Senior Travelers Have More Active Tour Options Than Ever

While trying out new offerings, one writer learns what “pace yourself” means.

View of Gap of Dunloe, with a few people walking on road

The Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry, Ireland, is among the highlights on a new Backroads trip.

Photo by essevu/Shutterstock

As I gazed at the route ahead, a long ascent of gray boulders, the editor in me thought how trial and trail are similar. Sweating through my clothes, I wished I’d brought shorts, not rain pants, for my September hiking days in a surprisingly dry and sunny Ireland. This was not what I had signed up for.

Weather is a wild card, but I’d chosen this Backroads trip in County Kerry, labeled “easygoing walking” and “Dolce Tempo” (that’s Italian for “old farts”) for a reason. Seventy is on the horizon and my feet are not what they were. I hated to admit that I qualified as an older traveler, but thank goodness I did not select the standard version of this journey, which includes several more miles per day and greater elevation gains.

To be fair, I am not really a hiker. My daypack and rain pants were brand new, and I was using walking poles for the first time to pick my way among the big rocks. But for my first visit to Ireland, I wanted to see it from more than a train or bus window.

I’d long wanted to try a Backroads adventure, and its new Dolce Tempo offerings—active, but not too active—appealed to me. The premise of these vacations is that you can go at your own pace and do as much or as little as you want, whether than means skipping the afternoon hike or choosing to walk to the hotel later in the day versus ride in the van. I was about to discover that, for the most part, you could take your own sweet time.

A booming focus on seniors

Backroads launched Dolce Tempo in 2021 with 27 choices. Most of them are in Europe and the USA (often in national parks), but there also are trips to New Zealand, Peru, and Southeast Asia. Next year, the company will feature a total of nearly 400 Dolce Tempo departures, with 8 for the Ireland hiking option alone. It’s also introducing Dolce Tempo Family Trips. Besides hiking adventures, Dolce Tempo offerings include biking (using e-bikes) and multi-adventures (such as rafting and kayaking). Clearly, an audience exists for “active, but not too active” trips often aimed at an older clientele, although there are no age restrictions for adults.

Silhouettes of two people at end of path, with "tunnel" of branches above

The first and final days offered easy walks, including this one in Kenmare.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

The Baby Boomers cohort—including retirees with the time and money to travel now—has boosted this trend in travel: More companies are promoting tours geared toward mobile older folks who know that the best way to appreciate a place is by foot. It’s not new: Road Scholar has been in operation since 1975 (when it was known as Elderhostel), with educational programs for retirees; it began offering more active trips about two decades ago. Road Scholar’s focus remains people age 50 and older—two-thirds of its participants are Boomers—aside from some family options, such as those that pair grandparents with grandchildren.

The various offerings of Adventures Abroad include Senior Travel Tours that it labels “soft adventures” for people 50 and older. These tours range from one week to several and are limited to 18 participants. ElderTreks focuses solely on what it calls “small group exotic adventures” for travelers over 50. Among them are hiking treks in Eastern Europe, Oman, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea lasting from one to three weeks at a range of activity levels. Not a hiker? Try Senior Cycling.

Smithsonian Journeys has recently added Active Journeys. Although they are not specifically designed for older travelers, they feature three levels of activity so travelers can choose the pace they want. In addition to several places in Europe, Smithsonian also offers in 2024 three dates for “Gorillas of Rwanda” and “Patagonia Hiking Adventure.” Country Walkers and Walking the World are among the other companies with small-group travel for various levels of activity for any age.

Hitting the trails

For this journey in southwestern Ireland, one concern I had was my fellow travelers. We numbered 20, all couples, aside from me and one other single woman. Ten years ago, when I was sprier, I’d traveled with another well-respected company, dismayed to find myself spending nearly a week with two much older couples, one reluctant to navigate the cobblestones of Old Québec City. They were pleasant but so slow. I did not want a repeat of that experience.

Steep boulder-strewn trail, looking up green hillside

Day Four’s hike called for a pair of hiking poles to navigate steep, rocky sections.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

On our first day, during an easy walk into the Gap of Dunloe, I saw that the group looked fit. I estimated ages from mid-50s to mid-70s, mostly at the higher range. (Later, after talking with them, I discovered I’d underestimated ages in general.) Backroads has a brand-new app that shows you each day’s routes, the distances and options, and the elevation changes. And the peppy three Backroads staff accompanying us told us what to expect before we began each hike. They were enthusiastic and well experienced in leading trips. They were also half our age.

