Walking tours: More Singaporeans are stepping up to this hot vacation trend
One travel company has seen 15 per cent growth for adventure holidays where walking the scenic route is the point in destinations such as Jeju Island, Peru and Iceland.
Amidst the forest soundscape of singing cicadas and rustling leaves, the pitter-patter of your footsteps is probably the only sound accenting the natural symphony, along with the occasional chatter from your fellow hikers. Then, there’s the view. Each turn of the path reveals Nature’s grandeur: The majesty of a waterfall or the drama of a granite peak piercing the bright blue sky.
It is no wonder that more Singaporeans have fallen in love with walking tours. The feeling of having escaped the grind of city life couldn’t be more apparent when you’re literally on top of the world – or at least the top of your hike. Along the way, knowledge is shared and new friendships, made. It also doesn’t hurt to clock more than 10,000 steps a day for a change on your fitness tracker.
HOOKED ON WALKING
“We have noticed, in the past two years, more interest for more adventurous trips where travellers can hike,” said Mae Cheah, the president of Trafalgar, who cited a 15-per-cent growth from 2017 to 2018. It’s a trend that Sheryl Lim, founder of Travel Wander, has also noticed. “We have been seeing an average of 10 per cent growth year on year,” she said.
While walking tours are still a niche market for big players such as Chan Brothers Travel, they, too, “have started noticing enquires and interest in them over the last year,” said Jeremiah Wong, its senior marketing communications manager.
The interaction with like-minded travellers and the more intimate experience are what “walkers” are attracted to. “Walking tours allow me to slow down and forget about my phone,” said 33-year-old project coordinator Deni Sun. “Plus, the camaraderie extended by the lead hiker and fellow hikers; we walk as a team even though we’ve just met like two hours ago, and they don't leave anyone behind.”
Others, like Ten Hui Ling, 33, enjoy the deeper experience they get out of exploring a locale on foot. “You get to understand more about the local history, culture and stories behind the castles, buildings, national parks,” said the assistant manager in product and innovation, who has done five walking holidays, including one in Iceland last year.
You get to understand more about the local history, culture and stories behind the castles, buildings, national parks.
Age is no barrier either – not to 67-year-old Chan Chee Leong at least. The retiree is such a fan of walking holidays that he has walked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and in as far-flung a destination as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Croatia, and the Balkan States.
“In places where access is not readily available, walking tours add a unique experience to my holidays," said Chan. "The best and most memorable experience was in Greenland last August. The landscapes were beyond my imagination and we could interact with the locals.”
WHAT IS A WALKING HOLIDAY?
The most obvious definition of a walking holiday – including both guided and free-and-easy packages – is one that involves walking a lot in the countryside, or in national parks or nature reserves, said Lim. So, no, exploring a destination’s sights and sounds on foot a few blocks from your hotel doesn’t really count.
And there are varying degrees to a walking holiday, said Wong. The lighter end of the spectrum could be seeking out “traditional villages and communities as part of a cultural discovery tour”. “The duration of the walking component can range from three hours to half a day or a full day, and there can be multiple walking components in a single programme,” said Wong.
Here’s a look at where you can head to if you’re after a holiday that goes beyond malls, museums and Michelin-starred restaurants.
SOUTH KOREA: JEJU ISLAND
Besides the famed haenyo divers, elderly women who harvest sea urchin, abalone and other delicacies from the sea, this South Korean island is also renowned for its natural wonders, including waterfalls, white sand beaches and a dormant volcano that sits in the middle of the island.
Naturally, Jeju’s scenery is its winning point and capitalising on that is the Jeju Olle-gil – a series of 26 walking trails that skirt around the entire island. Each route differs in length and difficulty, with the shortest walkable under an hour and the longest, up to eight hours.
An example is the 16km trail that starts from Gwangchigi Beach (renowned for its unique green rocks), hugs part of the eastern coastline before ending at Onpyeong Pogu Olle. The trail takes about five to six hours to complete and along the way, you’ll come across top scenery spots such as Siksanbong and Seongsan Sunrise Peak, the iconic Old House Of Choi Pilgan in Goseong Village and even a horse ranch.
ICELAND: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle is the Icelandic trifecta you want to experience, which includes Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss. The three destinations sit on a 230km circular loop, so walking from Thingvellir National Park to the Geysir Geothermal Area, for instance, is out of the question.
But there is plenty of walking to be had once you arrive at each site. Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not short on dramatic beauty, offering up views of dried magma fields covered in moss to ancient mountain peaks. Walk along the North American tectonic plate to discover the area’s formation and history, before heading for the valley below.
