Grab a coffee, relax and enjoy a Headwater blog on Dave Holcraft's Silver Travel interview
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So Dave, walking & cycling holidays. It seems there’s been a huge increase in activity holidays in the last few years. Is it actually so and why do you think that is?

Well, I think holiday makers are wanting something a bit different these days, there was a craze for all inclusive a few years back and whilst its still popular, people who have taken traditional package hols are now starting to venture off the resort and complexes! There’s also greater awareness of health and wellbeing these days and activity holiday is perfect for that. Also when you look at what people actually do on a package holiday, a high percentage of people will pay extra to do some kind of activity, be it hiring bikes, paying for a walking our around an attraction so why not put it all together. So you’ve got the hardcore hikers and cyclists who have always put their activity first when on holiday but you’ve also got the new cross section of people who are wanting some different, something healthy.

Somehow walking seems to really engage you in the landscape and you feel as if you’re properly experiencing the country you’re in, could that be why it appeals too?
Absolutely. It’s just not the same when you see a place through the windscreen of a bus, it’s so much more appealing actually walking through a place under your own steam and perhaps more importantly at your own pace. Infact one of our straplines is ‘set your own pace’ actually. When you’re walking the pace of life totally changes…its simple things that really enhance your enjoyment of an area such as taking a picture, stopping to admire a view, popping into a very local cafe and for me personally, I think its brilliant when you strike up a conversation with a local, you learn so much and really get under the skin of a place. Our walking routes pass through a varied range of landscapes, little cobblestone villages, along river banks, through vineyards and occasionally a few hills depending on the difficulty grading of that particular holiday…

One of my big fears and total failures is driving on the ‘other’ side of the road, how does that work with cycling?
I think it becomes second nature after a short while, the good thing is that we pride ourselves on routes that follow our British equivalent of ‘B’ roads so the traffic flow is light and there’s plenty of room for vehicles to pass you by. particularly in France and Italy, cycling is a national sport and its amazing the respect drivers give to cyclists, its like an unwritten law or custom ‘respect the bike’. Once you’ve been travelling on the other side of the road and you return from holiday, you have to remind yourself that the UK is left hand drive, so yes, you just get used to it…and if you’re really against the right hand side cycling then we have a route around Californian Vineyards and also a really nice, flat itinerary on Gozo (based at a 5 star hotel too)!

So what is the attraction of holidaying, either on foot or by bike, with a group of strangers? Is the mode of transport enough to bond everyone together? Is this a holiday that is good for single travellers? And what about the guides, who are they, locals?
For single travellers its obviously a great way to meet like minded people who enjoy similar activities. The Guided groups explore and discover so much in the day time that the night time meals, should you choose to eat with the group (everything is optional, nothing is forced) that conversation flows nicely as you’ve so much to talk about from the day’s walking or cycling. i suppose after 2 or 3 glasses of vino, conversation tends to flow anyway! We cater for a lot of single travellers on guided trips, there’s usually a minimum of 4 people on the guided trips, led by a mix of Headwater employed staff or guides that we have sourced through a local agent on the ground.

It is possible, I know, to take a self guided trip. How does that work? (Maps, luggage, getting lost, hotels etc)
Exploring a region yourself is a truly rewarding experience and unlike an escorted tour, you decide when to stop for that photo, when to take a break for coffee, or perhaps even a wine or beer with no time pressures whatsoever. We’ll give you comprehensive route notes, detailed maps and a friendly de-briefing session on day one so you won’t get lost! Behind the scenes, we’ll be transferring your luggage from hotel to hotel so you don’t have to. Just simply take what you need for the day’s activity in your daypack and your luggage will be waiting for you at your hotel.

Self guided trips are roughly 75% of what our company does, we offer a few guided trips but self guided is an area of great expertise for us. We’ve never had anyone get seriously lost and we have Headwater Reps ‘behind the scenes’ who are just a mobile phone call away for back up support. You can see the split of self guided and guided in our brochure or on our website and how meticulously planned the route is.

And just how fit do you need to be? Are we talking serious expedition level or will a Sunday walker or cyclist be ok? (grading system, daily mileage etc)
We have 4 difficulty gradients from soft to challenging. Some holidays might have a steeper hill in a 30 minute section but then the rest flat, so we often use 2 difficulty ratings to cater for this. Our main audience are aged 45 – 80+….in fact we had a couple who were 82 did our Umbria Cycling trip and they finished the day’s cycling before the ‘behind the scenes’ bag drop service van arrived at the hotel. Our Headwater rep said they were sat on the patio enjoying a glass of cold beer in the afternoon sunshine! So you don’t have to be Bradley Wiggins or Chris Bonnington to cycle or walk with Headwater, you just need an appreciation of the outdoors and enjoy being active.

