Sustainable travel: The art of slowing down

Slow travel is a concept that goes beyond simply getting from A to B. Embracing its ways not only benefits our busy minds but the places we travel to as well...

4 mins

As technology fuels greater levels of efficiency, life is speeding up. We pack more in than humans have ever done before, albeit often with less physical effort. And while the pandemic provided a firebreak, changing our mindsets in the process, things are accelerating again. Slow travel offers a break from this; one that is good for our mental health and benefits local communities and the environment. It also comes in many guises.

Just as slow food celebrates the growing, buying and preparing of food as much as the meal itself, slow travel celebrates the journey and the intricacies of a destination. It looks beneath the brochure sales pitch to discover the soul of a place by taking lesser-known paths leading to unexpected experiences. This might involve taking a slower means of travel, such as ditching flights for trains or pulling on walking boots; seeking smaller-scale local experiences; heading to under-touristed destinations or simply staying put in one place for longer. It’s about doing less but going deeper, and it has many benefits. Slow travel can help to combat overtourism, lower our environmental footprint and funnel money to local people. It’s also often more affordable, creating a win-win scenario.

Kayak in Costa Rica with Much Better Adventures (Shutterstock)

Kayak in Costa Rica with Much Better Adventures (Shutterstock)

Fife Coastal Path (Shutterstock)

Fife Coastal Path (Shutterstock)

Of course, slow travel is nothing new, and several specialist tour operators have already embraced the concept. Inn Travel specialises in rail and walking holidays throughout Europe, often hand-picking less-visited routes like the local train lines that trundle at a snail’s pace between northern Spain’s villages and the coast. New this year is a four-night walk along Fife’s Coastal Path with stops at distilleries, a chocolate shop and smokehouses. Yet this is just one example among many.

Saddle Skedaddle offer supported cycling adventures for all levels of experience in the UK. Likewise, small-group trips with Rabbie’s in Scotland are flexible, so local guides can make detours and slow down at the group’s request. Village Ways, meanwhile, leads hikes between self-contained communities and homestays high in the Nepalese and Indian Himalaya. And lastly, Much Better Adventures are pros at curating self-powered expeditions, including a coast-to-coast adventure on foot and by kayak across Costa Rica’s jungle-laden interior.

New slow-travel itineraries are popping up all the time. Responsible Travel offers a Morocco ‘High Atlas Homestay’ tour for 2022, taking guests to a Berber homestay in the Atlas Mountains, visiting women’s cooperatives and offering the chance to try traditional crafting. Operating in lesser-explored parts of Scotland, Italy and Sweden, Slow Adventure launched in 2021 and is working with local micro-businesses to help travellers access smaller-scale experiences. Its ‘The Art of Climbing and Yoga’ trip offers an intimate escape in Lombardy’s Valtellina valley – known as Italy’s Yosemite.

Destinations are also responding to the demand for slower experiences. The Trans Bhutan Trail has reopened for the first time in 60 years after a massive restoration effort. Community tourism pioneer G Adventures is already offering an 11-day camping and homestay trip specially designed to provide income opportunities for young people in remote villages along the way. Closer to home, Visit Wales is helping visitors slow down on its northern coast, providing car-free travel itineraries for exploring The North Wales Way, from cruising canals to biking the Brailsford Way in Snowdonia.

And last but certainly not least, the ultimate slow-travel experiences involve ditching curated itineraries and embracing spontaneity. It’s often when we throw ourselves into the unknown that the real magic truly reveals itself.

Reality check: Digital detox

Whether we  are willing to admit it or not, many of us are addicted to the tiny pocket-sized devices that Silicon Valley cleverly accompanies with non-stop pings and red dots. The constant nag of notifications or updates from work are a surefire way to crush your slow-travel dreams. The best way to live in the moment and embrace every little instance of exploration thrown your way is to just switch off your phone. After all, your swiping finger and brain need a break too.

Top tips on slow travel

Travel by train (Shutterstock)

Travel by train (Shutterstock)

Hidden camping

The Secret Campsite is a small and wonderfully wild campsite in Sussex’s wooded Weald area. It provides campers with the ultimate slow escape. A farm shop and sustainably minded café are a short walk across the fields, making it possible to ditch the car, and there’s a new on-site workspace to facilitate extended stays.

Take to the tracks

Train connoisseurs Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries often help tour operators to design rail itineraries, but independent travellers can also jump on board thanks to their book, Europe by Rail, updated in April 2022. It features over 50 routes, including offbeat destinations and train lines.

Masters of slow

Guidebook publisher Bradt’s Slow Travel series explores local and small-scale experiences, producers, places to stay and things to do in the UK. Besides destination guides, books in the series include Family Breaks, co-written by this author, and Britain’s Sacred Places by regular Wanderlust writer Martin Symington.

The swap shop

For extended stays, ditch Airbnb, which often favours second-home owners damaging local economies, and opt for a house swap instead. The increasingly popular Love Home Swap costs £96 per year and provides each homeowner with points to trade for another home anywhere in the world.

Jane Stuart-Smith, the co-founder of Slow Adventure, talks about setting up a tour operator based on the slow-travel philosophy and how it helps local communities…

“When I ran the Whitehouse Restaurant in Lochaline, Scotland, I was an active member of Slow Food [the international grassroots organisation]. I tried to create local food trails and adventures so visitors could taste the best of Scotland’s west-coast larder and holiday in the shoulder months to support smaller rural businesses. It was a difficult task, so when Sara Mair Bellshaw, my co-founder, approached me to establish a slow-travel operation, I jumped at the chance. We hope to make it easy for visitors to spend time in less accessible places, slow down, and to appreciate the nature and the culture of the communities visited. We also want them to give back and not just take. We’ve loved providing micro business with the capacity to reach new customers that share their sustainable, regenerative and slow approach to travel.”

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