What's it like to travel with Backroads?
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
An Active-Luxury Travel Review
Backroads introduced me to the concept of Active Travel almost twenty years ago, when I first signed up for one of their cycling trips. At the time, they were already twenty years into it and trips mainly revolved around road cycling or hiking. I spent a glorious week in the Canadian Rockies, gawking at eye-popping scenery, laughing with newly made friends and pedaling in a state of what I like to call ‘activity bliss’. I was hooked after that first experience, and vowed to do it again.
That trip also awakened my own love of travel planning, for myself as well as my friends. In subsequent years and inspired by that first Backroads experience, I planned a group cycling trip of my own, a trekking experience through the Dolomites with two friends, as well as all of the Epic Journeys described on this website. I also fell in love with Active Travel. To me, there is no better way to experience a place than by the force of my own power. So I understand why Tom Hale started this company in 1979. And I understand why 40 years later Backroads is still blowing the doors off of the Active Travel scene. Passion begets passion, and it shows with this company. Today, Backroads does more than just cycling and hiking tours. They offer river cruises, and multi-sport adventures, culinary options and snow experiences. And their destination list has become quite impressive.
My husband and I are still avid cyclists today. Although we both have cycled with a few other Active Travel companies over the years, he had yet to experience a trip with Backroads. And quite honestly, I was curious to see if all their growth and diversification had affected the quality of their original Classic Cycling trip.
Spoiler alert: It hasn’t.
This particular review is for the Loire Valley Classic Cycling trip. There are so many options to choose from, it's really came down to areas of interest and which tours were available at the time of year that we could travel. We had just finished an 11 day road trip in Iceland, which was actually the stop-over en route to Paris. So France was our choice and since I've always wanted to sleep in a castle, Loire Valley seemed to be the perfect match. We chose the Classic trip but there are also two other levels of service, Deluxe Camping and Premiere Hotels. Our two weeks in Iceland had been a self-planned, windy and cold adventure. So we knew that once we arrived in France, we not only wanted warmer weather, but a plush bed and an upgrade from camping as reward. From our discussion with fellow travelers, the biggest difference between the Classic and the Premier trips is that the Premier accommodations all have a spa option on site and the guests dine at more than one Michelin rated restaurant during their trip. From my personal experience, I can tell you that all of the chateaus that we experienced (4-5star) were gorgeous and each night our dining was a three to four course delight, including one Michelin rated restaurant. So if you choose the Classic option, I doubt you will be disappointed.
A Typical Day
The Backroads group is a master at time efficiency. This is in part, why the trip ran so smoothly. It started as we were comfortably transported from the train station to the countryside in an air-conditioned luxury coach. The guides wisely made use of the available hour to cheerfully go over typically mundane topics - the initial debriefing and of course, bicycle safety.
Each day, as we settled into our room, we were provided information sheets that described the ride distance for the next day, options for variance, as well as what times we need to be ready for dinner and breakfast the next morning.
We were fitted to our bikes on the first day. I was impressed by the guides’ attention to detail and sincere interest in making our rides as comfortable as possible. And every day on the tour, they would check the bikes again, tune them up, make any needed adjustments and have then ready to roll the next morning.
After breakfast, a verbal briefing was given, including any tricky or potential confusing sections of the route, options to shorten or lengthen our distance and any sites we would be visiting en route. Snacks such as nuts, protein or granola bars and fruit were provided both before and throughout the ride.
Then, after all questions were answered, we were off. We’d see the guides and support van at various times on route. But we were free to ride our own pace. Some days I stopped frequently en route to take photos. And others, I simply enjoyed a blissful ride though the countryside. Lunch was provided almost every day except for one, either as a fabulous picnic created by the guides or a three course meal at a local restaurant. And at the end of the day, we were always done riding in time to shower and relax in our rooms, prior to dinner.
Backroads does an excellent job at providing distance options to match a variety of cycling abilities as well as varying levels of interest. Flexibility is one of their strongest assets. I could ride as little or as much as I wanted. The guides were even willing to accommodate guests who did not want to ride at all on a given day. Their attitude was “its YOUR vacation!”. The routes on this trip were amazing. Despite my own experience with foreign country way-finding, many of the lesser known paths that we experienced could only be found by local riders or people who really knew the area. Scenic farms roads, hidden, bike-only asphalt paths , quiet gravel trails through tree-lined tunnels – this is quintessential Backroads style. We rarely had to compete with traffic, saw very few cars while riding and were able to enjoy some of the most pleasurable and relaxed cycling that I have experienced in years.
GPS - When I first rode with Backroads nearly twenty years ago, we used paper maps with type written turn-by-turn directions. Today in 2018, each rider had their own GPS unit that attached to their handle bars which had all of the preset routes already programmed into them. Anyone who was less familiar with using a GPS was patiently given instruction and as much repeated help as needed throughout the week. I loved riding this way! All I had to do was glance down occasionally to watch for upcoming turns and listen to the ‘beeps’ that indicated the turn was coming up. In other words, I was able enjoy my ride with my eyes more on the scenery than on an instruction sheet. Granted, some cyclists still missed turns when not paying attention. And the GPS units themselves can sometimes be a bit ‘finicky’ when under canopy. But overall, I felt that they were an asset. In case any of you reading this are gadget-phobes, printed directions were also provided as backup, as well as the guide’s cell phone numbers in case we got lost. We never did.
