ALL CANVASCHIC: by Lodweijk van den Belt (www.canvaschic.com)
ALL SA: South African Tourism
NZdolphins: New Zealand Tourism by Chris McLennan
NZhiking: New Zealand Tourism by Mick Wheeler
NZsand: New Zealnd Tourism by Graham Charles
Spiritual adventures: courtesy of Oxbow Ireland
Words: Cathy Struthers
Need some rest and relaxation with a difference? If the drudge of the 9-5 is getting to you and the stress of 21st century living is sapping your fire, it could be time to do a bit of soul-searching and spiritual seeking in the world's best destinations. Ready to rediscover yourself and your sense of soul? We've cherry-picked the very best places for enlightenment.
Best place to... Meditate
India is the home of meditation and there are few better places to tap into its wonders. Littered with Bhuddist monasteries perched on hillsides, saffron-clad monks reciting prayers, gentle prayer wheels and fluttering prayer flags, the magnificent landscapes around the Himalayas are some of the most inspiring to clear your cluttered mind.
For a glimpse of Everest, in pretty much all weathers, fly into Bagdogra. The town itself is a poor, desolate place and you'll probably want to retreat up to the more peaceful hill stations of the Himalayas fast.
The journey up to the hill stations around Darjeeling and Kalimpong offer stunning mountain views, with lush green jungle in the foreground and stark, awesome mountains in the background.
Darjeeling itself can be bustling during high season, but you don't have to venture far to discover perfects pockets of peace. Visit a few monastries, watch the monks and turn the prayer wheels - you'll soon find yourself in the perfect frame of mind for meditation.
Further south, give the hectic tourist hotspots of Goa a miss and continue down to unspoilt Kerala. Here, you'll find dozens of incredible places to rest your buzzing head for a few nights and slow down to Keralan pace.
Green Magic Nature resort will get you right back to nature - you stay in a treehouse 86ft above ground. A lift works when you turn on a wooden tap, and you have to wait until the running water fills the black bags before you are hoisted up by a system of pulleys and the counterweight of water into the 200-year-old banyan tree.
Another perfect spot for a few days of peace and meditation is Surya Samudra Beach Garden (www.suryasamudra.com). Set in an idyllic spot perched on the cliff-edge, with its own private beach and filtered swimming pool carved from the rocks, the 20-acre resort provides the ultimate escape. Meditate or practise yoga with your own personal yogi, on the marble platform overlooking the vast Indian Ocean, then head back to your 100-year-old ornate wooden lodge to lounge on the balcony and sip the milk from freshly-cut coconuts adorned with tropical flowers. If this place doesn't centre you, nowhere will.
Best place to... Recharge
Lush rolling hills, windswept mountains, deserted beaches and vast ocean vistas, this beautiful corner of Ireland really does have it all. Even the air here feels different, somehow softer, as if it is caressing you.
The beauty of Ireland is that everything is easy. The people are warm and welcoming, the food is healthy and fresh (particularly if you're into seafood) and nowhere is far. And, provided you avoid the American tourist invasion in high summer (June, July and August), you'll find yourself far from the crowds in blissful isolation.
My favourite route for recharging the batteries is around the coast from Baltimore in the south (a pretty little fishing hamlet with stunning rocky coastline) up to the wonderful Dingle Peninsula, which seems to have its own energy about it.
After relishing the wind in your hair and sea spray in your face on the Baltimore Peninsula, drive north to the often-overlooked Beara Peninsula. Tiny Garnish Island, home to hundreds of seals and tropical plant life is well worth the short ferry trip if you really want to feel the energy of nature recharge you.
Then, a drive over the spectacular Healey Pass will make you feel tiny. Vast, open rocky landscapes unfold before you as you wind up the twisty pass. When you reach the pinnacle and look across the mountainous Kerry in the distance, all that greets you is a white cucifix and statue. It's impossible to pass this way and not ponder life's bigger questions.
