Trip Picks : In the Ever-Expanding World of Vigorous Vacations, a Sampler of Some of This Year's Most Promising New Excursions

Dash is a free-lance travel writer based in North Bergen, N.J

Adventure outfitters are no slouches when it comes to innovation--as their mushrooming numbers (more than 5,000 at my last count) would seem to prove. And 1994 promises to be a full year. Slick new catalogues from dozens of companies have been weighing in weekly, with hundreds of domestic and international itineraries ranging from the merely vigorous to Iron Man endurance tests.

Take an easy hike or climb a killer mountain, paddle along gentle ripples or crash through raging rapids. And when it comes to bedding down for the night, snuggle under the covers at a posh inn, or find a relatively soft piece of ground in a wilderness survival hut.

A few things are missing this year in the adventure travel universe. Expeditions for active travelers mirror the changing world, and several once-popular destinations have become out-of-bounds because of internal strife and political upheaval.

Say goodby for now to Rwanda, where the famous mountain gorillas and their dwindling habitat are hostage to fierce civil war, and research and visitor programs have been suspended. Ditto for Egypt, which has had the Nile and pyramids virtually to itself as attacks on Westerners by Muslim fundamentalists continue to keep the country off the tourist map. Peru, meanwhile, remains iffy, despite government progress in neutralizing political terrorism by guerrillas who have frightened away potential pilgrims to Machu Picchu and environs.

But some locales long considered taboo are opening up, and adventure companies are moving in to provide options. Gorilla seekers can visit the big apes in Zaire. Ancient ruins in Belize and nearby Tikal, Guatemala, offer a rich setting for archeology buffs disinclined to venture into the Middle East. Villages in northern Vietnam now welcome trekkers who might formerly have favored Peru.

On tamer fronts, companies are offering new twists on familiar themes. Already cycled California's Napa-Sonoma wine country? How about doing it again on a bicycle built for two? Spent a fortune attending Rio's elaborately choreographed Carnival? Why not experience a more soulful version in Bahia, where the Brazilian pre-Lenten festival was born? Had your fill of trendy European resorts, such as Spain's over-developed Costa del Sol? Head instead to the country's untrammeled north, where a hike amid the peaks and valleys of the stunning Picos de Europa mountains will be infinitely more refreshing than sunburn on a crowded southern beach.

Want more? Kayak around Australia's Great Barrier Reef, or try a women-only (if you are) cross-country ski adventure in Yellowstone National Park or rock-climbing excursion in California's Joshua Tree National Monument.

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I've watched, fascinated, as adventure travel has grown from a handful of companies set up for group trips 15 years ago, to the current thousands of outfitters. And I've taken dozens of adventure trips. The following eight trips are new excursions from some of the most experienced outfitters in the field, all with reputations for delivering full value for your vacation dollar. Many of the itineraries are substitutes for locales no longer available.

Except where indicated, prices listed are per person, double occupancy and do not include air fare. Some meals and hotel nights also may cost extra, so check in advance with the outfitter:

Gorillas of Zaire and Uganda wildlife: Brad Goodhart, who has been leading natural history trips to Africa for 20 years, will guide a maximum of 11 individuals on treks among the gorillas of Zaire's Virunga National Park and Bukima wildlife sanctuary during a 20-day exploratory safari run by Wilderness Travel of Berkeley.

The group also will visit that country's Pygmy community in the Ituri rain forest, and chimpanzee colonies in Tongo. In neighboring Uganda, peaceful after long years of civil strife under former president Idi Amin, the group will tour game parks and waterfalls, and take a launch trip among the hippos of the Kasinga Channel. Accommodations range from camping to basic hotel rooms. Participants should be in good physical condition.

Jungles, reefs and ruins in Belize and Guatemala: Butterfield & Robinson, a Canadian company that specializes in upscale walking and cycling trips at an easy pace, has introduced a hiking, canoeing and snorkeling trip to Belize that includes an excursion over the border into Guatemala to explore the 2,000-year-old ruins of Tikal, the most celebrated Mayan archeological site. Participants spend two nights at the luxe jungle lodge, Chaa Creek Cottages, where they can canoe Chaa Creek, explore the rain forest with a local medicine woman who uses jungle plants for their curative powers, and tour Belize's Mayan ruins at Xunantunich. After driving to Tikal and spending the night at the archeological site in the rustic Jungle Lodge, the group flies to Belize's northwest, spending two days at a private nature reserve known for its bird life. The last three days are spent at Blackbird Caye in the country's Turneffe Islands, for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking around Belize's 195-mile barrier reef, the longest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere.

Trekking in northern Vietnam: A maximum of 15 participants will explore the farming villages and mountain reserves west of Hanoi during two-week treks run by InnerAsia Expeditions, a San Francisco company that emphasizes cultural interaction. Village-to-village hikes (about four to six hours a day) are along rice paddies and up forested hills, with accommodations in traditional bamboo village long houses and tents. Luggage and other heavy gear is carried by porters. While the United States still does not have formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam, private individuals are free to visit, and tourism has been growing steadily since the country opened its doors to Western vacationers in the late 1980s.

Tandem biking across the U.S.: Backroads, which runs bike tours throughout the United States and abroad, has created new five- and six-day tandem-only bike trips. Rent one from Backroads or bring your own. The trips are meant to appeal to couples and others who think they might enjoy pedaling in pairs. Both inn stays and camping trips are available.

