Firm to explore Poland's national parks

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Poland became the most-sought-after hiking destination offered by Walking Softly Adventures last year, surpassing the Pyrenees Mountains, the operator said.

The 4-year-old firm, run by former forest rangers Amy and John Osaki, ventured to Poland for the first time last year. "We spend a third of the year in Europe focusing on nature areas and art, and Poland really astonished us," said owner and president Amy Osaki. "Poland has 22 national parks. France has six."

Bieszczady National Park Walking Softly, based here, will become the first operator to take U.S. tour groups to several of those parks this year on its new Green Poland tour.

The Green Poland group will explore three national parks, including Europe's largest lowland forest, a World Heritage Site roamed by 250 wild bison. Participants then canoe down the Narew River, known as the "Polish Amazon," to an ancient village. "This is not what most people expect from Poland," Osaki said. You're looking at moose. You stay in a 600-year-old town."

Walking Softly clients, meanwhile, are not the camping types one might expect. The operator's four Poland tours draw chief executives, attorneys and accountants -- executives in "indoor professions," Osaki said.

"They tell us that they are too busy to plan this trip, but this is the trip they used to plan on their own," she said. These clients also can afford the operator's rates. Agents, who tend to think of Poland as a budget destination, often are surprised at the cost of a Walking Softly tour, Osaki said.

Eight-night programs average $2,000, land only. Several elements add up to a higher-priced hiking tour, Osaki said.

First, tours have a maximum of 12 participants and include two to three guides. Walking Softly clients also "have gotten to the point in life where they realize why beds were invented," she said.

Participants bunk in comfy hotels -- hence the "Softly." Whereas large operators negotiate volume discounts at huge hotels, Walking Softly books small, privately owned inns, most less than 6 years old.

"Prior to 1990, travelers had a choice between a concrete-block high-rise and a concrete-block dorm," Osaki said. The new small inns capture the Polish way of life, she said.

In the tiny village of Wola Sekowa, a two-night stop on the nine-night Carpathian Explorer trip, the group takes over an inn modeled after a 100-year-old manor house destroyed in World War II. Reflecting a region at the crossroads of Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine, the inn features pine floors, white walls, lace curtains, puffy comforters, a fireplace and a baby-grand piano.

Innkeepers cook up local fare that reflects Poland's east and west influences: goulash from eastern Europe, sausages from Germany, veal cutlets from Austria and thinly sliced cucumbers from Scandinavia.

On the trails, hikers will find mountain huts where tea and soup are sold. The tour also stops at quaint food shops for picnic supplies. Travelers should bring their hiking boots, as Walking Softly tours feature trail hikes rather than the typical walks along vineyards or farm roads, Osaki said.

Participants need not be fitness buffs, however. Anyone "able to carry a suitcase up three flights of stairs" can handle the trip, Osaki said, as many of the inns do not have elevators.

Each tour caters to all fitness levels by offering three levels of hikes: a two-hour walk without much climbing, a four-hour hike climbing to 1,000 feet elevation or an eight- to 10-hour hike climbing up to 4,300 feet.

As a fourth option, participants can skip the hike altogether and explore the town. Hikers start and end at the same place rather than trekking from inn to inn, so they stay in the same hotel for two to seven nights.

The eight-night High Tatra Trails tour, for example, spends seven nights in the mountain resort town of Zakopane and one night in Krakow.

Walking Softly tours depart from May through November. The operator stretched its season this year -- last year's tours ran from June through October -- so that travelers can take advantage of shoulder-season air fares.

The firm also offers Hiking Adventures in France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway and Spain.

Agents book a small portion of Walking Softly's tours, but the operator hopes to change that by offering a 12% commission. After 10 bookings, the operator will pay 15%.

Walking Softly serves as the U.S. booking agent for canoeing and biking trips to Poland through Kampio, a Polish company. Bookings are commissionable at 10%.

Walking Softly Adventures
Phone: (888) 743-0723

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