Ultratravel Top 10: Luxury walking holidays around the world
Fitter, not fatter. That’s surely how we all want to return from a holiday. And, to that end, getting off the sofa into a pair of sturdy trainers and striding off on a walking holiday will wake you up – and shape you up – like nothing else.
Walking briskly in fresh air is one of the best things you can do for your health. Besides getting your blood circulating properly, and giving your heart and lungs an aerobic boost, walking opens your eyes to the beauty of the world in a way that just doesn’t happen if you’re speeding along in a car, or even on a bike.
Walking, you see the details: tiny wild flowers in the hedgerow, a sudden shaft of early morning sunlight on a lake, the tilt of a bird’s head as it eyes a grub. Walking also gives you a sense of freedom, and can act as a digital detox.
While walking holidays used to be the ultimate budget-friendly option, where you were lucky to find a hot shower and cheese sandwich at the end of a day’s slog, luxury tour operators, keen to keep up with healthy-living trends, have been devising walking holidays of a much starrier nature.
So whether you’re fit, unfit or somewhere in-between, and want to stay in just one hotel exploring a different route each day, or prefer to walk from base to base, with your luggage taken on ahead for you, you can rely on finding an experience where each day ends in comfort, even pampering.
Walking the Cotswolds Way
England’s pretty rolling landscapes are ideal for a first-time walking holiday. The tree-lined paths of the 100 Mile Cotswolds Way (approximately 160 kilometres) run through woods and meadows, starting in the historic city of Bath and ending in the old village of Chipping Norton. There are also several lovely old hotels to stay at along the way. Walking the whole route takes between five and 10 nights, and if you book through Pride of Britain – a group of independently owned little hotels – the owners will organise for your luggage to be taken on to the next hotel each day. Outside Bath, a Michelin-starred restaurant makes the group’s elegant Lucknam Park country-house hotel a good place to start. But if you want to tackle just a small section of the Way, perhaps over a weekend, Dormy House makes for a good base. The Cotswolds Way passes close by, and easy strolls include the 5km round trip to the historic village of Broadway (pictured). For £80 (Dh387) the hotel will deliver a picnic hamper to a pre-arranged location: smoked fish, charcuterie, breads, cheeses and chutney, scones and homemade jam.
Doubles at both Lucknam Park and Dormy House from £230 (Dh1,117) per night, including breakfast and taxes
Trekking the Aman route in Bhutan
Step outside your heart-stoppingly beautiful hotel room to find the empty peaks and valleys of this mountainous micro-monarchy that is tucked between China and India. For serious walkers, this 10-night trek via Buddhist monasteries and yak-herding camps – as well as the two Aman lodges, Uma Paro (pictured) and Uma Punakha, both home to a lovely little spa where you can get a good post-hike massage – is nowhere as tough as Bhutan’s notorious Snowman Trek. On that, participants slog for 24 days or more, crossing a dozen mountain passes. But the Aman route is demanding enough, as treks can run from five to eight hours a day. British tour operator Ultimate Travel Company now organises Bhutan treks in addition to its many other experiences that include Botswana, the Yucatán and Zimbabwe. Theirs probably count as one of the most reliable five-star rated companies to actually offer five-star service.
Travelling from Delhi, the 11-day Bhutan Himalayan Explorer costs £4,745 (Dh23,055) per person, including taxes
Mountain hiking in northern Greece
Ruggedly empty regions naturally lend themselves to walking holidays and get you away from crowds. Remote northern Greece (pictured), the background of the Pindus Mountains, with its forests of beech and chestnut trees, deep Vikos Gorge and notably clean rivers, makes a harshly beautiful setting for the new, five-star, eco-oriented Aristi Mountain Resort. Built in keeping with the local “Zagori” village style, which uses slate, stone and wood, and with food mostly organically grown and locally sourced, this under-the-radar, 24-room hotel makes a comfortable base. There are plenty of mountain routes to follow – either alone or led by a guide from the local trekking company – as you walk along mule paths once followed by Ottoman traders en route from Istanbul to Europe. You can also choose to camp out overnight. If you want a day off from hiking, there’s also kayaking, rafting and riding.
