Same world, new eyes – Travel trends
The world of travel is being upended by intense global demand for travel experiences that resonate on a deeper emotional level. We investigate why immersive local experiences are the Holy Grail for next-gen travellers.
‘The real voyage of discovery,’ wrote Marcel Proust, ‘consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ It’s not hard to agree with him. There are now few corners of the globe left un-Instagrammed, and the trend is firmly away from ‘been there’ to ‘experienced this’.
Experiential travel just keeps on growing, and while that doesn’t mean you have to scrub elephants outside Rangoon to fully immerse yourself in glorious Myanmar, it does mean eschewing the tawdry tourist diversions of old and embracing ever more authentic adventures. Which is, let’s be honest, hardly a hardship. With a credit card or two in your pocket, the world is your experiential oyster just waiting for the shucking knife. To help you whet the blade, here are seven globetrotting adventures old Proust would have been proud of.
#1: Take a walk
Experiential travel isn’t all about blowing large sums on extreme experiences. An increasing number of travellers is taking to heart that old maxim about focusing on the journey, not the destination, and are tackling centuries-old pilgrimages throughout the world. Easily the most famous is El Camino de Santiago de Compostela: the ‘Way of St James’ that leads from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The 780-kilometre route to the saint’s final resting place takes around a month to walk, and daily walking distances range from 12 to 30 kilometres. If your Pilgrim Record is stamped daily along the way for the last 100 kilometres, you will qualify for your certificate (compostela).
The Camino is one of two pilgrimages formally recognised by UNESCO. The other is the 10th-century Kumano Kodo Ancient Trail to three sacred shrines south of Osaka, Japan. The four routes of the Trail run through the gorgeous Kii Mountains, and the steep hills are offset by wonderful views and plenty of company. Happily, a steamy onsen hot-spring bath is also never far away. Although the trail has been walked for over 1 000 years, it’s firmly off the radar for most Western tourists, with CNN Travel calling it ‘the world’s best unknown hike’. Walk Japan has been operating walking tours of the country since 1992 and offers both scheduled trails and customised tours of Kumano Kodo. The local tourism bureau has useful information about starting points, highlights and public transport if you’d rather go it alone.
#2: Support the community
Gone are the days when investors choppered into the bush, built a lodge and sucked the profits back to the city. Increasingly, local communities are profiting financially from the success of the tourism trade. Take the new Rhino Ridge in KwaZulu-Natal: the first privately owned lodge in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park will be part-owned by the local Mpembeni community. Up the road, a landmark restitution deal in 2007 saw the local Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities become landlords to andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, providing both income and employment opportunities.
‘Experience is about an emotional connection. Nowhere do we excel more than in the safari arena,’ comments Silvana Bottega, CEO of the Southern Africa Luxury Association, who adds that the touch-points of luxury accommodation and fine food are increasingly being complemented by ‘empathy-driven excursions to local philanthropic initiatives’ and ‘a tier of education about conservation that leaves the visitor enlightened’. Up in East Africa, Ol Malo House on Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau is a fine example of that. It encourages guests to visit Samburu homes and share a meal, while younger guests can even attend school with local children.
#3: To the manor drawn
Not that many of us would know, but it’s tough being a maharajah or knight of the realm these days. Once upon a time the noble families of Europe and Asia would have had servants to coddle them and vast lands to keep the bank account topped up. Work? Well, that was something for the middle classes. Times have changed, though, and nowadays all many have left is inheritance tax and a roof that needs fixing. Which is rather good news for travellers, who have the opportunity to live like the aristocracy… if only for a night or three. Across Europe and India landed gentry are throwing open their castle and palace doors to paying guests looking for an authentic taste of local luxury. While many properties offer only exclusive use at eye-watering prices, a handful offer per-room B&B options.
Need inspiration? Consider Aldourie Castle, with its 500-acre estate on the banks of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. South of the border, Hellifield Peel Castle dates back to 1330 and was built by one of the last Templar Knights but has been restored to offer every modern convenience. In India, you could do worse than Umaid Bhawan Palace: run by the acclaimed Taj Group, this palace of yellow stone, which took 15 years to construct, sits imperiously on a hill above Jodhpur. You can’t book all 347 rooms for yourself, though; the royal family of Jodhpur still lives in part of the palace.
#4: Asia, revisited
Trips to Asia used to be about cheap beer and ping-pong shows in Bangkok, or clocking up the national debt of a small country on a shopping spree in Kuala Lumpur. But Asia is opening up like never before, and for a true glimpse at the soul of this multifaceted region there’s never been a better time to get off the beaten track. Bhutan, a country that measures its success against an index of Gross National Happiness, is the first place to head for: to ensure the culture remains undiluted, visitor numbers are strictly controlled, and a daily tourist tariff is set at $250 (R2 650) to keep backpackers at bay. Highlights include the gentle capital city of Thimphu, a hike to the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and a traditional hot-stone massage.
