Challenge holidays

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Our travel bucket lists are getting braver. Now it’s not just enough to go somewhere; we want to achieve something pretty special while we’re there too

Words: Anna Hart

Travel in 2014 is a much more demanding beast than that of 2004. Yes, we still want to indulge in a shopping break to New York; but now we want to coincide our visit with the marathon (2 November, FYI). Why visit Belize without diving the Great Blue Hole; why see Cape Town and not climb Table Mountain…?

The thirst for physical ‘travel challenges’ is a phenomenon observed by trends forecaster Zoë Lazarus of the Lowe Counsel with growing interest. “There is a trend for tests of physical endurance, exemplified by contests such as Tough-Mudder,” she says. And the number of women joining in these events has grown each year – 130,000 women signed up to Tough-Mudder in 2012, compared to 33,600 in 2011. “Life in our fast, screentime-heavy world is fuelling a desire for intense, sharable experiences that stimulate the physical senses,” says Lazarus. “The online world does little to satisfy the primal need for stimulation by touch, smell, taste and tangible human experience.”

Psychologist Catherine Sykes works with professional sports people and city high-flyers and has noticed clients becoming more extreme in their extra-curricular pursuits.

“‘Leisure’ used to be synonymous with ‘relaxation’, but this is now a hopelessly inadequate way of understanding what we want from our holidays. When we perceive we’re not getting enough of one area in our working life, we’ll seek to compensate for this lack in our leisure time,” she explains.

This trend has been further compounded by our own self-reproach. “There’s a guilt-culture about taking time out of the office,” says Dr Sykes. Perhaps we’re more comfortable taking time off work, if instead of lazing on a beach, we’re ice-climbing in Norway for charity. “And naturally we gain instant reinforcement from social media,” continues Dr Sykes. “When we choose a holiday, we’re using it to compensate for a lack of adventure, of sensory experience, of mental challenge in our daily lives. But also to denote status. We’re identifying ourselves as a ‘runner’ or a ‘hiker’.”

We also have waning attention spans, points out Lazarus. “Studies show that the combination of a digital lifestyle, multi-tasking and city living is affecting our ability to concentrate,” she says. “It’s natural we’re demanding extreme sensations and rapid-fire variety from our travel choices.”

Want the world to offer you a challenge in 2014? Here’s seven ways to tell your sun-lounger to talk to the hand…



Travellers used to want to see the Grand Canyon before they died. Now we’d rather raft down it on an unforgettable 13-day camping trip, thanks. Starting out in Flagstaff, Arizona, you’ll pass the Little Colorado River, the oasis of Phantom Ranch and swim in the cool pools of Havasu Creek on your journey. Every day starts out on the rapids, but also involves a hike, allowing you to explore off-the-beaten-track spots such as Redwall Cavern (a vast ampitheatre hewn by fast rapids out of the canyon’s walls) and the dramatic turquoise waters of Deer Creek Falls. Nights are spent under canvas, and around the campfire listening to the guides share their stories. (Warning: you will want to quit your job and join them.) 225 miles later, you wash up at Diamond Creek, having lived, breathed and slept Canyon for 13 days – and having seen it in far more wonderful ways than those zipping overhead in a helicopter ever will.

Grand Canyon Whitewater offers 13-day camping trips from £2,100 per person, including all meals, guides, camping equipment and support. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona from £598;



Returning to the same ski lodge night after night? Bor-ing. 2014 is set to be the year of the ski safari, as intrepid skiers demand more variety and adventure than the standard ski package can offer up. The Healthy Holiday Company was one of the first to identify this growing demand, and their hut-to-hut ski safari in the Dolomites is hard to beat.

Starting in Alta Badia, day two takes in the famous Sellaronda ski tour circumnavigating the Sella Massif, and by day four you’re at the chi-chi resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo. The sheer variety in the landscapes you’ll traverse are what makes this tour stand out – it’s an ever-changing backdrop of silent forests, dramatic valleys, isolated chalets, romantic (and food-obsessed) villages and the occasional stylish, buzzy resort. And take it from us: something special happens when your skiing has a purpose. It will be hard to go back to downhill recreational skiing again.

The seven-day Hut-To-Hut Dolomites Ski Safari costs from £2,220 per person in a group of six, including all ski passes, guides, meals, accommodation and luggage transfers;



The ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia, are high up on every adventurous traveller’s bucket list, but in recent years this already awe-inspiring experience has been seriously augmented by the option to combine it with the physical challenge of a dawn half-marathon. Stretching over 400 square km, the densely forested Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, dating from the 9th to the 15th century. So let’s just say there is a lot to distract you from your burning lungs.

