I’ll admit I was skeptical. A land of mountains, twisty asphalt, endless dirt tracks, cheap lodging, good food and friendly locals just a few hours south of the Texas border?
But I’ve seen this dual-sport promised land and I’m here to report it’s all true. The Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, which begins just south of Monterrey, creates an international motorcycle wonderland that’s easily accessible for anyone living in the Midwest or Eastern United States.
You’ll need a temporary vehicle importation permit (TVIP) to bring your bike this far south into Mexico. Getting one requires a valid registration in your name, your Mexican visa (free if you are staying seven days or less) and a passport. Some riders report also needing a vehicle title, but no one asked to see mine. You also pay a refundable deposit that varies depending the age of your bike; it was $300 for my 2006 Suzuki DR650. Make sure you get insurance, too. Again, nobody asked to see proof of insurance at the border, but if you get in an accident in Mexico you can land in jail if you aren’t covered.
We made quick work of the McAllen/Reynosa border tangle and headed southwest on Federal Highway 40, the equivalent of a state highway in the U.S. South of the border, the posted speed limits are low, typically 60 mph or less, but few pay attention to them. The thing to remember is to stay to the right. People will pass and you are expected to pull as far to the right as you can to let them by. Even on a narrow, two-lane road, pull to the right as far as you safely can. Other drivers will do the same for you.
The fun began with a section of tight, twisty blacktop that turned south from Federal Highway 85 between Ciudad de Allende and Montemorelos. The temperature dropped and the clouds closed in as we wound over the Sierra Madre for the first of many times this trip and down into the pecan-farming town of Rayones. We were taking the “fast” way to Galeana, our base for the next few days, and that meant a 10-mile dirt road south from Rayones that might be a challenge for inexperienced riders on bigger bikes.
Galeana is small city at the base of Cerro El Potosí, which at 12,208 feet is the tallest mountain in the Sierra Madre Oriental range. The town has plenty of restaurants, stores, banks and supplies, and makes a great base for exploring the area. We stayed at the moto-friendly Hotel Magdalena, where a double room was $36 a night with secure parking for the bikes in the back. There are probably cheaper places to stay, but the Magdalena is right on the spotless square, the heartbeat of this vibrant town.
One of our best routes took us back north to Rayones, then on a combination of sinuous asphalt and well-kept dirt roads, loosely following the Río Pilón through mountain towns too small to even have restaurants. Eventually the dirt road turned to steep, rocky, loose two-track that tested the big bikes in our group — a BMW R 1100 GS, Suzuki V-Strom 1000 and Triumph Tiger — to the limit. It all felt about right on my DR650, though.
The real apex of the trip was spending two nights in Real de Catorce, an old silver mining town three hours southwest of Galeana. Real is situated atop a plateau at almost 9,000 feet, and if it looks like a movie set of a forgotten Mexican mountain town, that’s because it is. A good portion of “The Mexican,” the 2001 film starring Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, was shot there.
There are two ways into Real: a steep, rocky, narrow jeep trail from the west, or right through the side of a mountain via the one-lane Ogarrio Tunnel. We chose the latter, and even getting to the tunnel is an adventure: 17 miles on a cobblestone road. The trick, I learned, is to keep your speed up. Ride too slow and the cobblestones take control of where your bike is going. This stretch should probably be avoided in the rain.
Pay a small toll to get through the tunnel and 1.5 miles later you’ll emerge into Real, once one of the largest silver producing towns in the world. When the price of silver collapsed, the town’s economy went with it, and the downsized village is now largely dependent on tourism. Many travelers come to Real for the town’s reputed spiritual energy or to hunt for peyote, the cactus fruit that is sacred to the native Huichol people who originally inhabited this area.
We parked the bikes and toured Real on foot, hiking up to the Pueblo Fantasma, an abandoned mining quarters for the workers who extracted precious metal from these hills. Expect warm, sunny days and cold nights in Real.
Food in Real is basic and cheap. We ate a breakfast of eggs, tortillas and beans for less than $3. Lodging ranges from basic to luxury, but even the most expensive places in town only cost the equivalent of about $70 U.S. per night.
After a week in the Sierra Madre Oriental I realized I had barely begun to experience the area. The mountains stretch south past Mexico City, after all. Further explorations await.
Because of the times we live in, no story about riding in Mexico would be complete without a word about safety. I’ve been to Mexico a handful of times and don’t consider myself an expert on the topic, but I will say this: not once on this trip, nor any other, did I felt threatened in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have found the Mexican people to be warm, inviting and accommodating. Speaking even a few words of Spanish pays dividends.
At just 360 miles, you could probably ride the entire length of Canada’s second-smallest province in a day, including Cape Breton Island on the north end. Having said that, you could also spend a good 3-4 weeks exploring the coastal roads that encompass Nova Scotia. But despite the appeal of the many lightly-traveled roads along the coast, the main allure for me and many motorcyclists all over North America are the legendary roads on Cape Breton Island.
My first stop in Nova Scotia was along the South Shore. From here, the ride was about 190 miles to the Canso Causeway, which joins Cape Breton Island to the mainland. As soon as you are within a couple miles of Port Hastings, the first town you enter once you cross over the causeway, you will immediately notice an increase in the bike-to-car ratio.
Although the Trans Canada Highway runs up the middle of the island and is the more direct route to the Cabot Trail from Port Hastings, you would be doing yourself a disservice by cutting out Trunk 19, also known as the Ceilidh Trail. It is a 66-mile scenic road that rims the Gulf of St. Lawrence, starting at Port Hastings and ending at Margaree Forks, which is a southern point on the Cabot Trail. The paved road passes through quaint Scottish towns offering reasonably priced accommodations that are more accessible than the lodgings on the Cabot Trail.
Up until this point in my trip, I would use my last fuel stop of the day as an opportunity to pull out my phone and assess the availability of the local motels. This strategy will not work on the Cabot Trail, especially if you are planning your trip over a weekend in the summer, because everything seemed to book up really fast. However, there is an abundance of B&Bs in the towns along Trunk 19, a perfect location since it is less than an hour’s ride to the Cabot Trail.
Although you could probably ride the entire trail in 5-6 hours, it took me nearly eight with frequent breaks due to the heatwave conditions in early August. On the advice of the locals, I filled my tank in Chéticamp, a small Acadian village with a main street lined with cafés and restaurants. It is a good place to fill up your tank and grab a bite to eat since both fuel and food start to become scarce after passing this village. Chéticamp was bustling with tourists when I arrived, but this is not a reflection of what your ride will be like on the trail. Because of its vastness, I oftentimes felt as if I had the road to myself, despite the fact that it was a Friday afternoon on a beautiful summer day.
The ride between Petit Étang (which is less than two miles north of Chéticamp) to Ingonish was probably my favorite part of the trail. I enjoyed everything from the spectacular view of the coast north of Petit Étang, to the long sweeping turns around the mountain, to the challenges presented by the switchbacks before descending down the coast to Pleasant Bay. There are many excellent lookout points along the trail, presenting a good opportunity to stretch your legs, snap a few pictures and take in the stunning view of the coast from the mountain.
