My first real moment of pure slow travel occurred in Bhutan while relaxing in a wooden hot tub awaiting a hot-stone massage. That day, I had hiked to Tiger's Nest Monastery, the fantastical Buddhist temple clinging to the edge of a mountain cliff overlooking the Paro Valley.
I was overwhelmed by the experience, a fusion of feelings that touched on cultural enlightenment and spiritual awakening and now – while sitting in warm water heated by hot rocks from a mountain stream – mental rejuvenation.
I didn't know it then but I was tapping into slow travel, a nexus of mind, body, spirit and an overwhelming sense of fulfillment inspired by the world beyond my own. Travel has always offered a window of time, be it a weekend, a month or a year-long sabbatical, during which we escape the routines and jadedness of the everyday.
Escaping to a beach holiday, a road-trip, or even a city sojourn, acts as a restorative tonic, a time to reset, so that we can return to the daily grind refreshed and energised.
Now, more than ever, this urge to reset – I mean, to truly reset – is part of the modern zeitgeist. Our connectedness to the digital world, as illuminating as it is, underscores a driving need for more downtime, more "me-time", more time to connect to something other than our devices and our day-to-day responsibilities.
This deep yearning is seen in contemporary lifestyle. People are overhauling their lives, routines and diets and adopting trends such as wellness, mindfulness, holistic health, fitness, sustainability and even happiness.
Slow travel is in sync with these impulses and desires. This pioneering movement embraces more immersive, curious, authentic and interactive travel experiences. It is the antithesis of overcrowded tourist hot spots and tired checklists. Rather, it emerges from our longing to seek connection with ourselves and our lives in more intense and meaningful ways.
A hot tub in Bhutan is undoubtedly a perfect starting point to pick up a slow travel habit, but the experiences can be many and varied, from enrolling in a yoga class or craft workshop at a wellness retreat, to signing off on an Arctic expedition. Here are more inspiring examples.
This is an edited extract from Slow Travel by Penny Watson published by Hardie Grant Travel. Available in bookshops (RRP $50).
SLOW TRIPS BY TRAIN
Train travel fits neatly with slow travel. There's someone up the front driving and navigating – so no getting lost, no peak-hour traffic or trying to find a carpark. This leaves plenty of time to sit back, relax, eat, drink and read. Each window frame is likely to be a new view, an ice-capped mountain as you come around a bend, a field of wildflowers, the striped greenery of wine country or a wave-washed beach.
GLACIER EXPRESS, SWITZERLAND
In 1930, Switzerland's Glacier Express was still a steam-operated train – it earned a reputation for being the world's slowest express train (and it wasn't a compliment). In the early 1940s the route converted to electricity, reducing travel time from 11 to eight hours – now considered lovingly slow. The Express takes a 291-kilometre snow-capped, ice-laden scenic journey across the magnificent Swiss Alps, between the ski resorts of St Moritz and Zermatt. Through roof-high panoramic windows, passengers glimpse the 2000-metre Bies Glacier, the 2033-metre Oberalp Pass – the highest point of the journey – and, coming in and out of view, the otherworldly Matterhorn. See myswitzerland.com
EASTERN AND ORIENTAL EXPRESS, THAILAND AND SINGAPORE
The E&O Express is one of the world's most exclusive trains, a bucket-lister steeped in that fabled oriental hospitality. The two-night Bangkok-Singapore route takes in the lush tropical and rural landscape of Malaysia with a side trip to the River Kwai, famed for its World War II Burma Railway history. The longer six-night journey stops at Cameron Highlands, the lush tea-plantation retreat, and gorgeous Penang, with its multi-ethnic old town and colonial architecture. The dining car is a white-tablecloth affair with clinking glassware and low-lit table lamps. In the saloon car, choose a book from the reading room or indulge in a 40-minute foot massage. Mind you don't miss too much of that palm-studded rural scenery. See belmond.com
SLOW WAYS TO WELLNESS
While travel health and wellbeing have traditionally been confined to often-exclusive retreats, nowadays wellness experiences are a mainstay of most resort and hotel offerings. Guests can rise early for a poolside yoga class, choose from healthy options on menus and indulge in a holistic spa treatment. Along with the now-common yoga retreat, wellness adventures – trips specifically mapped out with wellness-focused itineraries – are travel's next big thing.
