Top 10 walks – worldwide

Take the time to discover a place intimately – and perhaps get in touch with yourself in the process. Our writers take you on a tour of 10 of the most beautiful walks in the world.

Hiking the rails in Bermuda
by Hilary Davidson

Uniquely situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Bermuda has a romantic, storied history and a dramatic landscape with rolling hills and black lava-rock cliffs.

I soon learned the best way to explore it is also one of the island nation’s best-kept secrets. Back in 1931, no cars were allowed on the island, and the most efficient form of transportation was the 21-mile-long railway, which linked many of the islands that make up Bermuda. The railway was shut down and its assets auctioned off in 1948. In the 1980s, the government officially converted the trail to a hiking and biking path, and in 2000, its entire length was designated a national park.

Countless entry and exit points connect the trail to other national parks, farmland and main roads. While you may forget the world around you, the truth is you’re never far from civilization.

Starting on cobblestone&l;b />My husband, Dan, and I start the trail in St. George, the former capital. Winding cobblestone streets lead us past the imposing State House and St. Peter’s Church.  From the town, the Railway Trail runs for almost three miles, past Sugarloaf Hill, a mariner’s landmark, and Lover’s Lake Nature Reserve. The trail reaches its natural end at Coney Island, where a ferry takes us across to Hamilton Parish, one of the most difficult stretches of the path because much of it needs repair; we have to walk along the main road. Parts of the track are magnificent: the wild, dramatic coastline leads us to Flatts Inlet, a favourite haunt of smugglers over the centuries.

The path brings us to the edge of Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital city, by the end of the day. The city itself is well worth a day’s exploration.

Back on the Railway Trail a couple of days later, we join a guided tour. Our guide leads us along the two-mile trail through Paget and Warwick Parishes and off the beaten path to Paget Marsh, a natural wetland teeming with native and migratory birds. Later in the day, Dan and I continue on through Southampton Parish, where the trail leads directly to the Fairmont Southampton. The resort has a picture-postcard beach with shores of the pink sand for which Bermuda is famous.

The next day, we trek through the remaining part of the Southampton portion, which takes us past Franks Bay where we have a clear view of stately old Bermudian homes. Hiking through Sandy’s Parish, we pass prime farmland. At last we arrive at Somerset Bridge, built in the 17th century and said to be the smallest drawbridge in the world. We cross it and soon see Scaur Hill, a 19th-century fort built by the British to defend the Royal Naval Dockyard against the Americans. From Scaur Hill, it’s just a short hike to Somerset Village where the railway trail ends.

Hiking the trail has given me a spectacular view of Bermuda – and it’s made me feel like I’ve earned some pampering.

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Irish walks on Irish rocks
by Bonnie Baker Cowan

For pure air, unique flora and fascinating history, the Burren in southwestern Ireland provides hikers and naturalists with a breathtaking experience. Derived from the word bhoireann, which means “rocky place,” the Burren stretches for more than 400 square miles of the western coast of County Clare.

This visual paradise is a unique place to hike with its dramatic contrast of landscapes, from bone-white limestone mountains and rocky cliffs overhanging the Atlantic Ocean to rolling sandhills and valleys of pastureland where streams emerge from subterranean caves.

Yet in other places, such as the area just north of the dizzying 200-metre high cliffs of Moher, the Burren is a flat floor of fissured limestone with an unlimited vista with the Aran Islands visible in the west. Mary Angela Keane, our guide and a professor of historical geology, points out the three islands and explains Irish weather at the same time: “If you can see the Aran Islands, it’s going to rain. If you can’t see them, it  is raining.”

Sitting on an ancient seabed that 350 million years ago was a very warm and slimy sea, the Burren enjoys unusually warm temperatures even today. When the ice age rolled through County Clare 10,000 years ago, the ice melted upon contact with the warm air and washed away the little soil there was, leaving vast expanses of carboniferous limestone exposed. The limestone holds the heat it absorbs in spring and summer, and farmers can actually send their cattle to the grassy hilltops in late November to graze for the winter.

