When Valerie Casey packed her suitcase, she bypassed khakis and Hawaiian shirts for spandex shorts.

The Fairfax County resident needed the shorts for a weeklong cycling trip in France with her husband, Michael, and two daughters, Emily and Claire. The cycling tour, offered through "Discover France," is one of many vacations that combine recreation and sightseeing. Not to mention some added benefits.

"This is a great way to enjoy the scenery and eat whatever you feel like eating," said Casey, who conceded to eating without regret since her daily schedule consisted of a 40- to 50-kilometer bike ride.

The family originally planned to tour castlesin France last year until they had to cut short their trip. Casey found "Discover France" and reserved a self-guided tour. Despite a few wrong turns, she enjoyed having control over her schedule -- allowing room to set her own pace and spend time with the family.

At a glance

»  Discover France

Type: Cycling and hiking/walking Price range: under $2,000 Offers guided and self-guided cycling or hiking tours throughout France. Cyclists can cruise through the countryside at their own pace and stop for a crepe or some wine along the way. www.discoverfrance.com Velo Echappe International Sports Type: Cycling Price Range: $2,000-$6,000 Offers cycling vacations in France and Italy, including one tour that follows the Tour de France route. Tourists are placed in hotels along race routes. The price includes lodging, meals, transportation and professional mechanics for daily maintenance of bikes. www.veloechappe.com Paragon Adventures Type: Rock climbing, hiking, zip lining Price range: $100-$800 Offers overnight canyoneering and rock climbing trips in Zion National Park, featuring a gourmet chef and photographer. Day trips include hiking and zip lining across the Green Valley Gap. Tours offer a daycare service for day trips. www.paragonadventure.com Alaska Alpine Adventures Type: Backpacking, hiking, multisport Price range: $1,500-$4,000 Offers seven- to 12-day backpacking trips in Alaska's state parks. Multisport tours offer rafting, kayaking and biking through the Alaska and Aleutian mountain ranges. www.alaskaalpineadventures.com Swimtrek Type: Open-water swimming Price Range: $800-$2,000 Offers two- to six-day open-water swimming vacations in different countries. Whether across the Croatian Dalmatian Coast or the Virgin Islands, travelers get a unique experience swimming from island to island. The company also offers lake hopping and coastal hopping tours. www.swimtrek.com Global Running Tours Type: Running, marathons Price range: $20-$2,000 Offers a chance to experience the city as a local runner in more than 40 locations on five continents. The group-guided tours place runners in the heart of Times Square and the grasslands of Africa. The Web site provides an interactive map that highlights all locations. www.globalrunningtours.com
The family is already planning another cycling trip in Tuscany, Italy. Last year, they also completed a tour in Costa Rica that featured white-water rafting, zip lining, hiking and horseback riding. Although Casey does not consider herself a "bike girl," she said the trip is feasible for anyone in decent shape. Todd Goss, owner of Paragon Adventures, also encourages amateurs to challenge themselves and said these goal-oriented vacations offer a boost to "self-image." "You can be everything from the absolutely petrified housewife to the world-class professional," he said. Paragon Adventures is based in Zion National Park in Utah and offers vacation packages in rock climbing and canyoneering. The daily or overnight trips are tailored to the individual by preference and ability. Alaska Alpine Adventures also offers outdoor vacations with backpacking and multisport tours throughout the state's parks. The company is recognized by National Geographic as one of the "Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth." Each seven- to 12-day tour is ranked by difficulty level. Aaron Fetter, operations manager and senior guide for Alaska Alpine Adventures, offered advice on choosing a reputable travel company. Fetter said vacationers should look for testimonials, media attention and the longevity of the company. When calling the organization, Fetter said it is important to see how quickly employees respond and if the company is looking out for your best interests. Other notable vacations include Swimtrek, which features one-week tours that send people swimming from Greece to Turkey or island hopping in Scotland. Global Running Tours showcases running vacations at more than 40 locations, from Rome to Machu Picchu. Brian Rounds, owner of Velo Echappe International Sports, said a good travel company is one that will does the research for you. Rounds' company provides cycling tours that follow the Tour de France route and sets up hotel locations ahead of time. "You may want to enjoy time in a nice hotel, but the main thing is being able to go out," he said.