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25 Reasons We Love Sedona

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
June 7, 2005
How do we love Arizona's New Age nirvana? Rebecca Ascher-Walsh counts the ways, in no particular order

1. Rock stars up close: The breathtaking Red Rocks, which jut from the high desert floor in furious jags, have inspired everyone from the Native Americans who worshipped their energy fields thousands of years ago to the hikers who now worship the views. The setting for hundreds of Westerns--not to mention a bunch of car commercials--the Rocks are fully visible from town, but they're best appreciated from the hiking trails that encircle Sedona. You need a pass to park within the 1.8 million acres of Coconino National Forest; they're widely available, including from the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. 331 Forest Rd., 800/288-7336, sedonachamber.com, $5.

2. Soul innovation system: At the Mago Café, you can check your e-mail and drink a Green Esteem smoothie while strapped to a Brain Innovation System, which is allegedly able to smarten you up. (It looks like Star Trek sunglasses connected to a CD player.) Or simply give your brain the afternoon off and sit for a while by the lovely tearoom's fireplace. You'll leave more serene, if not sharper: In the guest book, one visitor wrote that leading a happy life is easier if you "worrie less." 207 N. Hwy. 89, 928/204-1047, smoothie $4.75.

3. Bacon and The Worm: Michael and Christina Eich--along with their mutt, Bacon--run The Worm, a 44-year-old book and music store. It's open 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, and Michael is happy to give advice on more than his favorite authors. "People ask us about everything," he says, "because we're open more than the chamber of commerce." And there are plenty of interesting titles to page through, from best-selling thrillers to How to Use Sages, Resins, and Herbs in a Wakan-Sacred Way. 207 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-3471, sedonaworm.com.

4. Delicious dirt: Inspired by the view of the Rocks, Sedona Fudge Company's Ann Evans created the shop's newest seller, Sedona Red Dirt. It's a heart-stopping concoction of cream cheese, amaretto, raspberry flavoring, and white chocolate. Too much? Try Slide Rock Swirl, made with vanilla cream cheese and a ribbon of chocolate. 257 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-1044; one-pound box $16.

5. Even veggies get TLC: Tender asparagus, precious Meyer lemons, and baby artichokes are lovingly arranged by dreadlocked, tie-dyed employees at New Frontiers Natural Marketplace--they earnestly believe the world can be improved one organic meal at a time. A mini-chain, New Frontiers has three outposts in Arizona and two in California. The take-out counter provides an ideal pre-hike lunch, including poached salmon and salads. Old Marketplace shopping center, 1420 W. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-6311.

6. Backward sunsets: In Sedona, the most dramatic "ooh..." moment comes when you face east, as the sun's rays seem to set the Rocks afire. People flock to Airport Vista, but you'll find more solitude paying $7 to park at Red Rock Crossing, which has unobstructed views of Cathedral Rock (where Addicus and Jen Patton, left, got married). Or just hang out in town on the patio of Canyon Breeze. "We have the best fish taco in Arizona," promises bartender Kevin Lefter. "And you can quote me on that." Who knew there was competition? 300 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-2112, fish taco $10.

7. The lullaby of a babbling brook: Don Hoel's Cabins are only 10 miles north of town, but you'll suffer delightful culture shock as you head deep into the forested canyon and arrive at what looks like a soundstage for Little House on the Prairie. A cozy cabin for two close to the creek, with quilts, a fireplace, and a full kitchen, is $125. (Cabin 7 is pictured.) For less rustic creekside lodging, the Best Western Arroyo Roble on Sedona's main street has seven two-bedroom villas that sleep six, with a full kitchen, two and a half bathrooms, and two fireplaces. The $330 rate includes breakfast, and the hotel has both an outdoor and indoor/outdoor swimming pool. Don Hoel's Cabins, 9440 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-3560, hoels.com; Arroyo Roble Hotel, 400 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-4001, bestwesternsedona.com.

8. Cactus as a side dish: Every first-timer to the Southwest should try fried cactus and rattlesnake soup, both of which are available at the Cowboy Club. But it's the restaurant's rib eye steaks and giant salads that draw tour guides at the end of a long day. Sidle up to the bar, which serves a full dinner menu, and leave the skull-and-horn-festooned dining room to the masses. 241 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-4200, cowboyclub.com, rib eye $23.

