The tour bus begins to fill with a hum of lively conversation and childlike anticipation, even though the average age of passengers is around 70.

After all, everybody loves a road trip. And on this rainy late-April morning, 35 members of the Santa Clara Senior Center's travel group were heading out on a daylong visit to San Francisco -- lunch at the Cliff House then a guided tour of "Chomp!" the carnivorous plant exhibit at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Many in the group know each other, but those who don't happily make fresh acquaintances.

Loretta Riddle, 86, is really good at that. Seated in a rear row by herself, the world traveler and former chief of staff for Sen. Alfred Alquist spins around to greet the passenger behind with an enthusiasm so boundless it nearly knocks her purple hat off in the process.

Seniors have lunch at the Cliff House during a bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff House and Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and back, Friday,
Seniors have lunch at the Cliff House during a bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff House and Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and back, Friday, April 26, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

"My husband and I used to travel the world -- Papua New Guinea, India, Thailand, Burma, China," she says, repositioning her hat over silver curls. "He died four years ago, and now that he's gone, I've joined five different senior travel groups. I've been up to Bodega Bay to see where they filmed 'The Birds,' up to Fort Bragg to the Skunk Train trip and lunch in the redwoods, been to Gold Country, down to Solvang -- oh that was just delightful. I've been to shows in San Francisco -- 'The Book of Mormon," that was something else.

"I don't know what I'd do without these bus trips," she says. "They're so much more than they used to be."

Indeed, the cliché busload of gray-haired seniors off to play the slots in Reno is nearly extinct. Such trips remain, but group motor-coach tour options have exploded in recent years to satisfy the varied interests of people age 50 and beyond. Single travelers still appreciate the ease of bus transport, plus the camaraderie and security of group journeys rather than going it alone, but crave everything from history and educational tours to wine tasting and golf adventures.

Quick quests

Short trips of one to four days are extremely popular and usually involve a full package of meals at top-notch restaurants, hotels and stops at attractions along the way, says Alicia Niskanen, who, with her husband Brian Niskanen, runs San Jose-based Kanen Tours. They work with numerous senior centers around the Bay Area and arranged today's trip to the city.

"There's been a huge resurgence of interest in group bus travel," she says, boarding the coach to ride along on this trip. "Especially on short hops like this where you can travel in a day. More people are working later in life, younger seniors in their 50s and 60s, and they can't get away more than a couple of days. And when they do, they want variety -- educational tours, museums. People seem to want to learn something while they're out."

Conservatory of Flowers docent Susan Slavick, bottom left, conducts a tour for a group of seniors on a bus tour bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff
Conservatory of Flowers docent Susan Slavick, bottom left, conducts a tour for a group of seniors on a bus tour bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff House and Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and back, Friday, April 26, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

Kanen Tours has been in business for 50 years, started by Brian Niskanen's parents, who met on a bus tour themselves when his dad was a driver and his mom was on a tour to Tahoe.

Bus tours were big in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, but dropped off during late '90s with soaring fuel costs and a decline in group participation. Clubs such the Elks and Eagles, which booked a lot of the tours, experienced their own decline and stopped organizing the big trips. The proliferation of Indian casinos closer to the Bay Area hurt the Reno market, Alicia Niskanen says.

Oddly, the recession helped the turnaround.

"A lot of people cut back on expensive extended vacations and cruises and opted for these mini vacations instead," she says.

"It's all about customization," says Gerard Manuel of the Sunnyvale Senior Center, where organizers plan their own trip offerings and contract with motor coach companies. "We've gotten really creative with things like historic home tours in San Francisco, shows like Cirque du Soleil when they're in town. We just had a ranger-led trip to the former Nike missile site in San Rafael."

One of Sunnyvale's most popular recent tours was a "CSI tour" led by a justice studies professor at San Jose State University, where the group got to investigate a mock crime scene.

Mystery trips, where the destination is kept secret, are big too, Alicia Niskanen says.

Seniors take in the view during a bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff House and Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and back, Friday, April 26,
Seniors take in the view during a bus tour from Santa Clara to the Cliff House and Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco and back, Friday, April 26, 2014. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

"Those sell out every time," she says. "It's amazing how many people are so adventurous to just go. Last year, we had one to Lodi for carriage rides at an equestrian center, then to a winery for lunch and tasting, then to the San Joaquin historical museum."

