Contiki’s active trips: a perfect recipe for mindful travel
A few reasons we love travel: it allows for a break from an everyday routine, it relieves stress, allows for time with the self, and meeting new people and experiencing new things has been proven to boost brain function and creativity. Mindful travel especially is amazing for these purposes.
When I first set out to write this article, I was only thinking about yoga retreats: beautiful resorts to Bali and India, sunrise ashtanga sessions, meditation on the beach, vegan catering, etc. The kind of trip that you would probably go on alone, as well. And while yoga retreats and solitude certainly are a form of mindful travel, two Contiki trip managers have convinced me that mindful travel is also so much more than that and the same messages can be promoted through different physical activities and with people around you.
Mindful travel, a kind of travelling that engages with consciousness, has existed in a few different forms, namely yoga retreats. Here at Contiki we offer active trips, which are mindful in a slightly different approach. I spoke to Joel Desbrow and Hrvoje Keletic, trip managers for the Active Alps and Hiking and Biking in Croatia trips respectively, and asked them all about mental health, and how they believe that active travel opens up conversations about consciousness and mindfulness.
Strength of the Group
When I first think of mindful travel, I think of a solo trip in Iceland, solitude in the tundra. For me, it’s about taking the time to be with myself and really introspect, I’ve always been like that. So, when I think of focusing on my mental health, I don’t immediately jump to booking social travel with a group of 15+ people.
What I didn’t realise though, was that Contiki’s active trips generally only host a small group of people – much smaller than our usual crowd. Active Alps hosts a group of 8, and Hiking and Biking in Croatia hosts 12. And the group, big or small, is where the real strength lies.
“I think the benefit of having such a small group is that the travellers get to build a closer connection between each other,” says Joel. On his trip the group participated in activities such as mountain biking, paragliding, white water rafting, etc. and sometimes these activities can seem a little daunting, but the group is there to create a safety blanket. “Often, the group will band together and get really behind an activity they individually might not be keen on because it means something important to someone else.”
As the trip manager, Joel has noticed that with all Contikis, but especially these active ones, a real sense of community is formed, a sense of family even. “That’s the benefit of it [a group], you’re connecting with like-minded people.” His hope for these kinds of trips is that the group will connect with each other, and that Hopfgarten – Contiki’s Austrian chalet – would become like a second home.
The Physical Exertion
I asked both Joel and Hrvoje if they could tell me a little bit about what kind of people these active holidays attract. Hrvoje mentioned that “there’s a great mix of people who book this trip,” after all, who wouldn’t be enticed by gorgeous hikes and bike rides in sunny Croatia?
“I would say it ranges from people who are active in their everyday lives, to people who are wanting to get more into physical activities.” And when asked what he did if and when there was any hesitation, Hrvoje said that he was happy to “create an extra activity or go at a slower pace for those who may be weary of not being able to keep up.” Joel added that for him these trips attracted people who wanted to “push themselves” and that that’s a big first step.
Though Contiki’s active trips don’t have mindfulness and mental health as their main goal, it is common knowledge that there’s a high correlation between physical activity and better mental health. “I see any kind of physical activity as energy being released from our body,” says Hrvoje. “When you consume food, you’re importing energy into your body, and over time if you don’t release that energy, it can become a feeling of restlessness, or stress, or anxiety.”
I thought this was a really great way of thinking about it, and it really brings in that mindful aspect of being aware of what’s going on in your body and why certain feelings may arise. “For me, I hope the group has a really good time, and I hope when they’re in the middle of biking up a mountain they can take the time to think about what’s going on, and have a genuinely wholesome experience.”
Wide Open Spaces
Being in touch with nature is definitely a must when it comes to mindful travel: a beautiful and safe location is a much nicer place to sit and rest and be in the moment. I can imagine myself taking conscious breaths atop a grassy hill, with the open sky above me, rather than in a bustling city (though I love the city all the same).
With the Active Alps and Hiking and Biking in Croatia trips I think travellers are really lucky. Unlike many of our Contiki trips, there isn’t much hopping around, you’re based in one central area and then explore from there, so this really gives the guests a chance to get comfortable in their environment. And they’re of course based in some really spectacular destinations!
In the Alps we have a lovely private chalet as well, surrounded by hills and woodlands, which is really special in how secluded it is – you get the whole area to yourself. And Hrvoje grew up in Croatia so is very familiar with the land and the trip’s itinerary; he’s able to bring the travellers to the most intimate spaces: “On day two, after cycling through Plitvice Valley, we stop at the river bank and we have the opportunity to really exclusively enjoy one small part of the National park because I know it well.”
