Hiking is a hot topic these days with many high-profile celebs hitting the hills to de-stress. There are plenty of operators out there offering self-guided or group walking holidays, based on pre-booked accommodation with luggage transportation between hotels. For something different though, I tried out an escorted tour with a small group specialist operator, Hedonistic Hiking who, as the name might imply, aim to take hiking to a different level.
As you might imagine, hedonism – ‘the pursuit of pleasure’ – does not of course come cheap. The price may well initially raise an eyebrow but what makes this different is the all-inclusive nature of the holiday. From the moment the group meets, literally everything is included: the guided hiking of course, plus boutique hotel accommodation, transport, all meals (and not just any old meal, but more of that later), fine wines, all entrance fees, wine tastings, even coffee stops, the occasional ice-cream and protein snacks out on the hikes.
Each group numbers no more than 16, transported in two minibuses, and is personally guided by either one or both of the co-owners, an Anglo/Australian couple, Jackie and Mick Parsons. Splitting their time between Australia in the winter and Italy in the summer, Jackie and Mick both come from an activity holiday background and decided to launch their own venture in 2007. They’ve not looked back since and, even though their tours are now a sell-out early every year, admirably they have no ambitions to scale up – for them, it’s all about sharing their passion for Italy and the opportunities it gives for guided, gourmet hiking.
I joined one of Jackie’s groups on a ‘Jewels of Piedmont’ tour. This was one of the first itineraries they came up with when they started and remains one of the most popular. Based in two delightful boutique hotels, the first part of the week is based in Saluzzo for easy access to the foothills of the Alps and on day 4 (our day off walking) we transferred to the hilltop town of La Morra, from where we could survey the surrounding Langhe Valley where we were to hike through vineyards and hazelnut groves. The tours are deliberately labelled hiking rather than walking. This particular tour was grade 2 (they go up to grade 5) and most days were relatively easy 8-12km routes, but it did also include a more challenging day hiking in the foothills of Monviso. It’s not the distance but the elevation that creates the challenge (especially for a hill-allergic hiker like myself). That said though, our group took it on with gusto and, with Jackie’s support and encouragement, not only conquered it but got an enormous sense of satisfaction from doing so. She told us afterwards that particular day’s hike was more a level 4 – the difference on a grade 4 tour though being you would be taking on the elevation challenge every day!
One of the joys of hiking is that it gives you plenty of time to think – and if you are need of thought inspiration, Hedonistic have that covered too. All of the hikes were punctuated with stops to places of interest along the way. The region is awash with churches and castles with amazing frescoes, abbeys and small museums – Jackie provides all the necessary the context and historical background. It could be overload were it not for her light touch and ability to assess the group mood (she responded admirably to any rebellious cries of ‘not another church!’).
People who go on these tours are pretty serious walkers, but they are perhaps even more serious gastronomes. In order to enjoy the holiday to the full you really need to love both in equal measure and have an appreciation not just for food and wine, but also its provenance and quality.
Jackie and Mick research and plan all the walking routes themselves but they also do the same with the boutique hotels that they use, the restaurants and wineries. Everything is organised down to the smallest detail. For our restaurant meals in the evenings, we are always given a set menu – but it was a menu that had been personally selected by the team, ensuring not only the opportunity to try the wide variety of local speciality ingredients and dishes but also to provide balance and avoid repetition. The same went for the paired wines we were served with each course. Whether we were eating in a local Osteria, a mountain refuge or Michelin Star restaurants, the quality of the food, wines, service and welcome throughout were simply outstanding.
Helping out on every tour there is also a ‘culinary host’ – on our tour it was the lovely Cinzia, a native Piedmontese (now living in the UK and running a Italian cheese shop in Heathfield, East Sussex). She takes time out every year to join the Piedmont tour and brings her encyclopaedic knowledge of the region’s food and wine with her. At every meal, Cinzia would give us a detailed explanation of what we were about to eat… and drink.
But Cinzia’s real moment of glory came at lunchtimes as preparer of the celebrated Hedonistic Hiking picnics. No soggy sandwiches for us, no sirree. I am not sure there can be anything nicer after a morning’s hot hike than to be greeted by the sight of a splendid picnic table set up in a shady spot, heaving with delicious-looking cured meats, cheeses, breads and salads prepared from the best ingredients at the morning’s market or freshly picked from the hotel’s own veggie garden. Sweet treats, tarts and fruit would follow, and all washed down with a choice of wines, beers and soft drinks. Hell, they even provided us with picnic stools and mats to sit on. The attention to detail was really quite staggering.
Hiking, chatting, sightseeing, dining and drinking together over the course of the week our eclectic little group – a mix of Australians, Americans and Brits ranging in age from 40 to 78 – all got to know each other and happily, all gelled. It took a few days for everyone to settle in but, in tune with the pace of the hiking, gradually the different life experiences, trials and tribulations, personalities and comedic traits emerged. It was only 7 days but, by the end, there was a true sense of camaraderie. At our final night dinner (aptly, in a Michelin star restaurant in a magnificent castle) speeches were made, emotions laid bare, enduring friendships promised and even some tears shed. Maybe it was the hiking, maybe it was the hedonism – either way this particular ‘pursuit of pleasure’ was an absolute joy.
Cathy was a guest of Hedonistic Hiking on their Jewels of Piedmont tour, June 2018. Next available date is 23-30 October 2019, priced at 2,895 Euros pp (excluding flights to Turin). For details of this and other itineraries, visit www.hedonistichiking.com