People & Places
R & R Abroad: 10 of the World's Most Relaxing Experiences
April 03, 2022
I need a vacation from my vacation is one of those hacky sayings that – despite being cliched – is actually somewhat true.
Travelling is, essentially, a constant stream of novel experiences. While these fresh new experiences can have profoundly positive effects on our physical and mental wellbeing, they can also feel overwhelming at times.
Research shows that travel encourages the production and release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone commonly associated with drugs. But travel can also promote cortisol, a stress-response hormone. (If you’ve ever panic-sweated while trying to find the right train terminal, chances are your brain had some cortisol lined up for you).
The fast-paced, party-hard, scramble-to-catch-your-next-flight aspects of travel are fun – there’s no doubt. However, for those times when you need a vacation from your vacation, it’s better to slow things down and prioritize tranquillity.
In this article, we’re rounding up ten of our favourite relaxing experiences worldwide. From the onsens of Japan to the Turkish baths in Istanbul, here’s how to catch some R&R on your next trip abroad. And to further promote relaxation when you fly, check out our travel hacks for a smooth, streamlined trip.
The Onsens of Japan
Japan has a “work hard, party hard, relax hard” culture most commonly associated with its “salarymen.” It isn’t uncommon for salarymen to work 70+ hours in a week, nor is it uncommon to see those same hard workers hit the Shibuya bars for all-nighters on the weekend.
However, you can’t burn the candle on both ends without a firm culture of relaxation. Enter “onsens”: hot spring baths devoted to relaxation and wellness promotion. These baths can be artificial (as most in the big cities are) or natural. They can be public (divided by gender) or a private off-shoot of a ryokan guesthouse. You’ll find thousands of onsens – in all shapes and styles – dotted throughout the country.
Around Tokyo, you’ll find the Oedo Onsen in Odaiba, a sprawling network of public baths that also includes eateries in a mock-Edo era village. If you have time, we recommend venturing to Kusatsu, a natural hot spring in the Gunma prefecture. However you enjoy them, onsens can be another great way to stay fresh when travelling.
One more note on Japanese onsens: The most traditional onsens don’t allow people with tattoos – something to consider if you’re inked.
Jungle Hammocks in Costa Rica
The Costa Rican jungle has something for everyone. If you’re adventure-inclined, you can find arduous rainforest treks, zip-lining, mountain climbing and more. But if you just want to kick back with a hot agua dulce or cold beer, you can do that too.
The treetop guesthouses of Costa Rica afford travellers a rare opportunity to survey one of the world's densest natural ecosystems with a bird's eye view. And if you close your eyes, you’ll be greeted with a minor symphony of rainforest noises: the high-pitched whistles of the tapirs, the occasional whoop of a capuchin monkey, and the squawks of colourful macaws. It’s the perfect place to unwind after a bustling trip to San Jose or Limon.
For a comfortable sway in a jungle hammock, we recommend a soft pair of our merino wool shorts. They’re comfortable enough to sleep in, but sleek enough that you’ll feel put-together while you nap.
Credit: Nicolas Haze Via Pexels
Turkish Baths in Istanbul
When you first step into a Turkish bath – called a Hammam or Hamam – you’re likely to be blown away by the sheer drama of the surroundings. Hammams often centre on a patchwork of large circular rooms with vaulted ceilings, domed archways and ornate masonry work. They look more like places of worship than spas, a fact that underscores their close historical ties to the Islamic practice of ablutions, or cleansing.
Most Turkish baths require you to strip down to a loincloth and head into progressively hotter rooms until you’ve sweated out every last ounce of stress in your body. Often, a trip to the Hammam is accompanied by a massage: perhaps the most punishing (and oddly therapeutic) massage you’ve ever received.
Several Hammams in Instanbul trace their origins to Roman or Ottoman times. So, not only do you get some R&R, but you get a cultural-historical experience thrown in for the price of admission (think of it like bathing in a museum). The Cagaloglu Hamam is probably the most famous – but there are hundreds to choose from in the city.
Ambling Down Portugal’s Douro River
The Douro River runs from Salamanca in central Spain through the northern part of Portugal, where it spills into the Atlantic. Along the way, the river feeds lush valleys – called the Douro Valley – renowned for wine grapes. The “Portuguese wine region” along the Douro is so historically, culturally and economically important to the country that it received a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
What does all this mean for rest and relaxation? You can charter cruise ships that run along portions of the Douro River. These aren't your mega-cruises that boast lounge acts and shrimp buffets; they are small boats that amble down the Douro, occasionally stopping for a glass of wine or a snifter of the local port.
Cruises last anywhere from a couple of hours to a full three days. The only activities aboard the ship are eating good seafood, drinking good wine and watching the rolling hills. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might strike up a conversation with another passenger. That’s it.
To pack light on a multi-day cruise, include some merino clothing, which can keep you cool during the hot days, and warm in the chilly evenings when the wind blows down from the hills.
Hot Air Balloon Rides in Myanmar
Myanmar is too often overlooked in favour of its more popular neighbour, Thailand. But the country has tons to offer in the way of scenery, cultural sites, food and nightlife. A recent military coup (in 2021) has temporarily closed the country to tourists, but we’re hoping that changes in the coming years.
