I once had the pleasure of following Japan's old Kumano Kodo hiking trail through the Kii Peninsula. This region has long been revered by the Japanese, and the scenic hiking trail doubles as a pilgrim's path that winds from Buddhist temple to Shinto shrine.
Although only 150 kilometres south of Osaka, the peninsula's rugged mountains, dense forest and villages create a real sense of escape from urban stress and life's woes. One of the trail's most scenic sections, between Hosshinmon and Kumano Hongu shrines, passes through glorious cedar forest where meditation logs are laid out under the trees.
You're invited to lie down on a log and contemplate the mysteries of Shinto gods, or simply the beauty of sunlight through branches, for which the Japanese have the word komorebi. It was one of the simplest travel experiences, yet provided a little warp in the time-space of a busy life that I'll long remember.
Of course, there's nothing new in the idea that nature has the power to recharge our spiritual batteries. The Shinto religion, in which gods manifest themselves in rocks, trees and rivers, has been saying so since the eighth century.
Before that, the ancient Greeks built healing sanctuaries on mountains and in olive groves. In the 19th century, tubercular writers settled in the Swiss Alps and inadvertently contributed to the notion of alpine tourism.
As our society becomes more urbanised and indoor-focused, health practitioners are backing up age-old beliefs about nature's power to soothe with scientific research. One of the most recent studies at King's College London in 2018 looked at the effects of being outdoors, seeing trees and sky, and hearing birdsong. The findings showed that short-term exposure to nature had measurable beneficial impacts on mental wellbeing.
Beyond the joys of nature, natural landscapes are also places that invite physical exercise. Modern research also repeatedly demonstrates a close parallel between exercise and mental health, since exercise raises serotonin levels and increases body temperature, both of which elevate mood.
Which brings me back to Japan's forests. The Japanese have another word, shinrin-yoku or "forest bathing", for the art of immersing oneself in a forest for wellbeing. This isn't an ancient practice but rather a 1980s fad that has since acquired a steady, worldwide following.
Its leading expert, immunologist Dr Qing Li from Tokyo's Nippon Medical School, has been studying forest bathing for more than a decade, and found that it boosts the immune system, counters depression and anxiety, lowers blood pressure and alleviates stress.
In short, a nature retreat doesn't just provide inspiration and escape from daily pressures, but is demonstrably good for our physical and mental health. Maybe we should get out more, hug a tree or lie on a meditation log. Here's where and how you can get your breath of fresh air.
RHONE VALLEY, SWITZERLAND
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR No wonder Romantic poets lauded the spiritual benefits of alpine Switzerland. The Rhone Valley alone is glorious hiking country, with a vast network of signposted trails through flower-filled meadows and beneath 50-odd alpine peaks, guaranteed to make you feel good.
TELL ME MORE Stay in car-free Riederalp or Bettmeralp and abandon urban stress. You can join alpine yoga, conscious breathing and forest bathing events in ancient pine and larch forest, and even re-energise at supposed energy spots.
DON'T MISS Aletsch Glacier, a 23-kilometre World Heritage spectacle of rock and ice, especially viewed from Moosfluh or Eggishorn, where you're invited to drop a "lucky stone" and symbolically abandon your worries. See aletscharena.ch
LAKE DISTRICT, ENGLAND
Lake District Photo: Alamy
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR Magnificent peaks, plunging valleys and cloud-reflecting lakes combine to create a beautiful landscape that blends English village cosiness with rugged national park. Borrowdale and Grasmere are glorious valleys, and even popular, much-developed Windermere is spectacular.
TELL ME MORE William Wordsworth honed his poetic talents in the Lake District and promoted the Romantic notion of rural regeneration, so take to more than 3000 kilometres of rights-of-way around some of England's largest lakes and wax lyrical.
DON'T MISS Late afternoon at Blea Tarn in Langdale, which reflects lovely views of pikes and fells. Scientific studies show that water views really do promote mental wellbeing, and this place surely provides evidence. See lakedistrict.gov.uk
KO BULON LEH, THAILAND
Ko Bulon Leh Photo: Alamy
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR This small island in the Andaman Sea off Thailand's south-west tip is shaded by casuarina trees, fringed by white-sand beaches and lapped by fish-filled azure waters. Its brilliant beauty is disturbed only by low-key development.
TELL ME MORE Tropical islands are the epitome of the feel-good, castaway fantasy and yet often distract with busy resorts and cocktail lounges. Bulon Leh has just enough development for comfort without crowds. Explore its loveliness by walking, snorkelling, digital detoxing and soul-searching beneath palm trees.
DON'T MISS The fabulous beach that wraps around the island's north-east corner, where you can find yourself alone with your thoughts, and a long way from rave parties and banana boats. See tourismthailand.org
DRAKENSBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
Drakensberg amphitheatre Photo: Lukas Bischoff
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR The Drakensberg Mountains run for 1600 kilometres but are most dramatic along the western border of KwaZulu-Natal Province south of Johannesburg. Jagged peaks and tabletop mountains dwarf villages, and every bend in the road is another photo opportunity.
