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Travel Agencies

If you're anything like the majority of San Franciscans around the holidays, you know the tendency to get a little crotchety with the onset of days-long rain and the descent into numb-fingered nights. It's not that we have it bad - we're still Californians and get to enjoy close to idyllic weather most of the year, but December in San Francisco is non-descript to the point of being maddening. Without the extremes of warm beaches or snowdrifts on our doorsteps, acting on our winter-induced ennui presents a tantalizing possibility. Whether you want tropics or mountain peaks, snowy chateaus or frothy oceans dotted with surfers, there's probably a tour company in the area that specializes in your winter escape.

Green Tortoise was made for the inquisitive traveler on a budget. The premise: a big, happy bus full of folks takes you off the beaten path to places like Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, the American southwest, and Alaska. For the college student in us all, Green Tortoise provides the ultimate road trip. Their current featured offering this season is an expedition to the pyramids and playas of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala - replete with lush jungle ruins and obscure coastal islands, it's perfect for closet archaeologists. In addition, Green Tortoise offers a "Southern Migration" month-long winter retreat to Cancun for about $1000 total. All in all, Green Tortoise is a huge advocate of the do-it-yourself vacation (without the stress of planning and accommodations): you get to cook breakfast for your fellow travelers, trek through ancient ruins, climb mountains, stand under waterfalls, walk through rainforests, build campfires, mingle, or just hang out. Key words to describe ideal client: outdoorsy, curious, communal-minded, favors adventure over comfort, referred by a friend.

Backroads, based in Berkeley, is another tour company that's all about "active travel," and offers trip packages intended to "satisfy your penchant for activity", while keeping individual needs in mind. Trips include lodging in chic luxury hotels, gourmet meals, expert trip leaders, transportation, private guided tours of museums and other historical sites, and multi-sport adventures such as kayaking, rafting, snorkeling, and sailing. Vacations are divided into various categories, such as "easy explorations" (for those of us who want comfort more than adventure) and "epic journeys" (including hours of biking through picturesque locales), and boast 91 destinations in 34 countries. If you want to sip high tea with a Berber family in the Atlas mountain range, stroll out onto a sunny Provencal landscape, go tortoise-watching in the Galapagos, or drink mate with Argentinian gauchos, Backroads is probably for you. Key words to describe ideal client: cultured, adventurous, prefers to structure own vacation, can afford to spend the money necessary to probe obscure places, doesn't get annoyed with multi-purpose tour guides.

Aqua-Trek is perhaps the most specialized tour company on the list - it operates exclusively in the Fiji Islands and offers trips to its lavish Garden Island Resort on the island of Tavenui and scuba centers on other islands. The company's Resort is an intimate ocean villa that offers cozy service, world-renowned scuba diving, and a plethora of activities from cultural tours to reef explorations. If you're looking for a lesson in marine ecosystems, Aqua-Trek is second to none. In March 2001, celebrated marine cinematographers Howard and Michele Hall made the IMAX-released film Coral Reef Adventure, and with the assistance of Aqua-Trek's staff, delved into an astounding variety of pelagic marine life, including Fiji's elusive shark. Aqua-Trek definitely gets props for transforming what could be a cliché ocean paradise vacation into a stirring encounter in one of the most underrated sites in the world. (In addition to their Fiji journeys, Aqua-Trek also hosts retreats for families with terminally ill children at Misty Mountain Ranch in Mendocino County.) Key words to describe ideal client: anyone in their right mind.

Face it - even the grinchiest detractors of travel agencies have to admit the lure of picking and choosing while other people do the actual planning. And go ahead, ask the tried and true Tahoe-ites or even those who choose to migrate to warmer climes - this time of year really does make a vacation that much more festive.