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.
Accommodations range from cozy inns to princely manor houses and small luxury hotels. Depending on the destination, length of stay, and type of lodging and meals, costs run from $1,000 to $4,000, plus airfare. Some travel companies also offer independent tours. Tour operators book accommodations, transfer luggage from one hotel to the next, provide detailed maps and route notes, and give walkers the name of a local contact.
"You are your own self-contained group," explains Mr. Wallace, whose firm books between 250 and 300 customers on self-guided tours a year. "A lot of people don't want to deal with the group dynamics of 12 or 15 other people. They want to be able to walk at their own pace. They can go on any day - alone, or with their wife or husband or friends."
Distances on Ms. Cloney's self-guided tours tend to be shorter than those on guided tours, averaging three to four hours of walking a day. "These are people who have done a guided tour in the past and feel comfortable enough to travel by themselves with our help," she says.
For some participants, walking tours exert a life-changing influence. Marie Edwards of Rome, Ga., inadvertently found a new career when, 12 years ago, she read about a coast-to-coast walk across England. "I thought, 'I'll do that,' " she recalls. She rounded up two friends, and the trio flew to London, their enthusiasm masking their lack of experience.
"We couldn't read a map or a compass, we had no reservations, and we didn't know the terminology in the guide book, such as 'Go to the cairn' and 'Head south at the stile,' " Mrs. Edwards says with a laugh. "We had never walked more than six miles before this. Now we were walking 20 miles a day." In 12 days, with one day of rest, the three women completed the 212-mile trail.
Buoyed by her experience, Edwards spent the next several summers walking with organized tours. Then she left her job as a preschool teacher to form her own company, Southern Treks. She now leads six tours a year to Great Britain, France, Austria, and Australia.
For those considering a walking trip, Ms. Adler says that a "general level of health and fitness" is conducive to greater enjoyment. She advises regular aerobic activity for several weeks before the trip.
Edwards suggests trying two miles a day, three times a week, then gradually increasing the distance. "If you can do a six-mile walk two days in a row, you're OK," she says.
When the final walk ends and group members are packing up to go home, their mood is often triumphant. "It's just awesome," Edwards says. "They've probably stretched themselves further than they ever have before."
She adds, "When you've pushed aside sheep pellets to eat a picnic lunch, and you've slithered through slits in a stone wall, you've seen the country. That country is a part of you."
Charles Lamb would surely agree.