From Europe to Asia and back to Australia, Michael Gebicki finds 10 great journeys with meaning.
Although sloth is still a favourite holiday theme, the instructional version is gaining ground. For some at least, it's the search for meaning that sets the wheels in motion. A new place casts people in a new framework, and encourages an exploration of that most mysterious of worlds, the one within. Whether it's exploring remote valleys in the Himalayas or admiring Renaissance art in Italy, here are 10 package tours to put you in touch with your soul.
The Himalayas have been a historic crucible for Buddhism, and by the nature of their harsh topography, the cultures that lie within these massive mountains have preserved the mystical traditions of the Buddhist-animist creed long after they have been diluted or abandoned in other parts of Asia. The British-run Spiritual Holidays and Retreats operation wraps up three of these states in its 16-day tour of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. Visits to monasteries, temples and spiritual sites feature large on an itinerary that focuses on the spiritual dimension of the journey, with time out for meditation in some incredible places. In Tibet, an optional extension journey travels overland to visit the cave where Milarepa, the land's great yogi-sage, once lived and meditated. This year, the three-states tour takes place in September-October.
Larapinta Creative Camps
These workshops bring together artists, writers and photographers in an inspiring region of free-range Australia to flex their creative muscles. From Alice Springs, the small group - maximum eight - heads into the MacDonnell Ranges, establishes a campsite and spends a week exploring the dramatic landscape of central Australia, and the artists' creative responses to it. On occasions, the group is joined by Western Arrente women artists, sharing a vision of country they have absorbed through the soles of their feet. Most camps are either at Ruby Gap or Palm Valley, two sensational spots surrounded by rock walls that look molten at both ends of the day. It's comfortable, but this is bush camping in a harsh environment. Camps take place in the relatively cool months of the Northern Territory winter.
The Emerald Isle, particularly its western coast and islands, is a rich repository of Celtic culture, a soul-stirring place infused with poetry and poignancy. Celtic Journeys plumbs the spiritual dimension of this part of Ireland on a seven-day tour interwoven with the themes of pilgrimage, retreat and ritual. There's music, poetry, a sacred well, a Celtic monastery, rituals at ancient stone circles, water blessings, an encounter with a Celtic monk and contemplation as the tour takes in some of Ireland's most moving and mystical landscapes. This is not a tour for innocent bystanders who prefer to watch. You're embedded, and you can expect to be moved, perhaps in profound and life-changing ways. Tours take place mid-year.
Set against the languid and hot-blooded backdrop of the Languedoc country of southern France, this seven-day tour explores the spiritual sites associated with the Cathars. An offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars saw themselves as followers of the true faith of Christ. They were branded heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and hunted almost to extinction during the Albignesian Crusade of the Middle Ages, yet many believe their villages, forts and sacred sites are still infused with sacred power. Most of these citadels are sited dramatically on high hilltops in the shadow of the Pyrenees. The tour leader is local resident Isobel Denham of Wholistic World Vision, which describes itself as "a global communications network for planetary transformation through spiritual re-education".
Tsum Valley Trek, Nepal
For many centuries, the Tsum Valley has been used by traders and pilgrims travelling between Tibet and Nepal. In the Gorkha region of Nepal north of Pokhara, this is a repository of traditional culture that was opened for trekking only in 2008. If you're looking for a Himalayan trek that has barely felt the imprint of a Vibram sole, this could be a perfect fit. Walking the trail is a gradual transition from the Western-influenced villages of the Gorkha region to the staunchly Tibetan culture of the cloistered Tsum Valley. The trek is rated moderate going, with a few challenging stretches. Although it threads between 6000-metre peaks, the highest point on the trail is 4085 metres, which lessens the effects of acclimatisation and makes it possible to walk as early as March and as late as November. Longer variations are possible, but even the shortest trek is a 22-day journey with Kathmandu at either end.
The heart of Italy
The two Italian provinces on this tour were at the heart of the Renaissance, yet this expedition from Martin Randall Travel ignores the leading cities of the movement such as Florence in favour of the smaller towns and cities. It is the hill towns of Umbria in particular that preserve the massive churches and ambitious public buildings inspired by the Renaissance, in the framework of knotted streetscapes and cobblestone squares characteristic of the era. Despite their modest size, some of these towns have frescoes and paintings by Giotto, Piero della Francesca and Signorelli. For this one-week tour, the group is based in a former palazzo in the hill town of Spello, overlooking olive groves. The British Martin Randall Travel specialises in cultural tours for erudite enthusiasts, and each of their tour leaders comes with high academic qualifications.
This 19-day tour from Silk and Stones Travel follows a fairly standard route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, yet it weaves depth and intelligence into the journey, making it ideal for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into the heart of Vietnam. Kayaking at Ha Long Bay, a visit to a local shaman, a bike trip through the countryside around Hoi An, a cruise among the filigreed waterways of the Mekong Delta, visits to schools and orphanages and minority villages, cooking classes and fair trade craft centres all feature on the program. Silk and Stones Travel specialises in tours to exotic locations in south-east Asia that combine history, culture and ancient traditions. High-quality guides with an in-depth knowledge of local culture, personalised service and value for money are the touchstones of these small-group tours.
Sri Lanka, feathers and fur
Sri Lanka has a rich treasury of wildlife that ranges from butterflies to tigers to elephants, and more than 200 bird species, some endemic to the island. Naturetrek's 17-day Wildlife and History tour of Sri Lanka travels into the heart of this teardrop-shaped island to explore the ancient Buddhist cities of Anuradhapura and the fantastic rock fortress at Sigiriya, heads south through tea plantations and into the lowlands at Yala National Park and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot and World Heritage site. Naturetrek is a leading operator of such tours, with an exalted reputation for its expert-led outings gained over 25 years.
Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, France
Threading through the slow rolling hills of the Massif Central in southern France, the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail is rural France at its best. From Le Monastier in Auvergne to St Jean du Gard in Languedoc, the trail wanders for 250 kilometres through forests, deep into river valleys and across the stony sheep pastures and wildflower meadows of the Cevennes National Park. The journey takes its name from the Scottish author who walked this trail in 1878, nursing a broken heart and keen to explore the countryside of the Camisards, the French Protestants. His companion was an obstreperous donkey named Modestine, and Stevenson turned the journey into a classic of travel literature. The complete trail takes about 10 days to complete. A Britain-based operator, the Enlightened Traveller, offers self-guided inn-to-inn walks, with daily luggage transfers. Some local operators bring a note of verite to the experience, offering a donkey as a gear transporter, but feedback suggests the donkeys have not much altered their manners since Stevenson's day.
Basking in the warm glow of world approval, the eccentric Buddhist-saturated state of Burma rates as a connoisseur experience for the traveller in search of the remarkable. Highlights in the Burma mosaic include Inle Lake, famed for its leg rowers who propel their tiny skiffs with one leg wrapped around the oar. Further north is fabled Mandalay, and the Buddhist enclave of Sagaing across the Irrawaddy, a landscape of teak temples and white pagodas populated almost entirely by monks. Downstream is Bagan, a ghost city of Buddhist temples twinkling in the sunlight, stretching frilly spires into the sky and gently crumbling into the brown earth. Burma's creaking travel infrastructure needs an organised visit, and Abercrombie & Kent's 11-day luxury tour is highly recommended.