TELL ME MORE Mountain populations everywhere are healthier than lowland ones, so access some of the goodness and give yourself a workout amid jagged peaks, some of the world's highest waterfalls, and herds of bushbuck.
DON'T MISS Royal Natal National Park, where waterfalls tumble over the escarpment, framed by mountains reaching 3282 metres. This stunning wilderness is available to everyone, with 25 day walks meandering below dramatic peaks. See zulu.org.za
Tofino, Canada Photo: Alamy
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR We all know beaches make us feel good, but they don't have to be sunny or serene. Forest-fringed Tofino on Vancouver Island's battered west coast is Canada's storm-watching capital, where visitors hope for foul weather.
TELL ME MORE Storm-tossed forest, huge north Pacific breakers, moody skies and winter winds combine in an exhilarating, cheek-reddening display of nature. Rug up and venture out onto beaches pounded by waves and littered with driftwood.
DON'T MISS A boat excursion to Hot Springs Cove in Clayoquot Sound, where you can sit under hot cascades traditionally used for healing by First Nations people, and watch the snow falling between the branches of old-growth forest. See tourismtofino.com
THE HOT SPRINGS
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR Limestone deposits oozing down a hillside have created a series of spectacular tiered white pools and terraces at Denizli in south-west Turkey. Submerge yourself in the warm, calcium-rich milky water and you'll also be refreshed by views extending to the coast.
TELL ME MORE The 2000-year-old ruins of Hierapolis are a reminder that hot springs have always been associated with relaxation and rejuvenation. Stay overnight to avoid day trippers and enjoy the further balm provided by lovely sunsets.
DON'T MISS A swim in the super-clear, effervescent waters of Sacred Pool, part of Pamukkale Thermal Baths. As you swim, you can see ancient Greek columns submerged below. See pamukkale.gov.tr
THE REMOTE PLACE
WUTAI MOUNTAINS, CHINA
Taihua Temple near Kunming Photo: Alamy
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR Five peaks of more than 3000 metres provide a backdrop to this Shanxi Province pilgrim destination dotted with temples and monasteries. Buddhists say renouncing earthly desires lets you glimpse nirvana, and certainly there's something soothing and uplifting about this isolated mountainous region.
TELL ME MORE Tinkling bells and prayer-muttering Tibetans provide a background murmur to an inspiring landscape of high mountains and wildflowers that provides an exhilarating alternative to China's unrelaxed big-city sights.
DON'T MISS Taihaui temple complex, centred on a giant white stupa. A 108-step temple staircase represents the 108 earthly worries cast off as you ascend upwards. The view of snow peaks alone is heavenly. See cnto.org.au
THE TALLEST TREES
REDWOOD FOREST, CALIFORNIA, US
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR Northern California's Redwood Forest National Park protects nearly half of America's remaining old-growth redwood forest. The tallest trees on earth have been a source of awe for at least 3000 years, with Native Americans considering they contain powerful spirits.
TELL ME MORE You can't hug these enormous-diameter trees, but you can take to 320 kilometres of trails amid them. If forest bathing is good for you, this will certainly put a spring in your step.
DON'T MISS The renowned half-day, uphill hike to Tall Tree Grove, a particularly renowned group of redwoods, many over 100 metres high, made famous by a 1963 National Geographic article. See nps.gov/redwood
BLACK FOREST, GERMANY
Black Forest, Germany Photo: Alamy
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR This wooded range of hills in south-west Germany features forest mixed with open landscapes of rolling farmland, small lakes and crags, through which roads and hiking trails meander.
TELL ME MORE Forests have long been seen as mysterious places of refuge, transformation and adventure. You can up the wellness ante by looking out for the "Schwarzwald Balance" logo that indicates health-conscious local spa treatments, restaurant menus and beauty products made from elder and spruce.
DON'T MISS The most recently created of 20 long-distance hiking trails criss-crossing the region, Schluchtensteig, which runs through the southern Black Forest's seven gorges and canyons and offers particularly inspiring views. See blackforest-tourism.com
SACRED VALLEY, PERU
THE GREEN PEACE FACTOR The Incans thought the Urubamba Valley near Cuzco sacred, and its river the earthly counterpart to the Milky Way. It's undoubtedly serene amid a splendid congregation of Andean mountains and hillsides dotted with Incan remains.
TELL ME MORE Peru is becoming quite the destination for visionaries, quacks and spiritual pilgrims, but nature alone can work real wonders here. You'll get abundant exercise too, since this is Peru's best destination for adrenalin sports such as white-water rafting and paragliding.
DON'T MISS The invigorating, chest-heaving hike up the mountainside to the ruins of an Incan fortress above Pisac, from which your soul will rejoice at views to peaks and tumbling agricultural terraces that have been worked for centuries. See peru.travel
WHERE MAN AND NATURE UNITE
Sometimes nature needs a helping hand from humans. The inspiring fusions that result create the ultimate places to relax and contemplate life.