UNESCO designated Angkor Wat a heritage site in 1992, and in 1996 the marathon was established as a charity event to raise money for Cambodia’s many landmine victims. The race has fast gained a reputation among seasoned marathon junkies for being both well-organised – the route shady, water well-distributed and just 450 runners per year – and incredibly friendly. The park is closed to other visitors, so post-run you can explore the temples without the usual crowds – a serious plus point, because this is Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction. Another bonus for fans of soft-surface distance running is the choice of soft earth over the Tarmac road. When you’ve done this dash, don’t dash away; the saltwater pool at La Résidence d’Angkor is the perfect place to rest weary muscles for a few days post-marathon R&R.

Kuoni ( is offering seven nights at La Résidence d’Angkor ( from £2,242 per person including flights in December 2014 (the marathon is 7 December). Registration for the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon costs US$60 (£36) for adults over 16;



The 2014 FIFA World Cup will shine a bright spotlight on this colourful country, with most visitors either hitting one of her vibrant cities – Sao Paulo or Rio – or a beach resort, without realising that the truly revealing parts of Brazil are the bits in between. So pluckier travellers are taking to two wheels and covering the ridiculously scenic 325-mile coastal road between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Think sea breezes, rugged cliffs, rainforest-covered mountains, quaint fishing villages and shimmering seas.

The Portuguese colonial town of Paraty is also en route, and the mix of nights under canvas and evenings in buzzy local hotels ensures you really get under the skin of Brazil.

In May 2014 Discover Adventure is pulling together a band of fundraisers (with a fundraising target of £4,699) to make the trip for charity. That figure includes nine nights accommodation (four camping; five hotels) flights, transfers, camping equipment, bike hire, most meals, and a support team;



@EarthPorn is one of our favourite travel-related Twitter accounts, and we blame them for getting us seriously obsessed with Norway’s amazing fjordland scenery. The Mighty Fine Company’s seven-night ‘Big Five’ hiking holiday is essentially a scenery binge, scaling the country’s five most dramatic landmarks, including the Troll’s Tongue, Pulpit Rock, the Folgefonna Glacier, Kjerag Rock and Langfoss Waterfall. The eight-hour hike to the Troll’s Tongue deserves a special mention for the sense of achievement you get from standing on the tip of the tongue, aka a 1,000m-high rock promontory jutting out over a landscape of vast, gaping fjords. Self-driving between these points (from Bergen to Stavanger via Haugesund), you’ll get up close and personal to the sorts of views that Instagram dreams are made of. This hiking trip is not for the faint hearted: daily hikes take between four and ten hours, but the wildlife and the scenery make it all worthwhile. Go in summer to take advantage of the lightest days of the Norwegian summer – in mid-June, the sun is visible for up to 24 hours – then city-hop some of Scandinavia’s coolest cities if you’ve got another week off.

The ‘Big Five’ Norway Hiking Holiday costs from £1,419 per person including return flights and seven nights’ accommodation;



Let’s face it: wild swimming is great, but here in the UK, you’re not going to be in the water for long. That’s where SwimTrek comes in, specialising in water-based holidays for those who think the best way to see a new country is by sea – and in the sea. The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is home to some of the prettiest islands in Europe, and the Adriatic Sea might just be the best water in the world for saltwater swimming. SwimTrek’s island-hopping Dalmatian Coast trip promises to be a tranquil yet challenging tour of the Šibenik archipelago, before you move on to the oddly lunar-esque landscape of the Kornati National Park.

You need to be pretty comfy in that bikini; the average swim distance is 4km, but you’re guided with a safety boat escort. Guides are also happy to offer technique analysis, making this the perfect trip for open water swimmers who want to take their skill level up a notch. And then have some pizza and a glass of wine.

The seven-day Croatian Dalmatian Coast Island-Hopper Swim Safari costs from £740 per person, including breakfast, lunch accommodation and services; Easyjet flies from Gatwick to Split from £166 return



For intermediate-level riders in search of the primal thrill of traversing a new country on horseback, ex-jockey Richard Dunwoody now leads small groups (5-10 riders) deep into the heart of the achingly beautiful Pinar del Rio province. Starting in the ever-vibrant Havana, you then follow in the footsteps of Cuba’s legendary vaqueros (cowboys), riding through dramatically different landscapes from UNESCO world heritage site Viñales Valley, to tobacco plains and dramatic rocky outcrops. We love the fact accommodation is with host families en route, guaranteeing a more authentic experience (and amazing homecooked meals). Most days, you’ll spend at least five hours in the saddle, but it’s not all aching thighs: a welcome beach stop at Playa Giron will leave you transformed, while in the Escambray Mountains you’ll wash the dust off your face in dramatic waterfalls as your transport takes a drink.

Wild Frontiers has a 12-night tour with Richard Dunwoody departing on 10 April and costing £4,095 including flights with Virgin, transport, accommodation with all meals and guiding;

The guides also deserve a special mention; you’ll learn as much about horse-handling as local history (and even meet a local horse-whisperer to hear his secrets), so that your inner cowgirl can live on long after your suntan fades.

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Stylist Team