Bristol By Dorothy Pellett

VBT Bicycling Vacations of Bristol earned the top spot in the biking category when National Geographic Adventure Magazine conducted its first worldwide rating of adventure tour operators this year.

The magazine's November issue profiled 10 leaders in each of five categories -- biking, hiking and trekking, safari, river and sea and do-it-all, identifying them as "Best Outfitters on Earth" -- and ranked VBT highest among biking tours.

The honor was unsolicited, said Gregg Marston of Charlotte who owns VBT Bicycling Vacations with his wife, Caroline Marston. National Geographic Adventure sent comprehensive questionnaires to more than 200 outfitters across the globe.

Companies that responded were scored from 1 to 100 on four aspects of their services. Researchers then contacted client references and interviewed business owners.

A team of Natonal Geographic Adventure editors and travel writers narrowed the field, based on scores for educational and interpretive information about history, culture and geology of sites visited; sustainable tourism practices; quality of service, gear and amenities; and ways a company brings the spirit of adventure to each trip.

Marston returned Tuesday from meeting with VBT's tour leaders in Croatia, Italy and France. It's important to him to meet people with whom tour participants will interact, he said.

"Wherever we take them, we introduce them to the local culture and let them experience life through the eyes of local people, usually staying in small inns where the innkeeper is present. I truly believe a travel experience can impact your life," Marston said.

VBT Bicycling Vacations offers 24 tours in 16 countries, each with multiple departure dates. Although all tours include bicycling from town to town, it's not the only way to go.

There is, for example, a Holland and Belgium bike-and-barge trip with daytime cycling and nights on a spacious private canal barge, with local food and wine.

All tours provide van support for anyone who would like a lift to the next town. "It's not a race. It's your vacation," says VBT's catalog.

Weeklong tours travel the Maine Coast, the Champlain Valley, Costa Rica or California wine country. Ten- or 12-day tours take tourists to Italy's Tuscan coast, France's Loire valley, New Zealand or South Africa; and 14 days is enough for a tour in Vietnam.

VBT was started in Vermont in 1971 as Vermont Bicycle Touring. Gregg and Caroline Marston purchased the company in 2005 after he served as its president for six years.

Burlington Free Press