First there was ‘slow travel’, which encouraged us to simply stop rushing from one postcard-worthy sight to the next. Then there was ‘experiential travel’, fostering a sense of authentic connection and a deeper immersion in a place’s culture, people, and history.
But the latest trend towards ‘transformative travel’ takes both of those a step further; encouraging us to use travel to chart our own evolution, improving our emotional and physical well-being.
“We need to move our minds and our hearts if we are to have more than superficial encounters with other cultures,” writes author Phil Cousineau in ‘The Transformational Travel Journal’. “Movement, in all its myriad meanings, is one of the keys to transformational travel, which requires a shift from passive to active ways of engaging with the world. No deep movement, no deep change; no joy; no consciousness of the awe and wonder.”
In a very real sense, transformative travel is the antithesis of the influencer-driven travel culture so prevalent today. Rather than flitting from one shiny photogenic scene to the next, like magpies with an attention deficit, this new philosophy of exploration encourages us to dig deep into each destination to extract as much learning and life experience as we can from where we find ourselves. It encourages us to question, examine and hold our own beliefs, bias and prejudice up to the light. A few snaps for the ‘Gram? That’s simply not good enough.
What’s also driving the trend towards transformative travel is that it’s not limited by where, when or how. Your transformative travel experience could be as simple as a long walk in a nature reserve near your home, a weekend escape in your own city – perhaps spent with a specific personal growth goal in mind – or a months-long adventure across the globe that sees you confronting your deepest fears.
What’s key is to travel with intent, wherever you choose to go. For delving into your spirituality that could be an ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica or a sweat lodge ceremony in the wilderness of Saskatchewan. But it doesn’t have to be so wild. Not 15 minutes from my front door in Cape Town is the remarkable Future Found Sanctuary, where guided retreats cover everything from guided meditation and conscious breath work to shinrin-yoku experiences in the indigenous forests of Table Mountain.
Spending time in an Indian ashram is perhaps the most self-evident way to focus on self-transformation. A far cry from the structured wellness retreats offered at so many contemporary resorts, an ashram stay is about creating your own process of self-discovery and having the discipline to follow it.
Transformative travel is not aimless. For some, the journey will be across landscapes and cities, while for many the true journey of discovery will be largely internal. Delving into our fears, hopes, dreams and perceived inadequacies.
For me, a transformative moment was tackling a 100-kilometre hike through Italy’s Ligurian Apennines. It’s one of the dozens of trails organised by On Foot Holidays, encouraging travellers to experience Europe on foot. Each morning I’d walk out of a tiny Italian village, with more than 20 kilometres of rugged countryside to navigate on my own. I met few people – mostly suspicious mushroom hunters in the deep woods – and those I did spoke little English. But by the journey’s end at the seaside town of Camogli, I was infused with a greater sense of independence and the ability to be alone.
Travel also offers us an opportunity to pause. Finding moments for mindfulness in a life packed with meetings, deadlines and family commitments is always challenging, but carving out time for travel forces us to focus on ourselves, and our loved ones.
At Bliss & Stars in the Western Cape’s Cederberg Mountains, Daria and Heine Rasmussen welcome guests to focused three-day retreats on their 1,350 hectares of rugged Cederberg wilderness. With accommodation in gorgeous Afro-Nordic chalets, their programmes offer the chance for mindfulness and meditation. Experiences range from couples-minded getaways to silent retreats, while Heine leads astronomy sessions that encourage contemplation of our place in the universe.
For others, it’s the chance to learn more about terra firma, with extended field guide immersions and wilderness walking trails that connect with a different kind of soul. At Elandskloof Farm outside Graff-Reinet, equine therapy programmes are hosted twice per year, with guests tuning into the power of nature and an animal connection to help with physical and emotional healing.
Whichever method you choose, what counts is the change you see in yourself. As Canadian poet Anne Caron put it so succinctly: “The only rule of travel is: don’t come back the way you went. Come back changed.”