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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Top 10 wilderness destinations to discover

With seven billion other people on the planet, truly getting away from it all isn’t always that simple, but there is an array of isolated destinations to discover

Alaska Air Safari by Ultima Thule Lodge. Photo by Arturo Polo Ena
Alaska Air Safari by Ultima Thule Lodge. Photo by Arturo Polo Ena

Escaping the relentless pings, twitterings and demands of your devices to run away and spend time in the wild might seem a very 2018 thing. It’s nothing new, though. As a 27-year-old writer, Henry Thoreau kicked off the modern return-to-nature craze in 1845 with his book Walden, an account of building a one-room log-cabin and for a year living the simple life in rural Massachusetts. By 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had mandated the world’s first protected wilderness, in Yosemite, California, and John Muir, leader of America’s first conservation movement, talked about how “going to the mountains is going home… wilderness is a necessity”.

Whether mountains or coast or something in between, a great tract of empty space where you can simply be, breathing clean air and gazing at an unpeopled landscape is now one of the world’s great luxuries. Happily, there are still many places to experience the soothing, inspiring, restoring effects of the luxury of wilderness, from Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, where wolves still roam, to the remote and rugged Scottish Highlands and thousand-mile snowy wastes of Alaska. And we shouldn’t forget the desert on our doorstep.

Perfect items for your luggage? Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by New York School for Social Research sociologist Rachel Sherman. And an old-school reissue Nokia 3310 – the phone with a battery life of weeks that lets you call or text – and that’s it. Then start your quest for some soul-restoring peace and quiet.

1. Loisaba Tented Camp, Kenya

Horse riding in Loisaba. Courtesy Elewana Collection
Horse riding in Loisaba. Courtesy Elewana Collection

“Africa before fences were invented” is how the guides at Loisaba, in northern Kenya, describe their 22,000-hectare conservancy. Happily, staying in this small camp, perched on an escarpment from where views stretch as far as Mount Kenya, only enhances the nostalgia that the line induces. It’s a small camp: just six large tents. Tents of the kind that come with a broad polished wood veranda, however, each enjoying a view of nothing but sky, bush and passing wildlife, a deeply comfortable bed, bathroom with flushing loo, unlimited hot water and the great wilderness luxury of an outdoor shower. As well as the standard sunrise, sunset and after-dinner game drives typical of Africa’s best little safari camps, viewing lions, wild dogs and elephants (whose migration corridor runs through the conservancy), there’s an unusual amount to do here. River fishing, horse riding, mountain biking, visiting local Samburu villages, even trekking with camels, carrying lightweight tents and camping overnight, or spending time with the anti-poaching team and their trusty hounds, Warrior and Machine. Wilderness deluxe, indeed.

In April and May, from US$490 (Dh1,800), including games drives, activities, all meals and drinks, and transfers (elewanacollection.com). Flights from the UAE to Nairobi with Emirates (emirates.com) or Etihad (etihad.com) cost from Dh1,165 return, including taxes

2. Tracking wolves in Transylvania, Romania

European grey wolf Canis lupus lupus. Getty Images
European grey wolf Canis lupus lupus. Getty Images

Home to Europe’s last great forest, the 1,450-kilometre Carpathian mountain range still shelters wolves, bears, lynx, chamois and red deer. Some of the trees are more than 700 years old. Horse-drawn wagons rumble along the forest paths, and in areas cleared for growing, the hay is cut by hand. All very picturesque. However, since the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the forest has been returned to private ownership, and to pay the punitive resulting land taxes, many peasant owners have had to sell up to lumber companies. In 2012, Greenpeace estimated almost two square miles of trees were disappearing each week. All hail, then, Christopher and Barbara Promberger, committed to safeguarding the forest from the “greedy timber mafia”. Funded by Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, they have spearheaded various ecotourism projects. On a wildlife-watching trip, you travel with a biologist and maximum of six other people. Each morning, leaving your base – an eco-certified guesthouse in Zarnesti or a hotel in elegant old Brasov – to hike through the forest and watch wolves and bears from a hideout.

