I suppose that when we look back at our travelling lives we can each pick out themes – a passion we have, an interest we follow. I know beachlovers, whalewatchers, golf obsessives, people who go hunting for dinosaur fossils in Wyoming or fashion bargains in Florence.
My thing is air.
That might sound a bit odd. You don’t have to go far to find air, after all.
But clean air is worth seeking out in its own right. It excites all the senses – you can taste it, smell it and, with a little imagination and the wind in the right direction, you can feel it and practically hear it, too. And because more than half of the world’s population lives in congested cities, our desire to soak up the very best air is greater than ever.
My own pursuit for the best bits of Planet Earth’s atmosphere began at the foot of a mountain when I was a holidaying student.
Imagine a craggy mountain road in spring. We are in the remote Llŷn Peninsula of northwest Wales. We drive carefully up to an isolated terrace of whitewashed cottages in the shadow of the Yr Eifl mountain peaks. There are sheep, daffodils and tufty grass. I step out of the car and the stuff hits me: early spring Welsh mountain air.
It was like an exquisite Burgundy white wine: sharp and tingly on the palate, then lush, full and buttery. It was a travelling epiphany I’ll never forget.
Some years later, I was walking around a mountain village in the Spanish province of Axarquíawith my wife. It was a bright, sunny day in February. We met a middle-aged woman whose eyes were just as bright, her skin radiating health and vigour. She was a walking, living and breathing Good Air advertisement. A couple of months later, we bought her house.
Those were a) my first and b) my most expensive clean air experiences. Here is a selection of other pristine places to get your own clean-air kicks.
Cape Grim, Tasmania
The explorer Matthew Flinders might have thought ‘grim’ was a good name for this isolated volcanic outcrop in Tasmania’s far northwest. It would have been even grimmer had he tried to sail east – there’s over 2,000 kilometres of sea and air before you reach the southern tip of Argentina. But what air! That Antarctic air that reaches Tasmania is the least polluted in the world, as recorded by its weather station. That’s why Cape Grim is a place of pilgrimage for all true air lovers.
Patagonia, Argentina and Chile
If you did manage that epic journey from Tasmania to the lakes of South America’s Patagonia region – fed by glacier meltwater and ample rainfall – you’d land and still not find anything to trouble your bronchial system. The air monitoring station close to the Argentinian city of Ushuaia effectively records zero pollutants for much of the year: proof if ever you needed it that this is some of the cleanest air in the world.
Atlantic Coast, Ireland
On Ireland’s Atlantic coast, there is a very little land and human activity to mess with the air that blows in from the west: the US is 4,200 kilometres away at the shortest point. But it isn’t just the purity of west Ireland air that you go for. On what the Irish call a ‘soft’ day – when the drizzle is so faint it falls on you like a gossamer blanket – your skin and lungs feel cleaner than they’ve ever felt before. List it as number one on the list for Least Necessary Places to Have a Facial.
Related: Ireland’s Freshest Coastal Drives
On bad days in winter, Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, is the most polluted place on Earth. But away from those choking coal fires, you are in 1.5 million square kilometres of grassland and desert. I said, a little controversially, that the best air appeals to all the senses – including hearing. I was thinking of a deep quiet of a Mongolian night. But during the day, it’s the quality of light that leaves the deepest impression. In the particulate-free air of the grasslands, every rock and blade of grass seems laser-cut.
Related: The Great Mongolian Open-Air Theatre
Cape Peninsula, South Africa
Choose your moment: a southerly wind is ideal for the trek up the slopes. At the summit of Table Mountain you’re rewarded by a sweeping view of the mighty Indian and the Atlantic oceans – and air that’s pure exhilaration. More views await along Chapman’s Peak Drive on the west side of the Cape peninsula. Another 20 kilometres to the southeast, and you’ll be soaking up that fresh air alongside penguins at Boulders Beach.
Related: The Ultimate Cape Town Itinerary
Clean-Air Cities from A to Z
The following cities have been recognised by expert organisations for their air quality and eco-friendliness.
Auckland, New Zealand
An overwhelming number of cities in New Zealand and Australia meet the World Health Organisation’s air quality standards – and interestingly, New Zealand’s most populous city performs better than many.
Outdoor living and a healthy lifestyle are central to the Queensland capital’s appeal. In 2016, the city was recognised by the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand for its long-standing commitment to improving its air quality.
Even the cleanest-air cities in the US, like the East Coast’s Bangor Maine, can suffer from their neighbours’ emissions. No such problems in Hawaii, where urban Honolulu was named among the cleanest cities in the country by the American Lung Association this year.
Bike- and pedestrian-friendly Stockholm pioneered the ‘city in a park’ concept and in 2010 was the inaugural winner of the European Green Capital award.
The European clean air campaigning group Sootfree Cities put Zurich at the top of its most recent rankings for its success in reducing emissions and a host of other green city initiatives.