ARO HA, NEW ZEALAND
In the rarefied air of New Zealand's Southern Alps, near Queenstown, Aro Ha is all about B.R.E.A.T.H: being, relating, eating, activity, toxicity, healing. At this intensive wellness retreat, these elements are addressed through a fusion of Zen-styled eco-accommodation, permaculture practices and a program that encourages spiritual rejuvenation. The six-day itinerary includes vegetarian cuisine, healing bodywork and daily mindfulness practice combined with hikes into the World Heritage–listed mountainous surrounds, vinyasa yoga sessions and time set aside for journal writing. The end result is a return to the day-to-day world with a still mind and an energised body. See aro-ha.com
EUPHORIA RETREAT, GREECE
Mount Taygetos, at 2407 metres, is the highest mountain in the Greek Peloponnese. Euphoria Retreat is built into its rocky mountainside. The four-storey wellness haven's beautiful rock walls and terracotta rooftops are camouflaged by native fir and pine trees. Euphoria is open for day visits, but the seven-day signature Emotional and Physical Transformation is the standout offering. Activities and workshops include wellness lectures, nutrition classes, meditation, yoga, qi gong and Pilates. There's a dreamy pool and a deck overlooking citrus groves, olive trees and the city of Sparta. Beyond it, is town of Mystras, a World Heritage site with Byzantine churches, palaces and fortresses. See euphoriaretreat.com
SLOW JOURNEYS ON FOOT
Walks, hikes and treks in all their different forms are a slow experience you can rely on the world over, be it on a blistering month-long cross-country odyssey or an afternoon escapade up a nearby hill. It's possibly the purest form of slow travel because you're right in the heart of the action, planting one foot after the other while absorbing the minutiae and detail in every footfall. When employing two feet and a heartbeat you're breathing, you're listening, you're tuning into the world around you – like mindfulness on legs.
BANFF HIKE ADVENTURE, ALBERTA, CANADA
Banff National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is a World Heritage site and Canada's oldest national park – Canucks have been singing its praises since 1885. This six-day Austin Adventures hiking expedition puts the sure-footed on top of the world passing white-tipped jagged mountains, glistening waterfalls and turquoise glacial lakes. Local residents such as grizzly bears, elk and bighorn sheep are part of the scenery. There's a full-day hike over famed Sentinel Pass, plus a day hiking the Athabasca glacier with crampons strapped on. For relaxation, float into the clouds on a gondola-lift ride to Sunshine Meadows, a beautiful wildflower-strewn alpine oasis. See austinadventures.com
THE ROMAN ROAD TO SANTA MARIA MONASTERY, PORTUGAL
In the north-western corner of Portugal amid vine-lined hills and iridescent green valleys, rural communities live in rustic villages and work in the surrounding fields. The region's paved tracks and footpaths are the ideal terrain for walkers to tap into centuries-old customs and rituals. On Foot Holiday's seven-night self-guided trip, beginning in Soajo and ending in Santa Maria do Bouro, is an easy to moderate zigzag walk southward. Charming scenery includes the well-preserved lakeside Castle of Lindoso, the wild Serra Amarela, and from Braga to Astorga the old Roman road complete with Roman mileposts. See onfootholidays.co.uk
SLOW PURSUITS IN FAR-FLUNG PLACES
The faint-hearted need not apply. Those wanting to live on the edge or get lost in transformation often achieve their quest by pushing their minds, bodies and boundaries to the outer limits where there is no such thing as a comfort zone. Choosing to do it away from the built-up environment in extreme locations provides a digital detox, an off-grid experience, an immersion with locals and a place in the wild, natural world where few have gone before. The concept of danger comes into play here, too. While your heart might be beating at a million miles a minute, rest assured that your mind will need to be ever-present.