There is a longstanding debate among the locals over the best way to ride the trail, clockwise or counterclockwise. Although riding counter will put you in the lane closer to the coast, a few of the locals have told me that riding it clockwise is more enjoyable, as you experience the steep descent down MacKenzie Mountain. This was probably the highlight of my entire ride, so I have definitely become biased toward clockwise.
After reaching Cape North, the northernmost part of the trail, you will approach South Harbour. Just past this point, taking a left turn onto White Point Road will bring you down a narrow, paved road along the coast to a small fishing town. It was recommended to me by some locals, and it was a nice 7-mile venture off the trail. It’s a great place to dismount, stretch your legs and take in the beautiful scenery as you listen to the waves crashing against the rocks. The road eventually turns into New Haven Road, which will connect you back to the Cabot Trail.
I ended the loop by riding back to Margaree Forks just before the sun started to set. As a precaution, you may want to time your rides so that you are parked by dusk. Moose are known to frequent Cape Breton Island, and I was told they usually come out around 7:30 to 8:00 p.m. each evening. Not feeling too great about my chances of survival against a moose, I tried to limit any potential exposure to them.
Despite the fact that it is a 186-mile loop, the hours you spend in the saddle on the Cabot Trail will fly by. The three mountains — MacKenzie Mountain, French Mountain and Smokey Mountain — offer different backdrops for your ride, and the tight corners and changes in elevation will present an equal combination of challenge and thrill.
If I could only make one ride in British Columbia, the Duffey Lake loop would be it. No other route boasts such diversity: a fjord walled by granite mountains, temperate rainforests and flowing glaciers, merging into a dry, semi-arid landscape of sagebrush and ponderosa pine, all on the doorstep of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vancouver. I am not getting paid nearly enough to tell you about this gem, but journalists are their own worst enemies when it comes to holding back on a good thing.
Duffey Lake refers to the landmark close to midpoint on a loop tour that can be completed in about 10 hours at a steady pace, but is best done over two to three days, stopping to enjoy the scenery and locals, visit a winery and perhaps camp under a clear canopy of stars. The journey begins just northwest of Vancouver on Highway 99 – the Sea to Sky Highway – at postcard-perfect Horseshoe Bay, and continues northward alongside the sparkling fjord of Howe Sound lined by the Coast Mountains.
The highway was significantly upgraded for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and allows motorcyclists to zip along at a comfortable clip, watchful for police radar at the village of Lions Bay. Along the way, consider stopping to gawk at Shannon Falls, hopping on the Sea To Sky Gondola with its spectacular views or watching mountain climbers on the sheer granite walls of the famous Stawamus Chief.
Just ahead is the former logging town of Squamish, now a mecca for outdoor recreation, including kiteboarding at Squamish Spit. Café racers tend to gather at Starbucks, and cruisers at Howe Sound Brewing or Backcountry Brewing, the latter known for its amazing thin-crust pizza.
Road signs warn of black bears as you continue northward to North America’s top-rated ski resort, Whistler. This perfect little village makes for a great first night’s stay, with strolls through shops in the shadow of towering snow-topped peaks, but don’t expect heavy discounts in summer.
From Whistler, Highway 99 heads to the potato-growing Pemberton Valley, and your last chance for gas for about 60 miles as you proceed eastward through the aboriginal community of Lil’wat at Mount Currie. If you arrive in May you can even catch the community’s annual rodeo.
As you pass Lillooet Lake, the two-lane highway begins a steep, switchback ascent into high-elevation wilderness without a hint of commercialism. The road plateaus shortly after Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, a great spot for hikes to a series of lakes, backdropped by Matier Glacier. Don’t let the alpine vistas distract you from the job ahead: lots of twists and turns, with little in the way of shoulders and the potential for patches of loose gravel.
Duffey Lake is a jewel, and makes for a good photo stop at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. It can get cold here even on summer days so be prepared for changing conditions. Continuing eastward, alongside fast-flowing Cayoosh Creek you’ll find several rustic campgrounds, the best of which is Cottonwood, which offers well-tended outhouses, chopped firewood and an on-site caretaker.
You’ll notice some big changes continuing eastward: evergreen forests replaced by ponderosa pines, sagebrush and craggy rock bluffs, the weather becoming warmer and drier. Expect a stunning view of turquoise Seton Lake – and perhaps some mountain goats on the high cliffs – as you wind steeply downhill to Lillooet, an historic gold-rush town on the banks of British Columbia’s greatest river, the Fraser.
If you’re staying overnight, pick the newer rooms at the affordable 4 Pines Motel, just a block off Main Street. Try some wine tasting at Fort Berens Estate Winery across the river via the Bridge of the 23 Camels, a reference to some bizarre pack animals imported from Asia during the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. The Rugged Bean Café is your best bet in town for a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
You’ve now accomplished half of the Duffey Lake loop, and have three choices for the ride back to Vancouver. Street riders take Highway 12 along the east side of the Fraser Canyon to the Canadian hot spot of Lytton, watching carefully for hairpin turns and a landslide area where the highway is reduced to one lane.
One false move here and it’s a one-way trip down a steep embankment. At Lytton, take Highway 1 south to Vancouver, or divert to Highway 7 at Hope for a quieter alternative to the bustling freeway. Street riders might also consider doing the loop counterclockwise to avoid having the setting sun in their eyes for the last few hours.
Dual-sport bikes have a couple of gravel options at Lillooet. One is Texas Creek Road, on the west side of the Fraser Canyon, which passes through remote First Nation reserves perched on elevated benches of farmland that once formed the river bottom. Access Lytton via a fascinating, free “reaction ferry” that employs the power of the river to cross from one side to the other. Note that the service can be suspended during high waters of the spring freshet.
The second option for dual-sports is to head north from Lillooet via Bridge River Road, stopping in summer to watch the ancient scene of aboriginals catching migrating salmon to be hung from wooden drying racks. The gravel road boasts rugged scenery as it continues to Carpenter Lake, Bralorne and Gold Bridge before dropping down into the Pemberton Valley for the ride home on the Sea to Sky Highway.
Whichever route you choose, you won’t be disappointed. The diversity and isolation so close to a North American metropolis makes the Duffey Lake loop an unbeatable riding experience.
Have you ever read one of our international tour stories and thought, “Wow, I’d love to do that…but I don’t know where to start!” Well, we’ve got you covered! For our 2019 International Tour Company Guide, we’ve compiled this handy list of tour operators that will help you find your perfect two-wheeled trip abroad. All of the operators listed here offer multi-day, fully guided street and/or adventure bike tours on their own rental motorcycles, employ English-speaking guides, and include accommodations while on tour. What’s not included in this list? Single-day tours, self-guided tours, chartered group tours and tours that require you to use your own bike.
Keep in mind that prices may not be directly comparable. Some companies include things like the motorcycle rental, meals, tolls, fuel, excursions and even drinks with dinner, others don’t. There may be a surcharge for a single rider in his or her own hotel room (as opposed to sharing a room), and the charge for a passenger can vary from company to company. Also pay attention to the currency in which a tour is priced. Exchange rates can fluctuate, so your final cost can depend on when you pay for the tour.
Before you book, make sure you know how much insurance coverage you’re required to have or pay for. Some operators will put a multi-thousand dollar charge on your credit card to cover possible damage, which is refunded after the tour. Make sure your personal travel insurance covers motorcycle riding, and it’s a good idea to have supplemental insurance that covers repatriation, medical costs, trip cancellation and personal liability. Medjetassist.com, medexassist.com, travelguard.com and geobluetravelinsurance.com are great places to start.
