Fresh air, big skies and a lack of other people are the orders of the day here
A great many “best-of” lists focus on cities to visit: we’re guilty of it ourselves (examples include 8 charming city breaks, 7 cities for a cosy winter break, and the 10 most liveable cities in 2018), so here we’ve decided to focus on places to go if you want to get away from it all. Fresh air, big skies and a lack of other people are the orders of the day here, and we reckon we’ve got something for a range of budgets, across a range of how adventurous you’re feeling!
Picos de Europa, Spain
Most often thought of as a city destination — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and the like — or for somewhere to simply lie on a beach and slowly toast, Spain probably isn’t the first name that springs to mind for isolation. Head to the northern part of the country, however, and you’ll find the Picos de Europa, a range of limestone massifs on the Atlantic coast.
Part of the Cantabrian range, the name comes from the fact that they were often the first glimpse of Europe afforded to travellers returning from the Americas. The region is home to a lot of Spain’s most interesting wildlife, such as brown bears, wolves and eagles, as well as more domesticated animals.
In fact, there is still a small community of shepherds maintaining their ancient lifestyle in the mountains, and although numbers are dwindling, the foods such as Cabrales cheese made by them are famous nationwide.
As well as going up, you can also go down, as the region is home to some of the world’s deepest caves, stretching over one and a half kilometres underground. As for hiking, even though it may seem like a wilderness the paths and trails are well-marked.
There are trails up into the mountains for the more hardcore among you, or you could simply choose to wander the gently rolling meadows and forests of the lowlands, coming across houses — and sometimes even villages — that are, to this day, inaccessible by road. If that’s not an escape, I don’t know what is.
Home to the world’s oldest desert (the Namib, from which the country gets its name), even by African standards Namibia is something a bit special. Even the names of the places — the Kalahari, the Skeleton Coast, Fish River Canyon — are beautiful, evocative, ancient and storied.
We’re going to focus on another aspect, however: the mountains. Sometimes overlooked for the deserts, plains and mighty dunes that make up a lot of the country, the mountains can be explored both by 4×4 or on foot, but either way will give you views to the very edge of the world, with nary a village or another person in sight. It’s almost as if the whole planet is yours, just for a while.
The Spitzkoppe are probably the most well-known mountains, due to them being the most easily walkable. Even without expending a massive amount of effort, you can see some really stunning scenery and also camp at both campsites and in traditional thatched huts. Staying here means you’ll also meet locals who run stargazing, climbing, or birdwatching trips you can take part in.
The Naukluft range has trails that range from 4 km in length all the way to a mammoth 8-day hack through the wilderness. Seeing as these all go through areas that are important to wildlife, you need to get a permit from Namibia Wildlife Resorts (the NWR) for not only walking, but camping too. This will let you get to know not only the landscape, but also the hundreds of species of animals and birds that call the area home.
If you’re planning a holiday in the UK, you need to be prepared for the weather to turn at a moment’s notice. It’s marginally less likely on the south coast, which is why that part of the country is so popular, with Devon and Cornwall in particular attracting thousands of tourists every year.
It’s still possible to escape the masses though, and really find somewhere to call your own in this lovely part of the world. Walking the coast reveals hundreds of beaches, many of which will be almost deserted, even at the height of summer. Tiny fishing villages perch on the edges of cliffs, inviting you to walk their lanes and stop in their quaint pubs for a pint of something local and perhaps some freshly-caught seafood.
Accommodation is generally very English too: self-catering cottages are popular, meaning you’ll have total freedom to come and go as you please, while still having somewhere cosy to retreat to if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
There’s also been a surge in eco-tourism across the region, meaning farm stays and the like are readily available, something families with kids might love. What could be better than a full English breakfast made with fresh farm produce, before exploring the area either on foot or by bicycle, before coming home to sit outside in the night air under a blanket of stars?