Three nights in the five-star Hotel Aro Palace, Brasov, costs from 1,125 (Dh5,096) per person, including daily meals and activities (absolute-nature.ro). Direct flights from Dubai to Bucharest with Flydubai (flydubai.com) cost from Dh1,225 return, including taxes

3. Parque de Patagonia, Chile

Steppe landscape in Patagonia Park, Valle Chacabuco, Aysen, Chile. Getty Images
Steppe landscape in Patagonia Park, Valle Chacabuco, Aysen, Chile. Getty Images

After Doug Tompkins made a fortune from founding the clothing companies The North Face, Patagonia and Esprit, he and his wife Kris turned to conservation when they realised they could buy something important with their millions. The result is Parque Patagonia; 250,000 hectares that is being transformed from an over-grazed sheep and cattle estancia into a protected reserve that, once rewilded and with its grasslands restored, will become a national park. Lying 1,600 kilometres south of Santiago in the Chacabuco Valley, the park’s terrain embraces mountains, forest and glacier-fed rivers, as well as grassland. Staying at the 10-room, wood-beamed, stone-built Lodge at Valle Chacabuco means returning from days spent fly fishing, mountain biking or trail hiking to a reassuringly retro world of squashy leather sofas set around log fires, family rooms with handmade wood bunks, and evenings spent chatting over board games. There’s Wi-Fi, but streaming is a no-go. Some visitors end up pitching in with the Conservacion Patagonica team, helping erect fences or plant trees to be enjoyed for generations to come.

Doubles rooms cost from $400 (Dh1,469), including breakfast and taxes (parquepatagonia.org). Flights from Dubai to Santiago with Emirates (emirates.com) cost from Dh7,805 return, including taxes; then take an internal flight with Latam (lan.com) or Sky (skyairline.cl) to Balmaceda, from where it is a six- to eight-hour drive to the park

4. Taylor River Lodge, Colorado

Taylor River Lodge. Courtesy Eleven Experience
Taylor River Lodge. Courtesy Eleven Experience

Anyone who has seen spoof rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap will be familiar with the concept of 11 as a measure of fabulousness on a scale of 1 to 10. It’s a reference that inspired millionaire property mogul Chad Pike to name his travel company Eleven Experience, set up to custom-design adventure holidays worldwide. Using bases around the world – farmhouses, beach houses and villas, as well as this lodge in Crested Butte – the company devises activities, meals and a level of service that are hyper-personalised but dealt out in a laid-back, no-fuss style. At the family-oriented Taylor River, much thought has gone into how each member of the family will get the most out of the location, which is ruggedly magnificent and one of the least-populated regions in the United States. So while adults and teenage children thrill themselves silly heli-skiing or white-water rafting, other members of the family can ride, take a cooking lesson or explore spooky old abandoned mining towns. For variety, a night can be spent in a hillside tepee, with a campfire and visiting cowboys telling their stories. Your wish, Eleven’s command, basically.

Cabins sleeping two cost from £1,300 (Dh6,669) per night, all-inclusive (mrandmrssmith.com). Return flights from Dubai to Denver with Emirates (emirates.com) cost from Dh4,805

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Read more:

Avoid the crowds: 7 popular destinations and the places to go instead

The world's most interesting (and conservation-focused) wildlife trips for 2018

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5. Crossing the globe’s highest extremes, Bolivia

Llamas (lama glama) at river in front of volcano Sajama, covered with snow, Sajama National Park, Altiplano, Bolivia, South America. Getty Images
Llamas (lama glama) at river in front of volcano Sajama, covered with snow, Sajama National Park, Altiplano, Bolivia, South America. Getty Images

