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THE INTERVIEW: TOM HALE

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I first met Tom Hale, the founder and president of Backroads, in his Berkeley, California headquarters about eight years ago. And I was a little floored by his exercise regimen.

That morning, as on most mornings, he had risen somewhere between three and four to exercise. He had done 400 stomach exercises, 250 pushups, 20 minutes of weights, a slow six mile jog and 40 minutes of stretching, the latter while sipping coffee and reading newspapers.

"I’m a very competitive, goal-oriented, measurement-oriented individual," Hale told me at the time, holding a chart on which he’d worked out an elaborate point system for his exercise routine. "And we are very measurement-oriented around here."

It’s that attention to detail, athleticism and sheer drive that has brought Hale to the top of the adventure travel profession. Backroads, the company Hale founded in 1979, is the world’s largest active vacation company. And it came to him "in the middle of the night. I had this idea that I wanted to take people on bicycle trips. So I wrote eight pages of notes between 2 and 8 AM. My big life changes tend to be in the middle of the night. As for decisions, the bigger they are, the faster I make them."

Last year, Backroads sent about 15,000 clients on 228 different itineraries around the world at an average trip price of $3,200. I caught up with Hale just before he was out the door for his next jaunt.

WHERE ARE YOU NOW?

On my way to Budapest where I’ll meet up with 115 Backroads staff for an epic ride through Slovakia before hiking over the High Tatras and ending in Krakow. I feel pretty lucky to be able to travel with so many folks that are so passionate about travel. We truly live and breathe this stuff.

WHERE HAVE YOU JUST RETURNED FROM?

My last trip was with 25 friends in Croatia where we sailed between islands on the Dalmatian Coast and biked, ate and laughed our way through the islands. It started out as a small group but the response to my invite was so overwhelming that I had to start saying no 2 weeks after I sent it.

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BACKROADS STARTED OUT AS A BIKING COMPANY NEARLY 30 YEARS AGO, IN 1979. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IT IN 2006?

We’re a travel company that creates epic experiences for people. Biking is still a big part of it as is hiking and walking, but going deep into the culture is even a bigger part of what we do. We celebrate what active travel is really all about: an eagerness to get deep into a region’s cultural nuances and daily rhythms, a curiosity about what’s down that cobbled street or behind those temple walls. The way we transport ourselves is simply a superior way of accessing the cultural and natural richness of a place.

HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE THE BACKROADS APPROACH TO ADVENTURE TRAVEL?

The essence of a Backroads trip has always gone beyond particular activities to something more fundamental – a desire to journey into the heart of a region and experience it up close, with the freedom and flexibility to explore on your own terms. Even on the most physically active Backroads trips, it’s never just about the routes you bike or hike. It’s also the engaging leaders who take you to places you’d never see on your own, the acknowledged experts on everything from wine to art to architecture – and of course the local people we’ve met over the years, telling you their stories and welcoming you into their homes.

ANY NEW DESTINATIONS THIS YEAR?

Tibet, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, Italy’s Piemonte wine region, biking above the arctic circle in Norway, heli-hiking in the Canadian Rockies, an incredible active safari in South Africa/Botswana, Budapest to Krakow.

YOU’VE GONE TO GREAT LENGTHS TO COME UP WITH A TRIP DIFFICULTY RATING SYSTEM THAT MAKES SENSE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT?

We know that your pace may vary from one day to the next-and your traveling companion’s may differ from yours. So every Backroads trip is designed to appeal to a wide variety of interests and fitness levels. Each day you decide what and how much you want to do. When you are shopping for a trip, you’ll find the daily mileage option for each day on our website so you can make an informed choice about which trip appeals. If that’s too much information, our overall trip rating of 1(easier) to 5 (more challenging) is a pretty straightforward way to choose.

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WHAT DESTINATIONS WORK ESPECIALLY WELL FOR YOU WHEN YOU TRAVEL WITH YOUR KIDS?

We take our three kids everywhere. I haven’t found a place that doesn’t work (except perhaps a certain theme park in Florida). On our own, it takes patience, planning, flexible expectations and a whole lot of know-how. When we go on Backroads trips, it truly is a vacation for my wife and I as the planning and coordination is all taken care of.

HOW OFTEN DO YOU TRAVEL? IS IT USUALLY FOR BUSINESS OR FOR PLEASURE?

Every month or two – it’s almost always for both, but I almost feel guilty calling my work business, since I have so much fun. What’s not to love? Being outdoors, staying at great places, experiencing wonderful cultures, eating incredible food, trying wines from around the world, being really active then kicking back with new friends and old ones. I love my job.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT TRAVEL? WHAT DO YOU DETEST?

Backroads has allowed me to travel in a manner where I really do love most of it. I’m especially fond of connecting with our guests and different cultures–its extremely rewarding and a true gift. I’d have to say I’m not fond of long flights and the jet lag that comes with them. But I sure can get a lot of work done sitting on a plane. I’m still thinking of setting up an airline seat in my office, but for some reason I don’t think the dynamic will translate in terms of productivity.

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IS THERE A SPECIAL PLACE YOU’D LIKE TO VISIT?

I’ve always wanted to explore Northern Argentina. And just about anywhere with a great trail that I’ve never been on.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE TRIPS AT THE MOMENT?

Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast and, of course, just the thought of biking through Slovakia with 100+ incredibly positive and fun loving Backroads staff is amazing.

WHAT CAN’T YOU LEAVE HOME WITHOUT WHEN YOU TRAVEL?

Running shoes, a good book.

WHEN I MET YOU EIGHT YEARS AGO, YOU HAD A RIGOROUS EXERCISE SCHEDULE THAT BEGAN IN THE EARLY MORNING. WHAT DO YOU DO NOW TO STAY FIT?

I constantly vary my getting outdoors/workout routine. Marin County may be the best place in the world for biking and hiking within 10 miles of a major urban area. The trail system is diverse, beautiful and far-ranging. If I’m not trail-running past lakes, through redwoods with views of the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco, I’m mountain or road biking on some of the world’s most beautiful routes. My favorite 30 mile road ride has almost no traffic and is drop dead gorgeous. In the winter, I skate ski the Sierra. And yes, I still am known to get out there with a headlamp on at 5:00 a.m. or so.

HOW DO YOU STAY WELL-INFORMED?

I’ll admit to being a news junkie. But I am trying my best to give up TV altogether. I still love newspapers and read the International Herald Tribune or New York Times on line when I travel. Plus I always do a fair amount of reading up on current events before I set off to a new country. I like the way everything you learn about a country you visit contributes to a deeper understanding of how everything fits together.

WHAT ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?

"A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry

THE NEXT BIG DESTINATIONS FOR BACKROADS?

Eastern Europe including Budapest to Krakow – both biking and hiking trips. Latin America in general.

WHERE ARE YOU OFF TO NEXT?

Northern Argentina this winter – checking out a new trip idea there.

Backroads, 801 Cedar Street, Berkeley, CA 94710; 800-GO-ACTIVE; www.backroads.com

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