Finally, make sure your passport has at least six months left on it–from the date of travel, not when you book! Check with the tour operator to see if you need a visa or an international driver’s license (available at your local AAA). Oh, one more thing–have fun!
Adriatic Moto Tours
Tours Include: NEW Europe Royale, NEW Bonjour Provence, Romania to Istanbul Adventure, Greece Tour, Alps Adriatic Adventure, Czech Hungary Tour, and more
Accommodations: Comfortable hotels, usually 4-star
Length of Tours: 9-18 days
Rental Options: BMW, Ducati Multistrada, Suzuki V-Strom, Honda Africa Twin, Harley-Davidson Road King and Superlow
Adriatic Moto Tours has been in business for fifteen years in the heart of southeastern Europe, and from its base in Slovenia has tours that fan out over Europe and now Thailand and Laos, offering new experiences for even the most jaded moto-traveler.
Asia Bike Tours started in 1997, and has a team of locally based guides that provide plenty of local knowledge for its tours. Motorcycles available for rent vary based on location, and riding difficulty also varies with the tour.
Base: Plano, Texas
Tours Include: NEW Cape Town to Victoria Falls, NEW Berlin to Budapest, Japan, Russia, Iceland Adventure, Dramatic Dolomites, Australia, Empire of the Incas and more
Accommodations: Comfortable middle-class hotels on Club Class tours, 4- and 5-star hotels on Premium Class tours
Length of Tours: 7-69 days
Rental Options: BMW motorcycles
Equipment: Support vehicle and trailer
Typical Cost: 15-day Berlin to Budapest, $9,500
Age/Experience Limits: Motorcycle license & touring experience required; for off-road adventures, off-road training or experience required
Tel: (877) 275-8238 or (972) 635-5210
Ayres Adventures offers tours on every continent, with something for every budget and imagination. From a weeklong Club tour to the 69-day, transcontinental Riga to Hong Kong Epic Journey, Ayres will take you on an unforgettable trip.
The secret of enjoying yourself on tour, according to Compass Expeditions, is this: “A flexible attitude is required, as service may not be what you are accustomed to.” Stay flexible and have fun! Each tour is graded for degree of difficulty, from 1 to 5.
Base: Los Angeles, California
Tours Include: South Africa Tour, Canada to Yellowstone, Baja California, The Italian Job
Tours Include: Off-Road Ecuador, Special Women’s Tour: Andean Roads, Inca Royal Roads, Cloudforest Coast and Craters and more
Accommodations: 3-4 star hotels, B&Bs, bungalows and cabins
Length of Tours: 4-12 days
Rental Options: A variety of modern ADV motorcycles
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 10-day Inca Royal Roads starting at $4,150
Age/Experience Limits: Riding experience required, varies with tour
Tel: (603) 617-2499
Ecuador Freedom would love to show you why some of the best riding is in Ecuador. From its base in Quito, at any time of year, Ecuador Freedom can show you newly paved roads, beautiful scenery and the diverse cultures and altitudes that make Ecuador a motorcyclists’ paradise.
Age/Experience Limits: Recommend experienced, “confident” riders with at 3,000 miles of riding experience.
Discover the lightly traveled roads of rural Italy or experience the rush of the racetrack, all in the company of Italian guides who know the best roads, the best places to stay and most important, the best places to eat!
Base: Málaga, Spain
Tours Include: Morocco, Andalusia Touring Center, Pyrenees, Culture and Curves, BMW Motorrad Days, Portugal: Castles and History and more
Accommodations: 3-5 star hotels
Length of Tours: 6-15 days
Rental Options: BMW motorcycles
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 15-day Morocco tour on BMW F 700 GS, 4,095 Euros
Age/Experience Limits: Varies based on tour
Tel: 011 34 952 172 172
Experience the wonderful roads, scenery and weather of Portugal, Spain and Morocco with Hispania Tours. Tour on marvelous roads, watching history unfold under your wheels.
Base: Madrid, Spain
Tours Include: Southern Spain & Andalucia, Central Spain, Northern Spain & the Pyrenees, Best of Portugal, Morocco, Italy, France & Alps and more
Accommodations: Hotels, converted castles and paradors
Length of Tours: 8-17 days
Rental Options: BMW motorcycles
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 12-Day Best of Portugal, 4,100 Euros
Age/Experience Limits: 25 years old, 2 years and 3,000 miles of experience
Tel: (412) 468-2453
IMTBike was established in 1997, and now has more than 100 late-model BMW motorcycles in its fleet, including R 1200 GS and GS Adventure models, in eight separate locations. IMTBike boasts an 80-percent repeat rider rate.
Tours Include: Italian Dream to Mugello, Sachsenring & Italian Alps, Australia Curves to Phillip Island, Spanish Pyrenees to Aragon and more
Accommodations: 3-4 star hotels
Length of Tours: 9-10 days
Rental Options: BMW, Ducati and Moto-Guzzi
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 10-day Sachsenring & Italian Alps, $6,300
Age/Experience Limits: Tours include track time; contact Leod for experience recommendations
Tel: (866) 562-6126
Leod Escapes offers getaways that combine a week of twisty road riding with track time on some of the world’s best racetracks. Not for the faint of heart, Leod’s tours will provide a unique and unforgettable experience.
MotoDiscovery offers motorcycle tours around the world, including such unexpected destinations as Cuba and Iran. Previously known as Pancho Villa Moto Tours, the company has been riding off the beaten path since 1981.
MotoGreece was founded in 2015 with one goal: to highlight Greece as a motorcycle destination and show riders what a fantastic time they’ll have while touring Greece. Come see what it’s all about!
Base: Long Beach, California, and Anchorage, Alaska
Tours Include: Best of Baja, Peru Machu Picchu Adventure, Romaniacs Experience, India Touch the Sky, Japan Three Island and more
Accommodations: From rustic to elegant, depending on the tour
Length of Tours: 9-16 days
Rental Options: BMW, Suzuki, Royal Enfield, Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 12-day Japan Three Island, $8,450
Age/Experience Limits: Not specified, contact MotoQuest for details
Tel: (800) 756-1990 or (562) 997-7368
From its base in Long Beach, California, MotoQuest conducts tours around the globe, offering something for everyone on two wheels, from the bucolic roads of Wales to the top of the world in India—and many more!
Tours Include: Dolomites Riding Center, Sardinia, Tuscany, Italian Factories, Benelli Vintage Tour and more
Accommodations: Comfortable hotels
Length of Tours: 6-18 days
Rental Options: BMW, Honda, Ducati and Suzuki Bandits
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 9-day Dolomites Riding Center, 2,950 Euros
Age/Experience Limits: Motorcycle license required, average experience
Tel: 011 39 02 2720 1556
Mototouring has been organizing tours since 1990, and is located in Milan, in the heart of Italy’s motorcycle production area. Hence the factories tour, which visits factories and private museums dedicated to Italian machinery.