Pop-up camps in the remotest of locations have earned Swiss company Amazing Escapes a devoted following, with fans eager to see where they might be tempted to roam next. From August to October, that will be Bolivia, where a six-night journey starting in La Paz, the world’s highest capital at 3,600 metres, will take a small group on an adventure across the country. It will encompass mountains, desert, sand dunes, salt flats, and landscapes where the cacti grow 10 metres tall. Twelve guests can stay at any one time, sharing six thickly-insulated, one-bedroom white “domes” equipped with a large and comfortable bed, wood stove and hot-water shower. (Because this period is winter in South America, daytime temperatures won’t rise above 12°C to 15°C, falling to zero or below at night). A restaurant dome, library and outdoor hot tub complete the camp. The first camp is in the Sajama National Park, where the domes will be pitched at 4,313 metres on Sajama, the country’s highest peak, next to a swimmable natural hot (36°C) spring, the last in the Atacama Desert, which is the driest desert in the world, with highlights en route including a hot-air balloon ride over the Salar de Uyuni salt flats.

Six nights, all-in, including airport transfers from La Paz, cost $11,500 (Dh42,239) per person (amazingescapes.ch). Return flights from Dubai to La Paz (with two stops, such as Barcelona and Bogota) with Emirates (emirates.com) cost from Dh9,200, including taxes

6. Bovey Castle, Devon, England

Bovey Rangers Survival Skills. Courtesy Eden Hotel Collection
Bovey Rangers Survival Skills. Courtesy Eden Hotel Collection

With luck, the skills to survive in the wild with no electricity, GPS service or building to shelter in, let alone no matches, compass or tent, won’t ever become wholly essential. But acquiring bushcraft skills is a fun, as well as potentially useful, thing for your children to do – as a family or while you put up your feet. And amid the wilds of Dartmoor, the rugged national park in south-west England, Bovey Castle’s Ranger activity programme will prepare your children for the tougher adult survival courses, many run by ex-military personnel, that have been proliferating in Britain. At this five-star hotel, set on a 111-hectare estate within Dartmoor, which is two hours by train from London (but also offers a helipad), children ages 7 to 14 can get expert instruction in survival skills, fishing, off-road driving experiences, archery and bird-box making, while you retreat to the spa or fireside (or go riding, game shooting and deer stalking or spend time with the falconers). In addition to the 60 rooms in the main house, there are 22 very private three-storey granite-and-oak lodges dotted around the woods. They are especially popular with UAE visitors summering in London who come down for a countryside weekend.

Three-bedroom lodges cost from £475 to £880 (Dh2,436 to Dh4,513) a night; each children’s

activity costs £32 (Dh164) (boveycastle.com). Return flights from the UAE to London with Emirates (emirates.com) or Etihad (etihad.com) cost from Dh2,665, including taxes

7. Air Safari, Alaska

Alaska Air Safari by Ultima Thule Lodge. Photo by Arturo Polo Ena
Alaska Air Safari by Ultima Thule Lodge. Photo by Arturo Polo Ena

Flying across the snow-capped mountains and glaciers, lakes and tundra of the largest area of protected wilderness in the world in a Piper PA-18 two-seater propeller plane will either terrify or exhilarate you, depending on your attitude to heights and being enclosed in an extremely small machine. Happily, there’s a comfortable alternative in the shape of an eight-seater 1957 De Havilland DHC-3 turbo conversion. Wrangell-St Elias National Park is larger than Switzerland, and when you come in to land at Ultima Thule Lodge you will be 160 kilometres from the nearest road, in a region where bears and bison roam, eagles soar and the Northern Lights play across the sky in vivid greens and purples. The lodge’s six hand-built pinewood cabins look across the Chitina River and are comfortably furnished with sheepskin rugs, king-size feather mattresses and a wrought-iron stove. At night, everyone eats at the main lodge; dishes feature wild salmon and venison and vegetables from the organic kitchen garden. To warm up or wind down, there’s a cedar-wood sauna. A thrill from start to finish.

