The world has changed, but travel won’t stop. From Bubble Beds to Campervans, here’s how both tour operators and travellers alike are solving the problem of seeing the planet in the time of COVID-1
Bubbles. Time was, not so long ago, we delighted in bursting them: it’s why we travel – to break out of our comfort zones, to discover strange sights and exotic cultures, to meet new people, to try unfamiliar foods, to sleep in beds that are not our own.
Today, though, we’re exhorted to stay within that very comfort zone – to maintain ‘bubbles’ within and across households. Yet for the foreseeable future, travel will be tricky without at least a bit of bubble-busting. At some point you may need to board a plane, train, bus or boat, eat in a restaurant, stay in a hotel room. Of course, risks can be mitigated: airlines reduce passenger numbers, mandate facemasks, disinfect cabins. Restaurants space tables. Hotels boost deep-cleans and online check-ins, with the buffet breakfast a (hopefully temporary) casualty.
There are, of course, ways to make your travels more ‘bubbly’. A private jet can be yours – if money’s no object: Air Charter Service quotes £7,250 for a London-Edinburgh flight in an eight-seater Hawker Beechcraft 800. Or let the train take the strain: at time of press, the Rail Safety and Standards Board estimates that the chance of infection in England is around one in 11,000 passenger journeys, and many sleeper trains offer private cabins. Self-drive adventures are booming, as are exclusive hires – booking entire lodges, safari camps, boats, even hot air balloons for your bubble.
Inevitably, travel today carries a degree of risk – as it always has. But by keeping tabs on FCDO advice, planning wisely and following now-familiar measures – wearing face coverings, using hand sanitiser, practising social distancing – we can prepare to get back out there and explore the world. Track big game on foot across the African wilderness. Explore ancient Incan citadels in the Peruvian Andes. Let the open road lead you where it will.
Today’s travel landscape may look and feel a bit different, but it’s still awash with experiences to thrill. If you’re thirsty for bubbles, here’s a selection of ideas to tickle your palate.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road…” Kerouac glorified the road-trip, but it has always been a romantic prospect: think Guevara, Steinbeck, Theroux. Now it’s the safe one, too. On a self-drive adventure you can load up your ride, click shut the doors and set out on an odyssey that can be as self-contained as you choose.
Unsurprisingly, demand for campervans has soared; hire company Indie Campers saw a 164% growth in domestic travel bookings year-on-year this summer. The challenge has been finding campsites in which to park them – the Caravan and Motorhome Club, which has a network of 2,400 sites across the UK, has reported its busiest summer ever. Still, as autumn arrives, spaces are opening up.
If you’re thinking of trying van life, consider your needs. Relatively compact and manoeuvrable, a campervan is, as the name suggests, kitted out for camping, typically with fold-out beds and basic cooking equipment but usually no bathroom facilities. A motorhome has more, well, home comforts: bed, kitchen, loo, maybe a lounge, even a shower – an important factor: some campsites currently take only guests with their own toilet facilities.
Buying a van is expensive – upwards of £15,000, even secondhand – so renting offers an affordable introduction. A week’s London-to-London hire of a van sleeping four can cost under £700 with Indie Campers, while peer-to-peer hire company Camptoo lists vehicles across the UK, ranging from budget-friendly to luxe, starting from around £60pn including roadside assistance.
Lockdowns and quarantines permitting, overseas highways await. Ferries to mainland Europe are operating at less than 50% capacity, allowing ample space for social distancing; alternatively, stay in your vehicle on the speedy Eurotunnel, which has launched standard refundable tickets. Using these options, operators have created ‘bubbly’ tours: for example, Original Travel’s tailormade self-drive Provence itinerary includes Eurotunnel, private self-catering farmhouse accommodation plus out-of-hours and private tours.
Some countries’ roads are so empty that distancing is inevitable. Namibia, for instance, has one of the world’s lowest population densities and is easy to navigate. Steer a 4WD equipped with rooftop camping setup to some of the country’s less-visited – but no less dramatic – sites such as hilly Spitzkoppe and the Waterburg Plateau, with Reef & Rainforest.