Seven nights with breakfast in a double room cost from €1,186 (Dh4,920), or a villa costs from €3,689 (Dh15,305), including taxes (aristi.eu)
Into the Atlas Mountains, Morocco
A weekend of walking can be all you need to get you hooked on the hiking habit. Ninety minutes after leaving Marrakech, you can find yourself deep in the sanctuary of Toubkal National Park in the Atlas Mountains, at the edge of the wonderfully remote, 14-room little Berber-run Kasbah du Toubkal (pictured). The cedar-wood-scented, stone-floored, wool-rug-strewn hotel built in the 1940s as a summer home for a local ruler was recently restored. After lamb and fig tagine for lunch on the roof terrace, while gazing up at the 4,167-metre Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the range, grab a map from the Berber concierge and set off for an acclimatising stroll. Once back at the hotel, indulge in a session in the hammam before dinner. A full-day trek, which will require guests to rise early, can be booked through the hotel and comes with a guide and a mule to carry the picnic lunch. Back at the hotel, you can finish your day by relaxing and enjoying dinner under the stars.
Car transfers from Marrakech cost 925 Moroccan dirhams (Dh349), per vehicle. A full-day trek for two with guide and mule is priced at MAD763 (Dh287), per person including taxes. Double rooms cost from MAD1,745 (Dh657) or MAD8,942 (Dh3,368) for the three-room separate house per night, including taxes
On top of the world in Oman
Oman is a country of austere natural splendour, and the Alila Jabal Akhdar hotel (pictured), located two-and-a-half hours from Muscat by car, offers no less of a visual experience. Perched 2,000 metres above sea level on Al Hajar Mountains, it looks out across thousands of miles of peaks, valleys, and plateaus. Even in early autumn, days are much less hot at this height compared to the desert, and in winter, the Mediterranean-type climate ensures comfortably cool weather for hiking. The concierges are eager to show off the region, so before you know it a picnic rendezvous will be arranged, mid-walk, or a vehicle to take you to see headily scented Damascene rose terraces, the 2,500-year old juniper trees of Saiq Plateau, or the 2,000-year old falaj irrigation system in Al Ayn village. Traditional Omani style dictates the look of the hotel: thick stone exterior walls; fort-like solid-wood doors; a log fire burning in the lobby; and cosy but sparely decorated rooms, adorned with copper and pottery.
Double rooms from 167 Omani rials (Dh1,593) per night, including breakfast, dinner and taxes
Jordan’s Bedouin Trail to Petra
Though spectacular, this particular trek is equally demanding, so is not an advised option for the unfit. During this eight-day, small-group trek, most nights are spent camping out under the stars. The first night is spent in an eco-lodge in the wonderful Dana National Park – home to much wildlife as well as 6,000-year-old copper mines before heading across the desert, into the mountains, and through canyons and gorges via Wadi Araba. The tour eventually arrives in the fabled desert city of Petra. You’ll meet the rest of the group – about a dozen maximum – in Amman. Happily, the boring bit from there to Dana National Park is done in 4x4s, as is the final sector back to Amman via Madaba. Once you start the hike, you stay in Bedouin-style tents for four nights, finishing in the Mariam Hotel in Madaba before returning to Amman. A look at the commendably detailed advice and information provided by Walks Worldwide’s website makes it clear why, on this kind of trip – where you travel across harsh terrain and are unlikely, most days, to encounter another soul – it’s so important to book with specialists who really know what they’re doing.
Seven nights cost from 937 Jordanian dinars (Dh4,854), including taxes
Spain’s varied landscapes mean that, in the course of a single week spent in Catalonia, located in the north-east of the country, you’ll never get bored by same-ish scenery. With maps in hand from nature-holiday specialists Headwater, you’ll hike along sandy coastal paths shaded by umbrella pines, from where you look down onto little bays and sandy beaches. You’ll then tramp inland, emerging from the cool depths of shady cork and pine forests, into verdant valleys – green again in autumn after the parching heat of summer. As much of the countryside is under a nature-conservation scheme, the area is particularly rich in bird and plant life – booted eagles, golden orioles, purple-shot copper butterflies and numerous wild flowers. The itinerary also includes a stop in medieval villages such as the lovely Peratallada. The hotels that Headwater uses vary almost as much as the scenery. Two nights are spent, for example, in the 14th-century Hotel Castell d’Emporda, followed by a stay at the hillside, family-run Hotel Garbi in the fishing village of Calella de Palafrugell, and Hotel Rosa in Begur.