If you can afford to splash out for one night (B&Bs here are great and most nights you can luxuriate in warm hospitality on the cheap anyway), make it at Kenmare Park Hotel (www.parkkenmare.com) in pretty Kenmare. Set in one of Ireland's most peaceful settings, overlooking lakes and forests, it is pure indulgence. The ultra-modern Samas spa attached to the hotel is one of the best I've ever been to anywhere (and as a former spa correspondent I've seen a fair few). Before a treatment, you'll relax in saunas, steam rooms and refresh under tropical rain showers and Irish mists. Then it's off for a quick plunge in the wonderful infinity pool, set out in the forest under a glass roof so that you feel right in the heart of nature. Next it's your treatment proper - massage, body wrap, whatever will recharge you the best - before being swaddled on a lounger in a beautiful glass room under the forest canopy. Sheer bliss.
Batteries well and truly recharged, it's off to the dramatic Dingle Peninsula for some wild walks and refreshing mountain bike rides. Stay in one of the more remote B&Bs on the coast if you can, rather than in the slightly busier Dingle town.
If you've got longer than a week, keep heading north to Galway. Nestled in the lush green hills on the far west coast is Delphi, a fantastic spa and adventure centre. Mountain biking, dolphin watching, surfing, kayaking, hill walking or rock climbing - take your pick.
The reflexologists here are excellent and turn a bog-standard foot massage into a bit of a personal ‘reading’. I still can’t believe how spot on ttherapist Kim was with her summing up of my personality. She instinctively knew what areas of my life I struggled with and what my deepest fears were. I left the room (a gorgeous terracotta, earthy treatment room) feeling quite liberated, as if leaving a particularly useful counselling session.
Yes, if you've lost your spark, Ireland is sure to restore the glow in your cheeks and the light in your eyes.
Best place to... Get Perspective
If you've seen Lord of the Rings on the big screen, you'll have some idea of the jaw-dropping vastness of New Zealand landscapes - even if you're not a tiny Hobbit. If you're drawn to the spirit of the mountains, this country will take your breath away.
As well as being the adrenaline capital of the world, the South Island has the most humbling scenery. Blessed with snow-capped mountains, lush valleys and whitewater gorges, this place is huge. Any personal problems you have lurking under the surface will get swallowed up in the sheer vastness of what you see here. Queenstown, the kind of place everyone secretly wishes they lived in, is the best place to start your adventure. Friendly people, a gorgeous lake, endless activities, all topped off with the most amazing mountain backdrop - the aptly-named Remarkables range.
September, October and November, springtime and the shoulder season for tourism, is a particularly fine time to visit. You won't need to book accommodation so will have the luxury of shopping around for the best views on arrival.
Immersing yourself in the astounding landscapes is by far the best way to regain your perspective on life and have a load of laughs while you're doing it. Jet-boating, golf, sea kayaking, hiking (or tramping as the Kiwis call it) and Fly-by-Wire (a terrifying bungee-style) are all on offer. Venture an hour north to picture-perfect Lake Wanaka, where some of the area’s best mountain biking can be found.
For a change of pace, head south towards the sleepy, majestic Fjordland National Park. Passing Lake Te Anau and the Kepler mountains, you will feel as if you're the only person for miles around. This was your wilderness.
An overnight cruise on the Milford Mariner, is by far the best way to see the famous Milford Sound. With the daytime tourists gone, you get to see the Fjordland waters at their silent, magnificent best. You even get to go sea kayaking to explore for yourself as dusk falls.
If, after all this wilderness, you're desperate for a more open coastal fix, head over to Kaikoura on the opposite coast. Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where snow-capped mountains meet the ocean and the result is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Here you can sample one of life's most truly spiritual experiences - swimming with wild dolphins. You'll duck-div, spiral and wail high-pitched dolphin song as 40 or 50 Dusky dolphins swam circle you as if you're the most exciting playmates they’ve ever had. Cue more superlatives. New Zealand's south island truly is a land of superlatives. Enjoy.
Best place to... Stargaze
Vast deserts, sparse populations and huge skies. South Africa's geography all adds up to some of the very best stargazing in the world.
In the Karoo Desert in the very centre of the country, the dazzling desert days give way to clear nights bright with stars, offering some of the best stargazing. So good are the star-spotting opportunities that Sutherland in the southern Karoo, near Matjiesfontein, is home to the country’s most important astronomical observatories where the brand new Southern African Large Telescope, one of the most powerful telescopes in the world, resides.