Connection with the outdoors is a great way to reset and take in the day, and Joel advocates for this himself. “You look at lockdown and you see how many people hated being locked in their homes. I think that’s what nature does, it lets you escape. It lets you rekindle those connections. By breathing fresh air, going and laying in the grass, etc. That’s the beauty of nature.”
When Hrvoje takes his group to the private spot by the river, this is a moment that he hopes the group will take to slow down: “The main task here is to just stop and think about yourself, where you are currently; physically and mentally. I hope to provoke some senses that they might not on a daily basis.” This gentle change of pace and environment is hopefully something that travellers can take advantage of, and remember, and take home with them.
Conversations on mental health just naturally happen: “Being all together, our small group, in the van, starting our journey, it brings all kinds of chats about. People really want to get to know one another.” Many of the people joining these journeys start as solo travellers and get to join a social group of other individuals on similar paths.
Thinking about joining a social travel vacation when my goal is to be mindful and introspective seemed counterintuitive to me, but talking to Joel and Hrvoje I realised that if I was alone there’d be no opportunity to engage in an actual conversation – I’d be living in an echo chamber, which could be detrimental in its own way. Hrvoje enjoys letting his group talk amongst themselves – he doesn’t want to intrude too much and break up the intimate moments. But he says it’s nice to witness and watch people grow closer together: “It’s always nice to belong somewhere.”
“The group forms a closeness, I think,” explains Joel. “The group that I had, there were no arguments, everyone was purely just into it to get the most out of what they could get.” Joel explained to me that on the last day of these mindful travel trips he makes a point of opening up a discussion on mental health. He believes that everything that’s said in the circle stays in that circle, and that by that point they have experienced so much together, they can all be honest. “It’s like magic, you know? I think everyone ends up in tears, but it’s just this huge amount of positivity. It’s so special, and for me that’s really what makes this job worth it.”
At the end of the day, for both Joel and Hrvoje, and now myself, mindful travel through these active trips, whether it be hiking and biking or yoga and meditation, is all about the connections. Solitude is important at times, but total solitude won’t get you anywhere.
It’s the connection that matters, and lasting social connections is what Contiki and our trip managers specialise in. “Yeah, it’s great to go and do things and explore on your own,” says Joel, “But at the end of the day, having those people around you is probably the best aspect of these trips. If you take that away, for me, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
There’s a connection formed between the trip managers and the travellers, and between all the travellers themselves. After experiencing some intense hiking and biking under the sun, you’re tired, but you’re in a good mood and you did it all together: “We did a four hour hike, and we reached the top, and then on our way back down in the gondola the weather was terrible. We couldn’t see anything, but we all started laughing and smiling. The group was so proud of the fact that they had made it to the top as a team. It was brilliant.”
Hrvoje acknowledges that mindfulness can take many forms, it’s not always through an active lifestyle. “For some people it’s religion, or it can be cooking, or reading, or spending time outdoors. But it’s something that gives you good vibes and that influences your whole body and mind – it’s the connection.”
We love social travel at Contiki because we’re big believers in connection – isn’t that what life and travel is all about? Meeting new people and discovering new things, from all over? And it pushes you as well, into new grounds and experiences. “Once on a trip, I had a woman who had actually already been on a Contiki and found she had a bad experience. But she came back, and the group in the Alps all banded around her, and she really found her stride. She found her people.” I’m a big fan of this.
As with all good things, the trip must eventually come to an end. But the beauty of mindful travel is that it’s something that should hopefully stick with you forever – something that you can take home with you and reflect upon.
I asked Joel and Hrvoje what they hope their group can take away from their travels.
For Joel the main points are accountability and balance. “If you’re with a group you can make goals together and hold each other to them. I hope that’s something they can all implement in their lives when they go back home. And balance: you get what you put out. These trips, with all the pauses and breathtaking moments, gives you a chance to look at your life as a whole and to evaluate, but you also shouldn’t get stuck in that mindset – you need to take all the chances to be happy as well.”
For Hrvoje he hopes they take home consistency. “When you’re cycling through the Croatian landscape, you have to keep yourself going because sometimes it’s uphill and it’s hard. And it’s the same in all the other aspects of your life as well, as cheesy as that sounds. You have to keep moving and insisting on what you’re dreaming of and what you’re doing in life. Keep on going and keep on doing it.”
For me, the point of mindful travel is not to meditate and enter a state of complete zen for a week, only to return to a sometimes complicated and stressful routine. Spending time in a new and exciting location with both the freedom to explore and some structure to keep me on track, with a group of like-minded people, taking the time to be still and reflect and implement new techniques and patterns into my life; that’s what social travel is all about.