Linda and John Black love to bike and love to cruise.
So, for them, it was a no-brainer to combine the two and try to make a living doing it.
“It was one of those things where we thought, ‘Why didn’t we think of doing it sooner, “ said John Black, referring to the idea of starting a bike and cruise tour company, “It’s true when they say to do what you love and the money and happiness will follow.”
Twenty-one years ago, while living in Oregon, the couple came up with an idea to start a bike tour company that takes cyclists riding all over the Caribbean. The Blacks did their research, finding locals on the islands to serve as guides, planning itineraries, mapping out trails and negotiating a deal with a cruise line that allowed bikes on board. Next, they placed an ad in Bicycle Magazine and the tour company took off from there.
“The phone started ringing off the hook and the business just evolved from that first ad,” said Linda Black, 57, who has a part-time job as a home caregiver. John Black, 62, runs the business full-time and dabbles in a band.
The Blacks’ company, Bike and Cruise Tours, partners with Norwegian Cruise Line so participants can take cycle tours of various islands and also enjoy a cruise.
“All the other tours go from hotel to hotel,” said Linda Black, who has been riding since 1986, “This is different. They get on a ship and have a cabin. They get off on a new island every day.”
The Blacks’ nine-day cruise of the Caribbean has stops in the Dominican Republic, Tortola, Antigua, Barbados, St. Kitts and includes two full days on board during the cruise. When not at sea, participants ride on flat to hilly terrain, good roads to bumpy ones and through lush tropical foliage. Each ride ends at a pristine beach spot where lunch is served. Riders then have free time to explore the island.
The Blacks suggest bikers be fairly fit, able to ride at least 20 miles and consider themselves average or above skill level cyclists. No beginners. Those who go on the tour are encouraged to train two or three times week on a bike for 20 miles or more on different types of terrain. This can be simulated on a stationary bike. They also recommend getting familiar with the gears on a 21-gear mountain bike. Even though there will be a safety lesson on the first day that covers gear shifting, riders should know how to do it and brake correctly.
Before the trip, participants need to pack proper equipment for the bike rides: helmet, gloves, cycling attire, including bottoms that have padding, tennis shoes, a bike bag that attaches to the bike, water bottle or hydration pack and sunblock. The Blacks prefer participants not bring their own bikes. A wide selection of top-of-the-line ones is provided, they say.
Linda Black has visited the Caribbean numerous times, but she said it never gets old. In fact, the Blacks moved to Naples from Oregon 3½ years ago so they would have the feel of the Caribbean around them all the time.
The couple also conduct a bike tour later added a nine-day bike-and-cruise tour of Alaska with cycling tours in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria and a full day on board cruising Glacier Bay with a narration by a park ranger.
“Glacier Bay is my favorite,” said John Black who has been riding bikes all his life, but started serious cycling in 1978, “It’s absolutely spectacular and definitely the highlight of the Alaska trip.”
The Blacks have had their share of spills and thrill, but the most frightening was an encounter with a bear several years ago in Alaska. John Black was standing on a platform looking out to the scenery when a bear ambled up beside him. Fortunately for him, a small wooden fence separated him from the large animal. Unfortunately, he didn’t even notice that he had company. Linda Black did, but she said in that moment she was rendered almost speechless. She finally yelled a warning to her husband, causing him to jump back and retreat.
“It was pretty scary,” said Linda about the experience, “We see bears maybe a handful of times. Mostly running across the road, but this time it was too close.”
The Blacks, who go on four or five trips a year, said many of the travelers on their tours are moderately fit and accustomed to riding, but they are not competitive cyclists. Most of the time, the roughly 20 participants are leisure, average and above-skill level bikers. Accompanying the tour group on all rides is a van for cyclists who need a break and local guides who know the terrain well.
“Once in a while we get some mountain bike people, “ Linda Black said, “But we have had people in their 70s and families with kids as young as 12. It’s really not about hard-core riding and more about fun.”
There’s always an eclectic mix of participants, and trying to make each person in a diverse group happy can be one of the most challenging aspects, acknowledged John Black. The Blacks arrange group dinners and cocktail parties on board to get members to loosen up and socialize.
“I’ve seen some very grumpy people,” John Black said. “But by the end of the trip, they are talking to everyone, waving to locals and having a good time. It’s nice to see the transition.”
Linda Black said the Caribbean and Alaska tours have many repeat customers. Some have taken the same tours five or six times, so the Blacks added an annual tour in Europe to cater to those repeat clients who wanted more variety. Last year, they took a group cruising and biking along the Danube River in south-central Europe. The next European trip is to Italy.
“A lot of people say, ‘We want your jobs,’” John Black said. “They think it’s a constant vacation, but it’s a lot of work, a lot of responsibility to try to make everyone happy — and it’s also fun.”