Two wheels means twice the thrill – and best of all, none of these cycling trips are graded tougher than ‘moderate’, so you won’t be left saddle sore…
Best for... veering among vineyards
Booze and bikes might seem unlikely bedfellows. But consider this: vineyards tend to be planted in attractive, undulating landscapes, connected by country trails and quiet roads. Little wonder (responsible) pedalling between wineries is so intoxicating. For a memorable route, South Africa’s Western Cape wins the bouquet. It was French Huguenot refugees, who settled in and around the area late in the 17th century, that kickstarted the region’s viniculture.
Today, local outfits offer day tours riding between cellar doors of the holy trinity of wine towns – Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. For a longer escape, combine as part of a ten-day or two-week loop also taking in the endless skies of the Great Karoo, whale-breached waters and exhilarating coastal pedalling around Hermanus, Africa’s southernmost point at Cape Agulhas and the penguins of Cape Town’s Boulders Beach.
Need to know: Grape harvest festivals abound in February and early March, but to combine a cycling tour with whale sightings at Hermanus, go between September and November.
Also try: New Zealand’s Marlborough region – the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park, the Queen Charlotte Track and Kaikoura’s dolphin swims and whale-watching.
Best for... a pedalling pilgrimage
Arguably the world’s most famed pilgrimage route is not just one path but many – a web of trails, most of them accessible on foot or by bike, converging at the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela. Though the ostensible objective is to pay homage to the remains of titular apostle St James, reputedly resting in Santiago’s Romanesque-Gothic cathedral, every pilgrim’s reasons are different – and enjoying a terrific ride is as good an excuse as any.
The best-known route, the Camino Francés (‘French Way’), meanders nearly 800km from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port across the Pyrenees and through the regions of Navarre, the Basque Country, Castile-León and Galicia. The full shebang takes about seven weeks on foot, but the last 300km or so offers a weeklong treat on two wheels, from the spectacular churches and plazas of León, through the chestnut forests around Sarria, to Galicia’s lush landscapes and fabulous cuisine (don’t miss the local octopus dish – polbo a feira).
Need to know: Some albergues (pilgrims’ hostels) give priority to peregrinos (walkers) over bicigrinos (cyclists). The Confraternity of St James produces a cycle-specific guide.
Also try: The equally bike-friendly Camino Portugués – Santiago is 616km (two weeks) from Lisbon, or just 240km (one week) from Porto.
Best for... tackling a country from top to bottom
The bicycle is inextricably woven into the Vietnamese psyche. Though, today, mopeds and cars outmuscle bikes in the city centres, elsewhere the two-wheeler reigns supreme – there’s no image more evocative of this long, skinny South-East Asian favourite than a local cyclist pedalling serenely alongside neat rice paddies, conical hat in place of helmet.
So while it’s a tall order to tackle the entire S-shaped sweep between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi – 1,700km, more or less – it’s also eminently possible (and hugely rewarding) to tack together the best sections for a fortnight’s fabulous cycling: to the war-era Cu Chi Tunnels; up into the central highlands around the appealing hill station of Dalat; along the coast around Nha Trang and the historic trading town of Hoi An; through hill-tribe villages and the ancient imperial capital Hue; and of course into the old historic quarter of Hanoi. Fuel up with crisp banh mi (baguettes), strong coffee and steaming bowls of pho (noodle soup) en route.
Need to know: Throw in a pedal over the border around the remarkable ruins of Angkor (Cambodia) and through the Mekong Delta for a rounded Indochina experience.
Also try: Sri Lanka – since the end of hostilities, it’s possible to pedal from Jaffna in the north to the island’s southernmost point, Dondra Head.
Best for... authentic rural life
Sure, you’ve got a ticklist of essential sights and experiences on the Caribbean’s largest island: the colonial gems of old Havana and Trinidad, the revolutionary sites at Santiago and Santa Clara (home of ‘Che’ Guevara’s mausoleum), Caribbean beaches, soaking in the sounds of a traditional bar like the Casa de la Trova venues in Trinidad and Santiago.
But you’ll discover the real joy of Cuba by taking to the saddle to trundle along quiet country roads and experience local life first-hand – rolling cigars with the tobacco farmers around Viñales, scooting among sugar-cane plantations and scattered villages in the east, chatting and eating with your host family at a casa particular (homestay). In the main, highways – though much patched-up and potholed – carry little motor traffic: those gleaming ’50s vintage Cadillacs and Chevies are largely confined to the cities, leaving the rest of the road network ruled by two-wheelers and horse carts.
