The art of slow travel

Born out of a need to counter the impact our fast-paced world is having on the environment – and on our minds – slow travel is a spontaneous, nomadic way to wander the wilderness. Emma Johnson meets some of the pioneers of travelling mindfully…

“Faster is not always better,” said Carl Honore, whose seminal work In Praise of Slow (2004) sought to change a global mindset that had become deeply conditioned to chasing down the next big thing at million miles an hour. “Being slow means doing everything at the correct speed – quickly, slowly or whatever pace works best. Slow means being present, living each moment fully, putting quality before quantity in everything, from work and sex to food and parenting.”

Slow travel is an offshoot of the slow food movement, which started in the 1980s in Rome as a reaction to the opening of a McDonalds in the Piazza di Spagna, and also spawned the concepts of ‘slow cities’, ‘slow fashion’ and ‘slow living’. The overall idea of these slow movements, is simply about finding the meaning in our lives by allowing ourselves the time to search for it. “We believe that we can add meaning to life by making things go faster,” says Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement. “We have an idea that life is short – and that we must go fast to fit everything in. But life is long. The problem is that we don’t know how to spend our time wisely.”

Seeing less, is seeing more

A total and complete antithesis to the ‘see 15 cities in three days’ culture of box-ticking tours, slow travel is about immersing yourself in a new culture over several weeks or months, being mindful of your new surroundings, picking the route less plotted and the road less driven. It’s about celebrating local insight, going with the flow, taking your time, being spontaneous and following where your curiosity leads you. “The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquillity to make meaningful connections – with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds,” says Honore.

For its part, the slow travel phenomenon has been building steadily over the past decade. In recent years, as the world has become attuned to more mindful ways of thinking and more concerned about the environmental impact that extensive travel over a short period of time has, the slow travel movement has started to gather momentum.

And in so doing, the travel industry has seen the rise of sustainable and ethical businesses that are working to promote a slower form of travel. Green Pearls, founded by businesswoman Stefany Seipp, features only sustainable or green hotels with strong credentials in the slow travel movement. Seipp started the business after 30 years of working in tourist industry and seeing numerous wonderful and inspiring places destroyed by over-tourism and exploitation. “It is my deepest wish to change the way we travel. People should travel, it broadens the mind, helps us to understand how small the world is and how big our impact is. People need to understand they can make a difference by travelling more consciously.”

Slow business

Seipp, who started the business before sustainability was an established trend, wants the industry to take more responsibility for the local people and communities they work in, and her aim to is show that slow travel is not only a realistic option, but a beneficial one for us too. While Slow Travel implies responsible planning, thinking about the ways we travel, what kind of transportation we choose and where we stay, it also asks other important questions of us. How do I get to know local people, what kind of experiences will I have, will those benefit local communities, what can I do to support local people and nature? “Travelling against the season – like traveling to Asia in rainy season – helps to reduce over tourism and over-crowded places,” says Seipp, “But it also benefits our longing for quietness and unwinding. Slow travel means taking time and getting to know the local people and supporting the environment by avoiding exploitation and destruction.”

Green Pearls features a host of destinations worldwide, all of which combine strong eco credentials with a commitment to wellness, healing and retreat. At the beautiful Life Balance hotel in South Tyrol, built entirely of natural materials, ‘eco wellness’ is offered through a holistic approach to wellbeing, concentrating on mindfulness and the essence of the human being. While, in the lush countryside of the Himalayas, the low rise white buildings of Wild Mahseer are situated amidst the Eastern Himalayan Botanic Ark, a haven of nature. Part of the Balipara Foundation, Wild Mahseer is a beautiful social enterprise protecting history, fostering community growth and environmental interdependence in the region through mindful tourism.

Travel slow, travel well

At Hotel Lamm in Germany’s Black Forest, owner Katrin Holl runs what she calls a ‘selfness hotel’. Situated within a wellness village, surrounded by trees and mountains, Hotel Lamm is built of small log cabins made from sustainable, local wood, with grass roofs, green power sources and impressive renewable energy credentials. Holl wants the hotel to be a true retreat from modern life – for both our minds and bodies.

“Selfness is a longing for security, stability, inner balance, self-reflection, vitality, a sense of home,” explains Holl, who holds a masters in economy and sport science and used to play football for the national German women’s league, before taking over the family business in 2010. She explains that her decision to continue the family business was one she was passionate about, not least because for her it represented the true meaning of sustainability. “The hotel has existed since more than 200 years, so it was natural for me to keep on running the hotel sustainably, since sustainable implies ‘in the
long run’.

Now married, with four children, Holl’s close relationship with sports and living a healthy lifestyle can be seen throughout the hotel today. She champions the power of nature, building on mental strength through exercise and sport, and the importance of family. Relaxation breaks here includes time in the mill wheel sauna, Rosen method bodywork – which treats physical tension, regional food, hiking trails and walking in the forest. It is gentle, peaceful, not flashy or opulent, but deeply connected with nature and a sense of self. “To me, slow travel means traveling with all senses, letting oneself get to know the locals and places you’re travelling to, and taking time for your family,” says Holl.

Space and time

This sentiment is echoed by Oli Broom, an ex-city trader, who started his company The Slow Cyclist after quitting his job and undertaking a mammoth cycling adventure to Australia. “I was going down a path I knew was wrong for me. I knew I should be doing something other than selling office blocks, but I didn’t know what. I thought a bike ride would give me space and time to figure out my future.”

Broom’s experience perfectly encapsulates the nature of slow travel – space and time to re-goup, to take stock, to see things anew. And in 2015, Broom started The Slow Cyclist, realising a longheld dream of taking people to beautiful parts of the world, by bicycle. And the business continues to promote a slow approach to travel in numerous ways. His dedicated team spends months, sometimes years, researching and living in their chosen destinations, slowly uncovering the food, culture, history, people and landscapes that make them special. “We give guests incredible, slow travel experiences, all with impeccable service, so that they can switch off,” explains Broom. Slow cyclists can expect gourmet picnics in hilltop pastures, experts that guide them through the stories of the region, charming, accommodation in homes, guest houses and farm stays – a total immersion in the country.

“Slow cycling is a way of life,” says Broom, and whether guests like pottering along dusty back-roads, inching up soaring mountains or winding through wildflower meadows, the key is to get the most out of their time on – and off – the bike. “I firmly believe that travel is worth taking time over, and that a great holiday means getting under the skin of a place…we are all about slowing-down, looking-up and enjoying the journey,” adds Broom.

It’s clear that the impact of slow travel on our wellbeing is quite considerable. Once we allow ourselves time to stop, to look about, to be still, the benefit of new experiences starts to seep in. Slow travel is about immersing yourself in the richness of life’s experiences, free from time pressures, tight schedules and concrete destinations. It’s freedom to explore, at your pace, in your own way. “The art of living is about learning to give time to each and every thing,” says Carlos Petrini. “And that, most surely, should include travel.”