Among destinations included in the tandem program are California's wine country, southeastern Vermont, the Oregon coast, Colorado's San Juan Mountains and coastal Maine.

Hiking the mountains of northern Spain: Mountain Travel/Sobek, the country's largest adventure outfitter, has designed a trip to northern Spain that combines treks amid the jagged peaks and narrow canyons of the Picos de Europa mountains, 20 miles from the Atlantic Coast, with hikes through oak and pine forests, and visits to seaside fishing villages. The group also will explore some of the key religious and historical sights in this relatively untouristed region of Spain. Accommodations are in rustic mountain huts and simple country hotels.

Carnival like a native in Bahia: Brazil Nuts, a Connecticut company that is much respected for its music and cultural tours of Brazil, is embarking on its second annual Carnival in Bahia program, which offers participants a chance to experience the annual pre-Lenten extravaganza in its Brazilian birthplace.

Sprawling along the Atlantic coast of the state of Bahia, a two-hour flight from Rio, the city of Salvador was Brazil's original colonial capital. It was also the point of entry for 3.5 million slaves, mostly from Angola and West Africa, between the 16th and 19th centuries. They labored in the sugar plantations and mines of the emerging colony, and today their descendants still occupy the town of narrow cobbled streets, whitewashed houses with red tile roofs and stunning seaside stretches.

Carnival here is in the streets, where groups of celebrators, called blocos , dance and sing behind bands playing atop giant flatbed trucks. This people's party is a far cry from the expensive, restrictive celebrations in Rio's Sambadrome and private clubs. Participants in Brazil Nuts' "Carnival Like a Native" tour get to march with one of Salvador's blocos, and are given costumes for the occasion. While this trip is not designed as an escorted group tour, the company does provide a representative at each hotel to assist participants with arrangements and handle any problems.

Diving and kayaking Australia's Great Barrier Reef: REI, a Washington cooperative that is a major manufacturer and distributor of outdoor gear, several years ago began offering rugged adventure trips. The company's excursion to northeastern Australia's Great Barrier Reef includes diving, snorkeling and kayaking around the world's largest barrier reef, using a 65-foot motor/sailing ketch as a base. The group also will explore the inland Eungella rain forest. Scuba novices can take an introductory dive course at an extra price.

Women-only, skiing Yellowstone or rock climbing in California: Woodswomen, a Minnesota company created to help women gain self-confidence and practical wilderness skills, runs outdoor adventures year-round, mainly in the West and Midwest. Among upcoming trips are a cross-country ski excursion to Yellowstone National Park, which is overrun with tourists come summer, but blissfully peaceful in winter, and a rock-climbing program amid the desert landscape of California's Joshua Tree National Monument. (The trip is geared to novice and intermediate rock climbers.) The emphasis in all Woodswomen trips is on self-improvement and teamwork, with guides specifically trained to help women conquer fears about traveling alone and coping with nature.

GUIDEBOOK

For the Adventurous

Backroads: telephone (800) 462-2848. Five-day tandem bike trips, with camping or inn stays, depart as follows: California Wine Country Inn, May 1, June 5 (price: $1,250); California Wine Country Camping, May 8 and 22 ($650); Colorado Inn, July 31 ($1,155); Maine Inn, Aug. 14 ($1,100); Southeastern Vermont Inn, Aug. 21 and 28 ($1,100). A six-day Oregon Coast Camping trip departs July 10 ($650); six-day Oregon Coast Inn, July 17 ($1,200). Tandem bike rental is $250 per trip.

Brazil Nuts: tel. (800) 553-9959. "Carnival Like a Native" program in Bahia runs Feb. 11-16. Price ranges about $1,500-$2,000, depending on departure city and hotel in Salvador. Depending on the routing, the fare may allow stopovers in other Brazilian cities. Brazil Nuts runs other Bahia programs year-round.

Butterfield & Robinson: tel. (800) 678-1147. Nine-day trips depart Dec. 23, 1994, and Jan. 1, 12 and 22, 1995. Price is expected to be $2,700 but could rise as plans are completed.

InnerAsia Expeditions: tel. (800) 777-8183. Two-week treks in northern Vietnam depart Jan. 22 and Nov. 5. Price from $2,290.

Mountain Travel/Sobek: tel. (800) 227-2384. Thirteen-day "Hiking Hidden Spain" trips depart June 6, July 4, Aug. 15, Sept. 12 and Oct. 3. Price: $1,775.

REI Adventures: tel. (800) 622-2236. Thirteen-day Australia Tropical Reef and Rainforest trips depart May 15, Aug. 28 and Oct. 9. Price: $1,500-$1,600, depending on number of participants.

Wilderness Travel: tel. (800) 368-2794. Twenty-day "Pearl of Africa" expedition to Zaire and Uganda departs Feb. 4, July 8 and 29. Price: $3,995-$4,595, depending on number of participants, plus park and gorilla permits of $440. Although the company has scouted the location, this is a new trip, and Wilderness Travel warns that participants should be prepared for potential itinerary changes and other logistical quirks.

Woodswomen: tel. (800) 279-0555. Cross-country ski trip to Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., runs March 5-11 and costs $1,000; rock-climbing expedition to California's Joshua Tree National Monument runs April 2-9 and costs $700.

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