Need to know: Cuba’s rice-heavy cuisine is good for carb-loading cyclists, but legendarily monotonous – bring snacks to leaven the culinary tedium. UK visitors require a tourist card (obtained in advance). Hurricane season is usually June to November.
Also try: Kerala, southern India – glorious coastal cycling along backwaters, beaches and peaceful villages.
Best for... miraculous wildlife and landscapes
The world’s fourth-largest island – two-and-a-half times the size of Britain and nearly 1,600km from north to south – has a mountainous spine, rough roads, heat and rain aplenty. Yet, despite that resumé, Madagascar is a fine destination for cycling. A two-week, 550km ride broadly following the main RN7 road south from capital Antananarivo traverses a host of the Red Island’s diverse habitats – wet and dry forests, rocky canyons and Indian Ocean shores – as well as visiting rural villages for a taste of local life.
Of course, you’re mostly here for the wildlife. On visits to the cloud forest of Ranomafana NP and sandstone cliffs and canyons of Isalo NP you might spot a menagerie of unique creatures: more than 100 species and subspecies of lemur, ranging from bat-eared aye-aye, dancing sifakas and crooning indri to minuscule Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur – plus chameleons, giraffe-necked weevils and the elusive, cat-like fossa.
Need to know: Though the climate varies across the island, the wettest months are December to March. Take anti-malarials and cover up to stymie mozzies.
Also try: Tanzania – although cycling isn’t permitted in national parks, animals don’t respect boundaries, so expect lots of wild encounters while out on the roads.
Best for... dune roaming
Scan a satellite image of Namibia’s south-west coast and you’ll see a vast, empty expanse, wrinkled and ochre-hued – like gazing at the skin of an elephant after a mudbath. That’s the Namib Desert. Reputedly the world’s oldest sand sea, dating back some 43 million years, it’s also among the biggest – Namib-Naukluft National Park spans nearly 50,000 sq km (aptly, Namib means ‘vast place’ in the Nama language).
Certainly, you’ll struggle to find dunes more impressive than those west of Sesriem, and pedalling among these orange Everests provides a unique perspective on this ancient, arid land. As well as the chance to climb famed Dune 45 and spot species such as gemsbok, kudu, mountain zebra and desert-adapted tok-tokkie beetles, a two-week scoot around Namibia includes rides around the Spitzkoppe – the distinctive granite outcrop known as the ‘Matterhorn of Africa’ – and in an area of game-rich Etosha National Park.
Need to know: Sunscreen, shades and ample water supplies are essential, as is a buff to cover your mouth and nose – Namibia’s roads are astonishingly dusty.
Also try: Morocco – approach the Sahara via the kasbahs and lush palm groves of the Draa Valley and dip into the dunes around M’Hamid or Zagora.
Best for... majestic palaces
Given the chaos that reigns on many Indian highways, the country’s largest state may seem a surprising choice for a cycling trip, but self-propelled exploration along its backroads is actually an eminently sensible and rewarding option, avoiding unreliable and often hectic public transport. And coasting to a halt alongside one of this regal region’s fairy tale palaces or forts is more memorable on a bike than a bus.
A two-week ride covering between 350km and 550km will visit the Lake Palace and City Palace at Udaipur; mighty Kumbhalgarh Fort, an eyrie in the Aravalli hills ringed by 36km of walls; the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur, guarded by the looming Amber Fort; the Mughal ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri; and one or more wildlife reserves – typically tiger-trod Ranthambore or Sariska, or the birdwatching haven of Keoladeo NP, near Bharatpur. Delhi and the Taj Mahal top and tail most itineraries in and around the region.
Need to know: Time your visit for November to absorb the sights and sounds of Diwali (Festival of Lights, celebrated 7 November 2018) or the Pushkar Camel Fair (15–23 November 2018).
Also try: Loire Valley – the waymarked 800km Loire à Vélo bike trail visits such enchanting palaces as the Château d’Ussé, reputedly inspiration for Sleeping Beauty.