Although the Geysir Geothermal Area, a UNESCO Global Geopark, is rarely active these days, the area that it’s in – Haukadalur Valley – boasts other geothermic wonders, including the powerful Strokkur that shoots vast jets of boiling water up to 40m into the air every 5 to 10 minutes. Haukadalur is also home to one of Iceland’s very few forests if you’re up for a walk.
Rounding off the Golden Circle is Gullfoss, which means “golden falls” in Icelandic. The 32-metre high waterfall cascades down in two stages into the Gullfossgjufur canyon. Be prepared to get drenched as the spray from water coming down at 140 cubic metres every second in summer to 109 cubic metres every second in winter is unforgettable.
UGANDA: BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST RESERVE
Get a glimpse into the subject that has fascinated the late Dian Fossey for decades – endangered mountain gorillas, which interestingly, share 98 per cent of their genes with humans.
Although the late anthropologist studied the majestic, mountain-dwelling apes in neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve is where you can see them face to face. No highland mountain gorilla has survived in zoos, so this is the only way to see them.
The tropical forest is home to about 340 mountain gorillas, making up almost half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas. These giant apes live deep in the mountains, so you’ll need to put on your boots for some serious hiking, and even some climbing, through thick jungle and uneven terrain.
Special permits are required for the hour-long encounter with one of the 15 families of gorillas that live there. The reserve is also gazetted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason; it has some of East Africa’s richest populations of flora and fauna, including 10 primate species.
Other than gorilla tracking, you can also take walks on several established trails like the Waterfall Trail, Muzubijiro Loop Trail, Bamboo Trail and the Rushura Trail in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve.
PERU: MACHU PICCHU
You can’t go to Peru and not see Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan ruins that sit on the slopes of the Andes. And the guided Inca Trail is where you can kick off your hike, a 6km route that takes about 3.5 hours to cover. It’ll take you to the iconic Wayana Picchu or Little Peak that is seen in almost every picture of Machu Picchu as well as the Temple Of The Three Windows.
But this UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new world’s seven wonders is not the only route you can take. The Sacred Valley shouldn’t be missed for Pisac, the circular terraced ruins that date back to the 1400s. It is said that there is an ancient cemetery where 3,000 Incas are buried in the mountains’ crevices. But you might want to get a ride up from the village of Pisac to reach the ruins instead as it’s a long walk up the mountain slopes.
Another site not to pass over in the Sacred Valley is Ollantaytambo and its well-preserved ruins and town; a key feature being the Ollantaytambo Fortress. Be prepared to conquer lots of steps to reach the fortress’ top as its terraces are taller than the average man. But worth the effort is the view at the top. Look across the valley and see if you can spot a face carved into the rock’s surface. This is the diety Wiracocha, whom the Incas believed was the creator of all.
HONG KONG: LAMMA ISLAND AND HONG KONG ISLAND
There is another side of Hong Kong that isn’t obstructed by skyscrapers – and we’re not talking about Victoria Peak. The height of the action lies in Hong Kong Island, home to the famous Dragon’s Back trail that has been hailed as one of Hong Kong’s best urban hikes. Get your camera out when you reach its highest point, Shek O Peak at 284m, for the stunning, panoramic coastal views. Don’t forget to turn around and look back – you’ll see how the trail gets its name.
The other spot that has been popping up on walking tours is Lamma Island. There are two trails to check out: The circular one that will take you to quaint, abandoned villages that offer glimpses into the island’s glorious past.
Or walk from Sok Kwu Wan to Yung Shue Wan, where there are many lookout points with beautiful views of the sea and its surroundings before ending off in Tai Peng village for a slice of laidback Hong Kong. Then, head back to Sok Kwu Wan for a farm-fresh and well-earned seafood lunch.
Travelling light is always a good idea, whether you're doing a walking tour or a packaged one. Contiki Trip Manager Remi Gosselin, who spends six months of each year on the road leading travellers around Europe, shares the following tips to help you see the world lighter.
- Don't overpack
Never pack for more than seven or eight days – use a laundromat instead. For every item you plan to bring along, ask yourself: “Do I really need it?”. Avoid the “what if” scenarios because they never happen. You can buy almost anything anywhere in the world. So, it’s truly safe to pack half of what you think you’ll need.
- Hotels are for sleeping and that’s about it
Thinking this way lowers your expectations and allows you to prioritise your budget for things you really want to do like museum visits, food and other activities.
- Only unpack the necessary
Never unpack your whole luggage on your travels. Take out only the necessary items to help you get ready in the morning. It will save you time and the hassle of repacking your luggage when you are in a rush in the morning.
- Carry credit cards separately
If travelling light means relying on credit cards instead of carrying cash around, go for it. But do not place them together. Carry one on you and one in the luggage, so should you lose your wallet, you would still have a card to access money.