Tea was developed in China to help Buddhist monks meditate. The teahouses of Chengdu, Sichuan Province's famously relaxed capital, further encourage meditative moods, since they're embedded in public parks and invite an afternoon of tea sipping, card playing and conversation. The best teahouse is in Wangjiang Pavilion Park, where you're lulled into wellbeing under giant stands of creaking bamboo. See gochengdu.cn
The landscape gardens that emerged in 18th-century England recreated idyllic forms of nature, and replaced formal French gardens as the must-have style. Rolling lawns, groves, follies, lakes and pastoral views combine to produce relaxing Romantic landscapes. The movement's greatest designer – who compared himself to a poet – was Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Admire his masterpieces at Chatsworth, Bowood and Blenheim Palace. See visitbritain.com
JAPAN'S ZEN GARDENS
More properly called dry gardens, these Japanese masterpieces recreate miniature, stylised landscapes using raked gravel, well-placed stones and perhaps moss and some severely trimmed plants. The gardens originated in 14th-century Kyoto temples as an aid to meditation. Kyoto has magnificent examples in Kennin-ji, Konchi-in, Ryoan-ji and Tofouku-ji temples, where you can sit in tranquil contemplation of life's meaning. See kyoto.travel
The monks and hermits of yore – whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist – recognised the power of landscapes both to soothe the mind and stimulate religious reflection. Remote mountain monasteries are particularly inspiring for their isolation and natural setting. Few are more stunning than the Meteora monasteries of northern Greece, which sit atop rock pinnacles with views to snow-capped mountains. See visitmeteora.travel
WORLD'S WILDERNESS LODGES
One of the great inventions of modern travel is the luxury lodge in remote, scenic destinations such as New Zealand, Patagonia or the Kimberley. Fuse fine dining and comfort with big landscapes and stress-free locations and you're bound to feel relaxed and exhilarated. In South Africa, you can add big animals too. Only wretched people will fail to feel blessed. See newzealand.com; visitchile.com; argentina.travel; vistwesternaustralia.com; southafrica.net
GIVE PEACE A CHANCE IN THESE CITIES
You don't have to abandon the big smoke to find green peace. Here are 10 remarkable natural landscapes within cities.
STANLEY PARK, VANCOUVER, CANADA
This thousand acres of forest, marsh and parkland supplies outstanding harbour and mountain views. The 8.8-kilometre seawall is ideal for walking or cycling, but wander inland to find dense, undisturbed forest of cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir inhabited by beavers and bald eagles. See vancouver.ca
NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK, NAIROBI, KENYA
Kenya's first national park is seven kilometres from downtown, allowing for the peculiar sight of giraffes against a backdrop of skyscrapers. You'll also see lions, leopards, rhinos, zebras, waterbucks and gazelles in a landscape of grassland and scattered acacia trees. See kws.go.ke
EKOPARKEN, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
This massive 27-square-kilometre sprawl was developed from a former royal hunting ground and encompasses palaces, museums, stadiums and historic buildings, yet is home to deer, badgers, foxes and more than 100 bird species. It also has some of Europe's densest oak forest. See ekoparken.org
CAPE PENINSULA, CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Get beyond seaside suburbs and this rugged peninsula is soon dominated by baboons, ostriches and zebras. The road winds along a magnificent coastline and across uplands to Cape Point, Africa's south-east edge. Cliff-carved Chapman's Peak Drive on the peninsula's western side is dramatic. See capetown.travel
BUKIT TIMAH, SINGAPORE
This nature reserve's primary rainforest covers 160 hectares but claims to contain more tree species than North America. Its pockets of hill dipterocarp forest remain nowhere else in Singapore. You'll find a seven-kilometre mountain biking trail and several hiking tracks. See https://www.nparks.gov.sg
EPPING FOREST, LONDON, ENGLAND
London has plenty of sprawling parks, but the city's largest open space retains the semi-natural landscape of a 16th-century hunting ground. The hornbeam, oak and beech forest shelters fallow deer and is especially gorgeous in autumn. Longhorn cattle crop meadows. See visiteppingforest.org
GRIFFITH PARK, LOS ANGELES, US
One of North America's largest urban parks is best known for its Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory, but much of it is untamed, rugged chaparral traversed only by a few hiking and equestrian trails. It's home to coyotes, mule deer and mountain lions. See laparks.org
SAI KUNG PENINSULA, HONG KONG, CHINA
North-east of Hong Kong's urban crush lies scenic, rugged upland and coast crisscrossed with hiking paths, dotted with strange rock formations, pitted with sea caves and draped in tranquil beaches, including the region's most beautiful beach, Long Ke Wan. See discoverhongkong.com
NORDMARKA, OSLO, NORWAY
This huge stretch of forest, streams and scattered lakes north of Oslo is – despite occasional wolf sightings – a beloved destination for locals wanting to hike and bike in summer, or sled and cross-country ski in winter. There are 450 kilometres of rolled ski trails. See visitoslo.com
GOLDEN GATE RECREATION AREA, SAN FRANCISCO, US
This reserve of more than 32,000 hectares is split into 37 parts, including Alcatraz, and encompasses other heritage buildings and monuments. But it also protects 19 distinct ecosystems and 2000 species of animals and plants, including towering coastal redwoods at Muir Woods. See nps.gov