It’s the time of year when people start thinking about getting in shape for summer vacation, usually with swimwear in mind. But I’ve found a more useful variation on the theme: Get in walking shape. With the ability to walk for hours (and hours), you can cover miles of city blocks, take in a day of Disney attractions or explore your supersize cruise ship from stem to stern without conking out.
I discovered the benefits of walking while training for a long-distance walk, never considering that it would enhance my travels. Now, hoofing it across a city, or even an island, seems not only doable but downright enjoyable. Along the way, I notice more, engage with locals and feel better overall.
For decades (I’m 60), I’ve been an active cyclist, a fitness-class devotee, an occasional jogger and a social stroller. But I quickly learned that being in good shape overall doesn’t equal good walking shape. My training started in January, after my wife (a cyclist and runner) and I decided to subject ourselves to the world’s largest walking event — the Vierdaagse, or Four Days Marches, held in Nijmegen, an hour from our house in the Netherlands. The walk has been held there since 1916 and now draws some 45,000 participants of all ages and body shapes who complete loops of 30, 40 or 50 kilometers for four days in mid-July. Distances depend on age and gender. Walkers over 59 have the option of doing 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) a day, but I’m sticking with the younger set and doing 40 (about 25 miles).
So far, we’ve gotten up to 23 miles, and what feels like a newly acquired superpower has an impact on our travels. For instance, during a one-day blitz in Amsterdam in March to research a handful of restaurants — all inconveniently spread across the city — we walked the route instead of spending time poring over schedules for trams and buses (and then waiting for them to arrive). We even threw in an extra neighborhood we had been wanting to check out.
Total mileage: 13. Side benefit: burning many of the calories we consumed throughout the day.
When we planned a four-day trip to the Maltese island of Gozo in April, we opted to use buses and walk instead of renting a car. Our favorite hotel was a mile outside the capital, but we booked it anyway, confident that we could easily reach it by foot if no buses were handy. Half of that mile turned out to be uphill (surprise!) but we survived.
One day, we walked 15 miles, first along the northern coast and past miles of salt pans (where sea salt is collected and harvested) then atop cliffs plunging into the Mediterranean, stopping at stupendous viewpoints we couldn’t have accessed with a car.
Knowing I wasn’t alone with my newfound abilities, I wondered what others who rely on their legs have experienced, so I sought out some pros.
When people think about spending a day at a Disney park, they’re not focused on walking, but they should be, said Pete Werner, whose Orlando-based businesses, including WDWInfo.com and DISBoards.com, cover all things Disney in unaffiliated blogs and videos. He also runs Dreams Unlimited Travel, a tour company for Disney vacations.
“A typical day at Disney World includes 10 to 12 miles of walking or more, not to mention a lot of standing,” Werner said. And the average Disney stay, he added, is five days.
He noted that walking is necessary not only to reach attractions, but also to navigate the lodging areas.
“Even at the resorts, especially at the moderate and value ones, those are sprawling properties. It’s not unusual that to get to the food court or main building, there’s a 10-minute walk,” he said. And before a Disney trip, he suggested, “It’s absolutely important to do some training. We tell people that all the time. If you go from sedentary to doing a Disney vacation, you’re going to be miserable.”
Werner, 53, knows miserable, because he has pounded the Disney pavement with some extra pounds — 75 more than the 195 he weighs today. And, yes, walking helped him lose the weight; he regularly logs six to 10 miles a day.
“I know what it’s like to be with a group of people where I’m so exhausted I have to say, ‘I’m going to hang out here and I’ll meet up with you later,’ ” he said. “That’s not a fun way to enjoy vacation, especially when you pay what you do at Disney.”
Walking, he said, enhances his experience, whether it’s in Rome, where he recently covered many miles carrying photography equipment, or on a Disney property.
“I want to come back from a place feeling like I experienced it,” he said. “That’s especially true at Disney, which is famous for the little details. If all you’re doing is thinking about how your legs and feet are killing you, it will take away from that immersion.”
While cruising on Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, Colleen McDaniel walked an average of six miles a day — on the ship. Granted, the senior executive editor of the review website Cruise Critic was not a typical passenger. To check out the entire operation, she was walking “from side to side and end to end” of the 1,188-foot-long ship — until recently, the largest at sea.
But even if you’re cruising just for fun, she said, “If you’re moving from one end to another, climbing stairs from one deck to the next, you’re going to be walking quite a bit.”
There’s also the trek from your cabin to the buffet to activities, with dining and entertainment destinations spread out, she said. And then there are the shore excursions, which, even if they involve a bus tour, could entail walking.
“It depends on the port,” she said. “But in the Caribbean, for instance, chances are you’re going to have to walk a pretty significant distance to where the shuttles for the shore excursions are.”
For cruisers exploring cities by foot, that means even more walking.
“If you want to spend more time in a city and really do some exploring, chances are you’re going to have to walk quite a lot,” she said. “In historic areas, that could involve hills, cobblestones and stairs. And remember that old buildings don’t have elevators. So being in good walking shape will be important.”
To walking evangelist Risa Olinsky, seeing sights on foot is the only way to go, especially in locations where it’s a hassle to figure out transportation or where choices are few.
“Sometimes, by the time you’ve figured out how to get to a place, you could have walked halfway there,” said Olinsky, a 63-year-old wellness coach and personal trainer based in Maplewood, N.J. She’s also the vice president of FreeWalkers, a nonprofit group based in New Jersey that promotes long-distance walking.
“If you’re a walker, your concept of distance when you travel becomes, like, oh, that’s not a big deal. I can walk that. Plus if you’re in a bus or taxi or underground, you miss so much. When I’m walking, I’m seeing more and talking to people. Even just exploring where you live is fun,” said Olinsky, who wrote “Why Walk,” an inspirational book extolling the benefits of walking.
Olinsky, who has logged up to 34 miles in a day, has taken several overseas walking vacations with fellow FreeWalkers, including to Scotland and the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain. The group also sponsors free public walks throughout the year, mostly around the Mid-Atlantic region.
To Olinksy, the joy of walking is more important than going a certain distance, and she cautions new walkers to build up the miles slowly and wear quality shoes appropriate for long walks.
“The most important thing is to listen to our bodies,” she said. “I want to keep moving as long as I can.”
As for me, regardless of whether I complete every mile of the Vierdaagse in July, the training has been illuminating, and I plan to keep my travel superpower intact.
Daniel is a writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
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