Mixture of flora delights
Rain does not drain easily from this flat expanse but lies in shallow caves, which eventually break down into softer rock and form pockets of soil. It’s in these pockets that two distinct kinds of plants take root and live in unusual harmony. Mediterranean varieties, such as Maidenhead fern and Mediterranean orchids, bloom compatibly with Arctic varieties of mountain avens and gentian whose seeds came with the ice age. In spring, the Burren is a blaze of colour with heather, blackthorn and creeping thyme. Added to this bouquet are several types of lichens, such as Lugworth and Parmeliella.

However, the best place to start your hike, once you’ve dangled your feet over the Cliffs of Moher, is at Gus O’Connor’s pub in Doolin, where much of Ireland’s traditional music has its beginning. S

After a pint and a few tales, tie up your walking boots and head out across the Burren to Ballyvaughan on the southern coast of Galway Bay (about 25 kilometres). Take a few deep breaths of the rarified air. It’s an experience to treasure.

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Next page: A naturalist’s paradise

A naturalist’s paradise in Ontario
by James Pasternak

For the hiking connoisseur, Pinery Provincial Park, nestled on the shores of Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario, offers a variety of 10 low-level trekking options. Better still, the park – located on Hwy. 21 about 70 kilometres northwest of London, Ont. – is a naturalist’s paradise containing the world’s largest intact oak savannah ecosystem. An oak savannah ecosystem is a unique area of tall grass prairie and oak woodland providing the perfect balance of sun and shade to allow species of both ecosytems to thrive.

The rare habitat supports 29 species of mammals, 757 species of plants and 325 species of birds. Visitors can watch the magnificent migration of thousands of tundra swans in March or view warblers passing through in May and June. Hikers should be on the lookout for southern flying squirrels, eastern hognose snakes and five-lined skinks (lizards that were considered endangered until recently) as well as the occasional red squirrel, chipmunk, raccoon, beaver, coyote and white-tailed deer.

Looking for vultures
Lookout Trail, one of the shortest (one kilometre) and easiest hikes at the Pinery, winds its way to the top of the largest sand dune in the park. Take a pair of binoculars to enjoy the spectacular view of the vast wetland called the Thedford Bog. It’s also a prime trail for spotting a soaring turkey vulture.

The 2.5-kilometre Heritage Trail and the 2.3-kilometre Cedar Trail take hikers through the oak savannah habitat. Both trails are considered easy, and the Cedar Trail is wheelchair accessible. More seasoned hikers may want to try the two-kilometre Nipissing Trail with its steep grades and wooden stairs. A bench at the top of one incline offers a handy respite for butterfly watching, but stay clear of the nearby poison ivy. Nipissing Trail leads visitors onto the Pinery’s oldest and largest sand dune ridge, affording a view of most of the park, Lake Huron and adjacent farmland.  

Another great option is a stroll along the Pinery’s 10 kilometres of Lake Huron shoreline with its wide sandy beaches cloistered by rising dunes.

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A poetic tour in Switzerland
by Anna Hobbs

“Switzerland is the world’s capital of civilized hiking,” someone once told me.  I found it was true on a recent visit to a  country honeycombed not only with hiking trails but with walking paths through pristine woods, across green pastures and into lush vineyards.

In the southwest corner of Switzerland, Lake Geneva is lined with palm trees and crowned by terraced vineyards with a backdrop of the snow-capped Alps. Little wonder the beauty and tranquility of this magical corner of the world have been magnets to countless great poets, authors and artists.

Poets’ Ramble on the shores of Lake Geneva is two paths that loop joining the towns of Vevey and Montreux. 33 sign-posted benches invite visitors to sit awhile. Each bench is equipped with a taped message. Press a button for the language of your choice as you gaze out over the landscape and listen to the words this particular scenery inspired in a great author or poet.

