Known more for its coast and islands, there are extraordinary walking vacations even just an hour inland, with five national parks to explore. There are also mountains just an hour from Zagreb, probably one of the most underrated European capital cities. And you would be mad not to walk a bit of the coast too, of course, hopping and hiking all those island idylls.
You don’t have to forgo the sun, sea and sand that Portugal is famous for when you go on a walking vacation. Not with a newly opened 350km Rota Vicentina waymarked way that stretches along the coast. You can also take in the flower filled coastal valleys of the Alentejo uplands or just aim high and head to the stunning Serra de Estrela mountains.
The famous regional pride is hardly surprising when you take in the wealth of natural Catalan beauty on offer to walkers. From the snowy Pyrenean peaks to sun-soaked Mediterranean coves, there is also a volcanic park and plethora of hiking trails. These traverse wild deserted coasts and dainty turquoise coves, or the inland Aiguamolls Nature Reserve. Polish up your boots for the magnificent cities of Barcelona, Tarragona and Girona.
Closer to home for most, this 72km trail follows an ancient track between Winchester and Canterbury, with a good part of it following in the footsteps of those taking on the North Downs. A popular section is from the historic cathedral town of Rochester, following the chalk ridge along the edge of the North Down, to the medieval and cathedral town of Canterbury.
Don’t overlook Europe for amazing hiking vacations, especially self-guided ones. With a superb European network of waymarked ways such as the Grandes Randonnees, a network of long distance walking paths which spread out all over Europe, you can easily spend a week just hiking without heading all the way to the Himalayas. Easy to access, you can be at your desk in the morning, and taking on a hike along the Amalfi coast in the evening.
Even if you are a map geek, you will still love the copious walking notes and itineraries sent in advance of your self-guided walking tour. These are detailed instructions on how to get from A to B, historic and cultural details, a list of restaurants en route and a few extra tips like, ‘turn left down the lane to a secluded beach, which is perfect for lunch and a swim”.
One of the coolest things about self-guided walking vacations that aren’t based in one centre is that, in most cases, your bags are transferred for you. So all you have to do is have breakfast, leave your bag at reception, and hit the walking trail. Your bag will be waiting for you at the next spot on your itinerary. All you have to think about is the weather, what to wear and walking.
Hand-picked, tried and tested by tour operators and, depending on location, they are often three or four star, have pools or a spa, and are well vetted for fine food too. Which includes top picnic lunches in some cases. These are accommodations that ‘get’ walkers. They won’t look at you strangely if you come into the foyer with muddy boots, or ask them to fill your water bottles before you hit the road.
Just because you are self guided, doesn’t give you the right to stray into people’s gardens, or wander through their farmland. It is usually pretty clear when a sign means ‘Keep out’ whether it is in French, Italian or Turkish. Waymarked ways are managed and delicately negotiated with landowners. So, if you want to right off the beaten path, only do so with an expert local guide.
It’s all very well being attached to the hiking boots your dad wore, and his dad before that. Or that daypack you have had for years, and stitched up again and again. But sometimes it is OK just to let them go, enshrine them if needs be, and acknowledge the benefits of high tech waterproof and breathable walking gear. With the exception of a fine old handed down hipflask of course.
The clue is in the name ‘Walking… Vacation’. They are not about getting to the top first, or rounding that distant headland before everyone else. They are for people who want to step into other natural landscapes, explore culture in remote places, and chill on the hills. Who needs the top anyway? There’ll be plenty of highs along the way.
For every packed walking trail, there is nearly always another empty one nearby. The French Alps are a huge pull, for example, but the lower Alps, around the Mercantour region, are just stunning. And worshippers of the Camino de Santiago are discovering heavenly spots along Portugal’s Serra de Monchique's ancient paths. So, always look beyond the first trail in the book.