Picture this: The motorcycle begins humming, as you strap on your helmet and adjust your goggles. Soon you’re darting through the labyrinthine streets of Marrakech’s ancient medina, kicking up dust as you careen around sharp corners, through the arched gateways of the city’s old walls, stopping occasionally for a mule-cart traffic jam. The streets are so narrow you could reach out and run your fingers over the carpets or the spices being sold in the souk. You can feel the engine humming, and yet . . . that mechanical rumble is coming not from between your thighs but about two feet or so to your left. You’re just along for the ride.
Welcome to a sidecar tour, which offers all the romance and beauty of a high-speed, Indiana Jones–style adventure without any of the work. The focus needed to master these tight alleyways? The Frogger-like evasive maneuvering? Better leave those to a professional driver, so you can sit back and focus on taking in the scenery.
Sidecars can trace their roots back to 1890s France, when army officer Jean Bertoux won a newspaper contest to invent a new method for carrying a passenger on a bicycle. They went on to become much more associated with motorbikes and emerged as integral parts of military strategy during the World Wars, when they were used to carry machine guns and ammo.
Today, they’ve become an increasingly popular form of soft adventure travel, with tour companies popping up across the globe. You can now ride sidecars through the streets of Singapore and New York, the vineyards of the Napa Valley and Bordeaux, a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia, and the winding mountain roads of the Canadian Rockies. And new outfitters are always arriving, including Third Wheel Tours, which debuted in Paso Robles this summer.
Kensington Tours, which specializes in bespoke luxury travel, has begun adding sidecar journeys to its custom itineraries in Morocco, where it partners with a local outfitter called Marrakech Insiders. The goal is full immersion. “The vintage sidecar excursion overloads your senses with a 360-degree view of the shimmering colors, captivating scents, and vibrating sounds,” says Cynthia Hill, Kensington’s vice president of sales. “It allows you to be up close and personal with the incredible red city of Marrakech.” Beyond the medina, your guide can take you through the former French district of Guéliz, out into the palm grove to see the old khettara irrigation system, or even farther afield into Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains or out into the Agafay Desert.
On the other end of the continent, in Cape Town, Kensington Tours works with Cape Sidecar Adventures, and the company’s founder, Tim Clarke, touts the experience’s in-the-thick-of-it appeal: “As Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said, when you’re traveling in a car or a bus, and the scenery slides by, it’s as if you’re watching a movie. However, if you’re on a motorbike, it’s as if you’re in the movie. That’s exactly the experience our guests enjoy when they’re on one of our old vintage sidecars.”
Clarke stumbled upon sidecar tourism in a roundabout way, as the co-owner of an Irish pub in Shanghai about two decades ago. “I discovered the easiest way to empty my pub at 2 a.m. was to combine a last call for drinks with an offer to carry everyone left to the next all-night pub on my trusty old sidecar, Amanda,” he says. “I was amazed at how enthusiastic everyone was about getting a ride on the bike, and it planted the seed.” When he moved back to Cape Town, he brought Amanda and another six sidecars with him and founded one of the earliest sidecar tour companies in 2005.
Now, with a fleet of 41 sidecars, Clarke and his team take guests along thrilling routes that might include Chapman’s Peak Drive (South Africa’s impossibly scenic answer to the Pacific Coast Highway), the neighboring wine country, and even the Stony Point penguin colony. And beyond the wildlife you might see as you whiz by on the Cape of Good Hope, there’s a four-legged friend on staff who’s become almost as popular as the tours themselves: Brody the rescue dog (@brodysidecar on Instagram) can often be found wearing a bandanna and “doggles” and resting his head on guests’ shoulders during rides.
Another added bonus: The vintage sidecars are catnip for gearheads and history buffs. Both Marrakech Insiders and Cape Sidecar Adventures use Chang Jiang 750 sidecars, Cold War relics with a convoluted backstory. They’re midcentury Chinese replicas of an earlier Soviet model, which was itself “borrowed” from a 1930s-era BMW sidecar design from Germany, and they were later used extensively by the People’s Liberation Army. In Morocco, they became a favorite of the Marrakech police in the 1950s, and as you tool around the medina, you’ll see why they were prized for their zippy agility.
It’s no coincidence that this form of travel has taken off during the pandemic. “The attraction of sidecar tours during the unmentionable was that we were able to offer completely exclusive and bespoke tours without the need to be anywhere near crowds,” Clarke says. Guests were picked up and dropped off at their accommodations, and they ate picnic lunches at secluded spots along the route. “Because our sidecars are smaller and more versatile than conventional vehicles, we can drive to areas that are inaccessible to the hoi polloi and enable guests to remain in their little bubble.”
But beyond the practical, Hill says that many of the most appealing aspects of a sidecar tour dovetail with general trends surrounding the return to international travel. “[Our clients] were bored with the daily routine forced by the lockdown and were ready to be more adventurous,” explains Hill, who says that travelers have been seeking “excitement and the uncommon.”
And with the increasing popularity of multigenerational travel, Hill says, “Younger members are demanding more unique and immersive experiences that are pushing other members of their family outside their comfort zone.” Sure, the wind may be rushing through your hair and the road can get a bit bumpy (that’s half the fun!), but sidecar tours still amount to a comfortable chauffeured ride. Remember, you don’t have to be in the driver’s seat to have the ride of your life.