By Gary Gately It's nearly springtime, and for many travelers a winter's hibernation will soon give way to an adventurer's restlessness once more. Think hiking mountains or strolling through European villages, biking battlefields and wooded paths, canoeing lazy rivers, kayaking the seas, or spying wild eagles and osprey in their habitats. Where to go to satisfy the wanderlust?
I start right in my office, with a trip to the Great Outdoor Recreation Pages (GORP.com). This Web site, which attracts 20 million page views a month, has become an essential first stop for me when planning a trip. It's a leader among a number of contenders carving out a distinct niche in the crowded Web-vacation market: adventure travel. GORP is a vast treasure trove of exciting places to go, whether you want to take a weekend saunter near the big city or trot the globe in search of a mountain to scale, a river to cross, or a wilderness site where you can pitch tent.
Cybertravel is nothing new, of course, and I've used a number of Web services to book everything from seats for a concert to plane tickets and accommodations in Paris, London, and New York. So I'm not easily wowed by yet another travel site. I've bookmarked a few dozen and visit them regularly, but have quickly passed over many more than that. Too many sites are hard to navigate, poorly written, and fail to deliver their promised best bargains or evocative content.
THAT'S AMORE. All of which makes a trip to GORP that much more satisfying by comparison, especially for adventure travel, a fast-growing market now estimated at nearly $450 billion a year. At GORP, I find everything I'm looking for -- and more -- to plan, well, a great adventure. GORP offers more than 200,000 pages of reliable content, including well-written pieces by travel writers who know their turf intimately, excellent photos, detailed maps, even online video clips. Expertise comes not only from the writers but also from lively forums, discussions, and polls.
And when you're ready to book, GORPtravel offers one-stop shopping for thousands of trips, offered jointly with reputable operators worldwide. Before you head out, you can shop the GORPgear store and choose from among 180 top brands of outdoor clothing, gear, and footwear, or click around in the Adventurous Traveler Bookstore to hunt for relevant reading material.
One example: Browsing GORPtravel, the allure of Southern Italy's Amalfi Coast, casually recommended to me by an acquaintance, quickly takes hold. Reading along, I'm not sure what enchants me most. Maybe it's the ancient stairs twisting through the rocks and the silvery olive groves. Or perhaps it's the prospect of fields of roses and ancient coastal towns. But it's amore, for sure, and I'm ready to go. GORP tells me what I need to know, and makes it easy to make a deal. The "Italy Hiking & Biking" tour offered on the site includes accommodations in family inns, B&Bs, and hotels, continental breakfasts, a picnic and most dinners, wine and food tastings, museum visits, and multilingual guides. At $2,095 a week per person, the price seems reasonable, given all it includes.
WEB PIONEERS. But it's not bargains alone that inspire outdoor enthusiasts to go with GORP. The site, which started in 1995, has developed a stellar reputation for delivering what it promises. And as other Web plays have faltered and failed in the dot-com shakeout, the user experience at GORP has kept getting better. Last month, GORP launched a co-branded site on America Online (keyword: GORP) that will bring its content directly to 28 million AOL users. And GORP has expanded an agreement with Yahoo!, adding GORP features to the giant search engine's "National Parks" and "Mountain Biking" sections.
Other new content-distribution agreements bring GORP material to other well-trafficked sites, including ones aimed at college students and outdoor enthusiasts. On the retail end, GORP's online market has added products from fishing-gear outfitter Orvis, as well as Duncraft, the mail-order and Net store for birders.
But GORP's growth notwithstanding, the site remains true to the mission of its founders, Bill and Diane Greer, whose early efforts to plan trips on the Web proved overwhelming and time-consuming. Unable to find a simple, entertaining site for outdoors enthusiasts, the Greers invented one. Today, GORP remains easy to use, practical -- and a joy to visit. Gately is a freelance travel and technology writer in Baltimore