A Fresh Take on Travel

A Fresh Take on Travel

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Europe for a feature that didn’t pan out. There were some unusual factors in play, nothing nefarious, but I wasn’t in a position to write about the trip, and that was a bummer. There were two off-the-script days that I did write about, however. The first was about the Transfagarasan Highway—called by the marvelous buffoons at Top Gear the finest driving road in the world, and the second was the unexpected party into which I was thrust when I pulled over to take a photo of an old Ural motorcycle with sidecar. That piece—My Day With Ilya—later earned silver from the Society of American Travel Writers (I lost to Andrew McCarthy—yes that Andrew McCarthy).

The trip underpinning these experiences was a cruise—yes, a cruise! I should back up a sec. I’m one of those people who sees one of those 85-story cruise ships with endless buffets and cheery bursars playing name games and I break out in a rash. It’s a variety of vacation so sterile, so prepackaged, so Cheez Whiz that I’ve often said things that were less than charitable.

So yeah, I went on a cruise.

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There’s a catch, right? Yes, there’s always a catch. It was a cycling cruise. I’m going to give you a second to let that sink in just for the sheer implausibility of what I just wrote.

I got on a cruise ship in Budapest, Hungary, and then got off in the Ukraine, near the Black Sea. I wasn’t on the cruise ship the whole time, of course. We got off the ship each day and went for rides. By the end of the trip, I was convinced that I’d just encountered the coolest idea in bike travel to come along since tour providers started taking riders over the great climbs of the Alps. Truly.

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The outfitter has been around for ages but was only recently spun off from its parent, a tandem manufacturer. Santana Adventures was formerly just a piece of the Santana Cycles (and they’ve made plenty of singles, but they are best-known for their tandems). It organized the tandem rallies that the company would put on. Back in the ’90s, they would do two or three domestic get togethers, usually over a long weekend, and then do one European trip each year. Somewhere along the line, owner and serial entrepreneur Bill McCready hit upon the idea of putting everyone on a cruise ship to minimize logistics.

Santana Adventures now runs the largest operation providing cruises to cyclists in the world. The idea is hot enough that Backroads offers them, and a notably higher price, and mostly they’ve copied McCready’s itineraries. You know what they say about imitation and flattery, right?

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The basic template is this: You get picked up from the airport and are taken to the port/dock. You assemble your bike, which is then walked to the upper deck of the ship to wait your first ride. With tandems, this is often a two-person operation. And on a cruise ship with 100 staterooms, that’s a bunch of bikes.

In the morning, you head to the dining room for breakfast. Following that everyone offloads their bikes and then heads out for the day’s ride, or the first half, depending. At lunch time, you meet the ship further along your route and hop back on for your meal. Those who want to ride more head back out and pedal to the afternoon rendezvous point. The moment everyone is on board with their bikes, the captain pulls out the dock and goes steaming for the next morning’s ride start. So it goes for the next week.

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On my trip we sailed and rode through seven countries: Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania and Ukraine. With our first dinner, we did a cruise up and down the Danube River viewing the city of Budapest lit up at night. We also attended a concert featuring traditional folk music; it was like listening to Bartok’s grandfather. Every day McCready had another cool stop planned that showed off the region’s culture or history. The cruise format allowed us several conveniences that simply wouldn’t have been the case had we been pedaling from hotel to hotel. The first is that we covered far more territory than we would have under our own steam. There’s no way I could pedal from Budapest to the Black Sea in a week, even with a Vivax and a team van to draft off.

The second genius aspect of this operation is that by staying in a single stateroom, you never have to pack up. There’s no stuffing your suitcase in a hurry in order to roll out on time. Then there’s the fact that I can muddle my way through a great many situations in France, Germany and Italy with only rudimentary language skills. In the Balkan States? OMG. There were times when not only could I not tell what language they were speaking (and I studied Russian), but I was getting the different currencies confused. Little old ladies at roadside markets would simply pluck the correct cash from my hand.

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Of course, some people don’t really want to interact much with people or their cuisine. That’s yet another stroke of genius of these cruises. They serve all of your meals on the ship. I had to deliberately skip lunch a few times just so that I could gnosh on the road.