It’s here that Victor Hugo explored the mysteries of the church of Saint Martin and where Byron wrote his stirring hymn to liberty, The Prisoner of Chillon.  Other notables to the area include Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hans Christian Andersen, Leo Tolstoy and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The seven-kilometre walk around Vevey takes at least two hours to complete. For the 10-kilometre Montreux portion, allow three to four hours..

To experience the beauty of this walk is to understand what the English writer Edward Lear wrote in 1861. “Vevey…is Paradise, and I don’t see how the people there…can have the impudence to suppose that they can go to Heaven after death.”

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Next page: Going the Gaelic route

Going the Gaelic route in Cape Breton
by Shelley Cameron-McCarron

Two years after quitting smoking, my mom’s a walking dynamo who has gone from not being able to walk five minutes to a dedicated distancer who is now trekking Beinn Alasdair’s Bhain (Fair Alistair’s Mountain, to translate the Gaelic) in western Cape Breton.

At 55, my mom kicked her nicotine habit after smoking for far too long and began walking initially to prevent weight gain. It soon turned into a passion.  She now walks four kilometres five times a week, enjoying the fresh air and nature of the trails near her home.

Beinn Alasdair’s Bhain is a three-kilometre trek with a scenic lookout along the way. Hikers from around the globe have signed the trail register. Gaelic and English names on wooden signs mark the way. A map details the 15 trails the Cape Mabou Trail Club maintains on more than 20 square kilometres of coastal wilderness.

We begin our climb from the Coal Mine Road, which leads into an evergreen forest, crossing several dry brook beds. The trail narrows – with room for one hiker – and skirts the mountain’s edge, giving gorgeous glimpses of the sea far below.

Trails range from easy to difficult, based on steepness and footing. Some offer different habitat, and all are as natural as possible. Some trails even follow old cart tracks that connected pioneer settlements. Gaelic-speaking immigrants from Scotland settled this beautiful region of plunging cliffs, isolated beaches, rising mountains, glens, meadows and hardwood forests, and their family names are still associated with the trails today.

Our path leads to a lookout in a meadow where you can sit and enjoy the panoramic view. “I’m quite proud that I made it,” my mom says. And so am I.

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Up the Main in Montreal
by Anne Joyce

To visit Montreal without a meander up the Main — as locals fondly refer to boulevard Saint-Laurent — is to commit a mortal travel sin.

Begin your jaunt from the Old Port, or Vieux Port, strolling along the shore of the St. Lawrence River, marvelling at architecture so old world it will make you forget which continent you’re on. From Old Montreal, make your way north on Saint-Laurent to rue de la Gauchitière and Montreal’s bustling Chinatown. For a quick culinary diversion or cup of fragrant tea, turn left onto a pedestrian walkway that brings you into the heart of the Chinese district. This oriental enclave offers an array of gift shops and dim sum restaurants.

Continue up the Main to busy rue Sainte-Catherine, the city’s popular commercial artery, and further still to the Cabaret Music Hall, a venue showcasing musical acts from around the world.

Catering to Montreal’s well-heeled
Past Sherbrooke is a cluster of restaurants, such as Mediterraneo and Bueno Notte, which cater to Montreal’s well-heeled as well as celebrities and business folk. Come here in the evening and you’ll have to squeeze past valet-parked Ferraris and Lamborghinis to enjoy superb — albeit pricey — cuisine and an electric atmosphere. In this same strip, the lavish Ex-Centris multimedia complex plays host to numerous film festivals and media events. Continue north to rue Prince Arthur, a unique pedestrian-only avenue enlivened by street performers and palm readers. During warmer months, restaurant patrons can take it all in from patio tables that spill out on the street. Follow Prince Arthur to Carré St-Louis, a square fringed by opulent, vividly painted 19th-century homes that reign over a lush parkette and central fountain.

Further up St-Laurent, there are quirky fashion boutiques, as well as ethnic retaurants that lend proof to the city’s thriving cultural mosaic. However, the area’s trendy transformation has not erased its more modest past, which is evident in original store signs and unchanged storefronts.