In Ecuador, most travellers use private transfers or public transport; here, Journey Latin America has introduced an adventurous self-drive route roaming the Andes’ quiet, scenic backroads.
Unsurprisingly, exclusive hire of all types of accommodation is in demand, and not just self-catering properties, many of which are booked out well into 2021. Gather a COVID-19- compliant group and you can hire an entire hostel: smaller YHA properties are ideal for extended families, and often in dramatic locations – for example, Exford- Exmead Lodge on Exmoor (sleeps 19). At the more luxurious end of the spectrum, boutique hotels offering exclusive hire include elegant Georgian townhouse Number One Bruton in Somerset (sleeps 16).
The allure of a private island is stronger than ever. Host Unusual has a selection including an old lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on Eilean Sionnach, a speck off Skye (sleeps eight), and an off-grid cabin on Hvaler, a private isle south of Oslo with its own motorboat (sleeps five).
Of the Landmark Trust’s island retreats, north Devon outcrop Lundy isn’t strictly private, but it’s certainly remote, with quirky stays such as the one-person Radio Room. And in the Channel Islands, Fort Clonque is accessed by drawbridge and cut off from Alderney at high tide (sleeps 13).
The new genre of small-group adventure tours involve essentially forming a bubble with your new companions for the duration of a trip; operators have also introduced measures such as self-screening health forms, temperature checks at initial briefings, additional hand-washing stops and designated seats on transport.
Reduced numbers is the norm: Ramblers Walking Holidays’ hiking breaks at Hassness country house on Buttermere are now capped at 14 guests (formerly 21); singles from different bubbles don’t share rooms or bathrooms, dinners are served in two sittings, and walking groups are smaller. And G Adventures’ new Travel with Confidence Plus Collection includes some 40 varied itineraries – including hiking in Patagonia and sailing in Thailand – for 12 people each (max), with extra measures and a 50% discount on single-room options.
Many small-group trips involve activities such as trekking, cycling and rafting. Post-COVID-19 safety guidelines drawn up by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and the World Travel and Tourism Council include reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing, promoting contact-tracing apps, and clear communication of health and hygiene protocols; look for the WTTC Safe Travel stamp.
Of course, you don’t have to share your bubble with strangers, even on a group tour: gather family or friends and you can book your own. “It’s straightforward,” says Derek Moore, deputy chairman of AITO, The Specialist Travel Association. “Decide the size of your bubble, then talk to an adventure operator to plan an itinerary for a private small group. You could suggest your own itinerary, adapt an existing brochure itinerary, or just specify destination and duration and let the experts come up with ideas.”
AITO member Wild Frontiers offers private tours for groups of six to ten people; with a larger group, it should cost much the same as a scheduled trip. Wilderness destinations are particularly popular, says founder Jonny Bealby: “Enquiries about trips to Mongolia and Namibia are up 20%, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan: 30%.”
Wildlife Worldwide point out that wildlife tours are best with a very small group anyway, so lend themselves to a private tour. Founder Chris Breen recommends a 5-day winter break to Norway for whales, wildlife and Northern Lights as the ideal trip that can be adapted.
Some itineraries have been cleverly modified to assuage COVID-19 concerns. Peru specialist Amazonas Explorer has created In Depth trips exploring the Sacred Valley from a private villa base rather than hotel-hopping, venturing out on day-walks to sites with a private guide and driver; you’ll even have a private chef. With daily visitor numbers at Machu Picchu mooted to be limited to 675 when the site finally reopens (far down from the pre-COVID-19 number of 5,000), this could be the time to visit.
Epic land expeditions aren’t off the cards, either: Oasis Overland offers private hire on its continent-crossing vehicles. “We charge one price for the whole truck,” explains general manager Ceris Borthwick. “That price depends on the number of crew, fuel required and cost of getting the truck to the start point. But, for instance, we recently quoted £11,200 for 14 days in southern Africa. If you have 24 people, that’s good value!”
We can’t wait until Africa is fully open for business again. Air travel aside, safaris are among the most socially distanced adventures – often based in camps set amid vast wilderness, far from any madding crowds (except perhaps wildebeest). And with canvas, wall-less or sometimes even roofless accommodation, not to mention open-sided vehicles, ventilation isn’t a problem; the same’s true of walking safaris, dugout trips and campfire sundowners.
