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TRAVELERS HIT THEIR STRIDE ON WALKING TOURS : ON LOCATION.

Byline: Syd Kearney Houston Chronicle

Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu once said, ``A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.''

We've adapted that for the '90s traveler: Take a hike.

Walking vacations are on pace to become the most popular form of group travel during the next 10 years. That should be no surprise to the more than 36 million people who, according to recent figures, make walking a part of their regular fitness routines.

But fitness goals don't represent the main impetus making these tours so popular.

``People are slowing down, but they are not becoming less active,'' says Bob Maynard, president of Country Walkers, which has offered walking tours for 19 years. ``People want to see where they are going. They want to take the time to get to know the places and the people.''

Walking lends itself to deliberate exploration. You can smell the sage growing on the mountainside, taste a sweet plum plucked along the trail, pet a camel tethered in a dusty yard and hear the laughter and songs of children coming from a tiny schoolhouse.

All are experiences you would not have if you ``zoom through on a tour bus,'' says Janine Cloney-Robertson, marketing director of Progressive Travels.

Progressive Travels started with biking tours to France in 1985. It got no bites when it offered walking tours a couple of years later. But when the company trotted them out again in 1991, the timing was right, Cloney-Robertson says.

Today, walkers account for about half of the Seattle-based company's clientele.

Walking tours are as diverse as people who walk. Exotic destinations such as Nepal and Tanzania draw the well-traveled, while well-trod paths in England's Cotswold region and France's Provence appeal to the new vacationer.

``People who are new to soft adventure programs are often apprehensive about group travel,'' says Country Walkers' Maynard. ``We don't want to scare them off, so we give them space.

``Our tours take walkers about six to nine miles a day with plenty of stops. ... We go to the little restaurants and the farmhouses. To places that are special and inaccessible to the bus tours.''

Country Walkers tours are typical of these soft adventures. Guides lead manageable groups - generally 14 to 18 people - on morning and afternoon outings that total about eight miles a day. Most meals are taken together. Sitting around the table typically will be a well-educated, economically comfortable group ranging in age from the late 20s to the mid-70s (average is about 45). There will be more single women than men, with a balance of couples and singles.

This formula must be working, because repeat clients represent up to 60 percent of bookings for the most successful companies.

Wandering into the walking-vacation world is an eye-opener. For starters, more than 170 companies sell vacations for walkers. That leaves few destinations untrekked. Choosing among the many outfitters can be tough, but cost and a pretty brochure shouldn't be your only criteria.

Prices are based on service and the type of accommodations and meals provided. Butterfield & Robinson boasts of having the highest fares, pinning its prices on quality.

Other companies strive to be budget-conscious. Five-star accommodations are eschewed for small inns or bed-and-breakfasts, where charm is balanced with economy. Instead of feasting on gourmet meals, walkers enjoy pub lunches and picnics.

Walkers in luxury and standard group tours meet at an appointed place, and from there, put their vacations on cruise control. The guides take care of nearly everything, from bags to conversing with foreign waiters.

The walks, too, can be a stroll in the park. Generally there are no backpacks, no lugging of equipment (vans often tote luggage between destinations). A fanny pack, your camera and a bottle of water is all you'll tote.

Here are some of the best-known walking-tour specialists.

Request catalog`s from several companies to compare itineraries, prices and dates.

Butterfield & Robinson is celebrating its 30th year of leading biking and walking vacations. The Toronto-based company specializes in luxury tours, offering more than 60 trips on six continents.

Information: (800) 678-1147; Web site, http://www.butterfield.com.

Backroads is a multisport company offering rafting, skiing, biking and kayaking adventures, Backroads divides its foot-powered tours into hiking and walking categories. Walking trips take participants - with a group average of 17 people - over mostly level terrain on well-worn paths or roads; distances tend to be short. A hiking designation signals more elevation changes, uneven terrain and greater distances. Participants often receive a choice of ``carefree'' camping or inn accommodations.

Information: (800) 462-2848; Web site, http://www.backroads.com.

Mountain Travel-Sobek has been hosting adventures for more than 25 years. In addition to walking tours, its itineraries feature rafting, kayaking, mountaineering and safaris, and encompass 60 countries.

The company rates its hikes on a scale of one to five, with five the most demanding. A five-rated trip would feature steep hiking over rugged terrain at high elevations. A moderate walking trip would average 10-16 miles a day on easy trails. Information: (800) 227-2384; Web site, http://www.mtsobek.com.

Seattle-based Progressive Travels specializes in walking and biking trips in Portugal, France, Italy and the Pacific Northwest. With more than 12 years of guiding experience, the company focuses on providing small groups unique lodgings and elegant cuisine. The walking tours average seven to 15 miles per day.

Information: (800) 245-2229.

Country Walkers, based in Waterbury, Vt., offers more than 30 itineraries in 16 countries. Walking distances range from four to 12 miles each day.

Information: (800) 464-9255; Internet site, http://www.countrywalkers.com.

The Wa`yfarers, which specializes in walking tours of Britain, Ireland, France, Italy and Switzerland, offers 21 itineraries that focus on the history, culture, food, wine and natural beauty of each destination.

Groups of about 14 people walk about 10 miles per day, though Wayfarers recently has added a more challenging journey for the serious walker: a six-day, 85-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Ireland.

Information: (800) 249-4620; Internet site, http://www.thewayfarers.com.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Box

Photo: (Color) Walking tours, such as the one along the coast in the British Isles, are highlighted by captivating views.

Country Walkers

Box: On Location (See text)
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 6, 1997
Words:1029
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