Our guide to the best outfitters for walking tours

Backroads/ Ben Davidson

The word tour often conjures images of buses crammed with tourists and drone-like guides rattling off perfunctory details about sights seen through a window. But a walking tour is something completely different. Walking slows us down and heightens our senses, allowing us to explore our surroundings intimately, thereby sweetening natural and cultural experiences — and isn't that the whole point of travel?More and more outfitters are noticing this trend and are expanding their offerings, pushing the limits of where you can trek. You need little more than a decent pair of boots to take on winding Tuscan roads or South Africa's dinosaur-age floral kingdom. But before you hit the trail, check out our picks for the hottest places to go, the coolest gear, and who can best lead the way.

The Basics
As its name implies, Country Walkers knows a thing or two about traveling on foot. The Vermont-based company offers nearly 60 destinations, from New England to Italy. Though comfort is key on these trips, the emphasis is on prime walking experiences. They offer a ramble in Cornwall, during which you'll pass through Gilbert and Sullivan's Penzance and see an open-air performance near Land's End at the Minack Theatre, whose 750 seats were carved out of a stone cliff overlooking the ocean. Don't miss the town of St. Ives, a colony of abstract and avant-garde artists since the Victorian era. Another tour leads you down the Roman roads of southern Tuscany and Umbria, where food, wine, and olive oil are the main attractions. "If you want to understand Italians," says local guide Alex Gullo, "you have to spend a lot of time at the dinner table."

"Break in your boots before you go," advises Christian Chumbley, a South Africa guide for Backroads. "I like Vasque leather boots — old-school, nothing fancy." • Mattie Schaefor of Teton Mountaineering in Jackson, Wyoming, recommends clothing made of quick-dry fabric such as DryLite instead of cotton. • Carry more water than you think you can drink, says Randonnée Tours' Ruth Marr. She won't set off without her Swiss Army knife and a spoon ("I love yogurt, especially in France."). Her favorite snacks: walnut bread, goat cheese, and tapenade in the Dordogne. But skip wine on the trail: "Ça coupe les jambes," according to Marr ("It weakens the legs").

High Adventure
If you think of yourself as a rugged explorer but draw the line at risking life and limb, look no further than the far-flung tours of Geographic Expeditions. Vice-chairman Al Read (or "Great Yak," as he's known inside the company) says that off-the-beaten-track adventures are the fastest-growing part of his business. "Most of the places we go are difficult to see on your own," he says, "such as Iran and remote parts of China. But we stay in the most comfortable places available." The company's 17-day walk in the valleys of Bhutan offers encounters with woodcarvers and weavers, plus the chance to watch fire ceremonies and ritual dances at religious festivals. Participants stay in cottages and guest houses, and often can indulge in traditional Bhutanese stone baths.

A two-week lodge-to-lodge hike in Nepal, from the base of Everest to the Annapurnas, provides views of eight of the world's 10 highest peaks. Hikers can visit monasteries, and pass through villages with cobblestoned streets and whitewashed stone houses. Next year, the intrepid can venture to Antarctica. (First-timers might prefer a gentler experience, such as a walk through the Italian Dolomites or a journey over Swiss meadows from St. Moritz to Zermatt.)
800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448, fax 415/346-5535; Sacred Valleys of Bhutan trek $3,995 per person, departures in April, May, and October.

While most walking-tour companies listed here emphasize flexibility and independence on their group vacations, Randonnée Tours guarantees it: there are no guides, so the path you take is up to you (with a little help). The company was started 10 years ago by ecologist Ruth Marr, a longtime walker of the French and Italian countrysides. She and her team of insiders draw up detailed itineraries for every trip, right down to the dining suggestions, and local experts are available for questions or emergencies. You can mix and match levels of accommodation—spend one night at an old farmhouse, another at a five-star hotel. Trips range from inn-to-inn hikes to day walks from a single location; drive-and-stroll is also an option. The Dordogne is one of Randonnée's most popular destinations, for the limestone villages of Domme and Rouffillac and the prehistoric cave art at Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Other tours take you along a portion of the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain; or you can stroll from Le Puy to Conques in France's Auvergne region, passing by roadside chapels, fields of humble green lentils, and misty forests. A Corsica driving and walking trip starts this fall.
800/465-6488 or 204/475-6939, fax 204/474-1888; Dordogne tours from $1,265 per person for nine days.

