I was intrigued when I read that the writer Pico Iyer had made Japan his home. Pico is a discerning travel writer and his descriptions of his adopted country make anyone desperate to visit, if not live. A colleague suggested that the Noto Peninsula offered just the right mix of rural countryside, beautiful sea-side vistas, an astounding number of cultural attractions, charming ryokans, great restaurants and more. But how would it be to bike, I asked? At this question, his eyes sparkled and he grinned widely, exclaiming: the biking is some of the best in the world on the quietest roads imaginable.

We put together an itinerary that included a mix of inland and coastal riding, visiting and staying in the towns of Wajima, Suzu Beach, Wakura Onsen, Kanazawa and Yamanaka. We designed the trip around where the best riding is including regions of the interior that are exquisite and this is where the traditional rural villages and quietest roads are. One of the great appeals of this region is the opportunity to stay in charming and luxurious ryokans that are unlike any hotel I have stayed at before. Omotenashi is Japanese hospitality and until you have experienced it first-hand, when staff make you feel an honoured guest, you really can’t imagine. Many of the ryokans have hot springs (onsens) that you can enjoy and provide traditional yukata to wear to the spa (and dinner when dining in!). Did we mention the food? In a word, extraordinary. We mix traditional Japanese meals with French and Italian-fusion restaurants including Ben Flatt’s outstanding restaurant along the coast south of Suzu for a lunch you will never forget. To hear Ben describe his philosophy to food and cooking and why he chose to live in this region of Japan will have you understand its appeal.

Because I have been leading trips for some 35+ years, people often ask what is my favourite trip? My new answer is – Japan – and the Noto Peninsula.

Best time to go? May is ideal. On our May 10-17 trip, the cherry blossoms were still in bloom; rice was being planted and the weather was perfect averaging a balmy 23-26C. We will be offering trips in April, May, and October.

What bikes do we use? We purchased a brand new fleet of Cannondale Quick model hybrid bikes for this trip.

Do we operate the trip? Great Explorations operates our own trips – no ‘middle man mark-up’ which is why our prices offer outstanding value.

Client Reviews?  Here is a comment from a guest from our first trip (May 2019):

Food, biking, cultural events, Ryokan service, onsens were all amazing. For me, rural Japan shows the essence of Japanese culture, that people find something to be passionate about, whether serving tea, preparing food, making paper, or greeting you at a Ryokan. Then they work hard on details to produce something special. And, undoubtably, the result is amazing. Such passion and effort is something we can all learn from. All accommodation was great. Especially loved the quaint seaside location, food and service of the Lamp Ryokan. The final Ryokan had the most amazing service as the staff appeared wherever we were to make sure all went well – the grandfather made a surprise visit at the train station to make sure we got on the right train. Food was also great. The meals provided an opportunity to understand that no matter what kind of food Japan serves, it is amazing. Loved all meals. Loved all events! Maybe the Sake one was a highlight, with the adorable, spunky sake master. The rides were challenging but manageable. I was worried that I was going to “die” each day, but was relieved that the most difficult days were the first 2, and that I could relax(somewhat) for the rest of the trip. Snacks were superb – great mix of salty, sweet, unusual and interesting Japanese fruit, cookies, crackers, powerbars, candy and chocolate. These were the best snacks on a bike trip.” Deborah H. from Toronto, ON.

Want to know more? We offer both Luxe and Classic trips. The itineraries both start from the Noto airport (we include flights from Tokyo). The Luxe trip finishes in Yamanaka and the Classic trip finishes in Kanazawa.

Need inspiration? Stay tuned, video coming soon! The trailer video is now online on both itinerary pages.

 

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations

“No one can predict what will happen in Cuba in the coming years, which is why you must rush there now. As in, right now.” Reif Larsen, NY Times – Havana’s Symphony of Sound

I had always put off going to Cuba, as I wasn’t interested in sitting in Veradero at an all-inclusive resort. I wanted to bike through the country, but stories of pot-holed roads, poor accommodation and bad food put me off. The good news is, things are changing, quickly.

Going to Cuba is still definitely a step back in time. As soon as you arrive to Havana and see the vintage cars driving around (there are at least 700 in Havana alone), you’ll think you landed on a movie set from the 1950’s. On my most recent trip, I was quite surprised with some of the changes that have come to this island in the Caribbean. In addition to the vibrant art and music scene it has long been known for, Havana now boasts new hotels and amazing restaurants; one could easily stay here for a weekend. But to really get to know the country and its people, our advice is to take 8 days and explore the countryside on bike – in Cuba especially, there really is no better way to travel. Central Cuba boasts stunning beaches along its southern coast at Playa Larga and Cienfuegos, Trinidad, and Santa Clara are vibrant and interesting; each provide context for what the country has experienced and what is to come. Americans are starting to visit – contrary to what you read, it is quite easy to get a visa now. In the smaller villages, the casas particularles are not luxurious, but they are certainly clean and comfortable and the hosts as proud and friendly as could be. Live music, as you might guess, is everywhere – The Buenavista Social Club group may be the only band you’ve heard of but there is more musical talent on this island than anywhere I have traveled in the world.

Cycling along the quiet roads along with locals is the best way to experience this country now. On this most recent trip, even in the smaller towns where we stayed, the food was surprisingly very good with lots of variety. We ate lobster, fish, beef, pork and chicken. Every evening restaurant we dined in offered complimentary cuba libres or a mojito.

