A farmer in the distance raised his hand in greeting as Sally and Kevin Abell wandered down the country lane between the tiny Slovenian villages of Tomaj and Lipica.
The Abells promptly waved back. As they neared the farm, Sally noticed him beckoning to them. Although the tourists from Lutherville were eager to get to their next destination, where they were to visit the famed Lipizzaner horses on a stud farm dating back to 1580, Kevin replied, "Lets go!" and climbed over the fence onto the farmer's property. The farmer didn't speak English, so the Abells followed his smiles and gestures into the barn, where he dipped a ladle into a barrel and offered up sips of his freshly made plum moonshine.
Twenty minutes later, they were back on the path, detailed walking map in hand, wandering off to their next adventure.
This is just one of countless impromptu experiences that the Abells have had on the many walking vacations they've taken through specialist travel outfits Country Walkers and Classic Journeys. By and large, these types of trips offer guided journeys along footpaths and trails — often with lodging and other accommodations included — that allow travelers to unhurriedly experience a region's indigenous culture and landscape.
"It's slow travel — allowing you to notice things that you don't see when you are in a car or tour bus with some tour operator yabbering away at you. And you get exercise," says Kevin Abell, the director of destinations and experiences at travel company Virtuoso.
It's no secret that experiential and active travel is huge right now — and compared to other active vacations, like backpacking, walking is arguably the easiest, most accessible, and least intimidating for travelers of all ages. Publications including Rough Guides and Forbes cited walking vacations among the top travel trends for 2017.
Walking is also the oldest form of travel and exploration. Its multisensory nature — the feel of the ground or a stone path under your feet, the scent of the forest just after a rainfall, the sound of an indigenous bird flying low to observe you — allows travelers to develop their own, deeper relationship with a place.
It's this immersive experience that companies like Backroads and Country Walkers were hoping to tap into when walking vacations started to gain traction in the 1970s. They created small-group walking experiences featuring village-to-village itineraries via backcountry roads and walking paths. Moreover, they tapped local experts as guides, provided upscale lodging at small inns, and offered gourmet meals crafted with provisions from that region.
"It takes you on a trip where the roads don't go," says Matt Thompson, brand manager of Country Walkers, a travel company specializing in such excursions. "Our goal is to get you off of those heavily trodden routes and into the backcountry, where you might happen upon a truffle hunter or someone tapping maple syrup — locals going about their everyday business."
Initially, most walking vacations were in Europe, such as walking the Cotswolds in England or ancient coastal paths between towns along the Amalfi Coast. Nowadays, a variety of companies offer walking tours around the world — including within the U.S. and Canada.
"Because the U.S. is replete with splendid national parks, many of the domestic walking trips have more of a hiking element versus those in Europe, which more focus on immersion into communities of charming towns and villages," says Thompson.
But anyone visiting a national park can sign up for a guided hike with a ranger. So what makes these different?
"Its not just hike up and hike back; we visit villages and learn about the culture of an area," says Mike Fingerhut, 71, a communications lawyer from Washington. Fingerhut has been on 10 walking vacations through Backroads. His first was walking Washington's San Juan Islands, and he's since tackled more challenging treks, including the Canadian Rockies. Last October, Fingerhut and his wife took a Backroads trip to Vermont for fall foliage and local culture.
"We were a week or two early and it rained a little, but [Backroads] always [has] a backup plan. It was pouring rain one morning and we were supposed to hike in a park. Our guides offered the option to visit a museum in town. About half of us went to the museum and stayed warm and dry. I chose to hike," says Fingerhut. "They always make it so interesting. … A botanist pointing out the indigenous foliage and seeing maple syrup being tapped; on another trip in Nova Scotia we had an architectural tour of the town. In Peru, the Inca guide took us up to his village to see how his family lived."
Four- and five-star small-hotel accommodations and fine local cuisine are a revered part of the package for travelers of higher-end outfits like Backroads and Country Walkers. Even on the trips in the U.S. national parks, where accommodations are limited to park lodges, these companies have relationships with the best ones.
"You have to plan pretty far out if you want to stay in the national parks, especially those really nifty lodges in the west that were built by the railroads, but Country Walkers has that already organized," says Linda Matlack of Chevy Chase, who has traveled on 24 trips over 20 years with the company.
Adds her husband, Larry: "And after an active day of walking, we appreciate having a really comfortable place to stay and a good glass of wine."
Walking vacations for the Matlacks, now in their 70s, are about the wondrous, picture-perfect images that a slow trek affords them: seeing the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from so many angles" while hiking to the top of Wyoming's Mount Washburn, and walking along big-horned sheep on the Highline Loop in Montana's Glacier National Park.
These types of excursions seem to require some level of athleticism. But walking vacation organizers emphasize that there are trips catered to all physical fitness levels.
"Country Walkers very specifically marks the activity level on every tour," says Thompson. "The person who walks 10 miles a day doesn't necessarily want to be on a trip with the person who walks two miles and stops often to rest and take photos."
While Country Walkers' average clientele is a very active 50- to 70-year-old, Backroads' audience is broader, attracting younger adults, families, and multigenerational groups.
"Our guests range significantly in their desire to be active and in their athletic ability. So we've got trips offering many different levels of activities, skill sets, and age-appropriate diversions," says Stella Dennig, guest focus coordinator and onboarding coordinator at Backroads.
For example, the second day of Backroads' Blue Ridge Mountain trip includes trails ranging from 1,300-foot to 2,700-foot elevations, whereas their California Culinary Walking Tour combines days of easier hikes with private wine tours and cooking classes from professional chefs.
"What we provide is flexibility, as active as you want it to be: all walking, or include exploring a town. On some walks we offer different loops. On others, the route is the same, but some choose to end earlier and catch a ride back in the van. Sometimes a guest will prefer to linger longer at the wine tasting than do more hiking," says Dennig.
More adventurous walkers might embark on a self-guided tour, where only the accommodations are prebooked. Upon arrival at the first destination, clients are provided with maps, a detailed itinerary including points of interest, recommended places to stop, and contact information for support at each destination.
"After we had been on two guided walking tours, we were eager to set our own pace, engineer our own pit stops and just share the experience with each other," said Kevin Abell. "But you have to be somewhat intrepid to do it on your own."
Another bonus is that each day, your bags are transported to your next destination, just as they are on guided tours.
"It's nice to have the option of not just doing a loop, but start one place and finish someplace else, and know that your bags will be waiting at the next spot," said Linda Matlack.
Adds Larry Matlack: "Also if the weather changes and you are on your own, the company is monitoring your journey, and provides you with a different route or backup plan."
And while the self-guided travel packets include suggestions for dining, you are on your own for most meals.
"You might be in one of three towns at lunchtime, depending upon how fast you walk, so we give recommendations for each," says Dennig. Often, on days of rural treks without dining options, the travel outfit pre-arranges for your inn to pack you a picnic lunch.
Ultimately, travelers on walking vacations discover that the most memorable experiences happen along the journey, rather than at the destination.
"The directions are timed, so you are aware how long it should take to get somewhere, and if you've gotten off track," says Abell. "But sometimes, getting lost is part of the fun."