Suddenly, it hits you. You’ve spent the morning ambling around China’s remote Guizhou province, sharing dirt roads and terraced rice paddies with the occasional water buffalo or curious preschooler. Now, hundreds of miles from anything resembling a restaurant, you find yourself very, very hungry.
Fortunately, about a hundred yards ahead (atop a postcard-perfect stone bridge), your traveling chef has laid out a gourmet dim sum picnic. And a few hours later when you arrive at a village, local masseuses will be flexing their fingers in anticipation. It's all par for the course on Butterfield and Robinson’s Shanghai to Tibet walking tour.
Perennially popular with recent college grads and earthy types, walking tours are nowadays attracting a more amenity-oriented clientele.
Getting off the bus
"With the whole soft adventure boom," notes Karen Cleary of Boundless Journeys, "more and more travelers want to get off that tour bus and really see a region up close and personal ... and also enjoy a big dinner at the end of the night."
As any seasoned trekker will attest, though, moments of serendipity can be hard won. Getting lost in bad weather, getting lost in good weather, sore feet, and even boredom can sometimes plague the most intrepid foot traveler. Hence the importance of a good trip outfitter.
These are the experts who take care of all the requisite due diligence: locating the best footpaths, restaurants and hotels, crafting imaginative picnics, arranging private tours, classes and massages, and bringing along the vehicular assistance should the skies suddenly turn grim.
According to Sarah Thies, marketing director for the California-based operator, Classic Journeys, "We spend about one to two years researching a destination before starting a trip there. The guides we hire, all local to the region, are intimately familiar with what people should see — both in terms of the hot spots as well as those out-of-the-way secret places."
Anything but pedestrian
For example, Classic Journeys' Moroccan Tour puts you in touch with the world’s earliest wanderers — nomads. After a few days meandering through the crowded markets of Marrakech, travelers leave the medina behind for an authentic Berber encampment, where they then spend the night in camel hair tents amidst the Sahara’s rolling red dunes.
Today's walking tours are anything but pedestrian, and include diversions for the trekker inclined to skip a mile or two. “Part of our definition of luxury”, notes Pam Byron who founded the much-lauded outfitter Off the Beaten Path with her husband Bill, “lies within the notion of choice. On many of our trips there’s usually an option to do something else, like fish in a secluded lake, go on a photo safari or get a massage back at the hotel.”
More dedicated types might enjoy Off the Beaten Path’s Patagonia Tour, which includes horseback riding through the Pampas, glacial hikes with crampons, and Shackleton-worthy slogs through thigh-high mud fields. In a similarly adventurous vein, San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions offers a popular trekking tour to Uganda to get up close and personal with silverback gorillas, and Abercrombie & Kent arranges a number of custom "tramping" tours through the south island of New Zealand.
To generate a list of 13 walking tours, we asked several high-end tour operators the same question: which one of your tours absolutely, positively could not be replicated by an independent traveler? In other words, we were only interested in those trips so unique and insiderish that the savviest of travelers wouldn't be able to match them (at least without some serious connections).
So while anyone can make arrangements to stay at Ravello’s ultra-swank Le Sirenuse hotel, not everyone can get the place to themselves — which is the case on Butterfield and Robinson’s Amalfi Coast Trip. Nor can most people rent out the Tibetan Museum, or glide through the famously cloistered wineries of Bordeaux and Tuscany. So tie up your laces.