Stress deserves a good old fashioned Dear John letter every now and then. When the daily burden of traffic, to-do lists, deadlines and chores hits that unbearable crescendo (we’ve all been there), it’s time for a well-deserved timeout. And what better way to disconnect, slow down and kiss stress goodbye than to travel?
Travel is an escape, an education, a relaxation, a transformation and an overall recharge. Just as our laptops and cell phones need a regular reboot, so too do we. And thankfully the world is full of countless playgrounds for us to get lost in. Think of it as travel therapy for the soul.
Here are 15 of the world’s best playgrounds, where you can channel your inner child and explore with the curiosity, anonymity and reckless abandon of youth.
1. Desert playground
Deceptively snow-like and undeniably lunar, El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) is a hauntingly beautiful, yet barren, landscape in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Rugged rock formations blend into the undulating terracotta sand dunes, which lead down to an eerie and desolate depression that is dominated by salt caves, meandering tunnels hollowed out by the wind, and salt crystals that resemble giant waterfalls frozen in time.
2. Urban playground
Unfairly dubbed the stepsister of South Africa’s Cinderellaesque Mother City, Johannesburg is underrated and often misunderstood. This bustling City of Gold is the largest landlocked city in the world and where it lacks in large bodies of water, it certainly makes up for in (millions of) trees. Many claim it is the world’s largest manmade urban forest, and whether this in fact rings true, Jozi (or Joburg) certainly offers an exciting mix of vibrant culture, upmarket shopping, world-class dining, constant entertainment and a turbulent past that needs to be understood and honoured.
3. Underwater playground
The picturesque Galápagos Islands in Ecuador lie scattered along the Pacific Ocean on either side of the equator. One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, this magnificent archipelago of volcanic islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It is one of the world’s premier wildlife destinations and one of the best ways to explore its natural beauty and witness its endemic marine life is by snorkelling and scuba diving.
4. Winter playground
The snow-capped volcanoes, jagged snowy mountains, glacier lakes, ancient forests and gigantic ice fields make Chile a veritable winter wonderland (June to August). It boasts an endless selection of adrenaline-inducing adventures, from snowboarding, heli-skiing, dogsledding and snowshoeing, to heli-biking, sea kayaking and trekking.
5. Culinary playground
Chef Damián and his team’s wholesome, and impossible to resist, farm-to-table dishes will have you craving more (and more). I’m talking 14 different types of bread, 8 varieties of fish, 8 types of locally-farmed meat, 6 homemade cheeses, 210 Chilean wines, 12 types of berries, 14 health seeds, 15 tea infusions … you get the gist.
Damián can tell you where every single item on your plate originated from. Each carefully-selected and bursting-with-flavour ingredient has either been grown, baked, curated and aged on the 22 hectare (almost 55 acre) estate, or it has been locally and sustainably sourced. Bon appétit!
5. Cultural playground
As diverse as it is ancient, India will surprise even the most seasoned traveller with its hospitable people and their welcoming, carefree spirit. The country is vastly overcrowded and understandably overwhelming, with its densely populated villages and crowded streets that bustle with character, charm and an assault of colour. India is a world of stark contrasts and sensory overload, where you can mingle with countless different cultures and take part in spontaneous festivities and cultural celebrations.
7. Mountain playground
Blessed with endless sprawling vistas that unfold like the most magnificent of oil paintings, the Patagonian wilderness boasts unfathomable and unparalleled natural beauty. It is a vast mountainous playground, dominated by deep fjords, emerald forests, vertical valleys, jagged cliffs, snow-capped peaks and active volcanoes. As remote and extreme as it is picture-perfect, Patagonia is South America’s Garden of Eden.
8. Floral playground
Situated along South Africa’s scenic Cape Whale Coast and in the flourishing Cape floral kingdom, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots on the planet. Grootbos, which means ‘large forest’, is a 2 500 hectare (6 100 acre) luxury eco-reserve that sits within a lush floral oasis, overlooking the whale-frequented waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Simply walking beneath the twisted tangle of moss-covered branches of its ancient milkwood forest is an invitation to press pause, to relax and to play.