"I went on that one, too," Riddle chimes in. "It was fabulous."

Road rapture

For today's tour, everyone meets at 9:45 a.m. to board the motor coach. Even the buses are better these days, with plush seats, wi-fi and video screens. Our driver, Darryl, greets passengers and advises about safety rules, then we were off on a smooth trip up Interstate 280. Some folks share photos on their smartphones. Some play a mini road-trip game, counting people in passing cars who were texting. An apt bumper sticker was spotted: "Honk if you love Jesus. Text if you want to meet him."

At the Cliff House, Darryl drops the group off at the door, and everyone heads right in for the prearranged lunch featuring salmon, chicken and vegetarian dishes. At a table with Sue Farley, Lucille Giorvas and Linda Cardoza, all agree one of the best parts of such trips is the all-inclusive nature. This trip was about $100 a person, but included lunch, tip, taxes, driver gratuity and tickets to the Conservatory.

"There are definitely perks, going with a group," Farley says. "You go to the front of the line, you don't have to arrange tickets or parking. It's great."

Cardoza, 56, still works at a bookkeeping job and says she wouldn't be able to visit these places without the travel groups.

"I hate driving," she says. "Oh no, I wouldn't drive up here to San Francisco. I don't drive the freeways. Never have liked it. So this really expands my horizons."

She recently took a trip to baseball spring training in Arizona, organized through the On Tour travel group in Pleasant Hill.

"It was really nice, and I don't even care for baseball," she says. "In fact, it was my first baseball game. I mainly went for the side bus trip to Sedona, which was always on my bucket list."

After lunch and some time in the Cliff House gift shop, Darryl picks the group up and heads to the Conservatory of Flowers where Ernie, the conservatory's well-informed tour guide, takes the group through the lowland tropics and the foothills of the Himalayas, plant-wise, that is. The humidity in the greenhouse evokes some jokes in the group about frizzed hairdos.

By 3: 30 p.m., the bus is heading home, and the chat resumes with Riddle, who tells of her visits to the Christmas tours at Hearst Castle and cheese tasting at Hilmar Cheese Company in the Central Valley.

"These trips give me something to look forward to, and something to talk about with my family," she says. "You can do like I do and see the whole world, but this gives you a chance to see what's in your own backyard -- just as beautiful as anything I've seen."

Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.

  • River's Crest Dragon Slayers in Aptos -- Visit this innovative animal-therapy program where exotic creatures from around the world are used to teach confidence and conservation to physically challenged adults and kids. Bus-trip guests go on a 90-minute tour, interact with emus, camels, zebras, miniature Brahma bulls and giant tortoises from Africa. Afterward, lunch in the cute downtown of Capitola with time to explore shops and galleries.

  • Sea chanteys -- Start with dinner at Delancy Street in San Francisco with some Serious Soulfood Gumbo, then tour travelers are encouraged to let out their inner pirates at a sea chantey singalong on the Balclutha at Hyde Street Pier. An onboard break comes with hot apple cider, hot chocolate or coffee before heading home.

  • CSI: San Jose -- Start with lunch at the Sonoma Chicken Coop in San Jose. Then meet with a professor from the justice studies department at San Jose State University for a lesson on forensic investigations, including a chance to investigate a mock crime scene, order faux DNA tests and request analyses of evidence to separate fact from fiction. An afternoon break offers a bite of dessert, then travelers split off into teams to brainstorm possible solutions to the "crime."

  • Nike missile site -- Take a ranger-led tour of the decommissioned site in San Rafael, once the only active nuclear launch site that was simultaneously a museum and the only restored Nike missile site in the country. A brief stop at the Marin Headlands visitors center, then lunch at The Spinnaker in Sausalito.

  • Laguna Beach's "Pageant of the Masters" -- For a longer road trip, head down to a hotel in Newport Beach and see this whimsical production as real people re-create famous works of art by posing in intricate sets in an outdoor amphitheater, accompanied by a live orchestra. There's dinner on the historic Mariner's Mile, then next day visit the Sawdust Art Festival, where travelers shop along sawdust-covered paths through a village filled with fine arts.

  • Hearst and more -- For the Christmas season, visit a lavishly decorated Hearst Castle for an evening tour, then spend the night at Cambria Pines Lodge on the coast with its sparkling light displays and German-style Christmas market.