There's a bite in the early morning air these days just sharp enough to give some of us survivors of many a frigid New England winter a psychosomatic twinge in the lower back when we think of the snow shoveling that lies ahead. Unless, of course, we've sensibly arranged to be somewhere hot and sunny when deep winter comes.
It says something about the venturesome spirit of older local travelers (and maybe also our climate) that two of the largest tour operators in the country specializing in taking travelers over 50 to interesting, exotic, and warm winter destinations are based in Boston: Elderhostel and Grand Circle Travel.
A nonprofit organization founded in 1975, Elderhostel (877-426-8056; www.elderhostel.org) offers ''learning adventures," all-inclusive travel packages with an educational component. Last year it sent nearly a quarter of a million people to 90 countries in programs as diverse as visiting ancient temples in India and tracing the footsteps of Lewis and Clark across the American West.
Grand Circle Travel (800-959-0405; www.gct.com) was originally an affiliate of the American Association of Retired Persons but since 1985 has been a private company offering a wide variety of tour packages for mature travelers with separate divisions devoted to river cruising, bike tours, and soft adventure. The latter division, Overseas Adventure Travel (800-955-1925; www.oat.com) does small group tours -- 10 to 16 people -- to exotic locations with packages that are more luxurious and expensive than Grand Circle programs.
Between them, Elderhostel and Grand Circle/OAT offer a banquet of winter getaways and their catalogs are wish books for travelers. Programs offering good values or unusually attractive destinations often sell out long before departure dates. Many experienced seniors make a point of going through these catalogs as soon as they arrive so they can book well ahead. Value counts with seniors, who are often on fixed incomes and quick to pounce on bargains, even those to supposed ''hot spots."
Grand Circle, for instance, reports that an unexpectedly popular trip this winter is to Egypt. Called ''Ancient Egypt and the Nile," it's a 15-day package priced at $1,495 from New York that includes round-trip air fare, hotel, most meals, extensive guided sightseeing, and a weeklong cruise on the Nile. According to a Grand Circle spokesman, the program went on sale in July and within three weeks the company had received ''a flood" of requests for information and made more than 425 bookings. Elderhostel usually avoids troubled regions but does offer intensive -- and sometimes physically challenging -- programs. For example, this winter there is a 15-day trip, priced at $2,430, to the Hawaiian islands of Oahu, Maui, and Kauai that involves hiking, swimming, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, and surfing. Participants should be in good physical condition.
Not all Elderhostel trips are so demanding. One perennially popular winter trip is to Mexico's Copper Canyon. Besides nature walks and field trips to haciendas and Indian villages, it includes traveling in comfort in a private rail car on the famous scenic railroad through the canyon, a geological marvel. The program cost is $1,621 per person, not including airfare.
Mid-winter in New England is the height of summer in Australia. That, plus the fact that the country is English-speaking (more or less), staunchly pro-American, and has no serious concerns about terrorism has made it increasingly popular with mature area residents who like their vacations hassle-free. OAT's 19-day program called ''Ultimate Australia" stops in Melbourne and Sydney, and includes a stay on lush Kangaroo Island and visits to the Great Barrier Reef as well as Alice Springs and Ayers Rock in the outback. The trip is priced from $3,690 per person, including round-trip air fare from Los Angeles.
It's only relatively recently that Americans have come to appreciate Australia as one of the world's great wine producing nations. Elderhostel has a 32-day program, departing Feb. 23, that focuses on Australian food and wine with visits to wine regions such as the Hunter Valley (with stops for wine tasting) along with general sightseeing. Also included is a trip on the famed Indian-Pacific train, which travels nearly 3,000 miles across Australia from Sydney to Perth on the straightest stretch of railroad track in the world. Cost is $7,637 per person from Boston.
William A. Davis, a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Going Strong, his column on senior travel, appears the first Sunday of every month.