Backroads prides itself on creating multidimensional itineraries. Epicureans will love the Tuscany cooking and walking trip, during which they'll learn recipes for dishes such as bruschetta and ribollita (a traditional bean and bread soup). Guests spend three nights and take two cooking lessons at Badia a Coltibuono, an 11th-century abbey that's now home to Lorenza de' Medici's school (she of the eponymous PBS cooking show). Another day's instruction, by renowned local chef Claudio Piantini, is given at Villa Vignamaggio. The supposed birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci's mystery model, Mona Lisa, it's where guests spend their last two nights. On half-day walks, chefs-in-training wander through villages, olive groves, and wineries.

During 11 days in South Africa, Backroads walkers combine city, beach, and safari outings. Amble around the coastal botanical gardens of the Cape of Good Hope, with its giant proteas—pre-Ice Age plants "as old as dinosaurs, with blooms as big as basketballs," says guide Christian Chumbley. Then head through Cape Town and north to Londolozi Lodge, on the border of Kruger National Park (bush walks outside the park can yield game sightings worthy of any Land Rover safari: elephants, giraffes, hippos, and rhinoceroses). Another great combo is the Turkey walking and sailing trip, during which guests sail along the Mediterranean coast in twin-masted wooden gulets and take day walks inland from the shore—the only point of access for much of this rocky, yet moderate, terrain.
800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555, fax 510/527-1444; Tuscany tour $3,698 per person, departures May, September, and October.

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Mountain Travel-Sobek's new "La Dolce Via" series has soft-adventure trips in France and Italy; for those who prefer a real workout, sign up for the 120-mile Mont Blanc Circuit (888/687-6235 or 510/527-8100; 13-day circuit $2,590 per person). • MaupinTrek relies on guides like Donegal native Phil MacGiollaBhain, who has been leading Gaelic walks for 20 years (800/255-6162 or 785/331-1000; nine days in Ireland from $2,430 per person). • Abercrombie & Kent can take you snowshoeing in the Austrian Alps or trekking in Tanzania (800/323-7308 or 630/954-2944; 13 days in Tanzania $4,395 per person). • You can show up in your business suit for Tauck Tours' "helihiking" vacation in the Canadian Rockies: the company supplies boots, rain gear, and even daypacks for a mountain tour by helicopter (800/214-5158 or 203/226-6911; from $2,170 per person).

Just last year, Butterfield & Robinson added several new North American trips to its alluring catalogue of upscale getaways. What these destinations may lack in exotic appeal, they make up for with grand rooms and sensational scenery. During a five-day moderate-level hike in the Smoky Mountains from Asheville, North Carolina, to Knoxville, Tennessee, walkers can brush by magnolia trees and explore waterfalls and mossy old-growth forests (last logged in the 1600's). Accommodations include two nights at the Swag, a hand-hewn log-cabin lodge offering 50-mile views in three directions and access to 500,000 acres of forest preserve. On another night, sleep under the greenery in deluxe tents built on redwood platforms, with wood stoves and Frette linen sheets.

B&R also takes hikers to Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies during the two or three snow-free months when "nature goes wild," according to guide David Farnell. "You wouldn't imagine North America has such natural beauty, with these Mediterranean-blue alpine lakes and incredible wildflowers." Across the continent, try a five-day trip to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, where sailing outings on America's Cup yachts are part of the mix. In 2001, the company is adding a trek through the Grand Canyon, with overnights at a dude ranch. As B&R fans already know, this outfitter's walking itineraries in Europe and elsewhere are fabulous (Italian lakes region, Rajasthan, the Peruvian Andes), but the company takes nothing for granted—and spares no comfort—in its own back yard.
800/678-1147 or 416/864-1354, fax 416/864-0541; Smoky Mountains tour $3,695 per person, departures in May and September.

The latest trail gear is both high-tech and high-style. Shoes: Wraptor running sandals by Teva ($99); Presto sock-like sneakers from Nike ($85); L. L. Bean's Gore-Tex Mountain Approach boots with "sticky" Vibram soles ($119). For urban walking, Samsonite Travel Wear's new "Roll Donna" shoes in patent leather ($165) or Tod's black-and-white Lewis lace-ups, which look like bowling shoes made for city strolls ($295). Clothing: "Amphi" convertible pants by Ex Officio, whose legs zip off to become shorts ($64); lightweight PreCip rain jacket with extra-long underarm zippers, from Marmot ($99). Gear and gadgets: Leki's retractable, anti-shock walking poles, great for saving your knees and burning extra calories ($129.95); Vector Wristop Computer from Suunto ($199), with digital compass, altimeter, barometer, and thermometer; Toaster Slider sunglasses by Smith ($99), with interchangeable lenses for overcast, sunny, and snowy days.