burgeoning business. "In the last five to 10 years, the adventure and special-interest segment has seen the greatest percentage of growth in the tour industry," says Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. "Even traditional, escorted tours are incorporating more soft adventure options."
Trips that are soft - or tough
What's the difference between soft adventure and hard adventure?
"Hot showers," says Mr. Wiggins who founded AWE nearly 30 years ago as a company offering horsepacking trips and cattle-drive vacations. He has expanded to include sea kayaking, canoeing, sailing, and hiking.
"What defines soft adventure is the level of amenities and accommodations at night," he says. "Instead of camping out in the open, guests might stay at a lodge or a wilderness retreat of some sort. And you can bet the food will be good."
Some soft adventure travelers, however, still seek extremes. "They're pushing the boundaries," reports Robert Earle Howells, a correspondent for Outside magazine. "Climbing Mt. Everest is now an outfitted trip. The publicity surrounding mountaineering has made the notion of climbing summits all the more alluring.
"Outfitters like Mountain Madness are an Everest outfitter, but they offer a lot of other trips as well. You might go down to Argentina and climb a 20,000-foot volcanic peak and really get a taste of high-altitude mountaineering. And it's serious. You may be with outfitters, guides, and porters, but you still have to walk up the 20,000-foot summit, and it's not easy."
TIA classifies activities such as mountain climbing, sky diving, whitewater rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, and spelunking (cave exploring) as hard adventure; pursuits such as camping, hiking, biking, sailing, and horseback riding are soft adventure. Increasingly, you can pursue more than one activity in a single trip.
Many activities, one adventure
"I've seen a trend to multidiscipline adventure travel," says Mr. Howells, who has covered adventure travel for more than 17 years. "In the course of say, a week or 10 days, you can kayak, you can bike, you can in-line skate, and perhaps hike. So that way, if you have multiple interests, or you don't want to be locked in to say, seven or eight days of just bicycling, you get to do a number of other things as well."
Backroads, based in Berkeley, Calif., offers several such trips, which the company calls MultiSport Adventures. On her Ecosummer expedition, Moore participated in a variety of activities.
"We went snorkeling the first four days of the trip," she recalls. "Then we hiked through the jungle, and went horseback riding and kayaking. I got to do all these things I'd always wanted to do."
These kinds of trips are frequently become family affairs. "Families are looking for this kind of experience more and more," says Wiggins, who says groups are often intergenerational. "We've got Grandma and Grandpa coming along, too. So we're developing more trips that are focused toward the needs of younger and older clients."
Whatever your age, adventure vacations can make for special memories. "Some people go to a church or a psychologist for inspiration," says Moore. "I find my spirituality in the wild places."
What to know before you go
Before embarking on an adventure vacation:
*Check out the outfitter. Make sure the company is reliable. Ask for references before you book. Select an outfitter that uses local guides and uses environmentally responsible practices.
*Read the brochures and pre-trip materials carefully. Select a trip appropriate to your level of physical ability.
*Bring the right equipment. If you're going whitewater rafting, pack waterproof gear. Break in hiking boots or riding boots before the trip.
*Get into condition. Hike, bike, or ride to prepare before you depart.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society