On your marks, get set ... and just go

No tickets for London’s big event? Get into the Olympic spirit on a tour with a sporting twist, says Sally Howard

WITH 97 days to go until the opening ceremony of the Games of the XXX Olympiad, otherwise known as London 2012, it’s all go in the host city.

The gleaming white ellipse of the new Olympic Stadium is getting its final lick of paint; Sebastian Coe, chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee, is practising his speech; and artistic director Danny Boyle is busy rehearsing the 20,000 civilians who will star in the opening ceremony.

London is so near, but if you’re without a ticket for the Games, you’re probably wondering how to mark the sporting event.

There’s always the television coverage. Or you could really get into the Olympic spirit, as a flurry of new and improved escorted tours offer a sporting experience as an inclusion or optional extra. Get on your marks with our pick of the best escorted holidays with a sporting twist.

CHINA AND THE BIRD’S NEST

Beijing, host city for the 2008 Olympics, set the bar high. The event’s centrepiece, and site of the €78m opening ceremony, was the Beijing National Stadium. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron sought to combine high art and ancient Chinese mythology in its design, and the result was a spectacular mass of interwoven ribbons, or a bird’s nest, as it was soon nicknamed.

Sunway’s ‘Classic China’ tour includes a look at the stadium in an eight-night itinerary showcasing both old and stridently new China. From Beijing you’ll travel to see the Great Wall of China, the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, and of course, take in sights like Tiananmen Square and the Summer Palace.

After Xi’an, it’s on to Shanghai with a look at the Old Town, where you’ll spend two nights. Must-do’s here include the Bund, the ornamental Yu Garden, a performance of the Shanghai Acrobats and the Urban Planning Exhibition Center, for a glimpse of where the city is setting its sights.

Details: Sunway (01-2311858; sunway.ie) offers an eight-night Classic China tour, with departures until Oct 19. Prices from €1,899pp to €2,049pp, excluding flights.

ANCIENT GREECE AND OLYMPIA

As the pomp of the 21st century Olympics plays out in London, why not see where it all began? At the original Games (first held in the 8th century BC), sportsmen competed naked and winners were garlanded with laurel in a festival that was as much a religious as a sporting event.

Cox & Kings’ eight-day tour begins at the Panathenaic stadium in Athens, where the first Olympics of the modern era were held in 1896. There’s time to explore the city’s other big-hitting sites, including Hadrian’s Arch, the Parthenon and the Acropolis.

Then it’s on to the ancient theatre at Epidaurus and the well-preserved ruined city of Mycenae en route to Olympia, birthplace of the original Games. Although the judges’ platform has been preserved, grass has reclaimed the stadium, but you can still explore the ruins of temples dedicated to Zeus and Hera.

You’ll spend a morning at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Delphi before stopping at Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans fought King Xerxes in the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC. Back in Athens, unwind with a boat tour of the Saronic islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina.

Details: Cox & Kings (+44 20 78735000; coxandkings.co.uk) has an eight-day ‘Journey through Ancient Greece’ tour departing between August and October 2012 from £1,225pp/€1485pp, including flights from London Heathrow. Irish customers can book connecting flights to Heathrow, or take the land-only tour (from £1,080pp/€1,310pp) and buy their own flights to Athens.

NATURAL WONDERS IN NORTH AMERICA

This roaming-cowboy itinerary plunges you into the heart of North America’s national parks. Landing into Las Vegas, you’ll overnight at the Tropicana before heading straight out to Bryce Canyon National Park, and onwards towards through Salt Lake City and Grand Teton, with its backdrop of glaciers, forests and snow-capped mountains, not to mention elks and bald eagles as companions.

A highlight is a two-night stay beside Yellowstone National Park, where you can see the Old Faithful Geyser, which shoots water up to 184ft into the blue Wyoming sky. Day Six includes a whole day on a tour in Yellowstone, taking in the Lower Falls, Midway Geyser Basin, Hayden Meadow and plenty of hot pools, mud pots and geysers — before heading via Cody into Montana and Little Bighorn.

The Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon complete the tour. The sporting inspiration is in Salt Lake City on day three — with a city orientation tour that could include sights like Utah Olympic Oval and Soldier’s Hollow, the setting for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

Details: American Sky (068-56862; americansky.ie) offers a 14-day Scenic Parks Explorer tour, with departures between May and September 2012. From €2,659pp, including flights.

WORLD-CLASS YACHTS IN NEW ZEALAND

With dramatic landscapes that have inspired filmmakers, New Zealand’s two main islands offer something for everyone. GoHop.ie makes the most of the country’s varied topography with a 14-day itinerary holidaymakers can book either as a self-drive or escorted tour.