Best for... Alpine ambling
3,000m-plus peaks glisten in the frigid Alpine summer sunshine. Glaciers creak majestically on mountainsides. The air is crisp and clean. The cycling is… well, easy. The secret? The Inn Cycle Path, which follows the meanders of the River Inn for 517km from its source at Lake Lunghin (above St Moritz) east through Tyrol, Bavaria and Upper Austria to its confluence with the Danube at Passau. Riders get the best of the Alpine scenery, but with minimal ascent; and with bike-friendly accommodation studding the smooth, well-laid trail, it’s easy to plan your own trip, although several tour operators offer self-guided or group trips that include luggage transfers and stays.
The 230km stretch from St Moritz to Innsbruck boasts the pick of the peaks, visiting the historic villages of the Engadin Valley, the wild wonders of Swiss National Park, dramatic gorges, medieval castles and monasteries, and the Golden Roof in Innsbruck, Tyrol’s perky capital.
Need to know: Pep up your cycling with a visit to one (or more) of the Tyrol’s 41 schnapps distilleries.
Also try: Peru – you’ll be left breathless by the Andean scenery, Inca sites and altitude (Cusco sits at 3,400m above sea level).
Best for... tootling between temples
To paraphrase Bill Shankly: for the ancient Maya of Central America, sport wasn’t just a matter of life and death, it was much more serious than that. Not cycling, though: the ball game they were obsessed with was tlachtli, and the losers of a match (or possibly the victors – no one knows for sure) would be sacrificed to the gods in a bloody ritual. The vast Maya ball courts are among the highlights of a bike tour of the Yucatán Peninsula, along with that civilisation’s monumental temples – most famously, Chichén Itzá’s great pyramid El Castillo, believed to have been dedicated to the plumed serpent-god Kukulcán.
The Yucatán is a dream for cyclists: relatively flat, with quiet backroads and the waters of cenotes or the turquoise Caribbean in which to cool off at the end of a day’s pedalling. As well as Chichén Itzá, a ten-day or two-week circuit might visit the spectacularly sited clifftop ruins at Tulum and the 42m-tall Nohoch Mul pyramid at Coba, Mexico’s loftiest.
Need to know: For the most comfortable conditions, visit in dry season (November–April) when temperatures and humidity are lowest.
Also try: Honshu, Japan – from rural Shirakawa and the Noto Peninsula to Kyoto’s magnificent Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion).
Best for... three countries, two wheels, one great adventure
So you want to max your country tally? Forget the ‘If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium’ coach-tour philosophy: travelling by bike immerses you in the minutiae of each land. Compact Costa Rica makes the ideal filling in a Central American sandwich, its bijou dimensions belying the diversity of landscapes, wildlife and activities crammed into such a gorgeous, green country.
A two-week cycle between Nicaragua’s colonial treasure-trove of Granada and the engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal samples the best of this buffet of experiences: gaze into the glowing crater of Masaya volcano and scoot around Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua; look out for toucans and sloths in treetops, and be mugged by cheeky coatis emerging from the roadside rainforests of Costa Rica; taste the tropical joys of both Caribbean and Pacific Coasts of skinny Panama; and pedal alongside giant Panamax container ships as they chug through the monumental canal.
Need to know: If you take your own bike, bring full documentation – customs formalities are rigorous at the borders of Costa Rica and Panama.
Also try: Baltic states – admire medieval cities, traditional villages and sweeping dunes in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Best for… Riding the rails
Whoever the genius was who dreamed up the rail trail, give ’em a medal. The idea? Take a disused train track, remove the sleepers and rails, replace with a surfaced trail, and bingo: a sweeping, largely flat, cross-country route. The ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ has a fair few such paths, and the jaw-droppingly comprehensive Nga Haerenga (New Zealand Cycle Trail, actually a compendium of its finest) features a number of rail routes among its ‘Great Rides’.
The 160km Hauraki Rail Trail on the Coromandel Peninsula is an easy introduction to cycling the other Down Under, yet takes in the drama of Karangahake Gorge – famed for its 19th-century gold-rush history –bird-bustling wetlands and shores, verdant farmland and vineyards, soothing mineral spas and views of Mount Te Aroha, the ‘mountain of love’. A 37km extension south to Matamata (Lord of the Rings’ Hobbiton) is currently also in development.
Also try: Minuteman Bikeway, USA – ride a revolutionary route in the hoofprints of Paul Revere between Boston and Lexington, site of the first battle of the American War of Independence.
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