Renting a car and booking hotels in Western Europe isn’t a big deal for me. I enjoy that as a kind of adventure. Eastern Europe? Nope. I’m clueless. This was a great way to see stuff I’d never have had the guts to see on my own, and see far more than I could have by nearly any other method. How often is travel adventurous, convenient and expansive?

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Up until now, Santana Adventures has really been aimed at tandem enthusiasts. They weren’t averse to people showing up with single bikes, but their raison d’etre was providing travel to folks who moved with Noah’s edict—two by two. But with this season, they will begin providing trips aimed specifically at roadies like us.

I’m excited about this. So excited, I plan to do one of his trips this year—a cruise around Corsica. And if all goes well, I’ll even take Mrs. RKP with me.

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I like and respect Bill. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with him and think the format he has hit upon is remarkable. And with trips like the one down the Danube, or his upcoming cruise of the Mekong River (where I expect attendees will enjoy visits to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar), his program runs counter to the traditional avid cyclist tour that rides roads made famous by bike races. In that, he’s doing for us what cycling did for me decades ago: He’s making the world bigger.

Every day, I get requests to reprint press releases. I sidestep them like I would a toddler headed for my junk. This is one announcement (Bill is so successful that he doesn’t devote much energy to marketing—I didn’t even get a press release) that I’m more than happy to pass on.

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So here’s the rare call to action. Check out Santana Adventures. If you drop by and sign up for his newsletter you get access to the full site and can read about his coming itineraries, which often sell out in less than a week.  Seriously, he can sell 200 spots faster than you can get through a marathon of Archer, the trips are that good. Even if you never take one of his trips, I suspect his itineraries will get you thinking about bike trips and vacations differently. It has for me.

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19 comments

  1. Andrew

    Man, that sounds so awesome. I LOVE the countries you went through- what a great idea! The other great part of that, just thinking about this, is that rivers are usually at the bottom of big hills. So every day you get to finish with a great downhill!

  2. Nik

    Technically, it’s just over 1000km from Budapest to the Black Sea, so you could easily do it by bike in a week. But I’m guessing the cruise route was longer.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Well, yes, in theory, if you rode the banks of the Danube, you could manage it, but a 600-mile week would break all but the fittest racers I know. However, you wouldn’t have had any of the loops into the hills and the sightseeing tours, or the fun descents back to the port. Bill is pretty keen to leave out the uninteresting roads so the riding you do has been carefully vetted.

    2. Nik

      In 2013, I rode the Rhine river bike trail from the source of the Rhine in Switzerland near Goeschenen to Cologne, a bit over 1000 km in 8 days. That was on a $500 touring bike, and I’m not much of a racer. You just have to start riding in the morning and don’t stop until dinner. Most people would want to do more sightseeing than I did. My seat was too high for the first 3 days, so I got a saddle sore and rode most of the 4th day standing up. Unfortunately, it rained a lot.

  3. Shawn

    Thanks!! Definitely just entered my bucket list. How would it be for non-cycling partners? Plenty to explore on foot and time to do it?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Bill has really upped the offerings for non-cycling spouses. There’s a coach that will allow non-riders to rendezvous with riding partners at scenic detours and tours. I’m told it also offers some shopping excursions at times. One needn’t be a dedicated cyclist to have a good time.

  4. Shirley Crow

    We went on a Santana Adventure cycling trip in September 2018 and we were very disappointed. It was the most disorganized trip I have ever been on. There was virtually no planning in advance. There were many things on the itinerary that never happened or were grossly exaggerated. Many people on the trip were very upset and would never go on another Santana Adventure again.

    Read the fine print. They do not provide any support during your cycling day. You need to provide your own food and water; if you have a flat, then you need to have the tools to fix it; if you get tired, then you need to find a ride, etc. With the cost of their trips being the same as other cycling companies that all provide support, we were very disappointed.

    I could go on and on but you get the picture.

