This fall, walk inn-to-inn through New England.
Whether the trail takes you through woods swept with fairy-tale reds and oranges, into a canyon cut by streams and waterfalls, or along a rocky coastline marked by sea caves, walking lets you experience the landscape as no other vacation can.
On most of the trips, an experienced guide leads you, but some tour companies will give you a map and route and arrange your lodgings.
On a walking tour, instead of driving through a national park or a state forest or simply looking at the seacoast from your bus window, you move through the landscape. This is a hands-on encounter with nature.
"It's a healthy vacation, but you still have all the little luxuries," says Clare Grabher, owner of New England Hiking Holidays in North Conway, N.H. "People want to go walking and be in the wilderness, but they do not want to think about where to stay or what trails to use. We've chosen the inns and the hikes."
Your stroll gives you the wilderness by day via walks that generally total from six to 12 miles and lets you savor life's little luxuries by night -- a good dinner plus a comfortable room in a country inn.
More bonuses: These tours are relatively inexpensive -- usually almost all-inclusive -- and offer a vacation that returns you in better shape than when you left. It's no wonder that walking tours are becoming the health-conscious vacations of the '90s.
But can you keep up? For most walking trips, all that's required is a reasonable degree of physical fitness. Those in better shape walk more quickly or opt for a more strenuous path, while others can easily keep to a slow pace if they desire.
"The trip is really designed to please the senses, not to test the endurance," says Dawn Mann, a group leader with Country Walkers. But inquire carefully before stepping into the scenery: some trips are off-road hikes that require a certain amount of uphill striding. Whatever your style, these fall tours combine New England's spectacular foliage with comfortable country inns.
With some of the best foliage in the United States, the Vermont woods are enticing in fall, with sweeps of yellow birches and patches of deep-red maples. On Hiking Holidays' Vermont-to-Quebec excursion, start your trek in Montgomery, Vt., -- a small village dotted with antique shops and set near covered bridges -- that lies south of the Vermont-Canada border. The Black Lantern Inn, a renovated tavern, offers a pub for apres-bush camaraderie and a big porch with rocking chairs that allow a comfy way to admire the stars in a cool, autumn sky.
The moderate hikes, which come complete with picnic lunches provided by the guides, wind you through the Green Mountains on back roads that take you into the forest's heart, alongside ponds and through a small canyon. Near Lake Willoughby, keep an eye out for moose, deer, red-tailed hawks and even peregrine falcons. The inn for the night, the Fox Hall, offers a woodsy locale and plenty of country quiet.
"Every day there is a variety of options," says Janet Chill of Hiking Holidays. "Each morning the group discusses the plans. "For the younger or more physically fit, there are always challenging opportunities. And some people even opt for a morning hike and an afternoon of shopping the crafts stores and country boutiques."
For many the highlight of the trip is a stay in Quebec, at L'Aubergine, a homey inn featuring French cuisine and nearby walks that include a stroll through the meadows and the apple orchards of a Benedictine abbey.
Cost: $799 for the five-day Vermont-to-Quebec tour, Sept. 19-24, Sept. 26-Oct 1. Hiking Holidays also offers additional walking tours of Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts and North Carolina, plus destinations abroad including England and Austria. Hiking Holidays, Box 750, Bristol, Vt. 05443-0750; (802) 453-4816.
Along Maine's coast
A stroll along the rocky coast of Maine brings you brisk sea breezes and trails that wind through woods and along sea-swept, granite cliffs. On this five-day trip with Country Walkers, you experience the storybook Maine of lighthouses, historic shipbuilding towns, picturesque clapboard villages and the pristine woods of Acadia National Park.
Opt for an early-morning jaunt, then join the group after breakfast for a walk through the port village of Castine, laced with houses from the mid-1800s, or take a half-hour hike up Blue Hill, named for its deep purple blueberry bushes and known for its panoramic view of Penobscot Bay.
Later in the week, a naturalist guide will point out the plants and animals of Acadia National Park's Mount Desert Island. Choose from easy carriage trails around Eagle Lake, paths that lead to beaver ponds or a more strenuous hike up Cadillac Mountain.