Standing at the foot of a colossal mountain or volcanic island can inspire awe and challenge our understanding of the world. We find the places that turn the gaze outward and upward, removing the focus from you to something bigger, something transformative..
Words: Lauren Romano
Main image: Grace Hotel, Auberge Resorts Collection, Santorini
There’s no ‘right’ way to explore a destination; meaningful travel involves finding a path that speaks to you. It isn’t about getting from A to B, but about the detours, the discoveries – the C, D, E and F – you uncover along the way. How people tend the land and live alongside it has been a building block of cultures and civilisations since time began.
Often, this sense of history is innately life affirming. Awe-inspiring landscapes have the power to ground us, both in the present and within the natural order of things. Formidable glaciers that can be traced back millions of years; vast, sweeping canyons carved by the ebb and flow of rivers long since dried up, their sides worn smooth over the millennia.Gazing on the same scenes as our ancestors reminds us that while some things are fleeting, some remain reassuringly the same.
These epic panoramas are proven to be a salve for a turbulent mind. It slows the heart rate and deepens breathing, leaving a feeling of calm and relaxation long after footsteps lead you away.
The Himalayas mean many things to many people. Running like a spine between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau, it’s a place of saw-toothed peaks and wildflower carpeted valleys; high-altitude villages and sweeping plains that leave you humbled by their magnificence. It’s a landscape that might appear hostile to the uninitiated, but you’ll soon realise that being here is like a secret you don’t want to share.
It’s not just the landscapes that make this part of the world so special though, but the people. The Himalayas might be largely untouched by human hands, but the region has been shaped by their voices – the myths and legends that have been shared by, or passed on to, those venturing through.
At Wildflower Hall, An Oberoi Resort, perched 2,515 metres above sea level, in Shimla, the capital of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, these endless panoramas follow you around. Survey the thick blanket of cedar forest from the outdoor jacuzzi – the combination of steaming water and the cool lick of wind against your face is truly invigorating. Greenery this lush does wonders for the soul too; lie back as a renewed sense of clarity washes over you.
At this height, all your senses will be sharpened. With the sunset, watch the horizon become stained a dusty pink from the hillside gazebo, while savouring a specially prepared four-course menu by candlelight. When the sun finally retires for the evening, you’ll be plunged into an inky darkness so intense the stars will shine all the brighter.
Some landscapes are instantly familiar. Known as the supermodel of the Greek islands, Santorini’s cobalt-domed churches and sapphire Aegean seas are the stuff of countless Instagram posts. Beyond its glossy, honeymooning reputation however, there’s another more rugged side waiting to be explored.
A cataclysmic volcanic eruption thousands of years ago caused the centre of the island to sink, leaving a caldera in its wake. Spilling down the cliff sides, strings of villages and sugar-cube-like dwellings cling to the steep banks. These communities are threaded together via a winding path along the caldera edge, from the capital of Fira to the village of Oia, dipping into Firostefani and Imerovigli along the way.
At 10.5km long, the route is a chance to get the blood pumping – the awe-inspiring views will serve as a welcome distraction from the heat and your muscles hard at work. It’s also one of the few places on the island where you can feel truly alone. Far removed from the tourist throng, carve out a few hours for yourself, to pause and reflect.
For a less strenuous introduction to the landscape, soak up the vistas at Grace Hotel, Auberge Resorts Collection. Floating in the largest infinity pool in Imerovigli at the highest point of the caldera is breath-taking. Multicoloured cliffs rise skyward, like a frame to the picture, and it’s hard to tell where the pool ends and the sea begins. In the afternoon, get even closer to the volcanic formations and hidden swimming holes with a private yacht tour, where you can charter your own path across the sea.
With its formidable mountains, forests and remarkably fresh air, you can breathe deeply in the Swiss Alps. This isn’t just one of the most exhilaratingly beautiful corners of the world, it’s one of the most sustainable ones too. Having a greater awareness of our footprint when travelling gives us an even deeper understanding and appreciation of the terrain, and the chance to experience local culture in a more authentic way.
In Switzerland, train lines snake their way through rock, around hair-pin bends and up steep valleys, to connect even the most remote villages. These run on mostly green energy – 90% of the electricity used to power the trains of the country’s biggest transport company comes from hydropower.
Certain routes are bucket-list worthy, take The Glacier Express for example. Meandering alongside the mountains, this is the most panoramic way to witness the peaks and valleys unfurl as the train glides from St Moritz to Zermatt via Andermatt. If you’re stopping off at the latter, continue to be immersed in the landscape at The Chedi Andermatt. At 1,447 metres above sea level, it provides front row seats to nature’s splendour, including the imposing face of the Gemsstock mountain. Rest your weary feet by the hotel's roaring fires – there are some 200 dotted around.
Undeniably, slaloming down the slopes has an almost magnetic appeal in Switzerland. Near-vertical runs aren’t the only thing to get your heart racing though – for a different outlook on the snowy landscape, step inside one of Europe’s last remaining glaciers at Saas-Fee or Zermatt. From the outside, these densely packed hulks of ice have a mirror-sheen, rays bouncing off every edge and rivet as they constantly shift under their own weight. Within, however, milky, translucent waves swirl and curl, tipped with icicles that seem to glow with an effervescent light. Hypnotic and mesmerising, it’s a sight to rival even the most magnificent of mountain passes.
Glacier-fed lakes so still they resemble panes of glass, jagged-edged cliff s and tranquil meadows: the landscape of the Canadian Rockies unravels like a patchwork quilt. Lacing up your hiking boots to explore its national parks is just one way to forge a connection with nature here – the opulent GoldLeaf carriage of the Rocky Mountaineer train is another. Cruising through the mountains in a panoramic glass-domed carriage, this is a voyage that is designed to be savoured.
Linking Vancouver and Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff or Calgary, the Rocky Mountaineer traces the peaks and troughs of the region’s varied terrain – a luxury in itself. But combining this with locally-sourced food and wine, and overnight stays in boutique hotels, elevates the experience to another level. Slow travel of this kind allows you to relish the journey, taking smaller steps with greater interest. And watching the surreal scenery flash before your eyes is made even more of a thrill from the outdoor viewing platform, with fresh air whistling past in great chorus.
Another unforgettable, but completely contrasting, window into the landscape awaits at Amangiri in Canyon Point, Utah. Framing dunes, plateaus and ridges, the hotel echoes the rugged, raw characteristics of its desert setting. Dusty sand and pink veined rock formations jut out over 600 acres of majestic Colorado Plateau. The silence is refreshingly deafening – your voice will ricochet off the cliff side – making it the place to restore and rebalance surrounded by nature in all its unfiltered glory.
For an unbeatable perspective though, take to the skies in a hot air balloon. Exposed to the elements in a wicker basket, gliding above Mother Nature’s playground will make you feel utterly alive. Imagine the wind in your hair, hands gripping the sides and eyes darting over prehistoric-looking rocky outcrops stretched out far into the distance. At Amangiri, flights set off at sunrise, stirring feelings of serenity from first light.
The very name of the resort means ‘peaceful mountain’ and if you want another way to soak up the calming surrounds there’s the Tower Butte Yoga expedition, which combines a scenic helicopter flight with a tailor-made movement and mediation session. Soar over Lake Powell and Glen Canyon before landing at Tower Butte, a sandstone summit that soars over 5,000 feet above sea level, like a sentry point for the surrounding landscape. Transformative and meditative in equal measure, it’s about looking upwards and outwards to something bigger and comfortingly unchanging.
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