9. Hitting the ground walking: Dennis Andres is a gifted guide and an endless resource whose rates--$275 per couple for four hours--reflect both his experience and his exuberance. "I've walked 5,000 miles of these trails," he says, "and I still haven't found them all." Luckily, everyone can benefit from Andres's exhaustive knowledge with his book, The Insider's Guide to Sedona, an indispensable resource for lodging, services, and, of course, hikes. Order a copy before you plan your trip: The $21 cost, which includes shipping and handling, can easily be recouped by reading the "Saving Money in Sedona" chapter. Sedona Private Guides, 928/204-2201, sedonaprivateguides.com.

10. The mall rats are birds: The Spanish-style buildings at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village enclose plazas with lush plantings and flowing fountains--which attract the likes of goldfinches, scrub jays, and even quail. The shopping's not bad either. Ogle the $685 carousel horse at Sedona Music Boxes, then pick up a hummingbird hurdy-gurdy ($10) to take home as a souvenir. 336 Hwy. 179, 928/282-4838, tlaq.com.

11. Southern food in the Southwest: Diners at the Coffee Pot Restaurant wait beneath autographed photos of Melissa Etheridge and Jane Russell for the opportunity to choose from 101 different omelets. Go for the weird (roast beef and cheese), the silly (peanut butter and jelly), or the old favorites, so long as you don't skip the side order of homemade biscuits and grits. 2050 W. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-6626, ham and cheese omelet $5.75.

12. A heaven-sent B&B: With 3 million visitors annually and only 17,500 residents, lodging in Sedona is a seller's market, leaning toward the cheapish hotel or the luxe resort. One exception is A Sunset Chateau. Janet Buillet, an artist who has decorated the walls with her paintings and murals, presides over a B&B where the standard rooms are in fact sprawling suites with full-size kitchens and private terraces nestled up to the Rocks. The two-acre grounds include a red-velvet pandal (a Hindu ceremonial structure), a pool, and dozens of hammocks and chairs. "I got a lot of the furnishings through prayers," says the charmingly eccentric Buillet. "One morning, I asked for a pillow with an Aztec bird on it, and when I went out, there it was." Better not to inquire about the lamp made from three furry goat legs. 665 S. Sunset Dr., 928/282-2644, asunsetchateau.com, doubles from $149.

13. Twice-caught trout: Spend an afternoon fishing at the Rainbow Trout Farm. Then grill your catch at their picnic area or head for The Heartline Café, where the specialty is the farm's trout cooked in a pecan crust ($22). The best table is next to the fireplace outside on the patio, but you won't care where you sit, provided that you end the meal with the poached pear stuffed with marzipan, drizzled in caramel sauce, and wrapped in pastry. Rainbow Trout Farm, 3500 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-5799, rod rental $1, caught fish $7--$10 each; The Heartline Café, 1610 W. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-0785, heartlinecafe.com.

14. Cool airport lodging: Sky Ranch Lodge is the best deal in town. Rooms are up on Airport Mesa overlooking the Rocks, with a pool from which you can watch the sunset. It's next to the tiny airport, but don't let that stop you. Only single-engine planes are allowed to fly in and out, and only during the day, so the noise is nothing to get too worked up about. Airport Rd., 928/282-6400, skyranchlodge.com, doubles from $75.

15. Baked is good: Sedona residents fought the Hyatt's latest development--a combination of time-share condos and shopping center--but many came around when a branch of the Arizona chain Wildflower Bread Company opened inside it. Wildflower has great coffee, popular breakfasts, sandwiches on their fabulous breads, and pasta for dinner. The line can be long, but you're likely to overhear local gossip. (Note: You may have to park at the neighboring Starbucks.) The Shops at Pinon Pointe, intersection of Hwys. 179 and 89A, 928/204-2223, sandwiches from $7.

