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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.