Bikes - The bikes are one of the major distinguishing features that set Backroads apart from other cycling tour companies. This may not hold the same value to some travelers as it may to others. And I admit that I can enjoy a ride on pretty much any type of bike. But Backroads tours now have three bikes options to choose from, with no additional charge: The Performance road bike (titanium frame, carbon fiber fork, drop bars and electronic Ultegra shifters ), the Touring bike (titanium frame, upright bars, wider tires) and The E –bike (electric pedal-assist shifting on titanium frame). This last addition is a brilliant move. It removes the final barrier that some potential travelers may have: concern over not being fit enough to ride with their families or travel companions. And this bike option is also available at no extra charge, making it easy for riders with varying ability to enjoy the same trip together. Bravo Backroads!
On the Classic Loire Valley trip, the meals were excellent. Each morning, we had a buffet breakfast available, with a wide variety of light European / continental fare. At most hotels, you could also request hot cooked eggs to your liking. Aside from one, lunches were included and comprised of either a gourmet picnic-style lunch (complete with fresh local pastry) or a three course meal at a local restaurant. The menus were semi-fixed, meaning you had two or three pre-arranged items to choose from for each course. And the choices we had were excellent. Dinners were often a two hour affair! Each evening, we met for, or were transported to dinner and seated either as one large group or at tables of six to eight guests. I enjoyed this, as it allowed for terrific table conversations with the guests that we were riding with. Wine or alcohol was not included with most meals but was always available to purchase. And personally, I felt that wine prices were very reasonable. However, a few evenings Backroads did surprise us with celebratory champagne starters. Nice touch. Similar to lunches, we given two to three choices for each course and the selection was terrific. And as an added bonus, on the night we ate at a Michelin rated restaurant, the chef added several additional small items to our dining experience. I was stuffed.
The chateaus where we stayed were beautiful! Backroads did an excellent job at selecting unique places with visual stunning architecture. Each room was slightly different and we were advised that guest room selection was random. We stayed at three different chateaus and although our second room was the largest, the other two nights were spent in equally beautiful, and very comfortable rooms. One note about Loire Valley chateaus: IF there is air conditioning at all, its usually in the common areas and restaurant. Because of the age of the buildings, not all individual rooms may be retro fit.
Our trip was for adult couples and singles and had eleven guests. Backroads also offers trips designed for families, with activities like fencing and chocolate-making for the kiddos. I liked this size group as it was easy to talk to people, without being too overwhelming. The ages of the guests on our trip varied from 25 – 66 years old, with the majority of the group in their 40’s or 50’s. Every one who was on our trip was really nice. Conversations were interesting, we shared many laughs and it felt as if we were all part of the same global 'tribe': people who love to travel, like to stay active and enjoy good food and a few luxuries along the way.
Another outstanding feature of Backroads is the quality of their staff. Of course, to be in a guide in any tour company, I’d think you would need to have some personality, a thick skin, and a service-oriented attitude. But the team on our trip had obviously been rigorously vetted and included of a lead veteran who had been with Backroads for more than seven years, a fairly new co-leader and an energetic van support guide. All were bilingual, extremely knowledgeable about the area and continually smiling! What stood out for me was that all three of them shared duties, had interchangeable skillsets, and worked as an efficient, collaborative team. All of them were emotionally mature, physically fit, extremely smart and showed genuine interest in each guest. And to add to those admirable qualities, I never felt like anything I asked for was a problem for them to accommodate. Here is an example. I had brought my own cycling shoes and pedals for this trip. During one of the rides, I had the odd experience of losing a screw from one of my shoe clips, leaving it basically impossible to safely get into and out of my pedals. Since I was in the middle of the route, I had to complete that days ride pedaling with one clip-in cycling shoe and one non-clip sport sandal. I was prepared to pedal the remaining days of the tour in my running shoes but the guides barely flinched. “We’ll figure it out!”, was the quick, enthusiastic response. The nearest sporting good or cycling shop was more than fifty miles away. However, the next morning, 'lo and behold', my cycling shoe somehow had a new screw in it and was fully operational. The effort (or the donation) was simply shrugged off with a ‘business as usual’ smile.
In almost forty years, Backroads has not lost a step.
Even with their immense growth, they have figured out how to maintain that ‘special sauce’ combination that makes them so unique and remain a definitive frontrunner in the Active Travel community. This Classic Loire Valley trip has been a guest favorite for many years and I can see why. The level of seamless organization that I experienced on this route was the reflection of detailed area knowledge, exemplary service, an excellent route plan topped with professional execution.
Yes, many travelers may consider a Backroads trip a vacation ‘investment’. But when I consider everything that is included for the price of the trip - including the level of the service that I received, and the quality of the overall experience - the value is very evident. It was also such a treat for me to let someone else do the work of planning. As I said, I do love organizing my own trips. But sometimes it’s really nice to let go and allow someone else to do it. It feels a little like self-care. The fact that all I had to do was wake up, show up and ride made an activity-filled week feel like a luxury.
Thanks Backroads. You will be seeing me again.