Nature and outdoors

The Great Escapism: 25 Transportive Experiences

Welcome to 2019. Here’s how you get away from it. We find magical ways to transport us far, far beyond everyday stresses and strains

Escapism. It’s defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘The practice of seeking distraction from what normally has to be endured.’

There’s been a lot to endure in the world lately, and 2019 isn’t giving widespread cause for optimism. So we could all do with escaping from time to time.

According to Dr Michael Brein, the self-styled ‘Travel Psychologist’, one way to do this is to travel: ‘We simply need to break patterns and allow for novelty and self-expression to expand ourselves, which often puts problems – psych or otherwise – in a fresh light’, he says.

‘Travel involves learning at a quickened pace – so fast, in fact, that we are personally emboldened by such things as increased self-esteem, self-confidence and self-accomplishment.’

But escapism isn’t just plonking yourself on a nice beach: it’s about shifting your mind, taking a break from 24-hour media and pushing boundaries, too. In the experiences that follow, we’re sending you on mettle-testing treks, Arctic safaris, VR adventures, spiritual cleanses and to wellness festivals, as well as introducing great apps, movies and books to help you get away from it all – whatever ‘it all’ is in 2019.

The Antarctic

Let’s start dramatically: a trip to the end of the Earth. From Cape Town, Blue Flower Travel put you on a chartered jet. You can stay for as little as one day, or spend up to eight days exploring the southernmost point on Earth. You’ll meet emperor penguins, walk through ice tunnels and relax at Whichaway Camp, home to tech-savvy sleeping pods that keep you warm in the glacial environment. 

Cape Town, South Africa

Babylonstoren, in the wine valley of Franschhoek, is about an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. Dating back to 1692, the rustic farmyard and garden retreat sprawl out over 3.5 hectares. Follow one of the secluded walking trails, stop at the Garden Spa and tuck into wholesome farm-to-table food at one of two dedicated restaurants. In the evening, curl up in one of the converted farmhouse rooms – each suite is a haven of whitewashed walls, four-poster beds and soul-warming fireplaces.

Phuket, Thailand

Teakwood villas, spa treatments and palm trees more your style? Book yourself in for a retreat at Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary Phuket. The Sense of Wellness programme focuses on mind, body, fitness and lifestyle, with more than 50 activities on the menu. Will you achieve enlightenment after just a few days? Probably not. But with daily spa treatments and Andaman Sea views from the comfort of your pool villa, this feels like a great place to start.  

Indonesia

Sometimes, escaping is about pushing past perceived physical and mental boundaries. That’s where the Adventure Academy comes in. Former fighter pilot Matt Prior guides groups of three on intense expeditions across the Indonesian archipelago. Running from May to October, the one-week itinerary will have you hiking up active volcanoes, staying in local villages and learning the ins and outs of adventure travel. If you crave creature comforts, you might want to sit this one out.

Western Sichuan, China

One guaranteed way to lose phone reception is a trip to the Tibetan plateau with Whistling Arrow. In 2019, the Hong Kong-based adventure specialist will launch a small-group excursion through western Sichuan and southern Qinghai provinces. Beginning in Chengdu, the 16-day trip makes its way to the Tibetan plateau, where guests will stay at secluded clifftop retreats, and maybe even spot an elusive snow leopard. The next trip is scheduled for July.

Cathay Pacific flies to Cape Town from Hong Kong three times a week and Jakarta 26 times a week; Cathay Dragon flies to both Phuket and Chengdu 14 times a week

South Island, New Zealand

Great Escapes

The inky sky above New Zealand’s South Island comes alive when the sun goes down. From March to September, you might even catch the aurora australis – the southern hemisphere’s answer to the northern lights. The best place to watch the night sky dance is from the comfort of the Skyscape pod. Located about 12 kilometres from Twizel, between Queenstown and Christchurch, this modern cabin is set on remote farmland with a glass roof to gaze upon the stars from every angle. 

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Thanks to the emergence of virtual reality, you can transport yourself to far-flung worlds, both real and imagined. Enversed Virtual Reality Centre, about an hour’s drive south of Amsterdam, operates a kind of VR karaoke parlour: you book a room with friends, then step into a new world where you could be dancing atop Mount Everest. 

