The Active Traveller

Exotic spots to hike, cycle, sail or surf: your guide to active getaways

Richard Holmes outlines some adrenaline-fuelled escapes that will set your pulse racing and boost your fitness too

20 May 2018 - 00:00
By Richard Holmes
Hikers on a narrow trail in the Bucegi mountains, Romania. The Eastern European country is becoming more popular with adventurous South Africans.
Image: 123RF/janoka82 Hikers on a narrow trail in the Bucegi mountains, Romania. The Eastern European country is becoming more popular with adventurous South Africans.

Let's be clear. There is nothing wrong with a holiday that involves little more than sun loungers and cocktails by the pool.

If your idea of exercise on holiday is rolling over to ensure an even tan, then good on you.

But for some, a good vacation needs a little adventure - a taste of the great outdoors, maybe; a thrill or two to get the adrenaline pumping - even if it's only to justify the sundowners at the end of the day.

From throwing off the bowlines to pedalling across Europe, here are four favourite ways to see the world and stay fit at the same time.


Not sure how active you want to be? Start simple, with a walking holiday. Chances are you already own a pair of shoes, and to begin with you'll need little more.

While a week spent tramping round the sights of San Francisco or the urban parks of Tokyo is a great start, walking holidays are ideal for soaking up a little countryside scenery.

Europe is particularly geared up for holidays by Shanks' pony, with well-marked trails and plentiful accommodation options in charming villages en route. But ah, which route to take? It's often hard to know where to start. And will there be room at the inn when you get there?

The solution? Book with a tour operator that has scouted the route, reserves your accommodation in advance, and sends you off on a well-planned adventure.

"The Amalfi Coast [in Italy] is a perennial favourite among our South African clients," says Simon Scutt, founder of UK-based tour operator On Foot Holidays, which offers self-guided walking holidays on 32 trails in 13 European countries.

The writer walks the   coastal trail to Duncansby Head in northern Scotland.
Image: Richard Holmes The writer walks the coastal trail to Duncansby Head in northern Scotland.

South Africans are also looking to less touristy corners of Europe, says Scutt, with the likes of Lake Maggiore (in Switzerland and Italy); Liguria, Italy; Slovenia; and the Rhine moving up the wish list.

"The Dordogne, Basque Pyrenees and Romania are [also] on the stocks for this year and next," he adds.

Though most self-guided walking holidays are aimed at those with strong legs and an eye for a map, there are routes to suit all levels of fitness, and anyone with an adventurous streak should manage just fine.

"We have done all the hard work in making sure the route is good, the accommodation of the right sort, and that the logistics work," notes Scutt, who adds that all your luggage is transported between overnight stops, and local support teams are on hand for emergencies.

And if you can't stretch the budget to those visas and long-haul flights?

Escorted and portaged "slack-packing" trails are hugely popular along South Africa's coastline, with the likes of the Oystercatcher Trail and Wild Coast Walk tracing our southern and eastern shores. Inland, look out for the Cederberg Heritage Routes in the Western Cape, and the excellent Olifants Trail in the bushveld surrounding the Letaba Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park.


"Believe me, my young friend," opines Rat to Mole in Kenneth Grahame's classic, Wind in the Willows, "There is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."

South Africans seem inclined to agree, with boating holidays abroad growing in popularity. While barging breaks on the canals of Europe hold plenty of charm, travellers are also setting their sights on the high seas.

As leading charter operator Sunsail reports double-digit growth in the local market, "bareboat" and fully crewed sailing holidays are proving immensely popular with adventurous holidaymakers.

Any coastline with inhabited islands is perfect to explore on a yacht

With plenty of idyllic islands and quaint harbours to discover, the Seychelles, Croatia and Greece are a few of the most popular destinations.

However, "Thailand, out of Phuket, is also becoming a very popular sailing destination," adds Liesl Nel, a sales and marketing manager for the Sunsail, Le Boat and The Moorings brands.

"Any coastline with inhabited islands is perfect to explore on a yacht. You have the opportunity to get very close to the local people and traditional way of living, and you are, of course, out of the very crowded and touristy places."

It's a key selling point, for unlike larger cruise ships, chartered yachts can tie up in the tiniest seaside villages, and moor in quiet coves a world away from the tourist crowds.

What will surprise most travellers is that you don't have to be a salty sea dog to enjoy a sailing holiday. A day skipper's certification is required if you want to "bareboat charter" - take the boat and sail off by yourself for a week or two - but charters including a qualified skipper are also readily available.

"We also have fully crewed options, where you have a captain and a chef on board," adds Nel. "If you love the outdoors and the water, this is the perfect way to holiday. Sailing is also an environmentally friendly way of travelling."

For a more adventurous holiday afloat, consider a kayak safari through the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique.

After a day relaxing at the historic Ibo Island Lodge, on these multi-day trips you'll spend a few hours each day paddling between the islands, while a dhow and crew sail ahead to set up camp for the night. Rise at dawn, and repeat. See


Judging by the abundance of Mamils (middle-aged men in lycra) who invade suburban coffee shops on weekend mornings, cycling has gone mainstream. So it's little wonder that cycling holidays are one of the more popular ways to spend a holiday abroad.

While the sturdy of lung and leg could tackle the French Alps or Spanish Pyrenees on guided rides, it's just as easy to find routes that offer a lazy week at the pedal.

Cycling outside Châteaubourg, France, on the banks of the Rhône River.
Image: Richard Holmes Cycling outside Châteaubourg, France, on the banks of the Rhône River.

The banks of Europe's iconic rivers offer some of the continent's finest cycle touring, with a gentle gradients offering easy riding through gorgeous countryside and the great cities of the continent. A circular loop in and around southern Germany could take in Regensburg and the Danube, or discover northern Italy by following the Mincio River valley via Lake Garda.

Perhaps the most ambitious of all is the ViaRhôna, which is nearing completion. Sticking mostly to quiet roads and greenways, it traces a remarkable 815km route along the banks of the Rhône River from the shores of Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean coastline.

It's also possible to create a cycling holiday that isn't only about the bike: in Croatia, cycling and sailing offer a perfect combo. Sail overnight from one island to the next, then either spend a day in the saddle or sun yourself on Dalmatia's renowned beaches. Itineraries calling at Hvar will allow the young (at heart) to soak up the nightlife of this on-trend party town.


While South Africa has its fair share of superlative surf breaks, it's a rare surfer who doesn't dream of tropical islands, deserted point-breaks and turquoise water.

The demand for surfing holidays "is growing rapidly" says Greg Bertish, who started True Blue Surf & Island Travel in 1998, and now consults on bespoke surfing holidays.

"Many more moms and dads and their kids are now surfing, and this means we are seeing a huge growth in family-focused tropical surf and watersports trips."

Surfer. File photo.
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock Surfer. File photo.

With its budget-friendly mix of culture, cuisine and coastline, Sri Lanka is a hot destination for local surf travellers right now, says Bertish: "The lesser-known islands, beaches, bays and lodges away from the tourist traps are a big attraction for the South African surfer and beach lover."

Closer to home, southern Mozambique and Madagascar are perennially popular, while the Maldives tops the list for a luxury surf break.

Keen surfers have long spoken of Indonesia in hushed tones, and beyond the ever-popular Mentawai islands and busy breaks of Bali, "there are some unique and special places and islands that are still fairly unknown", adds Bertish.

"The Channel Islands are amazing, affordable, easy to get to and offer amazing beaches and surf."