16. Vortexes and vortices: One of Sedona's major draws is its vortexes (or vortices, depending on whom you ask). These are spots where believers claim the earth offers up a little extra zing: Effects can range from feeling highly caffeinated to experiencing a psychic moment. Locals are divided between eye-rollers and those who find themselves moved to tears; in any event, visiting the sites is another excuse to bask in Sedona's natural beauty. Such things being immeasurable, some argue there are 4 spots, others 13, but a definite one is at the Chapel of the Holy Cross, worth a look for its modern architecture alone. Any trail map will point you toward the vortexes. The Chapel, Chapel Rd., off Hwy. 179, about five minutes south of town.

17. Clarity for $5: Body Bliss Factory Direct sells locally made topical potions for whatever ails you, from sore feet to a broken heart. If the single serving of Need Some Clarity? bath oil ($5) doesn't do the trick, step into the store's spa for a 15-minute Gemstone Oracle Reading ($25) by owner Chanda Schmidt, who looks like a German Carol Alt. Schmidt is the patron saint of fidgeters, offering a tarot card reading where each pick corresponds to a gem that you're encouraged to fondle. "Most people listen better while they're holding something," she explains. May all fates be learned while pawing a giant ruby. 320 N. Hwy. 89A, Ste. Q, 928/282-1599.

18. Old masters: Sedona has a plethora of galleries, but they can't beat the rock art you'll see at Honanki, Palatki, and V-Bar-V Ranch, three U.S. Forest Service sites of Apache and Yavapai ruins with prehistoric pictographs and petroglyphs. Talk to the rangers at Red Rock Ranger District before going, since the sites can be closed due to inclement weather. Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the country, is another ruin worth checking out. Red Rock Ranger District, 928/282-4119, redrockcountry.org; reservations required for Palatki; Montezuma Castle National Monument, off I-17, 30 minutes outside of town, 928/282-3322, nps.gov/moca, $3.

19. Spicing up your life: Two casual spots that offer knockout food at bargain prices, Tara Thai Cuisine and Thai Spices deliver a level of spiciness that the southwestern cantinas don't come close to matching. Tara Thai, 34 Bell Rock Plaza, Oak Creek, 928/284-9167, entrées from $8; Thai Spices, 2986 W. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-0599, entrées from $8.50.

20. Turquoise with poise: Don't be turned off by the chatting deer sculpture on the lawn of Garland's Indian Jewelry, which encourages you to "spend some bucks." (Or at least get over it.) Because inside, there's a cache of new and estate jewelry that Georgia O'Keeffe would have coveted--you may be so lucky as to snag an $8 pair of earrings. Next door, Indian Gardens Country Store sells a nice bowl of homemade beef stew ($5). 3953 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-6632, garlandsjewelry.com.

21. Rojo Roco Rojo: Say it three times fast! Rojo Roco Rojo is an excellent local red table wine that pairs nicely with a sandwich of grilled chicken, Gruyère, and caramelized onions ($10) during lunch at the Wine Basket at Hillside. On Friday nights, the Wine Basket hosts a wine-tasting dinner ($30), when co-owner and gourmet chef Jason Marchese prepares tantalizing meals to complement that week's selections of international wines. Recent menus included tilapia and leg of lamb. Hillside Shops, 671 Hwy. 179 E., 928/203-9411, reservations required.

22. Single-track minds: Area bikers take umbrage when Sedona is called Moab Light. While the Utah city has a bigger reputation, "we've got more single track and diverse trails," says Shaggy, who sometimes helps out at Mountain Bike Heaven. In fact, professional teams come here for training before their spring opening events. Rent a bike at Sedona Bike and Bean or at Absolute Bikes, both of which are close to the Bell Rock Pathway and Mountain Bike Heaven, which also leads group rides. Sedona Bike and Bean, 6020 Hwy. 179, Oak Creek, 928/284-0210, bike-bean.com; Absolute Bikes, 6101 Hwy. 179, 928/284-1242, absolutebikes.net; Mountain Bike Heaven, 1695 W. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-1312, mountainbikeheaven.com.

23. No worries: The crime rate is essentially nil, no doubt thanks to the town's population, which divides neatly into wealthy retirees, artists in love with the light, and service workers on a spiritual quest--for whom stealing would be totally bad karma. While there is an occasional car break-in, one local swears that the culprits aren't delinquent teenagers but transients on their way to explore the Grand Canyon, only two hours away. (A number of local outfitters on the main strip run day trips, if you're not inclined to make the drive or arrangements yourself.)