Base: Aerequipa, Peru
Tours Include: Classic Inca Peru, Maya Adventure, South Pan-American, Touch the Equator, Trans Andes and more
Accommodations: Tourist-class hotels
Length of Tours: 9-38 days
Rental Options: BMW GS models, Suzuki DR650, Honda Africa Twin
You’ll find a great diversity of roads, scenery and culture in Peru, and how better to experience it than on two wheels?
Base: Germany, USA and New Zealand
Tours Include: New Zealand Paradise, Europe Berlin-Moscow, Europe Ireland, South Africa Wild Garden, South America Patagonia and more
Accommodations: Midrange to top-class hotels
Length of Tours: 7-22 days
Rental Options: Harley-Davidson, limited availability on BMW, Triumph, Indian and others
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 8-day Europe Ireland Tour, GBP 3,495
Age/Experience Limits: Minimum age 21, motorcycle license required
Tel: (800) 838-3162
Reuthers is a global entertainment, travel and leisure company, which began offering guided motorcycle tours in 1997. It partnered with Harley-Davidson in 2006, and now provides tours in North America, Africa and Europe.
Base: Bend, Oregon
Tours Include: Patagonia Experience, Essential Colombia Adventure, Thai-Laos Experience, Top 7 Highlights of Bolivia and more
Accommodations: Hotels and cabanas
Length of Tours: 9-20 days
Rental Options: A variety of appropriate ADV models
RIDE Adventures wants to make motorcycle travel in South America as easy and accessible as possible. Tours range in difficulty from Level 1 (all paved) to Level 5 (single track, extreme terrain).
Base: Kathmandu, Nepal; Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Vershire, Vermont
Tours Include: Nepal to Bhutan, Mustang Nepal, High Roads of the Himalaya, Thailand to Laos, Northern Thailand and more
Accommodations: Hotels, guesthouses, lodges
Length of Tours: 11-16 days
Rental Options: Modern and classic Royal Enfield models
Equipment: Support vehicle
Typical Cost: 14-day Mustang Nepal, $4,895
Age/Experience Limits: Internationalmotorcycle license required, comfortable on 500cc and larger bikes, under age 21 requires accompanying parent or guardian
Tel: (802) 738-6500
Ride High says it was the first registered touring company in the Kingdom of Nepal, and for 30 years has provided travelers the chance to experience some of the highest roads in the world on classic British motorcycles.
Mike and Denise Ferris have been running their motorcycle tour business out of Australia for 24 years now, and are proud to say that they still lead each and every tour themselves. In fact, they’ve never hired a guide to take their place.
Booking your first overseas motorcycle trip can be stressful enough, but that first day in the saddle in an unfamiliar place, on an unfamiliar bike, on unfamiliar roads marked by unfamiliar and probably unintelligible signs, can be a little overwhelming. Fortunately everyone (with the exception of yours truly) on my recent Edelweiss Best of Europe tour was in the exact same boat, something Ursula, our lead tour guide, didn’t find at all surprising.
According to her, the Best of Europe tour is extremely popular with first-timers, and for good reason. It’s an ideal introduction to riding in Europe: smooth, not-too-technical roads that allow you to focus on enjoying the quaint villages, spectacular scenery, delicious food and castles everywhere you turn. I recognized it for what it was immediately. This was a gateway drug, what the savvy dealer gives you to get you hooked. (Given how many hands went up at our farewell dinner when Ursula asked who would return for another tour, I’d say the hook was firmly planted.)
As for me, the Best of Europe tour was my pick for a variety of reasons, but a large part of the decision might surprise you: genealogy. Genealogy is a hobby of mine and over the years I’ve traced back both sides of my family to some specific areas, including southwestern Germany, Alsace (now a part of France) and Switzerland–all of which we’d be visiting on the tour.
I’m probably preaching to the choir, but if you’re going to visit Europe, doing it on a motorcycle is the way to go–with the possible caveat that you choose the right tool for the job. European roads tend to be narrower than what we’re used to in the U.S. or Canada, especially in villages and cities where cobblestones and tight turns are common, and they’re rarely straight.
For these reasons, I opted for a BMW F 800 GS with its ready-for-anything suspension, lighter weight and nimble handling. My tour-mates also chose wisely: there were several R 1200 GS models, a couple of R 1200 RTs, and one-up riders on the Triumph Tiger 800, Honda NC700X and BMW R 1200 RS. Two couples traveling together from Pennsylvania opted for big Harley touring bikes–ideal for wide American roads, but as they learned as the week went on, a bit of a handful on our brief Alpine sections.
The Best of Europe route was thoughtfully designed to incorporate progressively more technical roads, allowing riders to get accustomed to their bikes and the foreign surroundings before hitting the serious twisties on the last few days. Our tour would loop us out of Erding, north of Munich, through undulating farmland and along river-carved valleys west and then south to the famous Black Forest, before ducking into France for a rest day. Refreshed, we’d then head back east into Germany, slip into Switzerland’s impossibly green hills studded with jagged gray peaks, then finish with a day of endless curves in Austria before returning to Erding.
The gently rolling farmland we encountered on our first two days, from Erding to Rothenburg and then on to Heidelberg, reminded me why German immigrants to the U.S. felt so at home in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Well, apart from the castles. They’re everywhere it seems, from 11th century ruins to gilded 18th century monuments to excess. Our first night’s stop was in Rothenburg, a beautifully preserved medieval walled city where we followed a “night watchman” on a twilight tour of the old town. Day two brought a stop at the partially ruined Hirschhorn castle and a finish in famous Heidelberg, with its mammoth palace lording over the city below.
We usually had a couple of free hours each evening between arriving at the hotel and dinner, and by the second night in Heidelberg it was clear I’d need to devote mine to getting some exercise. German food is serious business, made even more so by the ubiquitous beer served with dinner (I opted for local wines, also very good and far less filling), and if I was going to have any hope of maintaining my girlish figure on this weeklong tour I’d need to do some walking.
When I announced my intention to walk the steep path up to Heidelberg’s palace rather than take the tram, one tour-mate teased me with a quote from “The Princess Bride”: “Have fun storming the castle!” The joke stuck, and from then on storming castles became a central theme of the trip. There was the trio of ruins guarding the medieval Alsatian town of Ribeauvillé; the circular 16th-century fortress called Munot surrounded by vineyards at the center of Schaffhausen; and King Ludwig II’s ostentatious tribute to his idol Louis XVI, Castle Linderhof, a lunch stop for the group on our last riding day.
Between castles, our Edelweiss guides let us sample just about every type of road found in the heart of Europe, from the limitless autobahn to meandering country roads to the sinuous switchbacks of the Austrian Alps. They led us through and to places we’d likely never have found on our own, like the hidden Hexenlochmühle (“mill of the witch place”), a cuckoo clock workshop and café where we enjoyed slices of Black Forest cake.
That said, riders are always encouraged to explore on their own if they so choose–Edelweiss furnishes a detailed map with the daily route highlighted, plus a guide book–so on the rest day in Ribeauvillé several of us decided not to go on the optional group ride into the Vosges Mountains, opting instead to head off on solo adventures. After breakfast with the group, I hopped on my GS and headed back toward the Rhine River and Germany, my destination a village where my great-great-great grandfather was born.