Five nights all inclusive between March and May cost from Dh36,127 per person (naturalworldsafaris.com). Return flights from Dubai to Anchorage with Emirates (emirates.com), via Seattle connecting with Alaska Airlines (alaskaair.com), cost from Dh6,515 return, including taxes

8. Satellite Island, Tasmania, Australia

Summer House on Satellite Island. Photo by Luisa Brimble
Summer House on Satellite Island. Photo by Luisa Brimble

“The last stop before Antarctica” is how Tasmania’s tourism authorities describe their wild and wonderful island. Highlands and heathery moorlands, glaciated peaks and glittering lakes, rainforest and white-sand beaches – there is a hardly a form of scenery that it can’t show you. Wallabies, wombats, quolls and platypus, plus Australia’s noisy bird life, will probably be more familiar sights than other humans. Hobart is a short flight from Melbourne, and in this little capital, boutique hotels such as the airy Islington provide a place to sleep off jet lag before you get lost in this great outdoors. Among a handful of stylish small hotels, the newest is on remote, pristine little Satellite Island, off Tasmania’s south-east coast. Accessible by boat or helicopter, and only recently opened to visitors – 12 maximum – it’s a place to hike through ancient blue gum trees, go fishing or dive for wild oysters, abalone and crayfish. Waking up at The Boathouse and rolling up the blinds in the morning is likely to reveal a seascape of leaping dolphins.

Two nights (minimum stay) cost from Dh2,505 (satelliteisland.com.au). Return flights from the UAE to Melbourne with Etihad (etihad.com) or Emirates (emirates.com) from Dh4,905, including taxes; connecting return flights with Jetstar (jetstar.com) cost from Dh416, including taxes

9. mountain climbing at Jabal Akhdar, Oman

Dining by Design on a cliff at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort. Courtesy Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort
Dining by Design on a cliff at Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort. Courtesy Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort

Mostly silent, gloriously empty and ruggedly beautiful, Oman looks and feels like the quintessential old Arabia of a century or more ago. Its vast areas of wilderness – from its share of the Empty Quarter to mountains such as the great bare Al Hajar range – can soothe the most digitally disturbed soul. And after a few days at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar resort, lolling by the pool 2,000 meters above sea level on the Green Mountain on the rim of the Oman’s own “Grand Canyon”, the intrepid might feel ready to tackle one of the most thrilling mountain adventures in the Middle East: the Ultimate Jabal Activity Wall. Clipping a waist harness to steel cables, you lower yourself down from the mountaintop, using hands, feet and the strategically placed metal steps, ladders and vertical stairs of the via ferrata to traverse 200 heart-stopping metres of mountain face. Once across, you can fly above the canyon on the Middle East’s highest zip-lines. And if you abruptly realise you don’t like looking down 2,000 metres of sheer rock face after all, several escape routes take you to the top again.

Double rooms with breakfast cost from Dh1,570 (jabal-akhdar.anantara.com). Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Muscat with Etihad (etihad.com) cost from Dh1,085

10. Akyra Manor, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand. Getty
Chiang Mai, Thailand. Getty

If you prefer brief wilderness experiences – a morning’s jungle trek, forest zip-lining, cycling along paddy fields or dashing down white-water river rapids – to start and end in five-star urban comfort, Chiang Mai could prove perfect. This northern Thai town has become something of a centre for adventures in the wild. Its proximity to jungly countryside, hill country and rivers encourages the least adventurous to try something new, safe in the knowledge that if they hate it, the next day they can just go shopping or hang out in the cafes and restaurants on buzzing Nimmanhaemin. Families can try white-water rafting on the Pai River, with 60 rapids, rated I to V, that provide enough variety to make various stretches suitable for beginners as well as the more experienced. Active Thailand also has well-run overnight packages combining tasters of trekking, rafting, cycling, jungle survival and overnighting in a bamboo village.

Suites cost from Dh940 (theakyra.com); morning activity packages cost from Dh300 (activethailand.com). Return flights to Chiang Mai, via Bangkok, with Emirates (emirates.com) or Etihad (etihad.com) cost from Dh2,325 per person, including taxes