And as international hotel brands expand in China, the far-flung corners of the People’s Republic are also becoming more accessible: Hilton Worldwide is opening in Lijiang, Chengdu, Dandong and Huzhou, while Banyan Tree has launched properties in the likes of Tianjin and Tengchong, and has another three in development. The acclaimed group is also partnering with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent to package ‘a unique travel experience’ exploring the country’s lesser-known attractions.
#5: Against the tide
When it comes to experiential travel, the insular world of cruise holidays is rarely seen as a shining example of getting to grips with the intricacies of local culture. But far from the mega-cruisers shepherding 6 000 holidaymakers around the Caribbean, boutique cruise offerings are bringing a new approach to the value-for-money hassle-free world of life aboard ship. Dovetailing with demand for undiscovered corners of Asia, Belmond offers the 110-passenger ‘Road to Mandalay’ that cruises the Irrawaddy River through Myanmar. With the end of decades of military rule, the country is fast becoming the hottest destination in Southeast Asia thanks to its undiluted (for now) culture, ancient temples and remarkable history. Such is the demand that Belmond recently launched a sister-ship, Orcaella, offering seven- and 11-night itineraries.
Expedition cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic have also gone from madcap to mainstream, with the likes of Quark, G Adventures and even luxury brand Silversea tapping into demand for smaller cruise experiences that prioritise experience over expanding your waistline at the buffet. On each of these you’ll find small groups, expert field guides and enhanced shore excursions so you can experience the destination, not merely view it from afar.
#6: Take another walk
While pedestrian pilgrimages such as the Camino are all about finding yourself, a growing number of walking safaris across southern Africa allow you to focus on finding furry, toothy residents. Although many of East Africa’s most iconic wilderness areas don’t allow walking safaris, national parks and concessions south of the Zambezi embrace getting up close to nature. The Shamwari Group’s Jock Safari Lodge, on a concession in the southern reaches of the Kruger National Park, offers the wonderful Explorer camp with comfortable fly-camps erected at the end of a day’s walk.
In Namibia, the walking safaris out of Desert Rhino Camp – set in the vast 450 000 hectare Palmwag Concession – are also superb. A collaboration between Wilderness Safaris and the Save the Rhino Trust, your fee keeps rhinos safe from poachers and your holiday snaps safe from becoming mundane. But don’t take my word for it: Afar magazine rated this the ‘Best Walking Trip’ worldwide in its 2014 Experiential Travel Awards.
#7: Extreme made easy
Blame it on the big bad recession of 2008, or a surfeit of good taste flowing through worldwide airports, but the game is well and truly up for conspicuous consumption. Ostentatious glitz and glam are best left to the nouveau riche. Or the Russians. Rather, although Proust might disagree, travellers with cash to burn are looking for easy access to hard-to-reach adventures; unique experiences that will make their Facebook-followers green with envy. A ride on Virgin Galactic is a good example, but seats are limited and $250 000 (over R2 500 000) is still a lot of money in anyone’s book. Antarctica is perhaps a better example: it’s long been the final frontier for adventurers from Shackleton to Fiennes, but if you don’t fancy all that frostbite, a host of companies will gladly whisk you to the great white continent in comfort.
The global Mantis Collection has one of the most innovative products on the market, with its White Desert Expeditions. A five-hour flight from Cape Town sees you skidding to a halt on an ice-runway. In the distance, eco-friendly ‘tents’ offer en-suite accommodation with gourmet meals throughout your stay. Visiting scientists provide guest lectures, field guides lead you on exploratory adventures and your only neighbours are the 6 000 Emperor penguins from the nearby colony. Eight-day adventures are priced from ‘just’ ¤39 400 (R548 000).
- Compostela: csjofsa.za.org
- Walk Japan: walkjapan.com
- Kumano Kodo – tourism bureau: tb-kumano.jp/en
- Rhino Ridge: isibindiafrica.co.za
- andBeyond: andbeyond.com
- Ol Malo House: olmalo.com
- Aldourie Castle: aldouriecastle.co.uk
- Peel Castle: peelcastle.co.uk
- Taj Group: tajhotels.com
- Tiger Nest Monastery: tourism.gov.bt
- Hilton Worldwide: hilton.com
- Banyan Tree: banyantree.com
- Belmond: belmond.com
- Quark: quarkexpeditions.com
- G Adventures: gadventures.com
- Silversea: silversea.com
- Jock Safari Lodge: jocksafarilodge.com
- Wilderness Safaris: wilderness-safaris.com
- Virgin Galactic: virgingalactic.com
- Mantis Collection: mantiscollection.com
Photographs:Mark Peddle, supplied