24. A half-off farewell margarita: Take a quick turn off Highway 89A and you'll feel miles away at the Hideaway Café, which makes comfort food--pizzas, sandwiches, BBQ--perfect for the end of your adventure. The lounge upstairs allows smoking, while the restaurant downstairs has a heated patio. The Hideaway also occasionally features live entertainment, like a solo guitarist. Score a 20 percent discount with a coupon from the chamber of commerce and consider your $4 margarita half-price. Country Square Plaza, 251 Hwy. 179, 928/282-4204, sandwiches about $8.50.

25. Jeep thrills: Sedona Red Jeep tour guide Kurt Raczynski bypassed medical school, but he never relinquished his passion for science. On the 90-minute Soldier Path tour, you'll learn why the Rocks are red (iron in the sandstone), how Native Americans hunted antelope (speared 'em or drove 'em over a cliff), and that a tarantula bite only stings. "But the Mojave Green rattlesnake is toxic," Raczynski says cheerfully. "You could be dead in 30 minutes." And you'll also get to stop at this natural pool. Bad backs, take note: The ride is pretty bumpy. 270 N. Hwy. 89A, 928/282-6826, redrockjeep.com, $54.

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The Play's the Thing in Ashland, OR

An isolated hamlet in rural Oregon as a major U.S. theater capital? Sounds unlikely, but it's true: For 65 years, Ashland (population 19,500, just over the California border and about 80 miles inland as the crow flies) has played host to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation's largest and arguably most respected regional theater, drawing 150,000 visitors to its 762 annual performances of 11 productions between February and October. In fact, only four of those productions are Shakespeare-written, the rest being American theater classics ranging from comedies like The Man Who Came to Dinner to dramas by the likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov, along with new plays such as Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. Still, the festival's calling card remains its Shakespearean extravaganzas, staged outdoors in a reasonably authentic (but thoroughly modern) Elizabethan theater starting in June. Want more than just theater? Ashland's also an easy day trip from the absolutely glorious 250-square-mile Crater Lake National Park (a $10/car entrance fee gets you access to its hiking and skiing facilities) as well as the Oregon Caves National Monument with its remarkable array of flora and fauna. (For a more extensive list of visitor resources, check the Southern Oregon Vacation Guide at www.sova.org.) All this thespianizing, along with Ashland's other charms, has transformed a rural town slated for oblivion into a vibrant, thriving center for the arts, a retirement haven, and a surprisingly lively travel destination. And while the area's cultural bounty has sometimes resulted in prices that run a bit higher than your average small town in the Pacific Northwest, it remains magnificently affordable for those who use a bit of foresight. (Note: All telephone numbers should be preceded by the 541 area code unless otherwise stated.) Hot Tickets Ashland may be in the boondocks, but its ticket demand is the envy of Broadway. Popular plays often sell out early for the entire season; most summer performances become sellouts quickly. If you want good seats, get your order in immediately: The box office starts to process ticket requests in the order received, starting in mid-January. Last season, most full-price tickets went for $29 to $42, with a few box seats at $52. (Next year's prices aren't out yet, but they'll be close to last year's.) However, "value season" discounts take 25 percent off performances prior to June 4 and after October 3. A few off-season matinees were even priced at 50 percent off, and children ages 6-17 get 25-50 percent reductions, depending on the time of year. In addition, last-minute visitors should be aware that the box office frequently releases a few daily rush seats on the day of performance, and you usually find a thriving "aftermarket" in front of the box office. You can get tickets by mail (15 South Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon 97520) or phone (482-4331). The visitor section of the festival's brochure - much of which is duplicated on www.orshakes.org - provides a wealth of information on ticket prices, rooms, and activities. Living Inexpensively Ashland is a hotbed of bed-and-breakfasts (more than 60 at last count). However, they rarely dip below $90 a day for a double. Hotels remain, on the whole, a more cost-effective way to stay; in the height of the summer season, rooms start at around $60 - not exactly cheap, but not quite exorbitant. For $65 per night, the Columbia Hotel (800/718-2530, www.columbiahotel.com) is a solid, funky choice on the second story of a block of storefronts near the theaters. The location's great, but most rooms aren't air-conditioned. Two others among the in-town options are Knight's Inn for $58-68 nightly (800/547-4566, www.brodeur-inns.com) and Timbers Motel for $68 a night (482-4242, www.visionww.com/timbers). Both are typical 1950s/1960s-style motels with outside corridors; they're comfortable and well-maintained, though without a scintilla of charm. More recently built properties include the somewhat out-of-the-way Ashland Regency Inn & RV Park (800/482-4701), costing $70/night for a double, and the $68/night Super 8 Motel (800/800-8000, www.super8.com); both are equally efficient, if charmless. The choice of real economy travelers-especially young ones-is the $16/night Ashland Hostel (482-9217), a converted residence. For the best bargains, however, you need to head up the highway a short distance to Talent (4 miles), Phoenix (7 miles), or Medford (12 miles). In these three towns, the following are all clean, basic, serviceable 1950s-vintage lodgings, with little to distinguish one from the next other than proximity to Ashland: Goodnight Inn (Talent), $45-$58, 535-7234; Bavarian Inn (Phoenix), $42, 535-1678; Phoenix Motel (Phoenix), $49-$55, 535-1555; Crater Inn (Medford), $44-46, 776-9194; Knight's Inn (Medford), $45, 773-3676; Red Carpet Inn (Medford), $47, 772-6133; Royal Crest Motel (Medford), $40-45, 772-6144; Tiki Lodge (Medford), $37, 773-4579. In addition, most nationwide economy chains have one or more locations in Medford, with summer rates starting in the mid-$50-per-night range. For more motel information, check the Medford Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.visitmedford.org.

