Travelers Whose Feet Are Firmly on the Ground

Patent attorney George Kaplan is a true New Yorker. City-born and bred, he resides today in the borough of Queens.

But when it comes to enjoying his leisure time, Mr. Kaplan isn't looking for a respite from the concrete. On the contrary, one of his favorite activities is to lace up his comfortable shoes and take to the pavement - on a walking tour.

"You learn about interesting neighborhoods and sites which reveal the real New York," Kaplan says. "A walking tour is a learning experience, a social experience, an understanding experience."

Kaplan is not alone in his eagerness to set out on foot. "The number of companies offering walking tours has tripled in the last 10 years," says Jerry Mallet, president of the Adventure Travel Society in Englewood, Colo. "Cities are all putting trails in."

Walking itself is on the rise as a leisure activity. Between 1983 and 1995, according to a survey done by the United States Forest Service, there was a 43 percent increase - from 93.6 million to 133.6 million - in the number of people who say they walk for pleasure. "It's the most frequent activity in outdoor recreation," says David Secunda, executive director of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America in Boulder, Colo.

But for many walking enthusiasts, simply treading the ground isn't enough. They're looking to learn something as they go, and they'd like some company while they do it.

"Walking tours are a great group event," says Marla Johnson, an advertising executive from Chicago who's done walking-tour vacations in Italy, France, Ireland, New Mexico, and the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and especially appreciates local guides who can impart information about their regions. "You walk and socialize." But also, she emphasizes, "You learn a lot. It's a cultural investigation."

Wendy Scott started Scott Walking Tours in Halifax, Canada, seven years ago. Previously she had been organizing cross-country ski trips but decided to jump into what she saw as a growth market. Her company now offers six-day walking tours in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick.

"Walking tours are definitely becoming more popular," says Ms. Scott. "People are much more interested not only in exercise but in really seeing, feeling, experiencing an area."

Scott says her typical customer is "a well-educated person who's very curious." Walkers on her tours range from "20-year-old honeymooners to 70-year-olds," but most are what she calls "baby boomers in their 40s and 50s whose kids have left home."

Some credit the baby boomers with fueling the interest in walking tours as they turn away from jogging and begin seeking out a gentler form of exercise. Others, however, insist that walking tours also appeal to Generation X - a group believed to be drawn to individual activities rather than team sports.

"My customers are people interested in getting out of the cities," says Laura Meng, owner and founder of The Earth Is Yours Walking Tours in Evanston, Ill., who sets up single-day, weekend, and longer vacation walks throughout the US, Mexico, Europe, and New Zealand.

Indeed, walking tours focusing on exotic natural areas - going by foot on an African safari or through the foothills of Patagonia - are also on the rise. Some such trips offer a chance to interact with the environment as part of a learning project, such as counting animal species or participating in an archaeological dig.

But many enthusiastic walkers are instead people curious about cities. In New York City, the 92nd St. Y prides itself on what it calls its "cutting-edge walking tours." These are often unique events like the All-Night Candle Tour of Revolutionary New York that starts at 2 a.m. on Independence Day and takes participants to little-known Revolutionary War-era sites, or 2001: a Subway Odyssey, which ushers subway buffs underground to the site of the city's largest subway construction project.

In Washington, Mary Kay Ricks says she was inspired to offer walking tours after reading a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and realizing the extent to which she walked the city's streets. Ms. Ricks, a former lawyer and self-described amateur historian, now offers regular walking tours through Washington and Georgetown every weekend, and does special group tours during the week.

"When you get off the bus and start walking, that's when you discover America," she says.

Curtis Roseman, a professor of geography at the University of Southern California, says he began taking himself on his own walking tours when he moved from Illinois to Los Angeles in 1985. "It was my way of getting comfortable in L.A.," he says. "That's the traditional geographer in me. For me there's no substitute for walking around a place and thinking about it and experiencing it."

Today he offers informal tours to interested groups. He charges no fee, but finds his recompense in watching others discover L.A. "The dialogue is good," he says. "It's a learning experience for me, too. That's what sustains me."

WALKING TOUR TIPS

A walking tour can make a great vacation. But, says Mark Fenton, editor at large at Walking magazine in Boston, it's important to do some homework first. Before filling up your backpack and knotting your sneakers, Fenton recommends asking:

* What do other people say about the trip? Get the names of others who've taken the trip and call them.

* Who are the guides? What is their training? (On a trip outside the US, it is generally most effective to pair local guides with US guides.)

* How difficult will the walking be? (Trips vary greatly, from the gentle to the very challenging.)

* How should I prepare? (A good company should be able to send you some sort of training guide.)

* Where can I get trip insurance?

* What about the region we're traveling to? Are there special circumstances I need to be aware of?

* Who else is going? What type of people? Married, single, young, retired?

* Send e-mail comments to: coeymanm@csps.com

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