Transformative travel: life-changing trips for 2018

From Guatemala to the Gobi Desert, this year's leading travel trend shows people's desire for more connection with places, and with themselves

The spa lounge of Deplar Farm, Iceland. Eleven
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Every year, at around this time, people look at the next twelve months with a sense of hope. Travel plans are discussed and bucket lists drawn up as a whole new year spreads out in front of us. Travel enthusiasts (myself included) have already started creating hit lists of tropical destinations, off-the-radar cities and new adventures to undertake and, this year in particular, it seems that transformational trips are the latest trend. These are trips in which travellers seek to travel with intention and mindfulness, engaging with challenging physical or cultural experiences, and having the time to reflect on themselves and their place in the world.

According to research by Virtuoso – a global network of luxury travel advisers – the transformative element of travel was one of the biggest motivators last year when it came to customers booking luxury holidays. United States-based ­travel-research company Skift added weight to those findings, calling “transformative travel” a trend to watch.

While one can argue that personal transformation has always been inherent in travel, companies are rapidly introducing new adventures and itineraries where the destination and accommodation come in second place to self-discovery. As we roll into the new year, we round up seven trips to add to your travel hit-list where you can guarantee your experience will stay with you long after you return home.

A complete departure

If money really isn't a concern and you always fancied yourself as a bit of an explorer, then the Extraordinary Adventure Club could be for you. Founded with the aim of creating an experience that sees guests test their mental and physical boundaries in some of the most hostile environments around the globe (such as Namibia, above), a trip with the "club" also incorporates coaching and counselling over a six-month period. Headed up by ex-Royal Marine Calum Morrison, the idea is to provide people with a definitive departure from normal-life scenarios, then guide them in implementing the lessons they've learnt while travelling, even when they go home again. Trips are specifically tailored to each client, and so far, have seen guests bike across the Gobi Desert hunting down night-time shelter in caves and valleys, or being dropped in remotest Guyana or Mongolia and left with minimal instructions on how to survive. Part Bear Grylls, part Boy- (or Girl) Scout, and all about discovering skills you didn't know you had, trips start from an eye-watering Dh750,000. More than a holiday, the bespoke offerings work flexibly around clients' schedules and include two two-week expeditions, four four-day retreats, weekly follow-up and mentoring sessions, fitness and psychological assessments and a night alfresco with Morrison practicing survival in the wilds of Scotland.

Programmes last six months and prices start from £150,000 (Dh743,824).

Motorbiking in the Sahara Desert. Extraordinary Adventure Club

Curated world trips with purpose

Born out of a frustration for not being able to find a volunteering travel opportunity that didn't involve multiple weeks' time commitment or massive financial input, The Vacation Project offers travellers a holiday served with a side of volunteering. Venture to Nicaragua this February where you'll start your exploration in Masaya by visiting an active volcano (below), then it's on to Leon – one of just a handful of spots in the world where you can give volcano surfing a go before surfing, hiking and cruising on the Emerald Coast. Over the next few days, you'll join Glasswing International, an El Salvador-based non-profit organisation, to volunteer at a local school where you'll be busy with building repairs, decorating classrooms and getting to know some of the teachers. Working alongside locals and seeing the difference that a few days of volunteering can make is the fundamental basis of all trips with The Vacation Project, which aims to send travellers home with a new perspective on life in the country of their visit.

The next trip to Nicaragua runs from February 17 to 24, and costs $1,595 (Dh5,857) excluding international flights.

The volcano in Nicaragua. The Vacation Project

Retrace family histories in Europe

Not all transformation comes from looking forward; travel with Family Tree Tours where unearthing your ancestral origins is the catalyst for change. Specialising in German-speaking countries, the US-based company also has experts in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, the United Kingdom and Ireland, and creates itineraries to help guests discover more about their family history. From organising meetings with local historians and genealogists, to guiding guests around the hometowns of their ancestors and assisting in locating town records, guests on the upcoming Northwest ­Germany tour will also get the chance to wander around historic old cities and quarters and meander through riverside towns. Step back in time at the sprawling Detmold Open-air Museum (above), and visit the German Emigration Center at Bremerhaven, located on the very harbour where over seven million emigrants once set sail from Europe. The trip aims to help travellers reshape their future by discovering more about the past.

The Northwest Germany trip runs from May 5 to 15 and costs $2,699 (Dh9,912), including accommodation, meals, tours and train tickets for travel around Germany, but excluding international flights.