Small camps are best for exclusive hire. For example, Kichaka Frontier Camp, which offers wonderful walking safaris in the wildest reaches of Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, has only three luxe tents; an Audley tailormade trip can combine exclusive use of Kichaka plus time in Zanzibar. Also in Tanzania, if you can gather at least four people, Gane & Marshall’s six-day light mobile safari visiting the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, Tarangire NP and the Crater Highlands, staying in private camps with your own driver-guide and crew, starts from £1,848pp.
Such on-the-move adventures, such as Expert Africa’s Botswana Private Mobile Safari (from £2,230pp for four nights, based on four people; expertafrica.com), promise a unique wilderness experience. “Run by one of Botswana’s top young guides, it offers excellent value for money, and works well for couples and larger groups alike,” says Expert Africa MD Chris McIntyre. “The safari can be tailormade to take in a number of different areas of northern Botswana, and the camp travels with you – spend two to three nights in each location before the whole camp is packed up and moved.”
Elsewhere, Aardvark Safaris’ new Cottar’s Full Circle Safari aims to keep bubble-breaking to a minimum: stay at four camps within the Masai Mara, accompanied by the same (mask-wearing) team to minimise interaction outside your group.
Big cruises, it’s fair to say, have proved decidedly un-bubbly – yet messing about the water can be a rewarding (and distanced) option. In the week after domestic holidays were green- lighted, bookings with British narrowboat rental company Drifters doubled compared with last year. Perhaps it’s the Huck Finn aesthetic: float along shaded canals or rivers fringed with bird-bustling reeds at a joyfully slow pace. Indeed, you can read Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn’s adventures throwing open the locks of the North Oxford canal on p52.
If a life at sea appeals but you’re not skipper-qualified, raise anchor on a crewed voyage. Venturesail is one operator offering ‘boat bubble’ trips in Devon and Cornwall; bring your group and join a pre-bubbled crew. Or charter Anny or Mascotte, classic sailing vessels based at Charlestown in Cornwall, each sleeping seven plus crew; the five-day cruise to the Scilly Islands is a popular route.
In Turkey and Greece, traditional wooden gulets or caiques sleeping 10–20 passengers lend themselves to small groups; Abercrombie & Kent organises bespoke coastal voyages around that end of the Med – set your itinerary and sail away from the crowds.
For another level of maritime adventure, Selective Asia offers a cruise aboard the Alexa, a deluxe Indonesian pinisi with just one guest cabin, exploring the waters and coves of Komodo National Park.
Scuba diving creates more bubbles than you can count – and qualified divers can charter an entire liveaboard. For a week of solitary, world-class diving in the Maldives, board M/V Emperor Atoll, which sleeps up to 12 and packs in 17 dives over seven days; book with Dive Worldwide.
The great outdoors suddenly seems that much greater – no narrow corridors or choke points here. No wonder camping’s boomed: John Lewis reported equipment sales up by well over 50% compared with last year, and pitches have been hard to come by in the most popular regions of the UK. Many sites have reduced pitch numbers, increased spacing, and introduced online check-in and bookable shower times.
Small is definitely beautiful, so one particularly enticing option is the bijou Lorax Patch, an almost-wild camp near Wells in Somerset, currently offering only four pitches (for up to ten adults), each with its own composting loo and sink. And Alderfen Marshes, in the Norfolk Broads National Park, has just four very private two-person pitches, each with the use of a Canadian canoe (from £130 for two nights.
Seeking comfort under canvas? A profusion of bell tents, treehouses, yurts, cabins and other unusual edifices have sprouted – including literal bubbles. Woodland Escapes in Shropshire has two deluxe, dell-nestled domes near Ludlow, offering nature immersion and a fine base for exploring one of the UK’s most underrated counties. At Domaine Les Georennes, you can gaze across France’s Haut Jura National Park from the isolated terrace of a see-through bubble suite. Or plan a trip to New South Wales to bed down at Bubbletent Australia, overlooking the world’s second-biggest canyon.
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