9. Jungle playground
No journey through India is complete without a stop in the dense, mysterious jungles that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This is tiger territory, and there’s no denying that seeing those extremely elusive and telltale orange and black stripes in the wild is high on the bucket list. Just be careful not to let that dominate your journey. Don’t rush from sighting to sighting; rather take time to appreciate the different landscapes in all their magnificence. Smell the crisp, misty air and the dusty earth and listen for the melodious birdsong and shrill alarm calls. There is so much more to an Indian jungle safari than just seeing a tiger.
10. Celestial playground
The blissfully remote and impossibly romantic &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge is situated within Namibia’s NamibRand Nature Reserve. With the nearest town 90 miles away, the reserve is free of light pollution and boasts one of the darkest skies ever measured.
In fact, this twinkling celestial fairyland was not only declared Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) in 2013, but it also became the world’s first IDSR to be awarded Gold Tier status, meaning it has exceptionally little to no impact from artificial light.
Gaze up at the enchanting night sky through a high-tech Meade LX200R 12-inch telescope in the lodge’s state-of-the-art observatory or through the large skylight over your bed.
11. Spiritual playground
The intoxicatingly beautiful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is a spiritual mecca, where the natural environment is as fiercely protected as the country’s culture and spirituality. A harmonious Buddhist society shrouded in ancient tradition, the Bhutanese are renowned for guarding their heritage intensely and placing a strong emphasis on family and conservation. They have clearly embraced modern life at a much slower stride than the rest of the fast-paced, technology-obsessed world, and truly believe it is their fundamental birthright to live out a happy life in a healthy environment.
12. Conservation playground
What started in 1991 as an impossible dream went on to successfully become an important milestone in and microcosm of conservation history. Not only is &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve now a flagship property, boasting six award-winning luxury safari lodges, it is also a proven case study that is widely regarded as one of the world’s most ambitious and successful blueprints for international ecotourism.
The land selected for our first game reserve was identified as key conservation land, but had endured almost a century dominated by pineapple, cattle and sisal farms. Understandably, the land had become severely overgrazed and degraded, and its naturally occurring wildlife had long since deserted the area. The land was rehabilitated, the wildlife successfully reintroduced and today, guests enjoy Big Five game drives, arguably the best cheetah viewing in South Africa, as well as the opportunity to fund and participate in crucial rhino, elephant and pangolin conservation activities.
13. Wine playground
Fellow winederlust travellers, here’s a tip. There’s no better place to ‘wine down’ than in the slow-paced and achingly beautiful Cape Winelands in South Africa. Famed for its award-winning wines and culinary creativity, this little corner of Africa is the perfect playground for sipping and eating your way to happiness. With rows upon rows of fertile vineyards with the Mother City’s iconic mountainous backdrop, it is a beautiful, indulgent escape.
14. Beach playground
Shaped like a teardrop, the lush, tropical island of Sri Lanka is a surfer’s paradise famed for its sun-drenched beaches, lofty palm trees and relaxed vibe. Of course there are also verdant tea plantations and terraced fields, a national park celebrated for having the world’s highest concentration of leopard, and an ancient rock fortress to explore. But if you’re just looking to laze in a hammock and watch the waves with a summery cocktail in hand, Sri Lanka won’t let you down.
15. Sky-high playground
Perhaps one of the most memorable, and unashamedly romantic, ways of experiencing the earth’s magnificence is from the peaceful and scenic vantage point of a hot air balloon. Imagine quietly floating just above the tree-dotted plains of the world-famous and game-filled Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya watching herds of elephant, journeys of giraffe, pods of hippo and the never-ending herds of the Great Migration. The once-in-a-lifetime flight culminates with a celebratory champagne toast upon landing (a longstanding tradition among balloon pilots). It’s the stuff dreams are made of.