UNION GLACIER CAMP, ANTARCTICA
Modern-day adventurers follow in the footsteps of 18th-century Antarctic explorers. Union Glacier Camp, run by Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, is a camp-out for travellers mettle-testing Antarctica's spectacular and remote Ellsworth Mountains. It's only accessible by air, so travellers touch down on the naturally occurring blue-ice runway atop Union Glacier. The main camp pops-up for Antarctic summer (November-January) housing up to 70 guests in dual-occupancy clam tents or visitors can upsize to the exclusive Three Glaciers Camp, a retreat limited to just eight sleeping suites with a maximum of 16 guests. Guests at both camps (be they skiers, climbers or snowmobilers) can immerse themselves in a frigid terrain of glaciers and frozen sea. See antarctic-logistics.com
REINDEER MIGRATION, ARCTIC CIRCLE, RUSSIA
Arctic Circle, Russia. Photo: iStock
Siberia's Yamal Peninsula, in the Arctic Circle, roughly 2000 kilometres north-east of Moscow, is the home of the self-reliant Nenets, indigenous nomads who live in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Brave and curious travellers will step into this frozen land "at the edge of human endurance" to join Secret Compass on the Nenets' annual 24-hour reindeer migration across the Arctic tundra. The tours are timed with one of two yearly festivals that sees the Nenets migrating their 3500-strong herd of reindeer 60 kilometres across the frozen Gulf of Ob, on the Arctic Ocean. Freezing, unforgiving and completely unforgettable. See secretcompass.com
SLOW SAILINGS BY SHIP
Journeys on water come in diverse locations, on vastly different vessels, powered variously by paddle, wind and diesel, but the experiences share similarities that tap into slow travel. Rivers, tributaries and oceans create pathways that expose the traveller to exotic scenery, native creatures, different smells and sounds. The tiptoe of a paddle dipping into a skin of water; the tinkering of sails against a mast; the lapping of water against hull. Sit back on a boat and let the captain, the current or the wind carry you forward.
KIMBERLEY QUEST II, AUSTRALIA
Three decks high, with just nine cabins, the Kimberley Quest II is a luxury vessel custom-built for exploring Western Australia's wild and remote Kimberley. The Southern Quest itinerary begins with a small plane ride from Broome to the palm-spiked Mitchell Plateau, from where it's a chopper ride to the boat berthed in the Hunter River. The eight-day journey back to Broome is Attenborough-esque in its appeal with days spent exploring beaches, fishing, birdwatching, croc-spotting, hiking to freshwater swimming holes and admiring Indigenous rock-art caves where time stands still. See kimberleyquest.com.au
STEAM SHIP SUDAN, EGYPT
The date palms, the flat-roofed desert villas, the felucca sails – a boat trip down Egypt's Nile is a dreamily slow eye on a landscape that has hardly changed in centuries. Steam Ship Sudan is an authentic 19th-century steamer that plies the waters of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. Once the writing retreat for murder-mystery author Agatha Christie, the ship evokes the romance and nostalgia of luxury travel. Original Travel's three- and four-night itineraries (part of a 10-day Taste of the Nile trip) include embarkations at the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamen was buried and the Temple of Edfu, one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. See originaltravel.co.uk
SLOW FREE-WHEELIING JOURNEYS
A road trip is an archetypal adventure, a bitumen right of way through new terrain where it's possible to come out the other side having learned a little more about yourself. Roads have traditionally been the domain of motorised wheels, but increasingly cyclists are venturing on backroads to rural and regional places where culture, history, people and landscape are accessible. Take a car for the camaraderie of a cabin, the flow of conversation, shared driving and somewhere to store the luggage. Jump on a bike to enjoy the benefit of exercise, the sun on one's face and that free-wheeling feeling.