But first a visit to a piece of world history: the Maginot Line. This series of fortifications and tunnels was built to deter a repeat of Germany’s rapid invasion of France during WWI, and stretched along the French border all the way to Belgium. Today several Maginot Line structures still exist, and one happened to be just a few kilometers away from Ribeauvillé.
After a sobering walk through the bunker’s chambers and a stroll over the grounds where American vehicles from the liberation force were on display, I headed for my ancestor’s German village. Ichenheim sits only a couple of kilometers from the east bank of the Rhine, surrounded by flat fields of golden-tasseled corn and lush green woods; to the east rise the dark hills of the Black Forest. Agrarian but hilly Southern Indiana must’ve felt very familiar to him.
After our rest day, the riding difficulty was cranked up a notch as we traversed the Black Forest again and entered Switzerland. Rolling green hills and gentle curves gave way to our first Alpine pass and a lunch break at the mountain Säntis, at 8,200 feet the highest in eastern Switzerland. From there, the curves continued nonstop as we crossed into Austria and ascended the famous Hochtannberg Pass.
By the next morning, our last riding day, the entire group was salty and ready for anything–a far cry from the slightly nervous, curve-shy bunch that had begun the ride. We’d stormed castles, eaten our weight in spätzle, toasted our perfectly sunny riding days with liters of beer and wine each evening and scuffed the sides of our tires on roads so pretty it can be hard to keep your eyes on where you’re going. The Best of Europe tour really is a gateway drug to the joys of motorcycle travel in Europe, a dip of the toe, a sampling of the smorgasbord. Just be warned: you might get addicted.
The Edelweiss Best of Europe tour runs once a month from May to September. For more information visit edelweissbike.com.
Every organized motorcycle tour worth its salt has interesting roads, captivating scenery, tasty food and comfortable accommodations. That’s what you’re paying for, in addition to experienced and knowledgeable guides and the convenience of having a motorcycle waiting for you when you arrive. All you have to do is show up and ride.
Every tour also has a hook, something that catches riders’ eyes and convinces them to lay down a deposit and clear their calendar for a week or two. In the case of Ayres Adventures’ Switchback Challenges, the hook is short, intense tours that promise riders more hairpins, chicanes, kinks, sweepers and high passes than they can count.
Covering seven days, with two travel days bookending five riding days, these tours are reasonably priced (starting at $2,975), offer mid-level accommodations and, by staying at the same hotel during the riding days, require less hassle than tours that go from hotel to hotel each night. Ayres offers four Switchback Challenges–the Pyrenees, southern Spain, central Alps and the Dolomites.
Lofty terms such as motorcycle “heaven” or “nirvana” are often used to describe the Alps, a huge, diverse mountain range of unrivaled beauty that, because it’s located in the heart of Western Europe and has been fought over and occupied for millennia, is densely packed with narrow, steep, winding roads, some in the most unlikely of places.
Even within an area as exceptional as the Alps, the Dolomites manage to stand out. Designated a World Heritage Site, Unesco describes the Dolomites as “a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps [that] features some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes anywhere, with vertical walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys.”
What gives peaks and ridges in the Dolomites their distinctive jagged appearance–and the mountain range its name–is sedimentary carbonate rock with a high percentage of the mineral dolomite. Spread out over more than 550 square miles, the Dolomites are made up of nine distinct, enormous formations that tower high above valleys that weave between and around them, like giant gray teeth sticking up through green shag carpet.
With 18 peaks at or above 10,000 feet, parts of the Dolomites are blanketed in snow and glaciers year-round, the run-off from which crashes down steep ravines and creates dramatic waterfalls. Popular among skiers in the winter and hikers, bicyclists and motorcyclists in the summer, the Dolomites region is riddled with jaw-dropping vistas, tangles of asphalt and picturesque villages.
But first we had to get there.
For convenience, Ayres’ Dramatic Dolomites Tour begins and ends in Munich, Germany, since its airport is a major European hub (I flew there nonstop from Los Angeles). Our affable guide, Axel Papst, with 18 years of experience leading motorcycle tours all over the world, picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hotel–a courtesy extended to all tour guests. After a tour briefing and giving our motorcycles a once-over, we walked to a local restaurant for a proper Bavarian dinner.
Over tall glasses of German lager, our small group–just four solo riders plus Axel–got acquainted. There was Tony, a retired executive from Indiana and a veteran of several Ayres tours–one being the Alps Switchback Challenge that he completed the week before our Dolomites tour. There was Jeff, a retired business owner and professor from Indiana who’s a riding buddy of Tony’s. And there was Lou, an engineer from Massachusetts. We quickly fell into easy conversation and shared lots of laughs, which continued throughout the week.
On our first day, after taking the autobahn around Munich, we followed Axel on back roads through villages, forests and fields, heading south through Austria, and then into Italy via Brenner Pass, a major route through the eastern Alps that’s clogged with train tracks, a freeway, a local highway and an outlet mall. Having paid our dues for the sake of efficiency, we were soon rewarded with a steep climb up and over Passo di Pènnes, our first proper alpine pass. Even though it was the last week of August, the air was cold and windy and the mountains were dusted with snow. Weather can be unpredictable in the Alps, so it’s best to be prepared with rain gear and extra layers.
As we would be for most of the tour, we were in South Tyrol, an autonomous province in northern Italy that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since more than 60 percent of South Tyroleans speak German and most of the rest speak Italian, signs typically list cities, passes, etc. in both languages. Most houses, hotels and barns are built in the alpine chalet style, with white walls, wide roofs, carved woodwork and large balconies, the railings of which exploded with colorful flowers in full bloom.
We spent four nights in Wolkenstein, a charming ski town tucked in one of the Dolomites’ lush green valleys. Our home away from home was the cozy, recently renovated Hotel Comploj, run by a family that all but adopts its guests. The father is a gourmet chef, and he impressed us each night with freshly made soups, pastas and local specialties.
Three of our riding days were spent exploring the best the Dolomites has to offer on loops averaging 150 miles. It was a garden of earthly delights, with the sort of smooth, winding pavement we all dream of delivering us to high-alpine pass after high-alpine pass, an up, down and all-around rollercoaster with a stunning backdrop everywhere you look. The list of passes we summited is long and glorious–Gardena, Valparola, Falzarego, Giau, Cibiana, Duran, Campolongo, Rolle, Valles, Cereda, Costalunga, Fedaia, Nigra, Pinei, Pordoj, Sella, Staulanza, Mendola and Erbe–each one unique, as are the roads that slither up and over them, and we lucked out with blue skies and cool temperatures.
Our daily mileage may seem modest, but when measured in terms of quality rather than quantity, our cup overfloweth. At the end of each day, as we hoisted celebratory beers back at the hotel, exhausted and exhilarated with sore shoulders from so many tight turns, no one complained of not riding enough. A Switchback Challenge, indeed.
Ayres Adventures’ Switchback Challenge tours run from August-October 2019. For more information and the full calendar of tours, visit ayresadventures.com.
“So, what’s in Yellowknife?” asked my doctor while he examined me after I informed him about my upcoming plans.
“Well,” I responded, “it’s an isolated city on the Canadian Shield in the Northwest Territories overlooking the Great Slave Lake. It’s also far enough north for excellent viewing of the aurora borealis.”
“But what else is there?” he emphatically demanded.
