By Jay Jones, Special to Tribune Newspapers
November 27, 2013
For many of us, lying in a lounge chair at poolside or on a towel in the sand gets boring after a while. We'd like to put some pizazz in our vacations but don't want to take out special insurance policies to cover, say, sky diving. But even the biggest chickens among us can push the envelope and embrace activities probably perceived as dangerous or edgy without actually risking life and limb. Just think of the bragging rights these five activities could bring:
Speed demons: For anyone who has ever wanted to push the pedal to the metal but without the threat of an accident or a ticket, the BMW Performance Driving Center near Greenville, S.C., has the answer. The experience is somewhat like a high school driver's ed class on steroids. Behind the wheel of flashy new BMWs, guests hone skills on a 2-mile course — no parking lot with cones here — at speeds reaching 110 mph.
Now, people who have driven at high speeds — the Autobahn, for example — will tell you that driving a BMW or other high-end car at 110 feels more like 60 or 70 in a lot of other cars, especially on a track, because the ride is so solid. But speed is speed.
"You're learning all these skills that could save your life someday, and you're having fun doing it," said Matt Mullins, chief driving instructor and a former NASCAR racer. Guests learn to prepare for the worst but without deadly obstacles. Driving over skid pads, cars also spin as drivers learn to get their vehicles under control.
"In your normal Monday to Friday commute, you don't get to experience 10 percent of what these cars can actually do," guest Rich Crossley, of Montclair, N.J., pointed out. The BMW Performance Driving School (1155 Highway 101 South, Greer, S.C.; 888-345-4269, bmwusa.com/performancecenter) offers one-day classes for adults starting at $700. A course designed for teenagers is $550.
Swinging bridge: Plenty of safe fun awaits at the Swinging Bridge Adventure, one of the attractions at Foxfire Mountain outside Sevierville, Tenn., in the Smokies. The 400-foot span, billed as the longest of its type in the nation, traverses Dunn's Gorge high above a fork of the Pigeon River.
Swinging bridges long have been used in Appalachia to get people from one mountain to another. For this one, owner Marc Postlewaite used plans provided by Bridges to Prosperity, a nonprofit that builds them in developing nations. (In turn, Postlewaite donated funds to build two such spans in South America.)
Yes, the wooden-plank bridge actually swings, especially when someone's running across it, but that's part of the thrill. There's chain-link fencing along the sides to prevent falls. The swinging bridge at Foxfire Mountain (3757 Thomas Lane, Sevierville; 865-453-1998; foxfiremountain.com) costs $14.95. Zip-line canopy tours also are offered.
Catch a wavelet: Surfing may seem intimidating, but it needn't be at Tybee Island, Ga., where the relatively shallow Atlantic Ocean at that point means gentler waves. "You don't see too many 'Surf Georgia' T-shirts," Mayor Jason Buelterman said with a laugh, though Tybee is where he learned to surf after relocating from Ohio.
"The waves generally aren't as large or strong as in North Carolina or Florida, but they're big enough and fun enough to surf on. It's definitely a good spot if you're a beginner," he said. On calm days, when it's hard to catch a wave, stand-up paddle boarding is popular. Tybee Island (912-786-5444, visittybee.com) is 17 miles east of Savannah. North Island Surf and Kayak (912-786-4000, northislandkayak.com) offers two-hour surfing lessons for $50, including board and leash.
A gold rush: Most of the prospectors left Alaska's Chugach Mountains long ago, but "gold fever" still exists at Crow Creek Mine in Girdwood, about a 45-minute drive southeast of Anchorage. In its heyday, 700 ounces of gold were discovered here each month. Now, visitors can tour a beautifully restored 1890s mining camp chock-full of artifacts and historic photos. For a few dollars more, guests can learn how to pan and sluice for gold in the creek just a 5-minute walk from the camp. People get to keep any gold they find. (Come prepared with appropriate footwear and bug spray.)
If that sounds like too much effort, sit back and enjoy the bumpy ride from Girdwood to Crow Creek and beyond in one of the all-wheel-drive vehicles owned by Gold Mine Safari Tours. After a visit to the camp, guests are driven along a narrow trail, crossing raging rivers and passing through stands of alder, hemlock and fireweed, on the way to the still-active McCarthy Mine. Wildlife sometimes can be spotted, and on clear days there are scenic vistas of the surrounding mountains.
Admission to Crow Creek Mine (907-229-3105, crowcreekmine.com) is $10. Prospecting costs $20 a day, including the needed gear. Gold Mine Safari Tours (877-783-5566, alyeskatours.com) are priced at $99 for adults and $69 for kids 12 and younger.
On the edge: OK, for the faint of heart who are ready to really get out there, there's a walk on the wild side nearly 1,200 feet above the streets of Toronto during the EdgeWalk experience at CN Tower. Tethered to the building while wearing jumpsuits and sturdy harnesses, visitors in groups of six are escorted to the tower's rim for bird's-eye views of the city's landmarks and nearby Lake Ontario. Guide Rob Ng said guests range from thrill-seekers to people trying to conquer their fear of heights. He noted that fearful folks receive plenty of encouragement and support from fellow trekkers; of the 47,000 guests since the attraction opened in 2011, only 20 have turned back before reaching the edge.
Though he has led the 30-minute tour many times, Ng admitted that even he still gets scared. "Your brain tells you it's safe, but your gut tells you, 'Man, I'm more than 1,000 feet up,'" he said. EdgeWalk (855-553-3833, edgewalk.cntower.ca) is open May through mid-November, except during high winds or lightning. The price is $175 CAD, or about $167 U.S. That includes personalized photos and a video so you can prove that you've really conquered all your fears.
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