    1. Suzy

      Your review gives me grave concern. I have done 4 bike trips with VBT and they are always great about providing support, great rental bikes and lots of interesting extra nonbiking experiences like a castle tour or a cooking class. Santana is pricey, now I am concerned. Where can I read more reviews? Was this your first bike tour? What is your level of traveling and cycling skill?


    2. Author
      Padraig

      Suzy, here’s the thing to know about Santana: most of their trips sell out in 72 hours or less. The vast majority of their clientele returns. I’ve done two of their trips and both were exceedingly well run.

  5. Shirley Crow

    I had a hard time finding any reviews about Santana before our trip. We have been on other bike tours with Backroads, Butterfield and Robinson, and Freewheeling. All of these other companies have a van that follows you and has an ice chest of drinks, snacks, helps you with bike repair, etc. Santana does not have a van following you. Nor does Santana have anyone cycling with you. When you ride away from the hotel or boat in the morning, you are on your own with Santana. Santana gives you GPS instructions they get off the internet the night before you ride but these instructions had errors. Santana does not ride the ride in advance of the trip. Naturally, some of the paths were washed out or had construction, etc that made them unusable. We have been cycling and taking cycling trips for 25 years. My husband cycles 200 miles a week. Thank goodness my husband was able to fix our flats and other bike repairs!

    Speaking of being “on your own”, I had a fall and broke my collarbones. Bill McCready called for one of his vans to come take me to the hospital. He told his van driver to take me to the hospital parking lot and drop us off. Bill looked at me and said “at that point your will be on your own”. Bill never called or checked on me. Two days later I saw home at breakfast and he briefly asked if I was ok. Another couple had a bad fall and had the exact same experience with Bill.

  6. Shirley Crow

    Padraig, It is true that their trips sell out fast. There were many guests on our trip that didn’t mind the lack of support during the rides. Most of these people had never been on any other cycling tour company trips. When I told them that other companies follow the cyclists with ice chests of drinks and snacks, and will fix your bike, they were surprised that other companies offered that. Also, many of the guests are on tandems and enjoy riding with other tandems and are willing to give up the ride support in order to ride with other tandems.
    Shirley


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Shirley, you’ve had your say. A Santana trip is a particular thing. They don’t hid who they are or how they do things. It sounds like they weren’t a fit for you. I’ve traveled with a great many tour companies and some do a better job of living up to their promises than others. I’ve found Bill’s communication to be clear and honest, and both trips I did went off without a hitch. I’ve traveled with other companies that offer even less support; there is no one standard for how a tour company *should* support their clients, though clearly you have your expectations. With that said, I’m not going to allow you to turn this into an opportunity to crusade against them. Again, you’ve had your say. You might be better served by Butterfield and Robinson or Backroads.

  7. Kyle akin

    I couldn’t agree more with the honest review above. Just finished a tour down the Rhine from Strasbourg to Amsterdam. This was our first Santana event. Great concept and wonderful cruise line, but very disappointed with the Santana team. TERRIBLE customer service. They all seem very burned out. A big complaint was the lack of information about what and where the rides were going to be. They intentionally withhold information so that they can make last minute changes. Bill doesn’t ride anymore, so his daily routes were guesses and twice they took us on dead ends. One ride took us down a rocky Jeep double-track that would have been tough on a mountain bike, while we were on road tandems. Only two of us braved it and the other couple tore a sidewall. Brought it to Bills attention and he said “oops, I must have loaded the wrong ride”. There were no Santana guides out there with us to at least help shepherd those who need it or point out points of interest. They have a loyal following of tandem owners who seem to just accept Bills bad attitude, which everyone who worked or volunteered for him seemed to have caught like a bad case of herpes. First day ride was pretty hot and the support van didn’t even have water for those who ran out. Every announcement or exchange with the team was tainted with condescension and passive aggressiveness. And if your table is chatting during his dinner announcements, God help you because you will be publicly shamed. They essentially refuse to answer any questions when information was printed our or will be. The bike-cruise idea is enough to get me to come back if the price is right… but with Santana, you just have to accept the fact that the Santana team handles the logistics, but cant handle personal side of customer service.

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