Walking Vacations

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.

Walking Vacations

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, youre 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. Peregine, an adventurous Aussie-based outfit, offers 24 different trekking itineraries in the Himalayan region, and five non-trekking trips. Most tours last more than ten days, and combine serious outdoor adventures (rafting, safaris, mountaineering) with up-close cultural experiences (interaction with the locals is a priority). To keep costs down (usually around $100/night), accommodations tend to be simple guesthouses or camping. Tours are usually kept small -- 12 or under is the norm. A typical tour is the "Annapurna Circuit," a 22-day round-trip adventure out of Kathmandu that rambles along a trail through Tibetan villages, and zigzags up into the Annapurna range. The tour costs $2,130, and includes transfers from the Kathmandu airport, as well as all your meals, entrance fees, accommodations, porters, medical equipment, sleeping bags, tents, and guides along the trek. Several tours in Southeast Asia, China, Africa, Antartica, the Artic, Europe, South America, and Australia that involve transportation by local buses and trains as well as some traditional trekking on foot, are also offered by Peregrine and its partner company, Geckos. Prices are usually among the best around. For more information, visit the Peregine Web site at peregrine.net.au/. Above the Clouds Trekking, of Hinesburg, Vermont, is still another small company whose strong suit is the Himalayas, with a sprinkling of other tours in Europe (mainly in the mountainous regions of France, Italy, and Switzerland) and in the Patagonia region of South America. "Everest from Goyko," using the less-traveled route there, involves 27 days of strenuous trekking (out of 30) and is among the company's most innovative $110-a-day offerings. Costs in Europe average $200 per day, Patagonia $300 a day. Above the Clouds stresses cross-cultural lessons, and designs its treks to maximize contacts with local residents. For brochures, contact Above the Clouds Trekking, P.O. Box 388, Hinesburg, VT 05461. Phone 802/482-4848 . Or view the Web site, aboveclouds.com/. Worldwide Adventures, of Toronto, is a leading Canadian trekking company, attracting more and more participants from the U.S. Treks average US$150 a day, although some cost upwards of $200/day. Destinations include Nepal, Ladakh, Bhutan, Tibet, the Andes, and Africa. A handful of tours are arranged for special groups, including ones in Nepal, India and South America for travelers over the age of 50. You'll be impressed, I think, by its innovative approach set forth in a 80-page catalog, obtained from: Worldwide Adventures, 1170 Sheppard Avenue West, Suite 45, Toronto, Ontario M3K 2A3 (phone 416/633-5666 or 800/387-1483. Or view the Web site at 1000adventures.com/. And for a trekking company owned and operated by Nepalese themselves (perhaps the most socially responsible way to trek), you'll want to consider booking with AmaDablam Adventures of Kathmandu. The company specializes in ferreting out the lesser-known and uncrowded routes. Prices in Nepal average between $60 and $80 per person per day on many itineraries. For more information and a brochure, contact the company's U.S. representative, Adventure Center, 1311 63rd Street, Suite 200, Emeryville, CA 94608 (phone 510/654-1879 or 800/228-8747, or view the Web site at adventurecenter.com/). Amadablam is one of the most prominent of the local companies. But it's simple to find even the smallest operators by simply viewing the Nepal Visitors Web site at visitnepal.com/. Most tour companies listed on the site are based in Kathmandu, and