As we set off to the south, the group's volunteer leader, a take-charge woman named Martine, shows me a detailed map of our carefully prepared route: we'll walk along the beach, then inland through farms and a few secluded hamlets, then back to the water. In three hours or so, we'll cover eight or nine miles, all flat. Some people in the group, she explains, will leave us partway through the trek for a shorter option. "We usually walk with 50 to 85 people, most of them retired," Martine says. "Today we have 74. Anytime we walk by the sea, more people come out," she adds.
See also: Cheap travel tips.
Martine and the Marcheurs are happy to have us—and similar hospitality can be found from walking clubs the world over. These groups offer an appealing way to meet local folks and fully experience a region's not-in-the-guidebook charms. Sure, you could sign on with a tour company that specializes in walking vacations. Or you could find recommended routes online, or buy a good map of the area, and go it alone. But tagging along with a local walking club on one of its scheduled outings is, for my money, a safer, surer way to see the very best of a place.
For a donation of a few dollars, or sometimes just for the asking, you'll get a tested route, plus companions who will keep you away from busy roads, point out not-to-be-missed attractions that only locals know about, and dispense advice on where to stop for a memorable snack. Club walkers tend to be over 50. And as I found in Normandy, they usually like company.
Tourist offices and local newspapers often announce scheduled walks that are open to all, so you can pick up information at the last minute and simply appear at the appointed time. Better still, around the United States and in even the remotest parts of such walker-friendly countries as England, France, and Germany, local clubs are easy to find with a computer search, or by asking the local tourism department. (If you read French, for example, you can find information about 3,200 clubs in France and its territories at ffrandonnee.fr/assos.aspx, the website of La Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre.) Many walking groups post their schedules online, or you can e-mail or phone to ask about walks on specific dates. Some good resources:
The American Volkssport Association
This 34-year-old U.S. affiliate of an international organization maintains a list of more than 300 local walking and fitness clubs covering most states. AVA walks are ranked from 1 (easy) to 5 (for those in top shape) and generally take up to two hours (210-659-2112; ava.org).
An umbrella organization for about 500 local clubs in England, Scotland, and Wales, this group offers hundreds of walks per week. The website has a searchable database of scheduled walks through out Britain (011-44-20-7339-8500; ramblers.co.uk).