We have rest days in between the walking or cycling days, so if you did find it hard you can relax around the pool, on the other hand if you’re like the 82 yr old couple I mentioned earlier, you could go off exploring on the rest day too, the bikes are yours for the duration of the trip…
Soft walking holidays
Anyone who is reasonably fit and healthy, and enjoys the occasional weekend walk, will be fine on a Soft walking holiday. You should typically expect to walk for 2-4 hours, usually on fairly flat, even terrain, but with some gentle ascents/ descents of up to 300m. There will be no scrambling or dizzy heights.

Leisurely walking holidays
Leisurely holidays are geared towards people who enjoy walking for 3-5 hours on any given day. Some holidays involve shorter, steeper sections; others will include more gentle, but longer ascents/ descents. Trails are seldom totally flat so you should be prepared for altitude changes of up to 500m on some days. A head for heights is not necessary.

Moderate walking holidays
If you are looking to walk 4-6 hours, and are confident with daily ascents/ descents of up to 700m, then a Moderate holiday is probably your best choice. You don’t need specific hiking experience, however good health and reasonable fitness are important. There may be some sections on uneven terrain where scrambling is required. On certain holidays, you do need a head for heights – in such cases, this is specified on the individual holiday page.

Challenging walking holidays
Fitness is important at this level as you can expect to be walking for 5-8 hours, including up to 1000m ascents/ descents. High altitudes, climate and remoteness can also be a factor depending on your chosen destination. Compass reading skills and experience of walking in mountains is important, and you should have a reasonable head for heights. There is likely to be some scrambling required, although not rock climbing. Not suitable for under 12’s. View our challenging walking holidays »

What would you recommend for a beginner, someone who has perhaps never walked or cycled for a few days on the go, like many of us indeed?
Well, we’ve got some super flat holidays, often in hilly areas (so you don’t miss out on more mountainous landscapes…) by sticking to riverbanks or valley floors. I thought I might get asked that question so for walkers we’ve got our Chateaux of the Loire 6 night trip, an average of 12 miles per day and we estimate that to take 4 hours or the Catalunya Holiday, again similar walking distances for 6 nights which includes breakfast and 4 amazing evening meals (there’s a coastal based walking holiday in Menorca too that explores most of the island but isn’t too taxing) they’re all in our easiest ‘soft’ category. For cyclists, we provide all the bikes, panniers, maps etc, we’ve got the Alsace Vinyards and Wine Trails (more about tasting superb wine than racing your bike – again it’s all about setting your own pace). The distances are easily achievable in daylight hours, I’d recommend the Gozo cycling, which is gorgeous and very flat. In fact we have the Porto to Coimbra route in Portugal too that passes through some fascinating places – 7 nights from £1278 including flights..

And accommodation, walking holidays conjure up a youth hostelling type arrangement in my mind. Do tell me it isn’t so?! I think a little comfort is needed at my age after a day of activity.
I had the good fortune to shadow one of our reps in Umbria last year and saw first hand the quality of the accommodation options we select. The hotels and the food are on average 4 star so far from the youth hostel or backpacker scene, I suppose you could say these are adventure holidays in comfort.
Our hugely experienced Destination Specialists hand-pick our accommodation choices and ensure they’re operating to Headwater’s high quality guidelines. From the blissful tranquility of the Brittany countryside to the stunning shorelines of Sardinia we search out small, family-run hotels, with tasty regional cuisine included, and owners who take a genuine interest in their guests. No two accommodations are ever the same, so you’ll find historic castles, old manor houses, working farms, stylish villas and converted convents with wonderful cloisters and hidden courtyards.

And finally Dave, do you have a favourite walk or bike ride? Somewhere really special?
That’s tricky, we’ve got 166 itineraries in 25 different countries, appealing to food and wine lovers to birdwatchers, but I’m hoping we’ll add New Zealand to our itineraries in the near future, that’s the home of my favourite walk – The Gillespie Track, just outside Wanaka. It was 5 days and involved crossing rivers on foot! However Headwater-wise, I’m itching to try Headwater’s walking in the Dolomites trip, i love the high peaks and the hotel facilities sound amazing. Our guided cycling to Jordan always has fantastic reviews and in terms of self guided I’d urge listeners to read about the 8 night Piedmont walking and cycling trips, some of our researchers reckon the hotels serve some of the best food they’ve ever tasted and the hotel standards are brilliant.