Fearing that he was missing the point I responded, “As a touring motorcyclist I look forward to the trek to a distant place at the end of the road,” and let it go at that.
And so I set forth to discover what, indeed, there was of note in Yellowknife. My numerous rides west from Albany, New York, follow a familiar itinerary: Albany to Conneaut, Ohio, the first day for 466 miles. Thereafter, I turn north out of Toledo, Ohio, to Bay City, Michigan; then Bemidji, Minnesota; Williston, North Dakota; and Shelby, Montana. From there I head north into the Canadian Rockies.
In Mackinaw City, though, I picked up a riding partner during a lunch stop at a hot dog stand that seemed a convergence for motorcyclists. Gene is from Windsor, Ontario, aboard a Suzuki Bandit bound for Edmonton, Alberta, to visit family. He was content to follow my pace and schedule as we followed U.S. Route 2 west. I’ve always been a lone wolf during my 53 years of touring, because seldom do I encounter a more compatible riding companion. It certainly made the long slog westward more tolerable.
In Williston, North Dakota, we met two Honda ST1300 riders returning to their homes in Edmonton after a visit to the Black Hills. We were invited to tag along entering Montana, but their pace left us a diminishing view in their rearview mirrors. “Albertans seem always in a hurry,” Gene would later inform me. He and I separated outside Calgary. He directed me to Alberta Highway 22 through the picturesque Turner Valley. Many motorcyclists were enjoying the route, and each waved, including the high-riser Harleyists.
Riding the Banff-Jasper route on the way to Canada’s Northern Territories is an imperative. During my last tour through here on my way to Alaska three years ago it was rainy and 48 degrees. This time around the Canadian Rockies unwound like a Technicolor film reel. Kicking Horse Pass led me into the heart of them, and a hanging waterfall plunging 1,250 feet.The Icefields Parkway glided by ragged peaks lapped by glacial tongues.
Alberta Highway 40 out of Hinton is billed as the scenic route to Alaska. It plows through a large watershed for a lonely 325 kilometers to Grande Prairie. Signs warn of potentially dangerous encounters with caribou. Grande Prairie itself is a crossroads where one splits northwest to Alaska, east toward Edmonton, or due north for the Territories, as I do. The colorfully striking suspension bridge over the Peace River suddenly looms against a backdrop of calendar art. Within an hour I arrive at ground zero in Grimshaw.
The granite mile-zero marker of the Mackenzie Highway in Grimshaw may not be as famous as Mile 0 of the Alaskan Highway 125 miles due west of here, but the town makes the most of it by providing an extensive park with a lot of informative signage. The highway is named after Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish fur trader who explored the Northwest Territories and traveled the full course of his namesake river, approximately 2,550 miles. I only have 600 miles now to Yellowknife, according to the marker.
Reaching the 60th parallel on the border with the Northwest Territories now means I am halfway to Yellowknife along the Mackenzie Highway. There’s a very nice visitor center here with a campground. But it’s raining, and I wouldn’t camp anyway because it appears the Northwest Territories is prime bug-breeding ground. They swarm me at every stop, a phalanx of horseflies, blackflies, dragonflies, yellowjackets, mosquitoes and midges. Occasionally at speed a fat one would ricochet off my helmet like a pistol shot. Flagmen at road construction sites wear mesh hoods. Alaska was never this bad.
This section of the Mackenzie passes through an extensive Bison Management Zone, and they are given free range, which means they occasionally amble onto the road. At one point I encounter an entire herd alongside the highway. They display their indifference at my passing. I test the antilock brakes on the BMW when I see a baby bison leaping across the road ahead like a deer. Remain alert, I remind myself.
Near Enterprise, Alexandra Falls thunders into the Hay River Gorge, and kayakers have risked their lives plunging into its raging torrent, so says my whitewater-running eldest son, who assures me he has no notions himself of attempting the feat. Another low octane fill up at Enterprise, all that’s available up here. But I learn to top off where I can because fuel may not be obtainable at the next stop.
The Deh Cho Bridge frames the horizon on my approach to the mighty Mackenzie River, Canada’s largest watercourse and the second largest river system in North America. Considered an engineering marvel that took four years to construct because of extreme weather, the Deh Cho (indigenous term for the Mackenzie River) was completed in 2012. Previously, ferry service was provided and an ice road was maintained during the winter. I thread its intimidating isosceles pylons over the Mackenzie and into Fort Providence, where I fill up for the next 200 miles into Yellowknife.
The last 60 miles of road into Yellowknife are the worst I encounter. I’m carefully negotiating numerous gravel sections, bouncing over buckled pavement and dipping into whoop-de-dos. Seeing the “Welcome to Yellowknife” sign is a relief, but it’s elevated on a hillside, making getting the bike into the picture a precarious undertaking.
I locate my B&B, the Bayside, in Old Town. This is where Yellowknife was originally settled when gold was discovered in the 1930s. Diamond mining is the new gold standard for this city of 20,000 and capital of the Northwest Territories. To gain a perspective of the city I climb the steep, zigzag staircase to the top of Pilot Hill, otherwise known as “The Rock,” an escarpment of bedrock forming the Canadian Shield.
An obelisk monument here pays tribute to the bush pilots who mapped the area and brought supplies to the fledgling settlement. Colorful houseboats cluster in the bay, while seaplanes skim the water like dragonflies, leaving broad wakes as they take off and land. Great Slave Lake sparkles in cyan radiance to the horizon, perhaps because it’s the deepest lake in North America.
My B&B provides a delicious breakfast, and has its own restaurant called the Dancing Moose that serves gourmet fare. But to experience an Old Town tradition I am directed to the Wildcat Café, Yellowknife’s oldest restaurant located in a log heritage building. Bison burgers are on the menu, and so is a variation of a Canadian standard, bison poutine. Just up the road is quirky Bullock’s Bistro, offering wild game and the “freshest fish in the Territory.” But you’ll pay handsomely for it. I have my best repast on my final day at the Woodyard Brewhouse–a decadent charcuterie and cheese board washed down with a flight of NWT suds.
Riding out of Old Town toward downtown I squirm over Ragged Ass Road. This lane is so-named by the gold-rush era prospectors who had gone stone broke (ragged ass), and so built their ramshackle cabins here. The road is in no better shape now, as noted. Nearby is a rock face carved and painted with cultural symbols representing the indigenous Inuit, Métis and Inuvialuit.
In downtown Yellowknife I locate a mural that depicts Northwest Territories themes, including a colorful aurora borealis. Given the nearly 24-hour daylight I was not going to actually see them on this trip. I had learned the best time to view the northern lights was before the spring equinox, or in the dead of winter. Hmm, the first time period was too early to risk a motorcycle ride, and forget the latter option. Regardless, there are many variables that affect the viewing of northern lights. The aurora is a magnetic storm caused by the capricious solar winds, so predicting and timing their ephemeral nature is a veritable crapshoot.
Regardless of the disappointment, I was content to ride this deep into the Territories, especially feeling smug having learned there is not a single road between here and the Arctic Ocean yet to challenge. I had seen few touring motorcyclists, and perhaps only two local riders. I got to thinking, the Mackenzie and Alaska highways both have deep territorial reach, but the Mackenzie is half the length of the Alaska. Why aren’t there more brethren exploring its terminus? Organizers of the Iron Butt Rally should take note.
