Walking Vacations

The best and most affordable tours in this hugely popular market, from novices to hard-core trekkers

By , Tuesday, May 10, 2005, 12:00 AM

Are you a "closet" walker? While others jog on their vacations, or go bicycling or white-water rafting, do you simply sneak off to walk, in utter bliss, for miles and miles?

If so, you're one of a growing number of Americans who go away to walk--even to places thousands of miles from home. They believe, along with the American Heart Association, that brisk walking is the most healthful holiday sport, as aerobic as running (and far easier on the joints), and the best possible way to approach the life and people of an unfamiliar destination. The popularity of walking has resulted in the emergence of a surprising number of walking-tour operators covering every part of the globe.

With some operators, you walk inn to inn while a van carries your gear ahead or brings you lunch. With others, you remain three or four days at a time in one base--a country hotel or a cluster of B&Bs--and walk from there. While England is clearly the most popular destination for walking vacations, few of the world's flatlands are spared attention by walking-tour operators.

Because not everyone walks to the beat of the same drummer (nor at the same pace), we've divided up these "pedestrian" packages into three major categories: trekking (usually longer journeys that involve walking in exotic locations), country walking (casual strolls over fairly easy terrain in quaint country settings), and hiking (for serious outdoor enthusiasts). Many of these groupings overlap, so please forgive us for generalizing.

An introduction to traveling by foot

Though only the barest handful of travel agents understand the term--and some misuse it horribly--international trekking has become a substantial travel activity for at least 20,000 Americans each year, and is currently marketed by upward of five major nationwide organizations. In oversimplified terms, trekking is walking--the healthiest sport on earth--but walking of a special nature, elevated to a high art and mental adventure. Unlike the hiking and backpacking pursued by individuals, trekking is an intricate, organized, group activity in which porters or pack animals carry your camping gear, cooking utensils, and food from one overnight campsite to another. Relieved of that weight, you're able to go where roads and paths aren't, through the most exotic of nations, over breathtaking terrain, but without performing feats of endurance or possessing mountaineering skills. Persons in their middle age are a familiar sight on treks, as are families and even seniors into their seventies.

That's not to say that minimal vigor isn't required--it is. Yet hundreds of perfectly ordinary, normally sedentary (even chubby) Americans are today found in such unlikely locations as the historic, 18,000-foot-high base camp in Nepal used by intrepid climbers for the assault on Mount Everest. They get there by trekking--organized walking--without setting a single metal wedge into stone or tugging a single rope.

I used the examples of Nepal and Peru advisedly. For reasons not entirely clear to me, almost all international treks are operated to mountain areas of the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, the Swiss Alps in particular. (While you don't go atop them, you walk along their easy lower slopes, usually at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.) Though it is theoretically possible to trek through lowland valleys supplied with roads, it is apparently felt inappropriate and uninspiring to do so.

The mountain kingdom of Nepal, at the northern border of India, is the chief trekking destination, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all treks. The associated Indian states of Sikkim, and Ladakh, and portions of Bhutan, Pakistan, and Tibet, draw another 10% of all trekkers. Together these areas flank the full length of the most remarkable geographical feature on earth--the 1,500-mile-long chain of the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountains.

It was Nepal, almost entirely covered by mountains, that set off the trend to trekking. A country with scarcely any roads at all, isolated from the outside world until the 1950s, its widely scattered mountainside villages harbor 35 different ethnic groups, whose ways of life have been scarcely touched by outside influences.

The people of Nepal have a particular tradition of hospitality to strangers. As you trek the trails from village to village along the south slope of the Himalayas, you are invited to tea in small council chambers, sometimes to stay the night in the homes of villagers or in monasteries.