Artisan adventures in local life

Sometimes it takes a foray into the life of someone else to see what needs to change in your own. That's exactly what the Thread Caravan offers travellers with a selection of sustainable artisan trips across Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and Morocco. This February, venture to Mexico's Oaxaca (below) for a five-day journey where you'll meet new people, discover more about the city's culture and learn the region's age-old craft of making a beverage from agave plants. As well as connecting with skilled farmers who've been working with the plant and the process for decades, guests will also venture out to a farm to get involved with a project that's aiming to revive heirloom produce. You'll also get to try your hand at cooking some of the region's favourite dishes – think rock soup or the perfect mole – under the guidance of a Mexican chef. And when you're not eating or crafting your way around the city, trips to the ancient Zapotec ruins or natural springs on the side of a remote cliff make for even more stories.

Running from February 15 to 19, the trip starts from $1,250 (Dh4,590) per person, including accommodation, tours and meals, but excluding international flights.

Oaxaca,Mexico. The Thread Caravan

Time to press reset in Italy

If your New Year resolutions involve making some big personal changes, kick things off with a springtime stay at a private island in the north of Venice. Organised by The Strategic Space, the trip has been billed as a way to hit the reset button, giving guests the chance to re-imagine life from the comforts of the beautiful Isola Santa Cristina in north Italy.

Isola Lagoon, Venice. The Strategic Space

Once a monastery, the island is now home to a plethora of bird and wildlife, and is the ideal setting for a personal strategy retreat. Staying in the nine-bedroom, fully renovated villa at the heart of the island, mornings take the form of workshops that utilise stories, group activities and solo exploration points as the focus while afternoons are a time for reflection, with guests being able to walk, hike, run, swim or simply enjoy the beautiful views on offer with the Adriatic Sea to the east and the Dolomite Mountains to the northwest. Private one-on-one sessions are available, and an in-house chef will keep you well fed with meals created from homegrown produce and freshly-caught seafood. Other activities include a rowing excursion to a neighbouring island, yoga classes, restorative breathing sessions and daily meditation. And to keep you “in the zone” after your trip is finished, you’ll get a virtual follow-up session 30 days after you return.

Taking place from May 23 to 27, single occupancy costs from €2,950 (Dh12,999), including all meals, coaching sessions and travel from the mainland, but excluding international flights.

Group workshop in Italy. The Strategic Space

Experiental encounter with Iceland

Far, far away from the thronging tourists that crowd the Blue Lagoon, Iceland's most renowned tourist attraction, lies Deplar Farm (below)  in the country's remote Northern Troll Peninsula and the site of a seven-day active Iceland experience hosted by Chosen and Eleven Experiences. Designed to promote experiential learning through a variety of adrenalin-fuelled adventure, fitness based activities, goal-setting and mindfulness, guests can gear up for sea-kayaking where experts will teach water navigation and rescue skills, wildlife explorations, dry-suit snorkelling with whales and summit hikes. Adventure aside, daily restorative yoga and spa sessions, meditative breathing workshops and guided goal setting are on offer with a programme that's been designed by Chosen's 'Life Optimisation' experts which include Olympic medallists, wellness doctors, nutritionists and personal coaches. This is Iceland at its most remote and devastatingly beautiful.

The next trip runs on September 8 and prices start at £10,475 (Dh52,048) per person on a twin basis, excluding flights.

The spa lounge of Deplar Farm, Iceland. Eleven

Switch off and reconnect in Thailand

Escape the stresses of daily life with a trip to northern Thailand where My Chi Journey is hosting a retreat (pictured above) designed to help travellers switch off, physically and mentally, from the bombardment of smartphones, social media and e-mails. Taking place in Doi Saket on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, the five-day escape promises to guide participants towards a simpler way of living. Days are spent participating in "The Simple Life" workshops, which ask travellers to examine the relationship between their physical and emotional self, and shed insights into how daily decisions and human connections can affect the quality of life.

There’s also dance classes, poetry readings and creative painting sessions, as well as early morning yoga and vegan cooking classes. Staying at the beautiful Mala Dhara Eco Resort, enjoy a salt water swimming pool and visits to the on-site herbal sauna, then head off into the surrounding farmlands where you can cycle, hike or explore the surrounding ridges and caves. With expert-led instruction to guide guests towards letting go of what’s unimportant and reconnecting with nature, this trip aims to send guests home with a new outlook on life.

The next trip runs from March 5 to 10, and costs from $1,290 (Dh4,737) per person on a twin sharing basis, excluding international flights.

Meditation in Thailand. My Chi Journey


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