The ultimate experiential travel

Experiential holidays let you immerse yourself in a culture or a wellness experience. You’re never on the sidelines watching in. Flip Byrnes reports.

To change your speed from woe to go, sometimes all you need is a mental reset. And the best way to do that is to experience another culture: be a traveller, not a tourist. Here are some ultimate experiential travel destinations around the world where you can soak up the surrounds rather than sitting in a resort that could be, well, anywhere.

Recalibrate your mind, seek authentic experiences, have the ultimate experiential trip and explore the globe – all at the same time.

Device detox

The Hunter Valley, NSW

E-detox, techno detox, device divorce — whichever way we say it, you know what we mean. Turn off your friends, colleagues, lover(s). Before going to explore the world and get in with the locals, check in on exactly where you are.

It isn’t necessary to go far to drop off the grid. And getting off the grid is not a bad thing; taking a “think week” at a health retreat is where social media experts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates came up with their best ideas. To connect, sometimes it’s best to disconnect and lose the noise that causes the brain drain.

The Golden Door Health Retreat & Spa, Elysia, just two and a half hours from Sydney, is the largest (and only) purpose-built health retreat in Australia. While not new on the scene, constant award winning keeps them at the top of their game, including the e-tox game.

Sign up for a 3, 5 or 7 day retreat with health and wellbeing seminars, nutrition, meditation and exercise ranging from meditative Tai Chi Qi Gong to zesty Zumba. But be prepared to leave your phone, tablet, e-reader and laptop at home. Part of the retreat is about making connections at the communal dinner table, without digital distractions.

It’s not draconian though. Rooms have TVs (if you must) and mobile phones can be used to stay in touch with family (just don’t interrupt the no-technology blanket outside your villa). Facebook status updates saying “On an e-tox”, while on an e-tox, however, is not the point of the programs.

  • We like: It isn’t hard and fast, rather it’s a gentle first step to disconnecting.
  • The nitty gritty: A 3-night Motivate for Change program starts at $1,960.

Locals with four legs

Golden Triangle, Thailand

Locals aren’t just humans, oh no, they’re our animal friends too. Add in a trunk and some tusks and suddenly this vacation looks very interesting. Learn how to drive an elephant at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort, located at the Thai/Myanmar/Laos border in the heart of the Golden Triangle in Thailand.

The resident gentle giants at The Anantara’s Dara Camp, a northern branch of the government’s Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC), are no ordinary elephants. They have been rescued from logging and other poor working conditions (including tourism).

There are several activities to get up close and personal with these jumbo beauties, from being a trainee mahout (elephant driver), learning to bathe and feed your charge, park (luckily not parallel), mount the elephant (running jump onto a lowered forehead) and use the soft commands. Ride your elephant to do yoga in a pagoda in a rice paddy (yes, this is an option) or head out for a picnic while the elephants have snacks.

More than all this, you and your charge will bond: elephants are highly intelligent, emotional and playful. If you want a thrill that has nothing to do with mass tourism and everything to do with the real deal, make a trunk call to northern Thailand.

  • We like: You’ll no doubt make a best friend for life.
  • The nitty gritty: Discovery Packages start at $1,203 per night including meals, beverages and experiences.

Get Lost And Found

Red Centre, Australia

A simple device detox might not do the job; you may need to seriously elevate the navel gazing component, and launching now is a brand new tour which will have your soul squeaky clean and ready to take on the world.

The School of Life has teamed up with Intrepid Travel to create tours that explore the notion of travelling for pleasure and how travel, when approached the right way, helps us grow into better versions of ourselves.

Sound deep? It is. As Brett Mitchell, Australia and New Zealand Regional Director of Intrepid Travel, says: “Travel has always been one of the best ways for people to discover themselves, but these trips take self-discovery to the next level.”

Experts in emotional intelligence (along with an Intrepid guide) lead the trip into nature’s classroom – and what a classroom! Taking in Alice Springs, the East MacDonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru, you’ll learn about Aboriginal traditions and the concepts of humility and perspective among the vastness of nature.

  • We like: The entire concept! Experiential? This is as far from a chain hotel and normal “holiday activities” as you can get.
  • The nitty gritty: The Art of Travel: The Red Centre: On Humility and Perspective tour runs from Sunday September 10 to Friday September 15 and costs $3,800 per person.


Huilloc Village Healthy Cook Stove Project, Peru

Volunteering holidays can be a shady area — what exactly will you be doing? Will it help a community? Is the organisation you’re travelling with legitimate? There’s no better way to be integrated into a local culture than lending a helping hand, and on a World Expeditions Huilloc trip, you’ll be doing just that.

Two hundred families live in Huilloc, a remote village in the corner of Peru’s Sacred Valley. Many porters who support World Expeditions on their Inca Trail treks come from this tiny village. But the small village has a big, smoky problem: with no chimneys in their huts, the smoke from cooking has caused chronic coughs and has been linked to pneumonia in children, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, low birth weight babies and lung cancer.

Using your muscles to help install the chimneys goes a long way to making life better here (don’t worry, there’ll be an expert installer with you). Sleeping over in a homestay, meeting your porters’ families (if post an Inca Trail trek), and being welcomed by the community is an experience so far from the beaten track, it will stay with you forever.

  • We like: It’s so niche. Chimneys? Who knew! But it delivers the perfect solution for a clear need, while becoming part of the village clan.
  • The nitty gritty: The 4-day itinerary costs $1,170 per person, minimum of two required.


The Belly of a Country

Cooking, Cambodia

Cambodian cuisine is a rarity, which is odd given it’s one of the oldest cuisines in the world. A thousand years ago the Khmer Kingdom, centred around Angkor, ruled most of South East Asia. Hence, many Thai and Vietnamese dishes have Khmer cooking roots. Thai cooking classes are so 2016. Cambodian is where it’s at.

Food tells a rich history of a place and its agriculture. Cooks in tuk-tuks have developed a tantalising itinerary. Their cooking class heads to the local market, buying ingredients before creating and eating your labour – along with stories of the origins and traditions of the flavours.

If you’ve a brave stomach then sign up for the street food tour, guiding you through the ins and outs of deep-fried water beetles, stuffed frogs on sticks and bright pink and green toffee-crusted rice cakes. Tempting.

Have an appetite for more? A 10 day trip will see you visiting growers and villages, experiencing floating restaurants and picnicking through famous Angkor Wat.

  • We like: Delve under the skin of a country and head straight for the belly.
  • The Nitty Gritty: The Fabulous Foodies Tour of Angkor Wat and Siem Reap costs $2,899 for 10 days. Tours run from 2-11th October 2017 and 12-21st February 2018.

Travel like a tourist

Travelling like a tourist and living like a local need not be mutually exclusive. Pack your holiday with authentic local experiences while still savouring the must-see sights.

Trusted guide

A good tour operator is a shortcut to a local culture — for example, Trafalgar excels at adding My Guest experiences to their itineraries, where the doors of a local home are opened for a meal (An 11th century aristocrat’s estate in York, or private vineyard on Provence, perhaps?). Find out more at

Be out-of-sync

Paris in August is très different to Paris in January. Avoid the hordes and enjoy Paris the way Parisiennes do: in all her moody, chilly glory. Likewise, visit big attractions during off-peak hours (usually the first or last hour).

Speak the lingo

Always a great way to break the ice — even if your patois is rough, everyone loves someone who tries.