With unlimited access to the world's greatest mountains, in this peaceful Shangri-La whose half-Hindu, half-Buddhist population coexists without conflict, your own near-spiritual reactions are almost too intimate to describe. You awake at 6:30 a.m., when a cup of steaming tea or coffee is thrust through the flaps of your tent by a member of the cooking staff. Accompanied by experienced Sherpa guides, you take to the trails, trekking seven to ten miles a day at your own pace. The trip starts and ends in the other-worldly capital of Kathmandu, reached by air via New Delhi or Bangkok.

The Peruvian Andes, and that section of it known as the Cordillera Blanca, is next in popularity, accounting for perhaps 30% of all treks. From Lima you fly to Cuzco and there, your gear stowed atop a mountain burro, you embark on a five-day, 35-mile walk along the ancient Inca Trail to the lost city of Machu Picchu, passing awesome Incan ruins unseen by conventional tourists. Again from Lima, you go by car to Huaraz to embark on an eight-day trek through the heart of Peru's highest mountain area.

In the Swiss Alps (a 10% share of the trekking industry), hut-to-hut trekking replaces the traditional variety, with vans bringing your food, clothing, and bedding to austere and unattended mountain lodges scattered among the mountain trails, a day's march from each other. The classic trip is of the Mont Blanc massif, on a trail dominated by the tallest of Europe's mountain peaks. Trips cost as little as $675 for nine nights (plus airfare to Switzerland), including lodging, some meals, and the services of a support vehicle that moves camp each day.

Country walking tours (inn to inn while a van carries gear ahead)
So much for mountainous treks that are high in terms of altitude and adventure. Next up are walking tours in environments that are less challenging, but just as rewarding in terms of cultural exchange and quaint scenery.

REI Adventures, P.O. Box 1938, Sumner WA 98390 (phone 800/622-2236) offers year-round biking and hiking trips (as well as nearly every other outdoors sport you can imagine) all over the globe. Sample European adventures include "Czech Wonders" (ten days from $1,795) and "Ireland Coast to Coast Hike" (11 days from $2,199). In Asia, one can explore the "Treasures of China" (15 days from $2,595) or hike, bike, and raft in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal on the "Active Annapurna" tour (16 days from $2,599). Groups are generally limited to 16 participants. Accommodations vary according to destination and range from camping to bed and breakfasts or local inns and hotels. Most trips also include luggage transfer from place to place, as well as the majority of meals and necessary equipment. A lifetime membership to REI is $15--all members receive a special discount on trips (between $125 and $200). View the REI Web site for further information at reiadventures.com/.

Journeys International, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, stresses the cross-cultural aspects of a walking vacation. It makes an intense effort to bring about meetings between walkers and the locals of each area. Even prior to departure, Journeys involves its travelers in cultural training for the trip, then delivers daily briefings en route and along the trail by speakers ranging from Buddhist monks and naturalists to ordinary villagers (through interpreters). Specialists to Asia, especially Nepal and Ladakh, since 1978, and highly regarded even by its competitors, Journeys also offers departures to Latin America, Asia, Antarctica, Europe, the Arctic and Africa. There are even a handful of departures arranged for specialty groups (women only, families, etc.). Rates charged are between $150 and $300 per day depending on destination, airfare not included. Contact Journeys International, 107 Aprill Dr., Ste. 3, Ann Arbor, MI 48103-1903 (phone 734/665-4407, Web: journeys-intl.com/, for a well-written, well-illustrated catalog.

If biking, walking or hiking through Europe on your own sounds appealing, Randonnee Tours' "self-guided" trips might be the thing for you. Trips run year-round (May to October is the high season) primarily through France, but also to Italy, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Canada. Most walking trips average between $200 and $250 a night, and some as much as $300 per night. Each day, you follow a detailed itinerary that Randonnee has created specifically for you, based on your abilities and preferences. The only restriction is that you must arrive each night at a proscribed destination--usually a small hotel. On some walking tours, accommodations are inexpensive B&B's to keep prices down (such as a tour in France, which starts at only $126/day). Luggage is transported separately from place to place. The company is in its 13th year now and has built a loyal following with a generally older crowd of travelers. For more information, contact Randonee Tours, 100-62 Albert St., Winnipeg Manitoba R3B 1E9 (phone 800/465-6488 or 204/475-6939, or view the extensive Web site at randonneetours.com/.)