The basic itinerary includes Auckland, Rotorua, Napier, Wellington, Christchurch, Queenstown and Dunedin, and self-drivers can colour in the rest by doing a bit of exploring themselves. The ferry crossing between New Zealand’s north and south islands is included.

There are plenty of sight-seeing activities bundled in Rotorua, too — including a guided tour through Te Puia Thermal Reserve to see roaring geysers and boiling mud pools, Rainbow Springs, the Agrodome Leisure Park, a gondola cable car ride to the Skyline Skyride Complex, and the Polynesian Spa. And don’t miss the traditional Maori “hangi” (feast) and concert.

Details: GoHop.ie (01-2412389) has this 14-day North and South Island tour from €1,449pp (self-drive) or €1,899pp (escorted) until Sept 30, excluding flights.

CYCLE VIETNAM

You don’t need a Tour de France yellow jersey for this 14-day cycling holiday along the country and coastal roads of one of south-east Asia’s friendliest nations. The trip offers some of the best cycling in Vietnam, and you can pedal as much or as little as you like (the group is accompanied by guides, a mechanic and a support vehicle for 90% of the time).

The tour starts in Saigon, before taking a mix of driving and cycling to the famous Cu Chi tunnels. From there, it’s a transfer to the coast and a cycle to Mui Ne — don’t miss the spectacular coastal roads between Mui Ne and Vung Tau, truly an exhilarating, wind-in-your hair experience.

Next up is a cycle to the Central Highlands, where you can explore rustic villages, tea plantations and the former French hill station of Dalat. From there, the tour heads to the coastal resort of Nha Trang, where you’ll dine on seafood as you cruise and snorkel around the islands of the South China Sea. The buzzing port town of Quy Nhon is next, before a transfer to Hoi An.

The final portion includes a ride over the spectacular Hai Van Pass, a visit to the former imperial capital, Hue, and an overnight train to Hanoi.

From the capital, you can take a cruise or kayak trip amongst the amazing limestone formations of Halong Bay.

Details: Abbey Travel (01-8047100; abbeytravel.ie) offers a 14-day Cycling Vietnam tour, with departures between July 2012 and March 2013. From €2,230pp, including flights.

SCENIC WALKING IN GERMANY’S AHR VALLEY

A photo-worthy moment every few steps accompanies this walking tour of the Ahr Valley in Germany. Gentle to-moderate rambles take you through the verdant Eifel Hills region, with the gleaming Moselle River to the south and the Rhine flanking you to the east.

The steep clefts of the Ahr Valley create a protected climate perfect for walkers. It’s good for vines, too, and you’ll pad past several steeply terraced vineyards en route. Sample the local wine as you rest your legs in the pretty half-timbered town of Altenahr. You’ll soon discover why they keep their full-bodied Spätburgunders (pinot noirs) to themselves.

Details: Travelsphere (0844-5679966; travelsphere.co.uk) has a five-day walking holiday in the Ahr Valley, with departures to September 2012 from £334/€405pp, including coach travel from the UK. Irish customers can be collected by coach from London Victoria Station.

CANADA AND THE CALGARY STAMPEDE

Move over London 2012. The Calgary Stampede — a 10-day rodeo, exhibition and festival held in the Canadian Rockies every July — bills itself, with all the confidence of a bareback rider, “the greatest outdoor show on Earth”.

Celebrating its centenary this year, Calgary’s annual display features chaotic chuck-wagon races, a 150-float parade and a rodeo in which cowboys and girls compete to win big bucks in roping, wrestling and bareback riding contests.

Catch a glimpse of the action on Canadian Sky’s nine-day Western Explorer ‘Rockies by Rail’ tour. Starting in Calgary, it includes a helicopter flight over the Rockies en route to Banff and takes in the Yoho National Park, Lake Louise, Jasper and — with two days’ rail travel on the Rocky Mountaineer — the scenic Continental Divide.

You’ll stay overnight in the cosmopolitan coastal city of Vancouver, before flying home with your rodeo stories and Centennial Stampede souvenirs.

Details: Canadian Sky (01-6649910; canadiansky.ie) offers a nine-day Western Explorer tour, departing July 14, 2012 (the Calgary Stampede runs from July 6-15) from €3,009pp, including flights.

Additional reporting by Pól Ó Conghaile

Picture: Shawn Greenfield, of Lakeview, Ore., wrestles a steer as his horse gallops past during Calgary Stampede rodeo action in Calgary, Canada

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