'Adventure downshifting'

Ground down by the grind? Reached your city limits? Whether you want to run for the hills or simply paddle your own canoe, Mark MacKenzie suggests that 'adventure downshifting' could be the answer
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The Independent Travel

The glut of television programmes and newspaper columns offering various forms of lifestyle audit - property/diet/nose job - may have left you with the impression that improving your work/life balance is something new. Yet escaping the hustle and hassle of city living for the great outdoors is a concept as old as the hills, and for adventure-sports enthusiasts, living close to where you can indulge your passion has always been a no-brainer.

From the climbing enclaves that sprang up in Europe and North America as long as 100 years ago to the pioneering mountain bikers of California's Marin County in the 1970s, the result has been the organic growth of sport-specific communities. The same applies to the global surf community; whether paddling off Bondi or the coast of Brazil, all come in search of the sporting good life.

Recently the idea has enjoyed a mainstream revival, and not just among those looking for a permanent base from which to live, work and play. If a sporting hotspot can sustain a permanent population, however small, it doesn't require a huge leap of imagination to realise it might have enough to keep you busy for a week or even a month.

In the US, finding the ultimate "adventure town" is something of an obsession for that country's specialist outdoor press. National Geographic magazine recently added Missoula, in Montana, to an unofficial list which, down the years, has brought us Boulder, in Colorado, and Moab, in Utah. So what makes makes Missoula an adventure town, and what are the alternatives?

The all-rounder

For outdoorsmen and women, Missoula has all the makings of a quintes-sential downshifting town. The nearby University of Montana attracts active academics for, as national-geographic.com points out, Missoula is "home to four major mountain ranges, five trout-laden streams... and hundreds of miles of trails [weaving] in and around [the city]".

Mountain bikers and hikers in particular are drawn to the 61,000-acre Rattle-snake National Recreation and Wilderness Area, just five miles out of town and home to the 7,971ft Stuart Peak. Nearby, the Montana Snowbowl resort covers 2,600 vertical feet over 500 acres and enjoys 300 inches of snow a year.

Kayakers and rafters benefit from a specialist white-water park on the stretch of the Clark Fork River that passes through town. If you were to think of permanent relocation, though, not only is there the small matter of US citizenship but the average wage is just shy of £15,000, and house prices have risen significantly.

For advice on activities in the Rattlesnake area: stateparks.com/ rattlesnake. For bike-trail suggestions and/or bike hire: missoulabike.org. For details of skiing in the area: montanasnowbowl.com

Just add water

This European city might not have much in common with Montana's "Big Sky" country, but Dubrovnik is part of a nation that includes 1,200 Adriatic islands. Put simply, Croatia is what heaven looks like to a water-sports fanatic. There are countless locations for sea kayaking and rafting within a stone's throw of the capital, and further afield, the Dalmatian coast is nothing short of spectacular.

Adria Adventure in Dub-rovnik is run by Ivana Grzetic, a former Miss Croatia and adventure racer, and Edi Brkic, a professional water-polo player. They offer week-long camping and paddling tours around the Elafiti Islands which run parallel to the mainland.

But what is really boosting Croatia's reputation is its world-class yachting. Unless you are Roman Abramovich, maintaining your own yacht can be prohibitively expensive, but fortunately a number of companies offer private charters, with or without a skipper, either in and around Dubrovnik or, if you want to get away from it all, exploring the islands of the Kornati Archipelago and its almost lunar landscapes.

Croatia's extensive coastline means you can still find the occasional farmhouse in need of (albeit serious) renovation from as little as £30,000, but the queue of developers and second-homers from elsewhere in Europe grows daily.

For details of sailing from Dubrovnik: sunsail.co.uk, 0870 112 8612. For kayaking in the Elafiti islands: adriatic-sea-kayak.com

Reach for the sky

So-called "airsports" have carved out something of a niche for themselves in France's mountain ranges. Paragliding, or at least the French version of it known as parapenting, was invented in the Pyrenees in the 1980s.

Today, numerous valleys and villages are home to communities of airsports enthusiasts, who rub shoulders with wealthy second-homers, many from the UK. Paragliding and hang-gliding are included in that branch of airsports known as "free flight", in which the pilot's own legs provide the under-carriage for both takeoff and landing. There is plenty of opportunity to take to the air on both the French and Spanish side of the mountains, but the sport has evolved quickly, and para-gliding's cognoscenti are ever on the lookout for new locations, in the same way that surfers hunt new waves.

Unlike some surfing com- munities, however, airsports enthusiasts in both the Alps and Pyrenees tend to be incredibly welcoming, not least because theirs is a relatively new sport. "St André les Alpes in France is an amazing location to start," says Matt Taggart of the leading paraglider manufacturers Ozone. "It's a small town, but the paragliding and hang-gliding sites are world-class."

Taggart also recommends the ski resort of Briançon in the southern Alps for some of the best snowkiting in Europe; as the name suggests, there is no need to give up wind travel just because winter has arrived. For the past four years, Ozone has hosted snowkiting events for beginners in the Pyrenees in conjunction with Kite Frenzy.

"The best snowkiting spots are all in the eastern ranges," says Kite Frenzy's Iain Hannay. "The Col de Puymorens and Col d'Enva- lira are among a few that are easy to get to. There are lots of other places, but you need good mountain skills or a knowledge of the area."

Kite Frenzy's first event of the snowkiting season is on 15 December. For more details: kitefrenzy.com, flyozone.com

Southern exposure

The other side of the world may be a long way to go for an active break, but the small town of Margaret River in Western Australia is proof that even in a country where the great outdoors is never far from the urban centres, adventure downshifting is still popular.

With the Nullabor Plain taking up such a vast part of the state, WA is not renowned for having a number of adventure options in one place; enthusiasts often have to cover vast stretches of outback to vary their fun. But while Margaret River is already well known for the Hawaiian-style surf breaks that roll on to the endless beaches around the town, and kitesurfing is on the increase, it is also fast developing a niche climbing community, drawn to the Willyabrup sea cliffs just 20 minutes out of town. And the spectacular Boranup Karri forest is home to some excellent caving, even if it does not yet have the same reputation as the neighbouring state of South Australia.

For caving and climbing: outdoordiscoveries.com.au. Surfing instruction is available at the Margaret River Surf School (surfingaustralia.com), or with Surfing WA: 0061 8 9448 0004, tourismaustralia.com