Seven nights are priced from €944 (Dh3,882), including taxes
Ambling along Italy’s Amalfi Coast
If you prefer a single base, strolling rather than striding, and are inclined to start thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch soon after breakfast, then the lower stretches of Italy’s enchanting Amalfi Coast, with its rocky coastal paths and forest trails and old villages to stop at en route for proper restaurant lunches, would make for an ideal choice. Visitors can easily set up such a trip on their own, using the locally run Amalficoast.com to help guide them where to stay and stroll. Those who want to hike more strenuously, however, getting high into the hills above the sea, via the medieval traders’ mule paths, which are not always easy to spot on the ground and even harder using sketchy Italian maps, will require booking with a specialist. Though you’ll still travel on your own, you’ll have the help of their maps and expert advice. The small, British-based tour company, On Foot Holidays, has become an international favourite for its tried-and-tested routes in places without top-notch local specialists. The seven-night itinerary has you spending three nights in Amalfi and Ravello, walking the Ravello Circuit and the Valle delle Ferriere. The route then travels from Amalfi to Praiano, then on to Positano and S’Agata, before arriving in Sorrento. Hotels include the Aurora in Amalfi and Tramonto d’Oro in Praiano. It’s also comforting to know that, if you get blisters or develop an aversion to your new sporty lifestyle, you can always jump on a coastal bus, either onwards to Sorrento or back to where you began your trek.
Seven nights with On Foot Holidays are priced from €927 (Dh3,800), including taxes
Strolling in Sri Lanka
The breezy Central Highlands area of Sri Lanka’s hill country, with its serene, manicured green hillsides of tea terraces, is arguably the loveliest area of this teardrop-shaped island. For a more laid-back holiday, where walking is the only feasible activity – apart from croquet on the lawn – and many lazy hours are spent in a comfortable chair on your veranda, Ceylon Tea Trails (pictured) could be the answer. Well off the beaten track, at 1,250 metres above sea level, the resort comprises five large, old colonial-era tea-planters’ bungalows. Set around Castlereagh Lake, 4km to 15km apart, each has been impeccably restored and has four to six guest rooms, all individually bookable. You can walk from one to the next, for lunch or to stay, with your luggage taken on before. If, however, you’re feeling more energetic, trek along marked trails across the tea terraces and through pine forests, or up to the top of Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s sacred mountain. When you’re not hiking, take tea on the veranda or a dip in the pool, and mark the end of each day with dinner by a log fire.
Doubles at Ceylon Tea Trails start from 60,000 Sri Lankan rupees (Dh1,510) per night, including taxes. The Arabian Family Packages in a four-bedroom bungalow start from 387,723 rupees (Dh9,756) per night, including taxes
Witnessing a New England autumn
America’s national parks provide glorious walking opportunities all year round, but there’s magnificence outside their borders, too. A trek through New England, where the spectacle of autumn’s changing colours should surely count as one of the wonders of the world, offers prime opportunities to gaze at the extraordinary array of golds, rich umbers, oranges and scarlets, as you crunch through woodlands of fallen maple, birch and oak leaves. As the “peak leaf” season is unpredictable – although it usually tends to fall in mid-October, this is a last-minute trip, but easy to plan yourself, with the aid of the website Newengland.com and its live foliage maps. From Boston, a two-hour drive lands you in the lovely forested Berkshire Hills and archetypal New England villages, such as Lenox.
Here the white clapboard Garden Gables Inn, built in 1780, typifies the cosy and welcoming, old-world hotels that are dotted throughout Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Woodstock is similarly alluring for those looking to take on one of the many Appalachian Trail hikes.
Doubles at Garden Gables are priced from US$302 (Dh1,109) per night, including taxes
Read this and more stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, September 29.
Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM