Dinner on our last night on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

DAY ELEVEN — 1106 steps.

Steep stone steps that never seem to end. We’re hiking above Positano in the Lattari Mountains — the trail is less than three miles but the elevation is steep and it’s the toughest hike we’ve attempted on the fifth day of this Backroads hiking trip along the Amalfi Coast (www.backroads.com).

If you are considering a Backroads trip (http://www.backroads.com) with your young adult — and there are more than 1,000 to choose from around the world — mention code Y009 when reserving and adult children (ages 17-25) sharing a room with an adult will enjoy a 10 percent savings. Valid on new bookings made between June 15-July 31, 2008 and good for trips in 2009. http://www.backroads.com.

To the Amalfi Coast past the ghostly volcano on Stromboli

This trip, like any other, though, is about more than hiking and sightseeing, though the Amalfi Coast lives up its reputation for quant towns, good food and spectacular scenery. For me, it’s a chance to spend some time with my daughter Reggie, who just graduated from college, before she heads off for a job 3000 miles away. Deborah and Emily Douglas are celebrating too — Emily’s graduate degree. For Jon Knoblock, a globetrotting Exxon manager, it was a way to spend time taking pictures — his hobby — and get some much-needed exercise. “I wouldn’t do this on my own,” he said.

For Chicagoans Jim and Brigid McCormick, it is the first vacation with Jim’s two grown kids in four years and a celebration of his upcoming retirement and half-time move to Ireland. And for Lori Gilbert, a Philadelphia physician, it is a gift to herself — time away from a high-stress job to think about her life and her priorities.” I had forgotten how much I love to hike,” she said. ”I didn’t expect the trip to be so inspirational.”

“Every time I do something like this, it makes me want to hike more,” agrees Stephanie Smith, a doctor from Knoxville, TN.

“It’s been more fun than I expected,” said Beth McCormick, traveling with her father and step mom. Her favorite parts: All of the local guides who shared their passion for their region — in towns and in the mountains.

Today, some in the group opt not to hike but to poke around the utterly charming seaside town of Positano with its galleries, cafes, shops and beach, albeit rocky ones. The entire place looks like it should be in a postcard.
The rest of us start at the trailhead of Montepertuso, about a 40 minute ride on crazy winding Italian roads — it seems there’s room for just one lane of traffic so sometimes one car has to back up so another can get through.
We hike up and up and up, past beautiful yellow, red and white wildflowers, juniper trees and Cyprus trees that are 30 feet tall.

Today I count the stone steps as we go — I want to see if we will go more than 1-000 steps before lunch and we go farther than that. But even though this hike is the steepest all week, it doesn’t seem that hard. After four days, maybe I’m getting used to the stone steps. Mostly I’m relieved my bad knee isn’t bothering me.

We stop for lunch in the town of Santa Maria del Castello at the family-run restaurant Zi’Peppe. Except for a couple of elderly men, we’re the only ones in the place. On Sundays, it’s packed, our guides tell us. It’s a good thing we hiked so hard this morning — because lunch is a feast — rice salad and sautéed zucchini and eggplant, green salad and eggplant parmesan, salami and prosciutto, juicy melon and potato puffs — local caciotto cheese, lots of wine and the best canolli I’ve ever eaten.

Good thing we had a hike back down to Positano. I figure I worked off the cannoli — or at least half of it.

We agree none of us would ever be able to find such special little restaurants or hotels on our own, much less the hiking trails. It’s also a much more fun way of seeing the region than just breezing in on a bus and walking around the town center for an hour or two. As pretty as these towns are, they do start to seem the same with ceramics, coral jewelry, linen clothes displayed everywhere.

Another plus — meeting people who have completely different lives in different places. After all, we’re from the Northeast and the Southwest, Australia, France, Ireland, Illinois and Tennessee.

We realize how hard our guides have worked to make this week work. “The idea is to make the trip look effortless, that’s takes a lot of work behind the scenes,” Arielle Moreau says. It’s clear they’ve done their homework. “The point is you don’t have the stress of traveling yourself,” she says. Your bags magically appear at your next hotel — in your room — when you arrive after hiking all day.

“We spend a lot of time in the region building relationships with local people,” our other leader, Nate Rayman, explains “It helps to have eyes and ears in the field.” But it takes months and years to set up these contacts.”
Arielle notes that these trips seem especially popular with parents and grown kids. “It seems I have a mother-daughter on every trip,” she says.

We assemble on the hotel terrace for our farewell banquet and a slide show our leaders have prepared for us-surprise — they present each of us with one — set to Italian Music.

“I’d give the hiking a 12,” says Stephanie Smith, the only disappointment — not enough tiramisu and the wines could have been better. This region, unfortunately, is not known for their wines

“The hiking was a little harder than I thought but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The best part was all the flexibility, added Jon Knoblock.

“First class trip,” adds Andrew Davies, the grandfather from Sydney and often my hiking partner. “They gave us a chance to meet local people and eat local food than we ever could have otherwise.”

Everyone had a favorite hike and a favorite meal — the pasta with alfredo sauce and porcini mushrooms in Positano; the pasta at the home where we were invited in Amalfi; the deserts followed by complimentary limoncello everywhere.

I especially loved not being in charge for a change. “We just did what we were told,” joked Andrew, like being in the army.”

“All the little things were taken care of — the meals, the hikes, the luggage. Even if you went to Italy and planned perfectly, you could never have found these places and these guides,” said Emily Douglas.

She added that while she and her mom are close, she was glad for the other people in the group. “Even if you are traveling with your best friend you can get on each other’s nerves,” she said. “It helps to have other people around nd it was fun to have other people my age. It took a lot of the pressure off not to have to be together 24/7.”

Her mom agreed. “Busy parents don’t have to plan every detail. It makes it so easy — you sign up, you give them your credit card and you show up. It’s hard to beat that. ”

We toasted our leaders, ourselves and where we hope to go next.