A BURMESE JOURNEY, MYANMAR
Bagan, Myanmar. Photo: iStock
Myanmar's northern backroad scenery is vivid and colourful and superb for eyeballing authentic Burmese day-to-day life. On the Road Experiences' 12-day guided driving itinerary includes Inle Lake, with its floating gardens, stilt-top villages and crumbling stupas, and Pindaya Cave, crammed with Buddha images and statues. In Mandalay, Burma's last royal capital, the 150-year-old Mahagandayon Monastery and famous U-Bein bridge are pit stops before continuing to the magical temples of Bagan. Guests drive fully-insured SUVs, with logistics taken care of so you can keep your eye on the road (and the scenery). See ontheroadexperiences.com
VOLCANOES, LAKES AND GORILLAS, RWANDA
The Slow Cyclist's seven-night cycling journey travels from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, in a north-west arc to the shores of one of Africa's Great Lakes, taking full advantage of the beguiling scenery in the Land of a Thousand Hills. Peddlers ride between 32 kilometres and 80 kilometres on four of the eight days, with cultural and historical distractions along the way including the harrowing Kigali Genocide Memorial, uplifting Kinamba Project and Kimironko Market. Other memorable riding takes in the misty peaks from the top of Kigali's highest mountain, Mount Jali; and the steady climb to Twin Lakes, Ruhondo and Burera. Electric bikes are a good option on some of the steeper terrain and, as founder Oli Bloom says, "nobody has ever regretted taking one." See theslowcyclist.co.uk
SLOW CULTURALLY-IMMERSIVE JOURNEYS
The curious, immersive and mindful traits that often define slow travel are felt most intensely when tapping into a combination of authentic places and the local people who inhabit them. Cooking with a nonna in her rural kitchen, touring the old town with a local, bedding down in a guesthouse. The slow travel trend has these kinds of experiences consciously factored into contemporary itineraries.
LOCAL LIVING, CROATIA
G Adventures' Local Living itineraries aim to settle guests in a down-to-earth environment among, in this case, real Croatians, so you can get a feel for their way of life. This week-long stint on Croatia's southern Dalmatian coast, has as its base, a lovely rural Mediterranean farm villa, or agroturizam, with rustic terracotta charm and views over the Konavle Valley and the Adriatic Sea. Activities include visiting Dubrovnik's historic walled city with a local guide and biking through Lovorno's rolling vineyard with stops at an artist's residence and 15th-century monastery. Chill time is villa time. Hang on the outdoor terrace, swim in the pool and join doyenne, Grandma Mujo, for a cooking class using fresh ingredients from neighbours and the farm. Eat around the dinner table with the whole family. See gadventures.com.au
CREATIVE WRITING, COTSWOLDS, ENGLAND
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed their enchanted worlds – Narnia and Middle-earth respectively – over a warm ale at a pub in Oxford. Or at least that's how the story goes and stories are what this cultural immersion is all about. Better Read Literary Tours' Creative Writing in the Cotswolds itinerary is a seven-day retreat in one of England's most charming regions replete with gardens, romantic castles and mysterious circles of standing stones. The Cotswolds has inspired many authors, including Australian writer Kate Forsyth who has sold more than a million copies globally. Writers at any stage of their career will spend mornings with Forsyth learning the conventions of genres such as historical fiction, crime and mystery, romance, fantasy and magic realism. They can then inspire their creativity by exploring the locale with activities such as a private tour of the 15th-century house where Shakespeare was born and a tour of Oxford University. See betterreadtours.com/creativewriting
SLOW DOWN AT THESE FIVE REMOTE HOTELS
ADLER MOUNTAIN LODGE, ITALY