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.

Backroads, 801 Cedar St., Berkeley CA 94710-1800 (phone 800/GO- ACTIVE or view the Web site at backroads.com)%20recently/ joined forces with British Coastal Trails. Backroads is better known as a bicycling operator, but it will also take you walking throughout the U.S. and to over 40 destinations on five continents, on tours that range from the walk-and-camp variety (which still tend to be rather expensive--over $225/night) to those using elegant inns for hikers' overnights (which are no doubt expensive--approximately $500/night). Among the least expensive walking vacations are Backroads' camping itineraries in places such as the Canadian Rockies, Utah's Bryce Canyon, Washington's San Juan Islands, and the Canadian Rockies.

The luxury-loving Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond Street, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B IX3 (phone 800/678-1147) is another outfit known primarily as a deluxe bike operator, but one that has its share of walking tours too. Walking tours are offered in Europe's most chic areas (as well as in a few spots in North America, Asia, and Africa). Butterfield only uses top-quality lodgings and charges its traditionally high prices ($5,995 per person for seven days strolling the vineyards and hilltowns of Tuscany, is typical). Also online at butterfield.com/.

Hiking holidaysSierra Club, the non-profit lobbying group with 750,000 members, is more than a mighty arm of the environmentalist movement. It's also an inexpensive tour operator with wilderness based adventures throughout the U.S and abroad. While the majority of its overnight hiking trips are in California and other areas of the West Coast, it offers a handful of options east of the Mississippi. Tennessee is home to swelteringly hot summers, but mid-September is a lovely time to get outside and hike around the Volunteer State. In 2002, Sierra Club had a five-day hiking trip in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area in remote northern Tennessee just after Labor Day. The trip costs $475 per person, and all food and cooking supplies are provided. You'll need to bring a tent or arrange to share one on most of Sierra Club's hiking vacations. Trip offerings vary from year to year, but a typical U.S. weeklong backpacking trip costs between $500 and $700, including all meals. The group hikes a manageable 25 miles total amidst beautiful gorges, rolling hills, and rushing creeks. To find out more about Sierra Club, visit sierraclub.com/, or call the Outing Department at 415/977-5522.

Despite its name, Knapsack Tours says that backpacks are never needed on its 10 to 12 tours each year, with destinations such as Switzerland, Yosemite National Park, the Canadian Rockies, Montana, Washington State, and France, Italy and New Zealand. Either vans carry your luggage or you keep all your belongings at a base camp or other lodgings and head off on foot each day. Daily hikes are three to six hours long, and there are usually a few options to choose from (moderate to strenuous). Prices are kept down by the use of modest lodgings (tents, dorm-style, mountain huts, or simple hotels) appropriate (in our opinion) to the unpretentious nature of the activity. Occasionally singles can share rooms; if not, there is a $100 singles supplement. A five-day package with daily hiking in Yosemite led by naturalist guides, three meals a day, and a mix of dorm and camp accommodations (real toilets and hot showers every night) starts at $575/person. Five-day trips in Washington's Olympic or Montana's Glacier National Park, both of which include cabin or bunkhouse accommodations (no camping or tents to worry about), begin at $780. Find out more by contacting Knapsack Tours, 2586 Chinook Drive, Walnut Creek, CA 94598 (phone 925/944-9435 or fax 925/472-0536, e-mail KThiking@aol.com, or check out the Web site knapsacktours.com/ ).