Maybe I found nothing too exceptional in Yellowknife, and the northern lights didn’t display themselves, but I return home with the satisfaction of achieving yet another distant horizon, which should be the goal of any adventurous touring motorcyclist.
A motorcycle trip in Europe’s Alps is likely on your bucket list, but such a trip is daunting. You’ll have to arrange for a bike, book hotels and, possibly, convince others to share the experience with you. Finally, if anything goes wrong during your trip, who would you call? Well, traveling with a motorcycle tour company solves all those problems at once.
Last July, I took a Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures tour of the western Alps that attracted 20 participants, 18 of whom were veterans of previous Beach tours; this percentage of repeat riders speaks volumes about these tours and the support that tour leaders Rob and Gretchen Beach provide for their customers. Most members of our tour group had flown into Zurich, Switzerland, and converged upon nearby Baden. All were from the United States except for a delightful couple from New Zealand.
When our bikes arrived, we were introduced to the BMW motorcycles we had reserved from Beach’s rental fleet. Besides saddlebags, each was equipped with a GPS unit programmed so that we could ride one of several recommended daily routes or explore on our own. Rob instructed us on how to use the GPS units, and we were on our way.
Our 12-day tour through Switzerland, France and Italy began with a Tuesday ride from Baden southwest to Ornans, France. We first passed through an industrialized area with a good deal of traffic, but the Europeans often utilize roundabouts rather than stop lights so we kept moving regardless. The tour book we were given was filled with all sorts of historical and practical information about our two or three daily suggested routes, along with a map, all loaded into the GPS. They were often on small, local roads we would not likely have found on our own.
For weeks prior to the tour we had been receiving correspondence from the Beaches enlightening us to such considerations as foreign currencies, tipping, overseas phone calls, use of ATMs, credit cards, dress codes, packing tips and more. Then a month prior, here came a beautiful luggage bag for each participant, embroidered with the Beach’s logo and our names! The strong suggestion was to pack no more (other than riding gear) than what could fit in this bag. On traveling days we would set this packed bag in the hotel lobby, then van driver Henri would transport it to our next hotel and the bag would be waiting in our rooms when we arrived.
Soon our trip settled into a pleasant rhythm. European hotel breakfasts usually consist of sliced meats and cheeses, with croissants and breads, plus tea or coffee. Breakfasts and our varied, delicious dinners were included with the tour price, except for two dinners when we stayed a second night at the same hotel. This allowed us to explore the local restaurants.
On our first Wednesday we rode to Talloires, France, where our hotel overlooked Lake Annecy and a distant castle across the water. This was followed by a free day on which most of the riders went off to explore the countryside, while our passengers stayed in town to explore the local shops.
As we gathered for breakfast Friday morning, we found Rob at a table surrounded by a stack of GPS units. We learned that the Tour de France bicycle race was passing near our intended route, roads were closed, and we would have to re-route if we hoped to reach our next hotel at a reasonable hour. Now Rob was hard at work programming a new route for our convenience.
Our route took us to Rencurel, France, passing through several tunnels and a stunning gorge in which the road actually undercut the mountain. When riding in the States, I spend most of my travel time in fifth and sixth gear. In the Alps, however, I spent most of my time in second and third gear. As a result, a 150-mile ride in the U.S. that takes three hours may take twice that long on the tight, twisty roads and first-gear hairpins of the Alps. Most of our riding days here were four to six hours, plus stops. Also, summers can be hot in the Alps and most hotels here–though delightful–do not have air conditioning.
The Alps involve very tight, technical roads that will test your slow-speed riding ability on multiple series of hairpin turns. Some were so tight that, on several occasions, I swear I could see my own taillight in front of me! For these tight mountain roads you don’t need a big bike, but something more agile. I had requested a BMW R 1200 RT for my passenger Frances’ comfort, but had I been solo would have preferred perhaps an F 700 GS.
That Sunday we came within sight of Moustiers-Saint-Marie, France, a town set high against the backdrop of a massive gray wall of rocks, the buildings painted a complementary shade. This was to be our stop for the next two nights, and we found our hotel situated next to a beautiful arched bridge, below which flowed a steep, narrow, powerful waterfall. Its pleasant whoosh would be the backdrop for our sleep those nights.
Our next travel day, Tuesday, we headed for Auron, France, and were soon immersed in the sweet fragrance of lavender fields and the sight of acres of sunflowers shaking their yellow heads in the light breeze. Now we began to enjoy the ultimate mountain experience as we rode over some of the Alps’ highest passes. All the way up Cime de la Bonette, the highest at 2,802 meters (9,193 feet), were cars, motorcycles and bicycles, then a plaque at the top. I was feeling quite a sense of accomplishment for having ridden here…until I met a bicyclist from Chicago who had pedaled his way to the top.
On the next Thursday, from Sauze d’Oulx to Courmayeur, my co-pilot Frances and I encountered Rob and Gretchen who asked, “Do you want to have a picnic?” When we enthusiastically agreed they led us to a small specialty shop where we bought bread, sliced meats and cheeses. Then at an ancient bridge on the Col de l’Iseran (9,088 feet) we hiked past an old block building where, on a rocky, flower-strewn hilltop, Gretchen produced our repast as the far-off mountains shone with a necklace of glacial snow.
In Italy we were also fully immersed in the Alps experience, riding through small villages with streets barely wide enough for a car…or a wagon when they were constructed centuries ago. We encountered people strolling, flower boxes on windows from which emanated the fragrance of cooking or pipe tobacco. There is usually a war monument or two, sad reminders of those lost. Permanent glacial snow fields slump in the mountains, sending waterfalls rushing beside the road, sun so brilliant it can make you cry, rain so hard the pavement looks like a shag rug.
These tours allow one to interact with the locals on pre-selected routes. Rob led us to a restaurant in Courmayeur, where over dinner the friendly owner sang and mingled with our group like the uncle I used to have.
I want to stress that the Alps with their narrow roads, hairpin turns and changeable weather can be daunting, but Rob, Gretchen and van driver Henri went out of their way to care for their tour participants. When one rider had a mishap four hours from the hotel, Rob and Henri drove out to retrieve him and his bike. When some had trouble understanding the GPS, Rob conducted a mini seminar in addition to the group seminar. When Frances needed a backrest, Henri rigged one up for her from a step stool and rear seat from the spare bike. Not confident finding your way around? You’re invited to follow Rob and Gretchen to the next hotel.
In short, during our Alps experience with Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures we were well informed and cared for, our bikes pre-arranged and we gained many new friends with whom to share the experience. With nearly 200 tours under his belt, Rob Beach has the details dialed in. And when we returned home, we found that Gretchen had posted a 23-minute video of our tour that we could show our friends via the Internet. In all, a thoroughly enjoyable time.
The Beach’s Alpine Adventure West will run August 25-September 8, 2019; for more info visit bmca.com.
Would you travel halfway around the world for an 11-day motorcycle touring vacation that promises fantastic roads and scenery, delicious food and drink, interesting foreign culture, fun and camaraderie every day? Of course you would.
What if each day’s route was a secret, and you had no idea where the tour is going other than the arrival airport, not even the hotel names? Signing up seem a little nuts?
