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."
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
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
"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
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
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