The alpine village of Alpe Di Siusi, a World Heritage site in the heart of the Italian Dolomites, is home to Adler Mountain Lodge. A central wooden lodge is the dining, lounge and wellness hub for 30 rooms including 12 small chalets made entirely of local spruce wood and modelled on old Tyrolean mountain huts. Guests can enjoy wildflowers and walks in summer, ski slopes in winter and spa sessions year-round. See adler-lodge.com
SHELDON CHALET, ALASKA
Anchored deep into the granite nunatak (a glacier island) on the flanks of North America's highest mountain, Mount Denali (6190 metres), this luxury mountaineer's paradise – with flight-only access – has five guest rooms with views across the jagged mountains of the Alaska Range by day and the aurora borealis by night. See sheldonchalet.com
SAL SALIS, AUSTRALIA
On Western Australia's Ningaloo Reef, Cape Range National Park is home to Sal Salis, a luxury resort with 16 safari tents artfully camouflaged against the dunes and native scrub. There's no Wi-Fi and guests are limited to solar power, composting toilets and 20 litres of water a day, but these factors add to that rarefied feeling of being miles from anywhere. See salsalis.com.au
ARISTI MOUNTAIN RESORT AND VILLAS, GREECE
Built from stone and wood, the luxury rooms and villas at this resort in north-western Greece fit with the surrounding traditional village of Aristi, in west Zagori. It's a four-hour drive to the nearest airport. Its surrounding arched stone bridges, cobbled streets, picturesque village squares, incredible gorges and alpine lakes make it a contender for World Heritage status. See aristi.eu
SHAKTI 360 LETI, INDIA
India's Kumaon Himalayas is a little-known region of Uttarakhand; residents of its mountain villages still live traditional lives. Amid the wildflowers and terraced slopes sits beautiful Shakti 360 Leti, a modern property that blends into the wooded surrounds. Its remote mountain-top location has views of the perennially snow-capped peaks of the Great Himalaya range. See shaktihimalaya.com
FIVE ISLANDS WHERE YOU CAN SLOW RIGHT DOWN
BIRD ISLAND, BELIZE
Bird Island, a private island for four to six guests, has been promoted as one of Airbnb's best stays. On an atoll 10 kilometres from Placencia village in Belize, it has three weatherboard huts that are tricked up with recliners and hammocks. Snorkel among stingrays, go kayaking, laze about, repeat. See birdislandplacencia.com
Philippines. Photo: iStock
In the Philippines' province of Surigao del Norte, 800 kilometres north of Manila, the island of Siargao is a laidback paradise. Get around the dirt roads in quirky jeepney vehicles and motorbikes, island-hop on traditional outrigger canoes and surf renowned Cloud 9. See tourismphilippines.com.au
FOGO ISLAND, CANADA
Off the Newfoundland coastline in Canada, remote Fogo Island, once a centre for cod fishing, is now known for its subarctic wilderness of jagged cliffs, aged pine forests and herds of caribou. The island's Fogo Island Inn, an astonishing building perched on stilts along a desolate coastline, is fodder for a two-day Architecture at the Edge itinerary. See fogoislandinn.ca
DIRK HARTOG ISLAND, AUSTRALIA
Known as an "ark" for its endangered wildlife, this remote island, in Western Australia's Shark Bay World Heritage Area, is accessible via plane, speedboat or vehicle ferry. There are camping sites in the coastal dunes and a waterside Eco Lodge, a base for swimming and kayaking, exploring endless beaches, night-time fires and sunset drinks. See dirkhartogisland.com
FAROE ISLANDS, DENMARK
In the North Atlantic, 320 kilometres north-west of Scotland, this T-shaped archipelago is made up of 18 volcanic islands and hundreds of smaller ones, mostly connected by bridges, tunnels and roads. Torshavn, the capital, has pretty red terrace houses, but you'll likely head into the rugged coastal countryside to see waterfalls that tumble into the ocean and lighthouses teetering on cliff edges. See visitfaroeislands.com