It is so sensitive it can detect flickers from stars, galaxies and quasars a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye. Many people race through this hot expanse to get from Johannesburg to the Western or Eastern Cape, but they are missing out. Wally Kriek, a writer who lived and died in the Karoo town of Beaufort West described it as a place 'where nature dazzles on the endless plains and in the blue mountains, here in the blazing summers and icy winters where the winds fade to a silence so pure you can hear God think'.
But even more cosmopolitan Cape Town is a stargazer's paradise, the stars lighting up the dark skies like a pin cushion. Lying on Camps Bay or Clifton beach at night, with a picnic, candles and stars for company, is a sheer pleasure.
If you fancy a bit of safari-ing while you're out there, try Ko-Ka Tsara Bush Camp, a secluded bush camp of seven chalets surrounded by rocky crags and the Nuweveld Mountains on a private game reserve. By way, you'll head off on exciting game drives or refresh in the river pools. When night falls, the sounds of jackal calling create the real ambiance of Africa and offers you yet more stargazing, with falling stars regularly spotted. If you're after peace, tranquility and a sky full of the brightest stars, South Africa is the one for you.
Best place to... Get Back to Nature
Camping has come a long way since the days of shivering in sleeping bags and roughing it on hard-as-nails mats. This summer there have never been more stylish, eco-friendly and hip options - all of which still embrace camping's main aim of getting back to nature.
If you fancy communing with nature in real style, head to a quiet corner of the Ardeche in France and stay with Canvas Chic (www.canvaschic.com). Nine elegantly-decorated yurts with bamboo four-poster beds, floaty curtains and eclectic wooden furniture, the camp has a wholesome, natural and low-key feel to it. Across the Spanish border at Hoopoe Yurt Hotel, Andalucia, you'll find a similar set-up (www.yurthotel.com).
For a more funky vibe, head for the foothills of the Pyrenees and stay in a retro Airstream trailer. Belrepayre Airstream and Retro Camping (www.airstreameurope.com) is true retro heaven, with each trailer decked out in Sixties and Seventies furnishings with its own garden, sun loungers and barbecue. The decor is awesome but, don't worry, one look at the breathtaking surroundings will bring you back to nature fast.
Looking for a more coastal commune with nature? Try the Isle of Wight where Vintage Vacations (www.vintagevacations.co.uk) rent out three Airstream trailers on a farm. Cornwall too has it's fair share of cool campsites, a stone's throw from the surf and breezy coastal walks. Yurtworks (www.yurtworks.co.uk) has two elaborat Mongolian-style yurts, complete with wood-burning stoves and bathroom tents, while Cornish Tipi Holidays near Wadebridge (www.cornish-tipi-holidays.co.uk) offers a slighty more hippy-chic stay.
In Wales, try Eco Retreats in Powys (www.ecoretreats.co.uk) for a back to nature experience in the mountains.
Best place to... Seek Enlightenment
A land of intense red rocks, vast wilderness landscapes and awesome canyons, Utah epitomises the classic all-American adventure destination.
Its five national parks are strange places - each one with a spirit and energy of its own, and all on a grand scale. The first park you’ll hit is rusty red Zion (www.zionpark.com), a hiker's paradise. If you’re fairly fit, try Angel’s Landing trail - a steady climb that culminates in a thrilling knife-edge scramble from where you can sit and drink in the silence and serenity.
After that it’s on to Bryce Canyon, a simply mind-blowing labyrinth of sandstone rocks that feels distinctly other-worldly. Stay too long and you start to see faces in the the rock formations, but it's an amazing place to feel the energy of the earth. If you’re here in the winter, you can even silently cross-country ski through the maze of monoliths - perfect meditation.
For a real glimpse into the spirit and soul of Utah, book yourself on a five-day backcountry hike with Escalante Canyon Outfitters (www.ecohike.com). Expedition leader and laid-back mountain man, Grant, knows the land, its geology and its history inside out and his enthusiasm is utterly infectious. He's been through some fairly intense spiritual experiences himself and believes the land really does tell its own story.
After five days bushwhacking through remote red rock backcountry, wading up streams and plunging into natural pools, book into Boulder Mountain Ranch (www.boulderutah.com/bmr), near where your tour ends. A working cattle ranch, whose owners Bob and Sioux Cochran are fitness enthusiasts, you’ll get a unique taste of cowboy hospitality, fantastic BBQ ribs and, if the cowgirl in you is itching to come out, a western horseback ride.