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Five myths about walking vacations

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 24/11/2016 Everett Potter

The best walking trips are designed to connect you with the people and region. © Getty Images The best walking trips are designed to connect you with the people and region. Walking is good for you, so it’s not surprising that there are travel companies that have made it the centerpiece of their tours. But what exactly is a walking vacation? Here are five myths taken down by two leading walking tour operators.

1. You need to be very fit to go on a walking vacation.

You might think so, but that turns out not be the case, says Michael West, founder of The Wayfarers, which started taking guests on walks in Dorset, England, in 1984 and now offers walking vacations throughout England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Spain, Austria, the Mediterranean, Patagonia and New Zealand. “But you do need to be realistic about your fitness level.”

Tour operators like The Wayfarers rate their trips according to how much walking there is and the general level of fitness required. They have five walk levels ranging from “easy” at Level One to “energetic” at Level Five, though West adds that every walking trip is more enjoyable if you’re in shape.

“We rate trips in terms of the terrain, distance, elevation gain and time spent walking each day,” says West. “And we stress that walking is all about enjoyable ‘slow travel,’ taking time to see and appreciate the landscapes we walk through, not speeding along as if you are competing in a race.”

Many locales offer a variety of terrain, which means that there’s often a way to bring the less fit into the countryside, says Deborah Lewis, founder of Bredeson Outdoor Adventures, which has walking trips throughout the U.S., South America, Europe and Oceania.  “Virtually every walking destination offers moderate walks and hikes that are appropriate for people who can walk 3 to 5 or so miles in a day, and still experience rich local culture and beautiful scenery.” Lewis points to her recently inaugurated New Brunswick Bay of Fundy tour, adding that “the hikes on this trip are dramatic, coastal adventures in areas full of seafaring history, yet they were not difficult.”

2. I really like to exercise and a walk doesn't sound strenuous enough.

When you mention a “walking vacation” to someone, this is indeed the other side of the coin. After all, don’t most of us walk on vacation anyway?

“In response to this, I say, just join us on our Tour du Mont Blanc or Haute Route treks, and then come back to me and say that ‘walking’ trips are not strenuous,” says Lewis. “Try going on a trip that crosses multiple mountain passes and offers 3,000 feet of elevation gain and loss daily. Challenging hiking trips can provide great exercise and adventure.”

West of The Wayfarers says that “Walking can be as strenuous as you want it to be. Our Level Five trips provide vigorous hiking over magnificent scenery with lots of get up and go required. Try our Dolomite Mountains hike in Italy for long, bracing days on Alpine trails, or our Lake District Walk in England with plenty of steep, rocky climbs and spectacular views.”

Geography aside, West notes that “there’s also the length of the walk to be considered. Walking for 12 to 15 miles a day for five days on our Coast to Coast trip in Northern England is a great workout even though the trails themselves are quite easy."

3. I think a walking trip would be boring.

After all, you’re just walking, aren’t you?

“Personally, I would find walking on a treadmill inside a gym boring,” says West of The Wayfarers. “But real walking, outside in the sun and, yes, the rain, with fresh air on your face and the ever-changing landscape around you — that’s never boring. Walking allows you to see things you wouldn’t notice if you zoomed past on the highway. On foot, everyone is a fellow citizen of the world and you share the fun and camaraderie of the road. It can also offer a profoundly spiritual experience, as pilgrims have known for more than a thousand years. The Wayfarers walk some of the ancient pilgrim routes, including the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Via Francigena in Italy. On these routes you are literally walking in the footsteps of history.”

4. Spending all my time hiking will keep me from experiencing the local culture.

The best walking trips are designed to connect you with the people and region, where you stay in independent accommodations and eat in the same restaurants and cafes as the locals.

Advocates of walking tours will tell you that it doesn’t get much more local than walking, the alternative to being “hermetically sealed away in a car or bus,” says Lewis. “Try local food that has been grown in the area you have walked through in Italy’s lovely Cinque Terre region or walk to a sculptor’s studio on an island in Croatia. Then imagine doing the same thing with 50 of your best friends on a tour bus.”

On a Wayfarers’ trips, they build in experiences along the way to entertain and inform guests about local history and culture. Depending on the trip, “these might include wine tasting, cheese making, theater performances or traditional music demonstrations,” says West. “Our walks include visits to notable buildings and works of art. Our tours in Tuscany and Umbria take us to the historic centers of Siena and Orvieto and we enjoy a cookery lesson in an Italian farmhouse.”

5. I don't want to carry a heavy pack.

The reality is that a light daypack is probably all that you need on most tours.

“On our walks you need not carry anything at all if you don’t want to,” says West of The Wayfarers. “We have a Walk Leader and a back-up van. Our leaders accompany all our walks and carry basic necessities and first aid. Our vans meet walkers at pre-arranged intervals throughout the day to supply snacks, drinks and fresh equipment. Tired walkers can hop in the van for a stretch if they wish, or return to the hotel.”

“Most people don’t want to carry a heavy pack,” says Lewis, whose company offers many self-guided trips. “Those who wish to trek but not schlep from place to place can sign up for a tour that offers baggage shuttle ... How nice is that to arrive in town after a beautiful hike, and to find your suitcase with clean clothes waiting for you in your charming, family-run hotel?”

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