Power up your Fitbit before you join a Backroads Travel trip hiking in Europe. The company isn’t kidding when it advertises active vacations. The daily hikes are often five miles or more—and that’s the short option. But the service is par excellence, the guides unfailingly helpful and good natured (even when dealing with some less than effective hikers), the food sublime and the views from the top of the world unparalleled.
Hiking in Europe with Backroads Travel
At home, I regularly put in my 10,000 steps. So when Backroads Travel offered me the chance to join a tour hiking in Europe while sailing on a luxury European river cruise onboard an Amawaterways ship cruising the Danube River, I figured I was ready. Unfortunately, I did not account for the fact that I am a Midwestern flatlander. Couple that with a relatively new diagnosis of asthma and I found myself embarrassingly winded on the climbs, which didn’t seem to faze our incredibly fit guides in the slightest.
Still, the exertion was worth it. The views from the highest points were breathtaking and the sense of accomplishment from having mastered the hike was gratifying. I tried to overlook the fact that the 79-year-old among our group regularly tackled the longest hikes while my husband and I huffed our way through the shortest ones.
Only the Best from Backroads Travel
To tour or not to tour? That is often the question we travelers ask ourselves. I have done it both ways and had success as well as failures. My bottom line: a tour is only ever as good as the tour guide(s) and the tour group. A mediocre guide and one or more members of the group who grouse and complain and the experience can be ruined for everyone.
We lucked out on both fronts. The Backroads Travel guides truly were the best I have ever experienced. And there wasn’t a stinker among the group of 19 hikers who signed up for our 8-day tour.
Evan Thompson and Marc Poorterman were our guides. Each day one would lead the daily hikes, zipping along with the fittest of our group, including the buff John Roberts, who blogs at In The Loop Travel. The other, meanwhile, would stick with us slow pokes—my husband and me, a guy with bad knees and his wife who was nursing a thigh injury along with various stragglers depending on the day and the hike.
Then we had the ever perky Erica Graham as our support person. That meant she followed along in the Backroads van. Sometimes she shuttled us from one point to the next while the others continued the hike. Other times she set up lavish picnic lunches or showed up with an array of snacks and a much-needed cooler filled with cold drinks. And, yes, that included beer. We were, after all, cruising through Bavaria, Czech Republic, Austria and Germany, some of the world’s premier beer drinking countries.
It’s All About the Choices
This was my first Backroads trip. Not all Backroads trips include a cruise onboard the luxurious AmaWaterways river ships. The majority are land-based. On those trips, the active travelers move hotels as they hike, bike and/or kayak their way across whatever country or area they are visiting.
My tour, however, had the intriguing added benefit of a cruise onboard the AmaStella, one of the AmaWaterways ships that plies European rivers. The company (the name is pronounced Am-a-waterways) has long been on my radar. And a European river cruise has long been on hubby’s bucket list.
Our trip, “Backroads’ Danube Cobblestones and Countryside River Cruise Walking and Hiking Tour,” started in Bavaria and included the opportunity to visit storybook cities including Passau, Melk, Spitz, Salzburg, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna and Budapest.
Combining Backroads with AmaWaterways offered a nice balance of activity, luxury and pampering. The downside was the need to choose each day: Would we hike or would we tour? Twice during the 8-day trip, we chose to forego the hike in favor of spending more time seeing the historic wonders of Central Europe.
Accommodating and Flexible
The guides were always happy to accommodate and did whatever was needed to ensure our comfort. On the day we chose to forego the morning hike so we could spend more time drinking in the beauty of Vienna, Evan found us in the AmaStella restaurant to be sure we had our subway tickets and directions to the subway before rushing off to join the hikers. Another cool evening, he foraged an armful of blankets to keep us warm as we lounged on the top deck chatting and watching the sunset. During a hike, he was always encouraging and, at one point, even jogged back a half mile along the trail to find the sunglasses another hiker lost.
But the guides’ biggest challenge came on the last night of our tour. Throughout the week, they had promised us a crescendo ending to our tour with an Illumination Tour of Budapest. When the sun goes down, the lights of this gorgeous city come up. Generally, that means the AmaStella takes a leisurely cruise up and down the city center, giving passengers a front row seat to the lights of Budapest’s gothic Parliament building, the famed Gellert spa, the Statue of Liberty that reigns over the city and the beautiful bridges that unite the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube River.
Sadly, an event in town meant that the AmaStella could not take the ride up and down the Danube River. As expected, we were disappointed. But, hey, it was beyond the control of Evan and Marc, so we figured we would just suck it up.
Oh contraire! The boys went to work with the help of the Backroads office support and found us spots on a local touring boat that would be doing the one-hour city lights tour. I don’t know what the tour would have been like on the AmaStella, but it was just fine on the local boat—much to the relief of Evan and Marc who told us repeatedly they were taking a chance since no one had ever joined this particular Illumination tour before.
Here’s what we saw:
Ratcheting Up the Experience
Onboard the AmaStella, we Backroads hikers were the cool kids. Our roving band of 19 Backroads travelers regularly were off the ship before the others. In one case, the AmaStella captain told passengers there would be short “technical stop” along the river. It turned out that was the code name for “the Backroads group is getting off the ship here” so we could hike rather than sail to the next port. Another night, we were the last ones on board because we had headed into Bratislava for a private dinner at a sweet little spot in town.
Other days, we had our own private tours of the cities completely separate from the ones included in the cruise package for the regular passengers. Throughout the week, Evan and Marc kept telling us that the Backroads-hired tour guides were the best.
Hubby and I decided to test that claim in Vienna. We joined the regular ship tour of Vienna in the morning.
Our middle-aged guide was good. He was American by birth and Viennese by choice. That meant he was easy to understand but still well informed about everything. We chose the “active” tour so he hustled us from one spot to the next. Along the way, he shared information about the city’s colorful history, its architectural highlights, even the current price of an apartment in the old city center. In short, it was a perfectly fine and informative experience.
It’s Better with Backroads
Later that day, we met our Backroads guide, an Austrian named Kristina. Her enthusiasm was contagious, the depth of her knowledge impressive, and the sites we visited out of the tourist mainstream. And, being the cool kids, we took the subway instead of the tour bus.
Even the city map Evan gave us was cooler than the one the ship was distributing.
Ours, the “Free Map of Vienna for Young and Clever People,” instructed us that to act like a local, the first thing we need to do is “be grumpy.” Why? Because “Although we are living in a city where everything works perfectly, we like to paint everything black and complain. A lot! As an original Viennese, it is mandatory to be all grumpy because the bus is one minute late. Or because it is unbearably hot/cold/rainy/sunny.”
Racking Up the Miles
Whether it was unbearably hot/cold/rainy/sunny, the Backroads adventures were never affected. We hiked in the spitting rain (thankfully it never poured) and on some slippery dirt paths. But most of the time it was blessedly cool and partly cloudy.
It was a good thing too. We racked up the miles! Even taking the short routes gave my Fitbit a workout. On a slow day, we walked 12,607 steps and climbed the equivalent of 39 floors. On our most challenging day, we blew past 25,000 steps!
The Bottom Line on Backroads
This is a tour company that knows how to take care of people. About half of our group were repeat customers—one couple counted this as their 11th Backroads tour. Others are active travelers who have traveled with other tour companies. They all pronounced Backroads to be the best. The added pleasure of a Danube river cruise versus changing hotels on a land tour got a mixed review from the group. But to hubby and me, it was a definitive added plus.
Hubby and I found the trip to be a challenge, but with encouragement from Evan and Marc, we walked further, faster and higher than we thought we could.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. But I will spend some time training on the stairmaster first.