Finally, a good reason many tourists and Montrealers make the trek: Schwartz’s deli, an urban landmark and home to the best smoked-meat sandwich in… the world, perhaps? Brave the lineup to savour one of their mouthwatering concoctions, washed down as they have been for years by a cherry cola. Then top off your meal with a scoop of homemade glace at Ripples, directly across the street. Head next door to S.W. Whelch, an excellent second-hand bookshop ideal for an after-dinner peruse.

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Next page: Canal hopping in Amsterdam

Canal Hopping in Amsterdam
by J. David Cowan

The best way to experience Amsterdam, as with most European cities, is on foot. With more than 200 canals and 1,200 bridges, it’s a city  begging to be savoured at a slower pace.

One of the most enjoyable strolls, featuring wonderful shops, restaurants, museums, theatres and parks, begins on Leidsestraat — easy to find because of its popularity. Ask any one of the friendly residents — most of whom speak at least three languages, including fluent English — and they’ll gladly point you in the right direction.

Follow the street through the theatre district and across five 17th-century canals until you reach Stadhouders-Kade. Turn left at this crossroad, following a gently flowing river that leads toward the Rijksmuseum. The museum is a grandiose building of stunning architecture and the home of some of the most memorable works of Dutch artists, including Rembrandt and Van Gogh. At the centre of the museum is an arched walkway that leads you through into the Museum-Plein, a large open area that features a serene reflective pool.

From here follow Potterstraat street to Van Baerlestraat. Turn right on Van Baerlestraat and continue for a few blocks until you come to the entrance of Vondelpark — a remarkable stretch of parkland featuring small lakes, rivers, cafés, a zoo and an outdoor theatre. Vondelpark’s peaceful setting should be the beginning and end to any summer day in Amsterdam. Its natural beauty and unparalleled sense  of community encompass what is unique about the city itself, and it’s best enjoyed on foot.

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A spiritual journey in Vancouver
by Michele Peterson

On a recent trip to Vancouver, my friend asked if I’d like to join her on her Saturday morning errands: a quick stop at the chiropractor, some shopping at Granville Island and a visit to a labyrinth.

Wait a minute, I thought. An image of Theseus venturing into the deadly ancient maze on Crete to battle the Minotaur came to mind. But somehow I was not completely surprised. My friend, a poet and seeker sent regular e-mails describing her experiences in the ethereal.

That morning our destination was St. Paul’s Anglican Church at the corner of Jervis and Pendell streets. Once inside, we made our way down a flight of steep stairs to a large wooden floor below. My friend moved silently, removing her shoes (a sign of respect) and going directly to a spot on the floor. Barefoot, she reverently began following the labyrinth’s pattern with her steps.

At first glance, the labyrinth appeared unimpressive, consisting simply of a 42-foot (13 metre) diameter pattern painted on the floor. No walls, no obvious mystery. People walked slowly along its path or sat, resting, at certain points. I idly picked up a brochure and was surprised to read that more than 4,500 people come each year to walk this labyrinth.

Intrigued, I took my place at the labyrinth’s opening and tentatively began to walk the path. My original plan had been to find the centre, then beat a hasty retreat. The brochure informed me, however, that a true labyrinth is not a maze. There are no tricks or dead ends. Even when walls are present and you can’t see your destination, visitors who stay on the path will reach the centre and be led back out.

It struck me that for many for whom fate, health and circumstance would deny a pilgrimage to faraway destinations, the Vancouver labyrinth provides a powerful opportunity for meditation and reflection close to home. Indeed, I would find out later that this labyrinth is an exact replica of the ancient meditational device laid in the stone floor of the medieval Chartres Cathedral in France.

Too soon, it seemed, I rounded the final turn and found myself at the exit.

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Next page: All that glitters in Bangkok is gold

All that glitters in Bangkok is gold
by Bonnie Alexander

In a bewildering metropolis of more than eight million people and one million cars, with no real city centre, the historical district of Bangkok is an oasis of calm and rich culture. This spiritual pocket of gilded spires and glittering temples (400 of them) banks the Chao Phraya River and offers visitors not only a sample of a rich and storied past but also of current daily life in the markets and streets of this fascinating city.