We met a family cycling on two tandems; the children were 5 yrs and 7 yrs and they were cycling around the whole country. The parents told us it was the safest country they had ever cycled in and that the kids were loving it. We felt a bit guilty with our customized support bus with AC, but everyone acknowledged the benefit of having local guides who showed us sites that the family would never have found on their own. In Trinidad, perhaps my favourite city, we spent a fun evening at the Casa de la Musica salsa dancing with Cubans on a large outdoor dance floor as an amazing band with a dozen musicians played their hearts out. Everyone was happy and smiling and you realized that despite living on so little, Cubans certainly enjoy themselves. They pride themselves on their spirit of community and egalitarianism; my hope is that as the country opens further, that they hold on to this spirit and sense of pride that they have. It’s a moment in time to be treasured.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations

Central Cuba Biking

After 5 days of glorious sunshine, riding through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, I was leaving the town of Kobarid, Slovenia, when the skies darkened and a downpour began. My luggage had been sent ahead to Cividale, where I had intended to reach late afternoon, but I thought to find some shelter to let the storm pass. As luck would have it, I pulled into a charming Inn, called Hisa Franko, owned by Slovenian couple Valter and Anna. I later learned that this Inn and famed restaurant were known throughout Slovenia and Europe. I was met by Vander himself at the door who ushered me quickly inside, taking my bicycle and offering me a table in the glass enclosed dining room, where I could sit and decide on a plan. He suggested I stay the night but I responded that I didn’t have any clothes, just the wet bike kit I was wearing. He disappeared into his house and came back with an Armani shirt, pants, socks and shoes and with that, I decided fate required me to stay over. After reading, and a wee snooze, I came down to dinner for what was to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. Before dinner, Valter showed me the kitchen, which was presided over by Anna, the chef de cuisine extraordinaire. And then it began – a 9 course tasting menu. Valter is a master sommelier with an extensive wine cellar and I lost count of how many bottles he opened to serve. Each was the perfect compliment for the perfect course. I rarely dine alone but the service and soul in this sacred room was such that boredom was impossible. After the last course, I was invited to the next table by a group of visitors from Denmark  on a fly-fishing trip and Vander joined us with a bottle of Prosecco we which we enjoyed until after midnight. It was an extraordinary dinner and evening that I will not forget. But this was getting ahead of myself…

 

I was in Slovenia to develop a new cycling trip as the country has been getting some press lately about its attractions (NY Times, National Geographic Traveler and others). I knew the cycling was great from our guides who had traveled there extensively and I had an overview plan of what we wanted to do. We clearly wanted to start from Ljubljana and finish in the Friuli region of Italy, combining two countries. It made sense to us to begin in Slovenia because the prevailing wind is from the north – who likes riding into the wind? The other important reason is Vrsic pass, which has cobblestones on the hairpin turns on the north side, which are not a problem to ride up, but potentially dangerous when descending – there are no cobblestones on the southern descent, and this days’ ride, descending the Soca valley ranks as one of the best all-time rides of my life. The scenery is that good.

 

When we research a new trip, we look to see what others are doing and obviously try to come up with something that is unique and better than any other trip. I think we have done it and if you read on you’ll see how. The first question to ask a tour operator is how they (and their tour) differs from what is out there.

How are we different?

 The first thing to note in Slovenia, is that quality local bikes are simply not available, so we have brought in our own line of light-weight bikes with proper gearing (shimano 105 with 11-32 and triple). Lance Armstrong was wrong about a few things, and when he said ‘it is not about the bike’ we think that on a bicycle tour, it is, perhaps for many, ALL about the bike. We know that if you don’t enjoy the ride, you won’t enjoy much else.

The second thing of importance here is support. On our guided trips, our guides are simply the best, with proper training and local knowledge that will make the difference in your trip experience. Hotels are obviously a key determinant in the quality of your trip. We don’t hide the names of where we stay. Our Classic trip stays at the charming Lesar Hotel Angel in Ljubljana, the Hotel Astoria in Bled, Hotel Mangart in Bovec and Al Pomo D’Oro in Cividale. On our luxe trip, we use the Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa in Ljubljana, 5-star Grand Hotel Toplice in Bled; luxurious Dobra Vila in Bovec and at the 4-star wellness resort, Al Castello in Cividale.

Our route begins in Ljubljana – we don’t think a trip to Slovenia should skip this city, which New York Times describes as having “ its fair share of charming Old World Plazas, baroque churches, and dramatic castles, and having a rich cultural scene that would be impressive in a city twice its size”. We have carefully researched the quietest routes in each of Slovenia and Friuli, Italy and with our extensive list of local contacts (you’ll meet some on tour), share our secret viewpoints, wine tasting opportunities, castles and more.

We don’t like to start comparisons by highlighting the value of our trip, but compared to the $4,000+ that, for example the another company charges, our trips offer superb value. We make this promise: you will love your bike and the riding and you will experience Slovenia and Friuli in a way that only this kind of travel can.

If you go

Great Explorations offers guided 7 day/6 night trips beginning in Ljubljana and finishing in Venice.
Classic: Departures May through October
Luxe: Departures May through October

Partner company Randonnee Tours offers 6, 7, 8, 9 day self-guided trips that can start any date.

Great Explorations offers lots of trips to some of the most exotic and interesting regions on the planet. To help you decide which to choose, start by deciding which country you want to visit. This might be a factor of the time you want to travel. Obviously, you will want to take into consideration climate; if traveling in November or December, you may prefer Chile or Morocco or Vietnam over western Europe for example. We rate all of our trips so you can challenge yourself as much as you like. We have designed our trips to be suitable for various fitness levels, so even in a place like Tuscany or in the hillier parts of France, we offer options for moderate rides on every trip. We include a ‘Straight Talk’ to provide any potential draw-backs whether they be levels of service or traffic. We have prepared videos to help you see first-hand what it is like to travel with us. But best of all, we suggest you speak with one of our knowledgeable Travel Advisors. Call Robbin McKinney at 800.242.1825.