New York, US

Make like Thoreau and head for a cabin in the woods with Getaway House. In woodsy locations outside New York City, DC and Boston, these hideaways are scattered across eight-hectare plots to ensure privacy. In the Catskills cabin you toss your phone in the ‘cellphone lockbox’, then head out for a hike to the Overlook Mountain Trail – or simply hang by the cabin and roast some marshmallows.

Great escapes
Joe Thomas

Scotland

Great Escapes

The Scottish Highlands offer mist-shrouded peaks, legendary lochs, vast swathes of moorlands and most important: blissful solitude. Take an epic voyage around the Celtic isles aboard the Eda Frandsen. The 22-metre vessel sets sail on three- to nine-night journeys around Scotland’s West Coast with various itineraries that might stop at Small Island, Skye and the Outer Hebrides, or trace the remote archipelago of St Kilda.

Bhutan

Thimphu, Bhutan
Keith Levit / Design Pics / Getty Images

Opened earlier this year, Six Senses Bhutan is a collection of five lodges, each set in a remote valley. The best way to experience them is through a 14-day ‘Journey Through the Kingdom’, which crisscrosses the country by helicopter. You’ll have a chance to stay at all five retreats, starting in Thimphu before moving on to Punakha, Paro Valley, Gangtey and Bumthang. Every stop affords travellers the chance to hike through the mountains, tour ancient monasteries, join festivals or just relax at the lodge and practise a little gratitude.

Great Escapes

Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Taking a leaf out of the Japanese therapy known as shinrin-yoku, Hotel Royal Evian offers a range of ‘forest-bathing’ programmes. An amble through the woods will help to clear your mind and reduce stress. Set on a 19-hectare woodland plot by Lake Geneva, the Evian Resort offers guided walks in the morning for small or private groups, where you’ll learn about the forest, practise deep breathing exercises and reconnect with nature. 

Cathay Pacific flies to Christchurch from Hong Kong three times a week, Amsterdam seven times a week, New York 35 times a week and Zurich seven times a week 

Hong Kong

Need a break but can’t afford time off? Eaton Wellness offers every new-age therapy under the sun, including reiki, acupuncture, crystal healing, infrared sauna, sound baths and more. Even those sceptical of ‘detoxing’ will find refuge in the artsy accommodation, which also comes with Himalayan salt lamps that apparently purify the air.

Bali, Indonesia

Great Escapes

Sitting pretty on the south coast of Bali, the luxe surfing and wellness retreat Como Uma Canggu is all about the waves, the vibes and the super-healthy food. Como’s other Bali property, Shambhala, is hosting a New Year’s resolution workshop this month, a programme of life coaching, yoga and treatments designed to ‘align actions with dreams to create meaningful and lasting change’.

Mumbai, India

About three hours southeast of Mumbai, beginners and yogis alike can try the Journey through Yoga retreat at Atmantan Wellness Resort. The three- to 10-night retreats include an ayurvedic evaluation to assess your psychological state, posture, fitness level and body composition. Then you’ll receive yogic prescriptions to improve what ails you.

Hoi An, Vietnam

At the beachfront Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, just outside Hoi An, try the new Mother Earth Melodies experience. This begins at sunset with a ‘good night’ ceremony where you’ll send a traditional wishing candle into the spa’s lagoon, followed by dinner on a floating platform and exclusive use of the spa. The most relaxing night of your life continues with a 45-minute singing bowl experience, aromatherapy bath and, finally, a four-hand massage that will likely knead you to sleep.

Great Escapes

Osaka, Japan

If you feel that your escapist retreat needs a dose of spirituality, head for Ekoin monastery, which sits atop Mount Koyasan about two hours by train south of Osaka. Built nearly 1,200 years ago, the temple will transport you to another world – one of eaved roofs, wooden latticework and meticulous gardens. There’s not much on the schedule when you stay overnight at Ekoin, but guests are welcome to learn about meditation and Buddhist sutra writing, practise yoga, join morning prayer ceremonies or hang out in the hot spring baths. The rooms are simple – ryokan-style with tatami mats and low tables – while the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine is designed to nourish body and soul.