A logical starting point for a walk is at the National Museum north of the Grand Palace. As one of Asia’s largest and finest museums, its splendid buildings house artifacts from the Neolithic Age to the present Chakri dynasty. The National Theatre is next door and special exhibitions of classic Thai dancing are held on the last Friday of the month.

The Grand Palace is one of the most impressive sites in the world gracing 218,000 square meters with its magnificent architecture and fairy-tale history. Eight of the Chakri kings are buried in the Chakri Maha Prasat, a glittering building completed by Rama V in 1882. The Dusit Maha Prasat with its nine-tiered roof supported by mythical birds and dragon-headed serpents is part of the complex and of course, the most spectacular is the temple Wat Phra Kaeo, elevated on a marble terrace and surrounded by glass-encrusted golden temple dancers and elephants.  This is the residence of the 1500-year old Emerald Buddha, carved from a solid block of green jade, and Thailand’s most sacred image.

Just beyond the Grand Palace is Wat Po on Maharat Road, the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok featuring a gigantic reclining Buddha covered entirely in gold leaf. One of the highlights of Wat Po, considered the country’s first university by early kings, is the massage school at the western end where you can have a 30-minute massage for about $4 — a welcome reprieve after a long day of walking.

Plan to walk in the Wat Po area at dusk and enjoy a breathtaking view across the river of the sun setting behind the spectacular Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) which glitters with millions of pieces of porcelain arranged in the shape of flowers.

Then poke around Chinatown for incredible shopping bargains. For a more civilized ending to a full day in Bangkok, hail down a tuk tuk (a small open-air truck that serves as a taxi) and check out the spa at the Sukhotai hotel on South Sathorn Road. Or opt for dinner and a massage at the Regent Bangkok on Ratchadamri Rd. Both hotels have excellent restaurants and memorable spa experiences.

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San Antonio Riverwalk
by June Yee

The first thing I notice as we take the short flight of stairs down to the Riverwalk is a palpable change in energy evident in the background noises. Almost instantly, the big-city sounds of downtown San Antonio, Texas, are replaced by restful sounds of music, idle chatter and easy laughter. Located 20 feet (6 metres) below street level with several entrance points from the downtown area, the Riverwalk — or Paseo del Rio — is a two-and-a-half mile (4-km) path running along both sides of the looping canal that extends from the main channel of the San Antonio River.

We enter at a staircase just outside the sparkling 1,000-room Marriott Hotel in the heart of the city’s business district. A misty rain makes the towering oaks, cypress and willow trees, as well as the shrubs and vines in the botanical gardens reminiscent of a rainforest—there are even a number of beautiful waterfalls. The cobblestone and flagstone walkways are lined with shops.

The development of San Antonio’s Riverwalk offers plenty of detailed snapshots of the city’s history. Early in the 20th century, concerns about flooding — a major flood in 1921 killed about 50 people — led to calls to prevent future disasters by converting the river to a sewer. Luckily, opposition by conservation-minded citizens overcame this proposal. Between 1939 and 1941, initial development saw most of the walkways by the river as well as the bridges and staircases to the streets above designed and built.

Riverwalk remained primarily a park for many years until the business community got involved. Preparations for HemisFair 1968, the world’s fair in San Antonio helped the city capitalize on the commercial possibilities.

La Villita, the original settlement of San Antonio, which backs on to the Riverwalk from a downtown street, has been restored and transformed into craft shops and restaurants but retains the feel of the old village: narrow streets, shaded patios and authentic adobe houses. Away from the crowded, touristy sections, the quieter aspect of the Riverwalk is found in peaceful tree-lined walks. Even better, recent improvements include making the Riverwalk more accessible to people with physical disabilities, adding more wheelchair ramps and elevators from street level. 

Festivals are a big part of life on the Riverwalk—there’s even a Mud Festival and parade, which take place in January when the canal is drained for cleaning.

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