Active Journeys is a good outfit for tours that combine kayaking and rafting with hiking throughout Europe, and a few spots in the Caribbean, Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa and Australia. While all of these tours are "active," by no means do you need to be a mountaineer or world-class athlete to participate; each trip offers a variety of activities for persons at different levels of fitness. This is not a company aimed at the budget traveler, but many of its more active vacations average out to just $130-150 night. Some of its self-guided hiking tours seem to be especially good values. An eight-day hike in the lovely Cinque Terre region of Italy starts at $990, including standard tourist hotels, breakfasts, maps, and luggage transfers. A 15-night coast-to-coast hike in England (from St. Bees Head, on the Irish Sea, to Robin Hoods Bay in North Yorkshire) costs $1,525 with accommodations, maps, and luggage transfers. There are also hiking vacations offered in Argentina's Patagonia region, several spots in Canada including the Rockies and the eastern provinces, Australia and New Zealand, Mexico, Kenya, and all over Europe. Some itineraries should only be attempted by serious hikers, while others can be managed by casual walkers, so be sure to find out ahead of time what kind of a vacation you are signing up for. Find out more at the Active Journeys Web site (activejourneys.com/, by e-mailing info@activejourneys.com, or calling 800/597-5594.

The major trekking specialists

Wilderness Travel, of Berkeley, California, offers treks to favorite destinations like Nepal and the Alps, but also emphasizes treks to Europe, Africa (Mt. Kilamanjaro and the Serengeti is always a favorite) and South America (Macchu Pichu and the Inca Trail), to which a tenth of its passengers go. Both the founders of Wilderness Travel have spent considerable time in Peru and the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile; fittingly, four of the company's expeditions in the region (each one lasting more than two weeks) are among its most popular programs. Impressive, too, are the expertise and experience of Wilderness's tour leaders, many with Peace Corps backgrounds or graduate degrees. (In a recent communication to us, they've noted that their clientele has gotten older over the years, and that, consequently, they've improved the amenities of their treks.) Prices average out to cost between $175 and $350 per night. For interesting literature, contact Wilderness Travel, 1102 Ninth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710-1211 (phone 510/558-2488 or toll free 800/368-2794 outside California. Or view the Web site at wildernesstravel.com/.

Mountain Travel Sobek of Emeryville, California, is one of the largest and oldest of the companies, operating an extraordinary variety of treks on six continents. Called "deluxe" by its competitors, its rates--in my reading of them--are only slightly above the industry level: an average of $115 a day on camping-based trips in Nepal, from $150 to $300 a day in most other mountain regions (plus airfare, of course). (Prices are on the high side if you are on a trip with most nights in hotels or inns.) Those other areas include Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Switzerland, Scotland, France, Patagonia, and Tibet. Like all trekking companies, Mountain Travel Sobek provides the tents, foam sleeping pads, and cooking gear when necessary; you provide the sleeping bag. For the free, four-color 150-page Mountain Travel catalog, contact Mountain Travel-Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville CA 94608 (phone toll free 888/MTSOBEK. Or view the Web site at mtsobek.com/.)

Himalayan Treasures & Travel, of Pinole, CA, features treks led by Peter Owens, a former chemistry professor who since 1976 has conducted over 100 trips a year. Owens' treks exact extraordinary environmental care and set aside profits to subsidizing solar lighting systems for impoverished Nepalis. Prices vary widely among different tours and destinations: full service trips average $80 to $90 a night, while the more basic lodge to lodge trips are around $40 a night Prices are based on the size of the group--more personal tours for one or two people are $140 to $150 a night for full service, and $100 a night lodge to lodge. There are seven itineraries in Nepal (such as the seven-night "Nepal Sampler" starting at $810), as well as a sprinkling of tours throughout Asia, including Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam. Accommodations tend to be simple guest houses and basic hotels to keep prices low. Owens is very popular and his trips tend to sell out as much as a year in advance. Contact Himalayan Treasures & Travel, 3596 Ponderosa Trail, Pinole, CA, 94564, phone 800/223-1813 or 510/222-5307. You can also look up information on the Web at himalayantrekking.com/ or send an e-mail to govindsh@himtrek.com.