Seattle, US

Great Escapes

You’ve probably heard of the paleo diet – proponents stick to the meat, fish, nuts, seeds and vegetables that cavemen would have consumed. But in the mountains outside Seattle, one animal hide-clad woman is taking the Stone Age lifestyle to new levels. At Living Wild, Lynx Vilden hosts educational retreats to share practical wilderness living skills. The one-week immersion programme covers all the basics of Neanderthalism, including harvesting, foraging, building fires, identifying medicinal plants, hunting, fishing, horseback riding, making clothes and much more.

Great Escapes

Blue Mountains, Australia

Travelling with the whole family? Head for the hills or, in this case, the Blue Mountains. Located two and a half hours from Sydney, the World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains cover an expanse of more than a million hectares. Within the vast boundaries there are dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, dense forests and several wellness retreats, including the One&Only Wolgan Valley. Its Family Escape package includes a nocturnal wildlife spotting tour – and unlimited ice cream.

Cathay Pacific flies to Mumbai 10 times a week, Osaka 36 times a week, Sydney 28 times a week and will launch flights to Seattle on 31 March. Cathay Dragon flies to Danang eight times a week. The airlines jointly serve Bali eight times a week 

Ulleungdo Island, South Korea

Ancient forests, waterfalls, caves, mountains – Ulleungdo Island, about 3.5 hours by ferry from Pohang port on South Korea’s east coast, has all the trappings of a great escape. ‘The mystery island’ is now home to the Kosmos Healing Stay wellness retreat. Every detail from the rooms (all named after elements) to the yin-and-yang spas incorporates the concepts of astrology and feng shui. A few nights here should unblock all of your chakras.

Taiwan

A great escape doesn’t have to cost the Earth. Start your budget adventure in Smangus, an aboriginal village in Central Taiwan, equidistant from Taipei and Taichung. From here, you can rough it alone or book a small-group camping experience with Taiwan Adventure Outings. With the latter, you’ll have all the equipment and food you need to hike through the mountains, loop through ancient bamboo forests, meet people from the local Ayatal tribes and sleep under the stars.

Portmeirion, Wales

It’s one of the strangest villages in the world. You are in the far north of Wales, a land of rainy mountains and forbidding castles. And there on a sunny peninsula is a village of candy-coloured villas, cupolas and turreted towers straight out of a fairytale. It sounds like a theme park. But Portmeirion was a serious architectural project which a single man – Clough Williams-Ellis – built stone by fantastical stone between 1925 and 1975. His descendants now run the village as one big hotel: and as you wander above a sparkling estuary, you realise there’s no more escapist hotel in the world. The deeply strange 1960s TV series The Prisoner was filmed here, and devotees of the show, dressed in blazers and boaters, add to the surreal atmosphere.

Great escapes, blue colonnade
Lydia Helene Irving/ Getty Images

Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon fly to Taipei from Hong Kong 123 times a week, Cathay Dragon flies to Taichung seven times a week

The Happy Place

In his lecture The Good Life: Happiness Overview, Yale psychology and cognitive science professor Paul Bloom discusses the building blocks of happiness: what is it? And how do we achieve it? Likewise, the eight-week Science of Happiness course from Berkeley explores positive psychology and mindfulness techniques to cultivate happiness.

Books

Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental disorders, but it’s not always easy to detect. In her new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, healthy living guru Sarah Wilson details an intense and emotional journey, offering a positive spin on dealing with angst. For a lighter read, pick up How to Be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax. The American comedian and mental health advocate enlists the help of a neurologist and a monk to provide a collection of useful tips that can help readers embrace mindfulness and live in the moment.

Apps

Meditation helps to manage stress and promote sleep. Headspace (available onboard) brings meditation to the masses with the soothing English accent of Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk. For an alternative app, try Calm. In addition to guided meditation sessions, Calm also provides relaxing music, stretching exercises and ‘sleep stories’ to take you to dreamtown. Both offer free trials.

Movie

The transformative power of travel has been captured on the silver screen, too. On Cathay Pacific this month, catch Wild. This moving drama chronicles the real-life story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon), who undertook a soul-searching 1,700-kilometre journey from California to Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail, following a personal tragedy.