many are contracted by the companies above to guide their tours (hence, you can save a bundle sometimes by booking direct) Other recommended local operators include Snow Leopard Trek (phone 011-975-232-1821, snowleopardtreks.com/), Sherpa Shangri-La (Web page shangrilatrek.com/), and Eco Trek (phone 011-977-23-2074-424113, Web: ecotreknepal.net/). Explore Nepal also arranges treks for altruists willing to clean up rubbish along the trails; these usually depart in May and October or November and can cost as little as $2/day (Web page xplorenepal.com/) Of course, it's often possible to wait until arrival in Kathmandu to book with these (or countless other) agencies; there is usually last-minute availability, and you can shop around. Finally, here's the exception that proves the rule: not all challenging treks are in Nepal or Peru. For a change of pace: Ibex, a company that specializes in Swiss trekking. Self-guided tours run from mid-June to mid-October; guided tours in the higher altitudes run from July to September. Treks run five to 14 nigths. Trekkers stay in family-style hotels, guesthouses and dormitory-style "mountain huts." Be advised: the company requests that you pack lightly, as transportation for luggage is difficult in the rugged, mountainous region. Those who must have a suitcase can arrange to have it sent ahead earlier to the final destination. One of the least expensive Ibex treks is the the Bernese Oberland self-guided tour, a seven-night tour for as low as $749, with four nights in double occupancy inns and three nights in dorm facilities. Participants trek during the day, and at nighttime, bunk down after a hearty dinner. On guided tours, groups average eight participants with two tour leaders--a maximum of 14 are permitted on most tours. Contact the company at 505/579-4671, or visit the Web site at ibextreks.com/. Trekking without a tour company It should be noted that when it comes to trekking, booking with a specialist or agency is not always the cheapest way to go. The truth is you don't need to have a guide (most trails are obvious and maps are easy to come by), porter (pack light or leave belongings in your Kathmandu hotel for a very small charge), or even equipment (you can rent gear in Kathmandu for about $10). If you fly independently into Kathmandu, stay in the backpacker's neighborhood known as Thamel, where meeting fellow solo travelers is easier than tripping over a rickshaw. Use the well-trafficked bulletin boards outside the Kathmandu Guest House and inside Pumpernickel's bakery to hook up with trekking partners. Once you've got your partner(s) and you've chosen your trekking route, head across town to the permit office (any driver will know the way), where you must register your trip with the government for $10 to $90, depending on the trek and its duration. After that, a ticket on a local bus ($1 to $4) is all you need to reach the trailhead. Teahouses and inns line every major trekking route, so you won't go more than a few hours without passing a cheap place to eat or sleep. Prices increase the farther you walk, but usually range between $2 and $8 for a night's lodging and $1 to $6 for a meal. That means you can conduct your own trek for daily costs of as little as $6. Be aware, however, that if you are trekking in the high visitor season of October and November, popular trails may be backed up with hikers for miles, and inn vacancies may be hard to come by. Trekking! Is this not the ultimate trip, the answer to the vapid vacation, the plastic "package," the madding throng? "When you have to walk six days to a village," a trekker once told us, "you can be pretty sure it is unspoiled by tourism."

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