Illustration: Michael Mucci
If you think big experiences must come with big vacations, think again. A growing range of getaways shows that short breaks can be long on adventure.
IF TIME is tight and lying on a beach is not your thing, get acquainted with the new-look short break.
While there will always be a market for the fly'n'flop holiday, travellers are seeking and finding new experiential and adventurous short breaks.
Such trips, while they tend to be more expensive, can provide a more satisfying replacement for a longer holiday - not to mention better bragging rights.
Why come home and tell friends you sat by a pool when you can say you discovered a new culture, swam with dolphins, slept out in the desert or did a famous walk?
The trend to short breaks means the travel industry is providing new options for travellers.
Intrepid Travel, which has traditionally catered to travellers going on big overseas adventures, says its two "major product investments" for 2010 are short-break products.
The company has released a collection of tours ranging from two to five days, as well as day tours for the first time. The Urban Adventures day tours, available in 50 cities around the world and soon to be expanded to more than 100, are aimed at travellers who have limited time but still want to "get under the skin" of a city, rather than taking a vanilla tour of the obvious sights.
A spokeswoman for Intrepid, Robyn Nixon, says the new products have been introduced to take the company's style of travel to a broader market and meet fast-growing demand for experience-based travel.
Nixon says the rise of the low-cost airline has been one of the biggest factors in making short breaks an affordable alternative to having one long holiday.
"It reflects what happened in Europe a decade ago when easyJet and the like made their debut," she says. "Now the British are likely to take anywhere between two and five trips a year."
A recent survey by Expedia found 8 per cent of Australians take more than five short-break holidays a year and 60 per cent take one or two.
Australian tour operator AAT Kings is now pushing experiential short breaks in the Northern Territory, a destination which travellers have traditionally set aside for longer holidays.
The company says bookings for its NT short-breaks program are up 19 per cent on last year and the majority of the growth has come from Australian travellers.
Also shortening its trips to meet demand is Cradle Mountain Huts, which offers guided walks on the Overland Track in Tasmania.
Three- and four-day options are now available as an alternative to the traditional six-day walk, for those who want the experience without so much time away.
Luxury travel operator Abercrombie & Kent is another operator expanding its short-breaks offering, with new itineraries for 2010 including an air tour to remote communities of Aboriginal artists.
A strongly emerging trend is short breaks combining adventure activities with a bit of luxury, to satisfy the desire for both experience and relaxation.
A good example is a new "paddle and pamper" package on the Gold Coast, combining sea adventures led by Australian Kayaking Adventures with pampering by Ripple Massage.
Cruising is also being bitten by the short-break bug, with figures from the International Cruise Council Australasia showing the percentage of passengers taking cruises of four days or less has risen from 4.5 per cent last year to 7.8 per cent this year.
Though a small percentage of the total market, it's a trend that's expected to continue.
P&O has 16 short itineraries in its present program, helped by the adoption of more home ports within Australia. Food and wine tours are also accounting for a lot of short getaways.
Karen Ridge of Food and Wine Travel in Melbourne says most Australians booking gourmet weekends and short food tours in New Zealand are taking them as stand-alone breaks.
Ski resorts are also targeting time-poor (and cash rich) travellers, with fly-in packages that allow for weekend trips.
Victoria's Hotham has a two-night "fly, stay and ski package" with direct flights from Sydney to Hotham Airport and the Denman Hotel & Spa at Thredbo has released a luxury two-day "fly and ski" package that includes having ski equipment and clothing waiting for you at the hotel.
Click to walk, dive or ride
Booking an interesting short break need be no harder than making a hotel reservation if you take advantage of ready-made packages.
Red Balloon Days (redballoondays.com.au) is one of the best places to look, with a good range of short breaks including overnight horse rides, diving weekends, bushwalking weekends and outback trips — all of which can be booked with a few clicks.
Lastminute.com.au is another good site, with trips such as overnight kayaking tours and two-day surf camps.