The look was sceptical. “You’re going cycling in Rwanda? You know it’s called “Land of a Thousand Hills’ don’t you?” I certainly did after day one. Long, grinding slogs uphill, followed by the dashed promises of a descent. Seeing Rwanda by bicycle, though, turned out to be a fantastic way of experiencing the country at ground level, not to mention a fantastic thigh workout. In over a week I got to know the local people as I pedalled from Kigali towards Lake Ruhondo and its background of cloud-dappled volcanoes that straddle the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Amakuru?” – how are you? – I’d call out to slightly bemused villagers in my basic Kinyarwanda. “Ni Mese” – we’re fine – would come the reply.
The way we actually get from A to B when we travel is often overlooked in the mad dash to reach what we perceive to be the destination. But shouldn’t the journey actually be part of the destination and the experience?
“Yes, for sure,” agrees Agustina Lagos Marmol from active outdoor company Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. Her favourite trip with clients? Ski touring with guests from lodge to lodge on cloudless early spring days, carrying hunks of local cheese, bread and prosciutto, at some points strapping skis onto backpacks and rappelling down rock faces to get access to otherwise unreachable powder runs.
“It makes my soul soar. You’re close to the angels. You know”, she says laughing like a naughty child, “there’s a saying in Italian but it’s quite rude, it basically means something is even better than great sex but for me that sums up a perfect day in the mountains.”
“Experiential modes of transport create lasting memories”
Experiential modes of transport create lasting memories says Ross Phillips of Tropicsurf, which seeks out amazing surf spots for clients from Mozambique to Costa Rica.
“I surfed all my life looking for one special ride. I finally caught it in remote Indonesia: a big, growling tube that threatened to pulverize me into a shallow reef.
“But it’s amazing how much pleasure a single memory can occupy in the mind. Today, that short ten-second rush inhabits an overwhelming portion of my memory bank…Peak experiences do that. …If you see value in owning more powerful, ten-second memories, my company’s mission is to help them materialize.”
It’s a statement that Veronika Blomgren, co-founder of Indonesia-based Alexa Private Cruises agrees with. Her clients sail within the islands of Komodo National Park and the Raja Ampat archipelago on their own private, 28m-lomg, crewed pihnisi, a traditional local two-masted ship.
“I once heard it said that ‘ships are the nearest thing to dreams that hands ever made.’ I grew up in Russia in a very grey and visually unstimulating time. My visits to museums and forests were the only way to satisfy my thirst for beauty…and to appreciate beauty in all its forms…all styles, all possible expressions, to be inspired by almost anything our huge planet has to offer.
“Travelling with us isn’t about the destination. In fact that doesn’t really matter. Our trips are about the journey”
The importance of experiential travel is one that is echoed by Rohan Vos, CEO of Pretoria-based Rovos Rail, which provides luxury train travel across Southern Africa. “Travelling with us isn’t about the destination,” he says candidly. “In fact that doesn’t really matter. Our trips are about the journey. It was important to us from the very beginning that this wasn’t just a train ride. We wanted our guests to learn about this country, its history, its culture, its people and of course experience the magnificent wildlife.”
Life-changing experiences don’t just come on land. Who’s to say they can’t happen at 40,000ft over the Himalaya while dreaming of world-class culinary discoveries?
Next year, Four Seasons Private Jet will launch three food-themed itineraries with guests travelling aboard its 52-seat Boeing 757 jet in partnership with Rene Redzepi, head chef of Noma in Copenhagen. Clients will visit some of the world’s best restaurants and private kitchens en route from Seoul to Paris, from Dubai to Bogota.
As well as fine dining there’ll be the opportunity to go hot air ballooning over the Serengeti, enjoy a private tour of the Hermitage in St Petersburg and go night snorkelling in the Maldives. Fantastic destinations all, but getting to them is half the fun.
Voyages that stay in the mind forever don’t have to be wallet-draining. “For guests we can choose a horse-pulled cart because in past times this was the only means of transport in Romania and it is still used today,” says Andreea Dobre of Beyond Dracula, which offers bespoke itineraries in Transylvania and beyond.
“By travelling in this way you can connect with the peasants’ way of life, and step back in time. You can better understand the connection and respect people here still have for nature and animals. Of course it also means you can ride off the beaten track and truly get back to nature.”
“We can connect with a destination and its people by really slowing down and using the most traditional of methods to make the journey”
And sometimes we can connect with a destination and its people by really slowing down and using the most traditional of methods to make the journey.
“To me, one of the most incredible approaches to a hotel is getting to 360 Shakti in the foothills of the Himalaya,” says Mary-Anne Denison-Pender, managing director of India hotel specialist Mahout. “After a train from Delhi, you have a five-hour drive up into the hills, hugging bright blue rivers, passing through gorgeous little villages, slowly climbing, climbing, climbing. From there the final stretch is an hour-long walk on a gentle undulating path to the lodge… A stay here forces you to slow down and simply become part of mountain life.”
It’s a similarly-unhurried attitude that appeals to Lauren Scharf, who works with Ryokan Kurashiki on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The inn is a popular start or end point for an 88 temple-pilgrimage that became popular thanks to 8th-century Buddhist monk, Kobo Daishi.
“I spent five days on the route recently” says Scharf, “and was blown away. It effectively combines Japanese traditional culture and cuisine, religion, architecture, hiking through gorgeous nature and great opportunities to interact with locals.”
Whether we’re panting up hills on a bike in Rwanda, hanging ten on a surfboard in Bali or watching the clouds go by from a train heading towards Victoria Falls we can all connect with our world on a deeper level. As American writer Henry Miller once said: “One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things”. Something to think about as we travel and change worlds.
Will Hide spent 12 years on the travel desk of The Times in London but now writes for a number of national newspapers and magazines in the UK, Asia and US. His favourite kind of travel is when he’s got dirt under his fingernails but with the chance to scrub up somewhere five star afterwards.