Often thought of as a winter destination because of its mountains and world-class ski resorts, the Austrian countryside is some of the most beautiful in Europe. The lakes, rivers, fields and forest under clear blue skies and fresh mountain air will have you singing their praises like some mad Julie Andrews impersonator.
No matter where you find yourself, you’re guaranteed a warm welcome, with comfy inns, hearty food and generally excellent hospitality. Austrians take the idea of gemütlichkeit — a satisfied, comfortably hospitable feeling — very seriously and, in the countryside especially, you’ll soon feel as if you’re a long lost friend returning from their travels.
The Salzkammergut, or the Austrian Lake District, stretches east from Salzburg and into the mountains, and comprises 76 lakes, each more beautiful as the last. Lake Wolfgangsee and the village of Strobl are popular spots for water sports, swimming and sunbathing, while the huge Attersee and the lesser-visited Hallstättersee are equally stunning.
All the way down south lies the Faaker See, Austria’s most southerly lake and its warmest, at a pleasant 26C. You could even use this as a base to venture over the border into Slovenia, where even more mountainous adventure awaits you. But that’s a whole other article…
If you want both isolation and epic scenery, have we got the trip for you. Stretching 340 km, California’s John Muir Trail runs through wilderness and backcountry, but also through the Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks.
It is possible, of course, to section-hike (just do a bit of the trail), particularly through the sections in the national parks, but a few hardy folk elect to do the whole thing in one go. At an average pace, three weeks is generally enough, but there are some detours you can take at points — for example, if you feel like tackling Mount Whitney which, at 4,421m is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States.
Whatever you decide to do, the US’s most-populous state is still a vast piece of land, and there’s an awful lot of wilderness out there. As previously mentioned, many people who go walking simply drive out from the cities for a day to do a small section of whatever trail they’ve chosen. Go further, with everything you need on your back, and the spirit of the American pioneers will be walking beside you.
Seven Rila Lakes, Bulgaria
In the remote northwestern corner of Bulgaria, 8,200 feet above sea level, lie the Rila Lakes. Situated one above the other, they are connected by small streams that create tiny cascades and waterfalls between them. They’re a popular destination for Bulgarians, and a source of pride due to their unspoilt beauty.
The best time to go weather-wise is at the height of summer, as at other times it can become rather severe: the lakes tend to freeze in October and don’t defrost again until June! Despite this, because of their popularity, the park can become quite crowded in the summer, so we’d recommend the springtime when you can have the place a lot more to yourself. Just make sure you come properly clothed.
The lakes are all named after either their location (Lower Lake) or their appearance (The Eye) and all have very distinct characteristics. Other life in the area is beautiful too, with wildflowers blooming underfoot and birds swooping and diving through the air.
The entire area is around a 90-minute drive from the capital, Sofia, which means it’s popular with day-trippers. A real escape, however, would be to bring camping equipment and get properly lost, away from the crowds for a few days, and really see what this beautiful place has to offer.
We arrive, finally, at one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world. Ulaanbaatar has invested in a new airport and international hotel chains are finally waking up to the fact that the capital is making strides on the world stage. It’s not, however, the city that most tourists come to see.
Mongolia is one of the world’s last great wildernesses; an endless land of steppe, deserts, grassland and mountains that’s sparsely populated and little-travelled. The nomadic culture is famous around the world, and that extends, nowadays, to the hospitality of the nomadic people. It’s common, as a tourist, to stay in a ger (the traditional felt yurt of a herdsman) and help with the herding, husbandry and horse riding that is essential to the culture.
The northern and western parts of the country, in contrast to the grasslands used by herders, is rugged, mountainous and unforgiving. The highest points are close to the border with China, with the Khüiten Peak, at 4,737 metres, being the tallest in the country. These areas are, if anything, even more undiscovered than the steppe, and can truly call themselves the ultimate adventure. When someone asks what your greatest-ever trip was, how many people will be able to say “Hiking in Mongolia”? You could be one of the very few.