Well, it probably is, but that hasn’t stopped Edelweiss Bike Travel’s Mystery Tour from selling out both times it has run, partly because of the company’s solid reputation for delivering everything in the first sentence above and partly because of repeat customers, from both the original Mystery Tour (now called the Life is Beautiful—Alpine Wonderland tour) and other Edelweiss motorcycle tours.
When my wife Genie and I committed to the “MT” starting and ending in Nice, France, in June 2018, it felt like agreeing to do a trust fall with a stranger—you know he or she is probably going to catch you, but there’s always that tiny bit of doubt. We knew we’d be in good hands though, if not on good roads, since the MT is the one EBT tour led by Managing Director Rainer Buck and his wife Gaby, who may not know exactly where we’re going but have lots of company credit cards.
Rainer was assisted by guides Michael Goebel and Pablo Piferrer, who between them have nearly 20 years of experience guiding EBT tours around the world and made the 17 of us riders and co-pilots from the USA, Austria, Mexico and Switzerland feel like family.
Canyons, Napoleon and Beautiful Villages
Once rescued from the row upon row of private jets and wall-to-wall resort high-rises surrounding Nice airport on the French Riviera, that afternoon we sipped prosecco in celebration of a rider’s birthday while “rookie” guide Rainer, or RR, gave the first tour briefing on the veranda of a lovely hotel in Vence, in the foothills of the Maritime Alps above Nice.
The Mystery Tour is different from other EBT tours in that—since only RR and the guides know each day’s route—the group stays together the entire time, with no riding off on your own. It’s also one of EBT’s Royal Tours, so all of the meals are included, even lunch on all but the rest day. Each of us also received a crossword puzzle, the six clues for which were printed on RR’s fresh T-shirt each day. Complete the puzzle correctly and you might go with RR on a special bonus ride on the penultimate day—more on this later.
With no clue from RR where we were headed except his daily dubious cry of “North!” we left Vence in the morning and instead headed west, over the 3,159-foot Col de Vence (Vence Pass) in the Maritime Alps. The endlessly winding road rising up through a green forest and imposing dolomite-type rocky mountains set the stage for the rest of the tour (rated a 4 out of 5 for difficulty among EBT tours), since we spent very little time on the center of our tires, or even in fifth or sixth gears.
Quite happy I had chosen an agile BMW R 1200 RT for Genie and me, as we explored an 11th-century church at the first of many coffee stops, I was also thankful for the mesh riding apparel we had brought for the warm temps in Southern France.
Picking up the Route Napoléon, which the emperor took on his return from exile in Elba in 1815, we zoomed around its smooth cambered corners through the diverse landscapes of Provence at a fun, brisk pace set by RR and most of the group riding BMW RTs, R 1200 and 800 GS models and Ducati Mutltistradas, with a guide in back sweeping up the slower riders.
Detouring onto snaky roads far above gorgeous valleys and down alongside turquoise-green rivers, lunch was at a 9th-century chateau perched high above the verdant scrubland. Our first of many deep gorges and the tunnels and arches along amazing “balcony roads” carved into the canyon walls high above were on the dessert menu as we rode along the spectacular Gorge du Verdon in the afternoon—at 15.5 miles long and up to 3,000 feet deep it’s aptly nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Europe.
This part of France is also famous for its endless “blue gold” lavender fields, and the afternoon coffee-stop village of Moustiers, voted the prettiest in France—which is really saying something!
Briefly rejoining the Route Napoléon, it took us into Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban for the evening, the end of a 162-mile riding day that was about par for each riding day of the tour. The chase van driven by one of the guides and carrying our luggage and a spare bike was rarely more than an hour away from the group, yet somehow always managed to beat us to each night’s hotel.
Hotels on the 2018 MT ranged from, as RR put it tongue firmly in cheek, “zero to five stars,” which really meant that the one lovely auberge or inn on a bucolic farm in the Côtes du Rhône (the famous wine region in the Rhône Valley), my favorite, simply didn’t have a Michelin rating. The rest of the accommodations were equally or more wonderful, whether it was a castle, modern hotel with a river view, in a historic city or the base hotel in Vence.
We dined like kings as well, sometimes on French specialties like pâté and veal but more often on meat entrees with truffle-infused sauces and farm-to-table vegetables and salads, sumptuous fresh baked bread and a wide variety of cheeses. RR is passionate about wine, too, so he made sure that a nice selection of local vin rouge and vin blanc was available each evening and treated us to a special tasting one night as well.
Southern France is also home to the Carthusian monks who create the intoxicating neon green liqueur Chartreuse, which some of us enjoyed one night with Cuban cigars to the smooth sounds of Michael’s folk guitar and vocals. One really can’t say enough about guides Pablo and Michael—their efforts and camaraderie helped make the tour magnifique.
Gorgeous Gorges, Endless Passes
The food, hotels and culture stops, such as the Caverne du Pont-d’Arc in the Ardèche Valley with its 36,000-year-old cave paintings, sprawling 12-acre Bamboo Park in the Rhône Valley and historic villages and towns with their lovely old French architecture and genuinely friendly people all made for a deliciously rich experience during our regular stops, lunches and evenings. It’s truly amazing I didn’t gain more weight, or run out of camera memory cards. But the raison d’être of the Mystery Tour is the roads and riding, made all the more fun by not knowing exactly what was in store each day.
Southeastern France is laced with deep gorges carved over the centuries by impressive rivers like the Verdon, Nesque and Tarn, and the ride connected the many gorges with the beautiful valleys, mountains, plateaus and national parks of Provence, the Languedoc region and French Alps. We crossed one of the most extraordinary areas in France, the Cévennes, on the Corniche de Cévennes, a wide sweeping road originally built in the 1700s by the Huguenot army that this day was nearly deserted and like a racetrack through the forest flora.
Our rest day—yet another riding day for many in the group—was among the spires and massifs of the Gorges du Tarn on the Tarn River, where some of us hiked, swam and kayaked before ascending and circling the Causse Noir and Causse Méjean on the bikes, giant limestone plateaus of rich farmland surrounded by gorges and strung with more exciting balcony roads and tunnels. If there was a problem with the roads and scenery on this tour, it was not being able to look away from either….
From the Parc des Grands Causses we made a giant U-turn back toward Nice and the Côte d’Azur, but some of the best riding was yet to come—the French Alps. Over the next several days we conquered a dozen passes lined with snow in places, including the 2nd- through 5th-highest in France, and briefly crossed into Italy over the 9,003-foot Col Agnel to have a refreshingly different lunch of pizza and pasta while the three crossword puzzle winners enjoyed a helicopter tour with RR of Mont Blanc, at 15,777 feet the highest in Europe.
After returning to France, the finale was a twisting ascent up to La Madone d’Utelle for a tasty picnic lunch skillfully prepared by Pablo at this hilltop sanctuary with a 360-degree view over the French Riviera. How he got the big van up—and down—that crazy road I’ll never know. Just one of the wonderful mysteries of the Mystery Tour.
The 2018 Edelweiss Bike Travel Mystery Tour is now called the Life is Beautiful—Magical France tour and will run next June 6-26, 2019. The arrival airport for the next Mystery Tour is Athens, Greece, May 3, 2020…but shhhh, it’s a secret! For more info visit edelweissbike.com.