That age gap made me wonder, but we were also accompanied on our most strenuous hike by a winsome retired teacher, Mike Murphy, a local who now works with Backroads as a guide. He handled the trail like the proverbial stroll in a park.

I was surprised that our initial walk followed a paved road busy with cars, horse-drawn wagons, and various other hikers. This was no back road but a popular (and scenic) couple of miles. Although rain was forecast and Backroads had urged us to pack rain pants, Ireland continued to be hot and dry throughout the week.

That weather was a real plus on day two. The morning hike included hills, and the group thinned out, with the fittest folks leading the way while others paused more often to catch their breath. You could savor the scenery. Dolce Tempo is not for the Fitbit fans aiming to maximize their mileage. Along this trail, sheep far outnumbered people.

After a pub lunch, we stopped at Rossbeigh Beach. I knew swimming in the Atlantic was an option from the itinerary, but I had pictured a short, rocky beach and frigid water, all gray. Instead, I was treated to a long, wide sandy beach with sunshine and delightfully brisk but welcome water that I shared with a few other swimmers, mostly locals. No, there wasn’t any place to change or shower, but I didn’t care.

Exterior of gray stone Muckross Abbey ruins, with graveyard

An ancient yew tree grows inside the cloisters at the ruins of Muckross Abbey.

Photo by Davaiphotography/Shutterstock

The walks on day three included Torc waterfall and a ramble among the estate at Muckross with “Master” Murphy (the retired teacher) keeping us entertained and informed about local flora and fauna. The quiet ruins of Muckross Abbey were followed by lunch in Killarney; I was happy to find an ice cream shop with such local flavors as Dingle Sea Salt and Irish Brown Bread. We had options to head directly to the hotel or visit Ross Castle and walk or ride from the castle to the hotel. Each day included longer options for those who wanted to get more miles in, but only a few members of our group opted for the extensions.

On day four, I balked. The detailed preview that our guides presented sounded arduous for the heat: scant shade, lots of ups and downs, the sort of path where you needed to watch most steps to avoid a mishap like twisting an ankle (basically, hot and slow). This was the only day with a single, long hike, the only time we carried sack lunches. (There were no facilities of any sort along this trek.)

The sole option for a shorter hike was to start at the end and only go as far as you wanted before turning around. Yes, that meant I’d probably miss the waterfall, as well as the lively Master, but I was among eight or so who opted for the abbreviated route. As we drove off, he was leading the majority of the group through warm-up exercises; it looked like an Irish version of the hokey-pokey.

We back-enders soon spread out and I was hiking on my own. It was the first time I needed two walking sticks to keep my footing on “paths” that were too often steep heaps of large rocks. I plodded on, realizing I’d have to do this all again in reverse. I abandoned my aim to reach the waterfall and stopped in some rare shade. The weird vegan sandwich Backroads had provided (I’m vegetarian) was its only misstep regarding food all week. I couldn’t even guess what it was made of, so I dined on carrot sticks and hummus with my water. (Later, I learned that the others had prosecco near the waterfall; they also said the first half of the walk was the less strenuous part. So it goes.)

Naturally, the final day of hiking was considerably milder and flatter, with the plus of an appealing picnic (unlike the sad sack lunches of day four). And before a farewell brunch on the morning of departures, we did an actual stroll that included an ancient stone circle only blocks from our hotel, a reminder of where paths can lead you.

In addition to deluxe hotels (two of the three had very welcome swimming pools) and top-tier meals (Backroads is not for bargain hunters), several evenings included cultural extras. These highlights included a local storyteller/poet who also sang songs, an informative comparison tasting of several whiskies, and a local troupe of women and girls playing music on traditional instruments and demonstrating Irish dances. (We all joined in dancing for a rousing finish.)

While I found one day’s outing far from “easygoing,” the trade-off was accomplishing something I would not have tackled on my own. That’s part of travel: getting beyond your routine, trying something new.

Would I sign up for Dolce Tempo again? I’m already trying to decide on one among several prospects for next year. Joey Coe, who has led numerous Dolce Tempo groups, says they tend to attract people with “what I call the ‘joy of missing out’ as opposed to the ‘fear of missing out,’ meaning if their body is telling them it’s time to get off the bike and go to the pool, they tend to be happy about it.” As someone who took advantage of every opportunity to swim on the trip, that’s an approach I applaud.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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