The best and most affordable tours in this hugely popular market, from novices to hard-core trekkers
Forum International Travel, of Pleasant Hill, California: In business for 38 years, it claims to be one of the oldest and largest of America's bicycle and hike operators. It achieves that status primarily through its strong ties with regional European bicycling and hiking outfits, offering about 30 different hiking trips between May and October. Like Randonnee (see above) most tours are independent and "self-guided" -- which means that you walk on your own, following a detailed, written itinerary that directs you to from inn to inn. Luggage is transported separately. In many instances, costs are as low as $80 to $120/day, including accommodations and breakfast. Tours in Europe and other parts of the globe are also offered with escorts in the standard group fashion, and tend to cost more. Contact Forum Travel International, 91 Gregory Lane, Suite 21, Pleasant Hill CA 94523 (phone 925/671-2900 or 800/252-4475, or visit the Web site foruminternational.com/ for more information.
A Vermont-based company, Country Inns Along the Trail offers several unique bike, hike, and ski touring itineraries in this quaint yet rugged part of New England. Country Inns Along the Trail takes care of accommodations at lovely inns and B&B's in the Green Mountain State (with dinner and breakfast usually included), and maps out an detailed itinerary for you, based on your requests and endurance. It also provides some pickup and drop-off services if inns are spread too far apart for you. Prices vary depending on what kind of accommodations you select and the time of year, but expect to pay between $130 and $150 per person per night with two sharing a room. For more information, contact Country Inns Along the Trail at P.O. Box 59, Montgomery, VT 05470, phone: 800/838-3301 or 802/326-2072. Find more details on the Web at inntoinn.com/.
California has a wonderfully long and varied coastline, and while you could drive along the crowded Pacific Coast Highway, nothing beats taking in the views and breathing in the salty air at a walker's pace. A non-profit group called Coastwalk arranges dozens of affordable walking tours throughout the state. You can trek along the beautiful sands of San Diego, the dramatic vistas of Big Sur, or the rugged coastlines in the north, all starting at only $50 a day for adults. Hikes vary widely in length and difficulty, and you sometimes have choices within each trip. On Coastwalk's eight-day "Lost Coast" trip in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties in northern California, for example, you can choose to join the group for the first four or the last four days, or walk along for the entirety of the trip. For all Coastwalk journeys, your gear will be transported ahead, and you'll only need to carry a daypack. In exchange for the baggage transport and bargain prices, you are expected to help out with some chores such as cleaning dishes and unpacking bags. Most trips involve camping and all trips include dinner. On some itineraries you'll stay at hotels, or eat at nice restaurants, in which case there is a surcharge on top of the regular fees. For more information, go to coastwalk.org.
HF Holidays of England and Scotland (011-44-20-8905-9556) is another of our favorite budget-minded tour operators. While its rates are always reasonable (the most expensive tour is only £665, for 10 days in Greece) prices recede quite a bit in September and shrivel even further for October walks, although it is by no means too brisk at that time of year for an enjoyable tour. These prices don't include airfare. Web: hfholidays.co.uk/.
As for other walking tours of Britain, a group known as the Rambler's Association, at 2nd Floor, Camelford House, 87-90 Albert Embankment, London UK SE1 7TW (phone 011-44-207-339-8500), London, publishes a magazine called The Rambler, (an electronic version can be seen on the Web site at ramblers.org.uk/) which describes walk opportunities and lists self-guided tours throughout the country. There are also forums for meeting up with people to walk with.
Some avid walkers are upset about the commercialization of strolling through Britain, believing the activity should always be do-it-yourself in style, sans tour operators. Such is the belief of Richard Hayward, of Seattle, Washington, who teaches classes in the area about the joys of unorganized walking tours. The whole point of walking, in Hayward's view, is to meet people of the host country. It is especially easy, he says, to meet Britons, "for whom walking is a national pastime. They care about the countryside, and if they meet you in that setting, their old-world reserve melts away and you are one of them. Organized walking tours can be a waste of time and energy because you don't meet the people as readily." Hayward has written several books about walking all over the UK.