Thirty years ago, travel industry veteran Michael West traded the bustle of London for a quieter existence in southwest England. Upon his move, West began a daily ritual he still cherishes: long walks among the sheep on his Dorset farm. West enjoyed those walks so much that he wanted to find a way to share, and expand on, the experience with others. And so, in 1984, after much collaboration with his business partner, The Wayfarers — one of the world's most respected walking tour companies — was born.
"I have to say it was certainly not business acumen — it was pure luck!" admits West, who effuses typical British charm with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. "I didn't have any idea of what would happen. This is more of a way of life for us. We do it because we love it."
Over nearly three decades, the company has found its niche by offering an authentic experience that combines breathtaking geography with local culture and a dose of daily exercise. Tours are offered in 20 countries over four continents, and groups are limited to 12 people. There are no chain restaurants or hotels. Instead, you'll hang up your hiking boots in places like Italian castles and the lavish home of Jane Austen's family friends, and feast on regional fare in pubs and even the homes of locals.
For the athletic elite: Don't get too hung up on the word "walking" (isn't that all hiking is anyway?). Tours can cover up to 16 miles a day, with lots of ups and downs (don't forget the extra moleskin). The most rigorous are the Coast to Coast walk in England, which spans 85 miles from Cumbria to Yorkshire; Cinque Terra in Italy, where you'll navigate the craggy Italian Riviera and hundreds of stone steps; and Slovakia, and up-and-coming Eurpean hotspot with rugged landscapes. You can also schedule in extra activities horseback riding or paragliding.
Still, West vows that the company will never venture too far from the vision it was founded upon to compete with the hectic adrenaline-fests that too many outfitters strive for these days.
"When you drive through a countryside, or you're on a bus or a train, you want to get out and see it, touch it, smell it," he says. "And walking gives us that, doesn't it?"
Prices start at $3,595, including meals, accommodation, some alcohol and admittance fees.