Why do you travel? Is it simply to “fly and flop” on a sun lounger and forget about your inbox for a few days? For a growing number of travellers, that’s no longer enough.
I’m not going to deny the joys of a cocktail by the beach, but is that enough to justify the cost — financial or ecological, you choose — of jetting across the globe? Right now, the smart money’s on “no”, as the travel industry wakes up to the fact that personal fulfilment has become the new luxury.
That’s the opinion of the respected Megatrends Defining Travel in 2018 report released by US publisher Skift last year. Skift first flagged the rise of experiential travel — that craving for authentic, transformative experiences — back in 2014. Half a decade on, we’ve come even further.
“For luxury travellers, an experience in itself is no longer enough,” Meghan Carty writes in the report. “The personal fulfilment and self-improvement one gains from an experience are taking precedence, and luxury brands can help travellers reach this goal.”
Whether it’s focusing on your photography or brushing up on your Russian, self-improvement takes many shapes. But food is the most obvious of them all. We all have to eat, so culinary education has become the gateway activity for learning a little on holiday.
Why vegetate by the pool when you could be discovering the intricacies of Italian olive oil in Liguria or honing your tapas skills with the resident chefs at Malaga’s El Carligto Estate? Dubai might feel anodyne, but in the company of local guide Arva Ahmed, the immigrant history of the city’s Deira district comes to life in a collision of Middle-Eastern culinary influences.
But sometimes a local with a few favourite hangouts isn’t enough. Experts are the way to really expand our knowledge of our chosen obsession.
In Paris, Context Travel can have you exploring the patisseries of the Left Bank with pastry chefs from the city’s finest Michelin-star kitchens. Cocoa expert and renowned chocolatier Chloé Doutre-Roussel can likewise lead you through the chocolate shops of Paris, or on a guided trip to the cacao plantations of Venezuela, Brazil, or Mexico.
In the wake of food tourism, architectural travel is an obvious second choice. We’re here to see the place, and much of that is the built environment. Uncovering the layers of history that shaped a city is a beguiling way to get under its skin.
In Johannesburg, various companies offer walking tours that unpack everything from street art to street food, slowly doing their bit to change out-of-touch perceptions of the city.
Across the border in Maputo you’ll find similar wandering with Maputo a Pé, whose founder Jane Flood is passionate about the city’s architectural heritage.
“People have this crazy notion that the city was wrecked by the war, which is entirely wrong,” Flood says. Indeed, turn your gaze skywards, and you’ll discover an open-air gallery exhibiting the striking work of Amâncio “Pancho” Guedes, who sculpted much of the Maputo skyline in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, designing hundreds of buildings in the dying days of Portuguese control.
Back within our borders, readers of The Telegraph can join a tour created to unravel South Africa’s sociopolitical history. You’ll be escorted by the paper’s South African correspondent, journalist Peta Thornycroft, and visit Robben Island in the company of Christo Brand, Nelson Mandela’s guard on the island. Access, not excess, is part of this new luxury.
Want to brush up on your Aramaic? There’s a cruise out there for you
Large hotel brands have cottoned onto that too, with Marriott offering members of its Bonvoy loyalty programme the chance to swop points for a diverse spread of “moments”. How about a two-day golf clinic in Lake Tahoe with Annika Sörenstam, a surf lesson with Laird Hamilton, or a private cooking class with Michelin-starred chef Sayan Isaksson in Tokyo? All can be arranged.
Even holidays as seemingly indolent as cruising have seen an evolution towards the traveller seeking to broaden their mind, rather than their waistband. Niche operators such as Voyages to Antiquity turn your average Mediterranean jaunt into a hotbed of history, with archaeologists, linguists, and art experts on board. Want to brush up on your Aramaic? There’s a cruise out there for you.
Universities are also seeing the upside for their bottom line. As part of its adult programme, Cornell University offers global “study tours”, led by leading academics. Naturalist and evolutionary biologist Scott Taylor will take you zip-lining in Costa Rica, or you can discover next year’s solar eclipse in Argentina’s Patagonia Lakes District in the company of professor of astronomy Ray Jayawardhana. Rates start from just $8,200.
You might be wondering, and perhaps it’s a fair question, why bother? Why not just sink into that sun lounger and hail the waiter?
The simple answer: curiosity. Be curious about the place you’re in. Find out what’s cooking at that corner street stall. Why do the buildings here look like they do? What’s with that local patois? The right kind of travel can help answer those questions.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” wrote Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad. “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.”
In times like these, we couldn’t agree more.
• From the November edition Wanted 2019.