When Myanmar is safe for travel again, we highly recommend it. In particular, we encourage you to check out the hot air balloons in Bagan, an ancient city (and UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site) in the Mandalay region.
Old Bagan is a sight to behold on the ground: dramatic rust-coloured temples and palaces nestled among the dense green forest. From up high, it’s a completely surreal experience. It looks like something from a fantasy movie. The whole experience can be extremely peaceful as well – a rare opportunity, as you travel through fast-paced Southeast Asia, to savour the calm and quiet of the landscape.
It can get cold 1,000 feet from the ground (even in the Southeast Asian heat), so we recommend swapping your regular shorts for merino pants, a light addition to a travel pack.
Credit: wirestock Via Freepik
Sensory Deprivation Tanks in New York City
There are sensory deprivation places (they like to be called “float therapy”) all over the world, but we like them best in New York City. It’s the pure juxtaposition that we enjoy: floating silently in a hermetically sealed pod, while the big city bustles just outside. It’s the quietest place in the Big Apple by a long shot.
For the unfamiliar, sensory deprivation tanks are light-proof, sound-proof pods filled with Epsom-salt water heated to exact human body temperature. The goal here is to create an environment completely devoid of any sensory experience – no sound, no light, no change in temperature.
The brain can cook up some wild things in a sensory deprivation tank. Because the environment deprives you of your senses, there’s a good chance you’ll hallucinate a bit. Not frightening hallucinations – more like the fuzzy colours and shapes you see right before falling asleep.
It’s a great way to unwind after a busy day travelling in one of the world’s busiest cities.
A Cruise through Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay (literally “descending dragon” in Vietnamese) is a network of minor islands and limestone karsts in the Quang Ninh province of Northeast Vietnam. The whole area is obscenely picturesque, with tall, monolithic rocks towering over the bright blue water.
A popular tourist destination, you’ll find several multi-day cruises around Ha Long Bay, which you can book in nearby Hanoi before you go. They generally run between $100 and $350 for a multi-day cruise. On the higher end, you get a private cabin, high-end meals and access to an onboard spa. On the lower end, you get a barebones sleeper with some basic (but still tasty) meals provided. They’re both relaxing in their own right – it just depends on your personal definition of relaxing.
Leave your big pack at an on-shore locker, and pack a streamlined daypack for your trip with a single merino wool boxer brief, a pair of socks, a t-shirt and shorts. Sunscreen’s also essential, as you’ll spend most of your sunning on the boat deck or swimming in the clear waters.
The Log Cabins of Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is a large island just off the coast of Vancouver in Canada’s British Columbia province. It’s a heady mix of old-growth forests and rustic shoreline, along which you’ll find numerous wood cabins. The lakes in the island’s interior are also encircled by rentable cabins, if you prefer more tranquil waters.
These cabins are generally freely available during the winter (which is mild by Canadian standards). However, in the summer, you'll have to compete with locals for reservations, so it's wise to book early – months in advance, if you can.
The lush surrounding forests boast massive Sitka spruces and pine trees, which you hike through for some relaxing “forest bathing.” You can swim in the ocean during the summer months, or watch the lapping waves in winter from the comfort of your cabin. The island is also home to several great wineries and cideries, if you want to unwind with a drink. It’s a relaxing addition to a west coast road trip – a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Seattle.
Meditating at 10,000 Feet in Nepal
Pack a warm set of men’s or women's merino wool clothing before you head to Nepal. The Central Asian nation sits on the fringes of the Himalayas, where high altitudes bring brisk weather year-round. If you can get past the chilly weather, you’ll find a nation singularly devoted to tranquillity.
The largest religions in Nepal are Hinduism and Buddhism (the latter being an off-shoot of nearby Tibetan Buddhism). As such, the country is filled with temples, monasteries, meditation centres and outdoor spiritual retreats. This Culture Trip article on meditation retreats is a good place to start researching experiences in Nepal. Or, you can wing it – head to Kathmandu, take in the scenery, and make your own relaxing experience.
The benefit of being so high up is that the air is unbelievably light and clear. Nepal is a fantastic place to – literally and metaphorically – catch your breath when you travel.
Icelandic Hot Springs
We started with Japan’s hot springs, and we’ll end with Iceland’s. Travelling around Iceland can be as effortful or relaxing as you want. The country presents several opportunities for strenuous activities like hiking and mountaineering, but it also contains a striking number of spas per capita.
We recommend visiting one of the country’s many natural hot springs for a day of R&R. You’re spoilt for choice, but we suggest Hrunalaug: a basic thermal spring about an hour-and-a-half drive from Reykjavik. It’s owned by a local farmer, who leaves payment on the honour system – a suggested “donation” of around ten Euros. The volcanic rocks, grassy hills, and simple, carved-wood hut will make you feel like a Viking taking a much-needed rest.
As always, when packing your travel bag for Iceland, take weather fluctuations into account; summers can still be chilly in the evenings, so don’t forget your merino hoodie and sweats.
Whether you need a temporary break from a fast-paced trip, or you want to purpose-build a vacation around relaxation, check out these ten spots. To really lean into relaxation, bring along your full merino wardrobe – a soft, comfortable way to stay fresh while travelling.