My dream day begins like this: wake up early, but not too early, in a small hotel beside the sea. My body is sore (but not too sore) from walking from dawn until dusk the day before to get here. I pack my bag and take it to the lobby, where the luggage fairies will magically transport it to my next lodging. I have a hearty breakfast and a strong coffee, fill my water bottle and tighten my boots. Today’s sun-kissed route hugs the coastline: cliffs, beaches, cozy pubs and fields of golden wheat rippling in the breeze.
This idyllic scenario is no fantasy. It’s what you do if you love to walk and want to experience the fine-grain textures of the places where you holiday. Hiking from town to town, preferably with somebody else schlepping your gear, is an invigorating immersion into the human and natural ecosystem you’re travelling through—“A state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” American author Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. “As though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
Canada has no shortage of world-class trails, but the scale of our wilderness makes it more conducive to tenting. In the British Isles, however, walking is hard-wired into the culture—rare is the time and place where it cannot be done or discussed. The region’s hundreds of kilometres of stunning shoreline scattered with postcard villages, sparkling creeks, rocky hills and woodsy dales—and a right-to-roam heritage that bestows public access to private land—make it a magnet for hikers, especially those who don’t mind a hot shower and soft bed.
“In the British Isles, walking is hard-wired into the culture.”
One of the many pleasures of a walking holiday is meeting people along the way. From the inbound hiker who shares tips about the path ahead to the affable innkeeper who pulls a pint of ale to take to your room when you arrive, every conversation and encounter can conjure Solnit’s harmonious chord.
Another pleasure: You work up a ravenous appetite. After a long day of rambling, I’ve dined on steak and kidney pie beside a roaring hearth in a centuries-old pub on the south coast of England, feasted on fresh crab caught by the hotelier’s brother on a land’s-end peninsula in Wales and savoured lamb from the pasture next door in a Michelin-starred restaurant at the foot of a mountain on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. And, just as satiating, at the top of a summit, is that slab of local cheese pressed into a chunk of crusty bread, especially because every step you take after lunch will start to burn off those calories and spark a hunger for more.
Also, a multi-day walking trip allows you to find your pace and settle into a simple rhythm. There’s a routine, to be sure: meals and snacks, climbing and stretching, sweating and swimming, solitude and pockets of society. But these signposts are something to savour, a way to mark the mileage without worrying about the measures that delineate our lives at home—once these everyday thoughts and worries are vanquished, your mind is free to wander.
It’s no coincidence that some of our most imaginative ideas emerge when we’re walking. Your perspective literally shifts with every step, and all of the sights, sounds, smells and tactile sensations you’re bombarded with mingle with past experiences and perceptions and can give birth to creative breakthroughs.
On a walking holiday, you explore not only the intimate contours of a condensed landscape, but also the nooks and crannies of your own psyche, that, for many, remains a mysterious terrain. On foot, you discover and rediscover the things you really love, and then get to do it again the next day.
[This story appears in the January 2017 issue of WestJet Magazine]