Lace Up Those Boots and Leave Your Wheels in the Garage

Article excerpt

No one thinks of 19th-century essayist Charles Lamb as the father of the modern walking vacation, but perhaps he is. As a clerk in a London countinghouse, Lamb toiled six days a week, 51 weeks a year. When his seven precious days of vacation finally arrived, he fled the city "to go and air myself in my native fields of Hertfordshire," walking "all day long ... thirty miles a day, to make the most of them."

For a small but growing number of desk-bound Americans, Lamb's style of vacation holds an irresistible appeal. Instead of watching scenery roll by from the window of a tour bus, they are putting on hiking boots and backpacks to trek across meadows in England, follow craggy coastlines in Italy, and explore medieval villages in France. In the process, they are gaining exhilarating new perspectives, not only on the regions and people they visit but on themselves as adventurers.

"There isn't any form of travel or tourism or vacationing that can equal walking tours for being able to get an up-close look at another culture," says Jake Hartvigsen, marketing director of Experience Plus! in Fort Collins, Colo., which operates both walking and bicycling tours. Valerie Adler, director of Ridge Crest, a luxury walking tour company in Wakefield, R.I., calls it "contextual learning." She says, "Walking, because it is by its very nature slow, means you have a greater opportunity to absorb your surroundings." At least 170 travel companies now offer walking tours, according to Walking magazine, making this one of the most popular activities in the burgeoning "soft-adventure" travel market. "More and more people are trying it for the first time," says Janine Cloney, marketing director of Progressive Travels in Seattle. "Others make it an annual vacation outing." Until recently, a higher percentage of her customers chose bicycling tours. Now, she says, "It's looking like a 50-50 split between bikers and walkers." Explaining one reason for the boom in adventure travel, Ben Wallace, managing director of Himalayan Travel in Stamford, Conn., says, "People seem to be spending their discretionary income more and more now on an experience, rather than a possession. Instead of getting a new couch or a new car, they want a life experience." Those who choose walking vacations as a life experience range in age from their 20s to their 70s, tour operators say, with a majority of participants 40 and older. Group sizes vary from eight to around 20. Walks are graded easy, moderate, or strenuous, depending on the terrain - flat, hilly, mountainous. Typical routes cover four to 14 miles a day. Some itineraries include a choice of trails for various levels of ability. Experienced guides, many of them native to an area, offer insight into history, culture, architecture, and archaeology. A support van follows to offer refreshments and give a lift to the occasional weary guest. …