By Linda McK. Stewart
It was London, 1983, the year when 39-year-old Michael West picked up his hat and walked out the door of a perfectly decent, center-city job. He was not answering the call of a big time headhunter, nor was he headed for some higher calling in a corner office with a juicy partnership dangled in front of him. Not at all. In fact he was headed for nothing more than the great outdoors, for the winding country lane that led who knew where.
He was headed for the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of another, of feeling sun or rain full on his face, for the near delirium that comes with the satisfaction of the open road and freedom from urban constraints.
But not even Michael could have guessed that his long ago impulse to kick the traditional 9-to-5 routine for the delights of exploring the United Kingdom on foot could ever expand into The Wayfarers, probably the best walking tour company in the world.
For the first several years The Wayfarers offered only a handful of five-day walks, primarily in England and bits of Scotland. But year-by-year the choices expanded. This year The Wayfarers will be trudging through – at last count – 14 different countries: from New Zealand to Alaska in the U.S., the Czech Republic to Sicily, with plenty of itineraries in between.
But though the options have dramatically expanded, the traditions that make The Wayfarers what it is, have changed not one iota. Now, as always, each walking group is pleasantly small. Eight is perfect, 10 is acceptable and 12 is max. Overnight accommodations favor owner-managed inns, country house hotels plus an occasional palace or castle tossed in. Every trail or lane, every village or hamlet has been checked out either by Michael himself or by one of his trusty staff. Every guide, (a minimum of two to a group) is on easy speaking terms with the selected route, is already friends with the farmers, innkeepers and villagers encountered along the way.
Because Michael takes good food seriously, he qualifies as a locavore, favoring local produce, local wines. Chances are your morning poached egg was laid within a rooster song of where you slept. The Wayfarers’ trips should not be mistaken for Olympic workouts or cardio anything. For the most part the walks of 10 miles a morning and six to eight miles an afternoon favor gentle inclines, good footing and carrying a walking staff gets a nod of approval.
For super jocks, a more challenging route is always an option and for the slothful, there’s the van cheerfully at the ready to whisk you on to the next stop.
All walks are rated as to difficulty: floating down the canals of Burgundy in October or ambling in July through Jane Austen’s gentrified Hampshire countryside both get a modest rating of 1. Hiking the majestic glaciers of New Zealand’s South Island gets the sternest rating of 12, whereas the trails of Alaska’s National Parks gets a near-sissy score of 8. In between the 1 and the 12 are the delights of northern Italy’s lake country, the history-laden walk from Culloden to Edinburgh, the French-Spanish charms of the Basque Country and the snow-peaked brilliance of Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, to name but a few.
Michael likes to say that all one needs for a trip with The Wayfarers is a good pair of walking shoes and an open mind. Wise words.
While Michael tells you what you need, permit me to tell you what you do not need: You definitely do not need your iPad or your iPad 2, your BlackBerry, your Bluetooth, your laptop, your smartphone or your dumb phone either. Contrary to what you think and to what you’ve doubtless been told, you will not expire from EWS (Electronic Withdrawal Syndrome). Without your electronic toys, you’ll better be able to appreciate the long-forgotten fragrance of honeysuckle and dew-laden meadows. You’ll find time to chat with the village locals, the lighthouse keeper, the local historian. Remove those headphones and with luck you’ll hear the sweet song of skylarks, the impudence of goose cackle and the pebble-churning rush of the
Finally, keep in mind that The Wayfarers can arrange your very own family walking trip, especially plotted to accommodate three generations. For a long-postponed family reunion it’s hard to come up with anything better than walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England or setting out from Austria’s Vienna and seven days later triumphantly entering, all on foot, the fabled city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Or, if you prefer, a trip nicely tailored just for you and all those loving relatives tagging along in your wake.
IF YOU GO: For all details, schedules, costs etc., call The Wayfarers U.S. headquarters in Newport, RI at 401-849-5087 or toll-free at 800-249-4620.