Exciting tours for very serious cyclists

Q. My husband and I have discussed attending part of next year's Tour de France bicycle race. Are there any tour companies that specialize in putting together trips focused on the Tour?

The 96th Tour de France begins July 4 in Monaco and ends July 26 in Paris. And of course the big news is that seven-time winner Lance Armstrong is coming out of retirement to compete again. The route hasn't been confirmed, but it's rumored that, in addition to Monaco and France, the race will visit Spain, Andorra and Switzerland.

Among the companies organizing week-long Tour tours are Backroads (, a Berkeley, Calif.-based firm with an office in France's Provence region; and Thomson Bike Tours (, based in Connecticut and Sitges, Spain.

Itineraries obviously aren't set, but both companies are taking reservations and say that excitement is mounting.

“This year, because we're overwhelmed, we'll probably do four or five trips,” Thomson co-owner Paul Rogen said of his company's King of the Mountains tours.

Be forewarned: These tours are not for the average leisure cyclist. Rogen said that in the mornings, participants ride portions of the route that the professional racers will ride later in the day, and he mentioned grueling nine- to 12-mile ascents. But then, he said, the tour members picnic and party until the Tour members whiz by, at which point the lowercasers simply turn around and watch the race live.

Backroads' trip will average 45 miles of alpine riding each day, and participants can expect to view the race stages on two or three days. “This is a riding trip for serious cyclists,” said sales manager Rich Snodsmith. Both companies provide van support, aka “sag wagons.”

Costs haven't been set, but you can get an idea from last year's price: Thomson charged $3,000 to $3,500 per person. The cost included accommodations, most meals and ground transportation, but not airfare.

Deals on Broadway tickets

Q. Please recommend the most economical way I can take my 13-year-old daughter to see “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway. Are there discounted tickets? Thus far, on my own, I have not found any. I have no definite date in mind.

“The Little Mermaid,” based on the 1989 hit Disney movie about a young mermaid who wants to live on land, frequently sells out, and when a show is that popular, it's hard to find discounted tickets. But we found good deals through and, two companies that offer reviews, theater gossip and discounts – and you don't have to pay to register, as some other discount sites require.

Through Nov. 21, both sites are offering orchestra and front mezzanine “Mermaid” tickets for $80 (regularly $110 to $120) and mid-mezzanine seats for $65 (usually $80 to $85).

One catch: The discounts are available only for performances Tuesday through Friday. You can buy the tickets by phone, online or at the theater's box office.

Even cheaper is Kids' Night on Broadway, a deal from the Broadway League in which ages 6 to 18 can see a Broadway show free when accompanied by a full-paying adult on certain dates in February. Parking deals and special family discounts at Theater District restaurants also will be available.

Dates will be announced later this fall; check for details and restrictions.

Beware of deadly jellyfish

Q. We are traveling to Australia in November and want to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef. Some guidebooks say it's impossible to snorkel at that time of year because of the abundance of deadly stinging jellyfish, while others say you can snorkel anytime without a problem. Are there any jellyfish-free areas in the reef for snorkeling at that time of year?

Researching this question has given us a healthy respect for the box (Chironex) and the Irukandji, two types of dangerous jellyfish (aka marine stingers) that ply the tropical waters of the Great Barrier Reef, particularly between the warm months of November to May and June. Dangerous as in potentially lethal. The box jelly is generally considered the world's most dangerous animal.

According to Marine Stingers, a Web site run by the Queensland, Australia, government, death from a box jellyfish sting typically occurs within two to five minutes. Exact mortality rates aren't known, but it's thought that the box jelly is responsible for at least one death a year in Australian waters.

But that doesn't mean you can't snorkel. There are a few precautions you can take to minimize the risks:

Wear a “stinger suit” (a full-body Lycra wetsuit) whenever you're in the water. They're available for rent from marine tour operators and outfitters. Remember, though, that while the suits offer some protection, they are not stinger-proof.

Carry vinegar with you (see below).

Swim at a patrolled beach. Look for and obey safety signs.

If possible, swim in areas enclosed by a stinger net.

Enter the water slowly. This gives stingers time to move away.

Don't touch jellyfish washed up on the beach. They can still sting you.

If you're stung, douse the site of the sting with vinegar (urine or seawater as a last resort, but never fresh water). Note that it may take as long as 40 minutes for a reaction to occur, so it's important to monitor the victim in a safe location out of the water.

For more information on jellyfish, visit the Marine Stingers Web site, For more information on diving and snorkeling safety: