Traveller's Guide: Life-changing holidays

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Whether you learn a new skill, volunteer abroad, or venture out into the unknown, make 2012 the year of meaningful travel

Every holiday changes your life, but usually only temporarily. The prime motive for a holiday is to shift to a different location, whether a seaside hotel, a ski chalet or a safari camp. As the philosopher Alain de Botton observed in these pages in 2004, "The prospect of a holiday is liable to persuade even the most downcast person that life is worth living."

On holiday, you switch from your everyday routine to far more exciting prospects: cultural or scenic wonders, exotic cuisine and interesting people. Or you might just mess about in the water.

Chance may intervene to change your life for the better if, for example, a holiday romance endures beyond the departure lounge. But more likely is that you will quickly slip back to normality with little to remind you of your adventures beyond those pictures of that Marrakech feast, the Grand Canyon, or that nice couple from Guildford.

For centuries, some travellers have set out, literally, to get more from a journey. Initially, about the only people who travelled long distances were pilgrims seeking enlightenment or absolution. This spirit remains among the thousands who still make the ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: converging from across Europe to traverse the Pyrenees, meeting at the Monastery of Roncesvalles in far north Spain, and embarking on the long hike (or ride, or cycle) west to the shrine of St James. The Confraternity of St James (020-7928 9988; csj.org.uk) provides the information and advice to decide if this shared encounter is for you.

When Europe began to colonise the world, religion was the trigger for many more life-changing journeys, as missionaries sought to convert people to Christianity. The Grand Tour was not about changing others, but changing the traveller through immersion in the Continent's cultural crucibles. An excellent 21st-century experience is offered by Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; martinrandall.com) only 40 days from now, with an intense one-week trip to Milan, Florence and Rome to study the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo. The £3,100 price includes flights to and from Heathrow, first-class rail travel in Italy, good accommodation and special opportunities including two visits to Leonardo's Last Supper and a private visit to the Sistine Chapel. Enlightenment, indeed.

Latterly, tourism has become a cult in itself, with independent travellers setting off on the hippie trail to the East (sometimes acquiring life-changing medical conditions en route). The trail forged by Lonely Planet pioneers is now followed by tens of thousands of gap-year travellers, seeking to enhance their "life skills" in the broadest sense before starting university or full-time work. Their numbers have been swelled by adults who have found their life changed through anything from redundancy to divorce – and seeking a new challenge, skill or outlook.

An excellent way to combine travel and personal growth is to live with a community overseas as a volunteer, using your expertise to help others: 2Way Development (020-7148 6110; 2waydevelopment.com) facilitates assignments with grassroots organisations for durations starting at three months.

Whether you choose to give, to learn a new and valuable skill, or simply to take what the world has to offer, 2012 could be the time to make the journey that sets a course for the rest of your life. On the eve of a new year, remember that travel, and the openness to new experiences it entails, is an essential component of the human spirit.

Simon Calder

Uncharted waters

If you are keen to get as far as possible outside your comfort zone, there are plenty of targets. Let's start with the nation at the end of the universe, at least in terms of tourism and access. North Korea has always been a reluctant host to Western tourists (not least because the authorities suspect, correctly, than a good few of them are actually journalists). However, the death earlier this month of Kim Jong-il reminds us that even for old DPRK hands, there are still new horizons.

Regent Holidays is organising a trip off the (not-very-) beaten track in April (0117-921 1711; bit.ly/ NK2012). It takes in the isolated northern portion of the country, including Paekdu Secret Camps, from where the army was based and Kim Il-sung headquartered from 1936 to 1943. The price of £2,095 does not include flights to Beijing, but does include transport, accommodation and meals thereafter.

The world's youngest nation, born this year, is South Sudan – whose tourist board already has its own Facebook page (as does the UK embassy in the capital, Juba). As with other politically and economically troubled parts of Africa, the more information you can glean on a destination the better – whether from Facebook or, more reliably, from travellers who have just been where you are heading.

Responsible Travel (01273 600030; responsibletravel.com) acts as a clearing house for adventurous tour operators, but responsibly places a "potentially dangerous" warning on its tours that touch South Sudan and what must, I guess, now be called "classic" Sudan.

Travellers cannot avoid geopolitics which, in some places, is overlaid by armed insurrection and drug trafficking. You can encounter all three where northern Colombia melts into the Darien jungle of Panama, pictured left. Attempts to cross the Darien Gap on foot have had tragically life-changing effects on some adventurers: they have died while making the attempt.

But with Colombia calming, 2012 could be the year for tentative steps towards this astonishing corner of the world. And, if the jungle heartland looks too tough, fly from Bogotá to Capurganá, from where you can skirt the coast in a long, demanding day to Puerto Obaldia in Panama – where slow boats to the rest of the world depart. SC

You've got talent

Coming home with new skills is far more satisfying than arriving back home with just a suitcase full of souvenirs and a suntan. Learning holidays also allow you to immerse yourself in a culture, whether it's in a French kitchen or the African bush. With GoLearnTo.com (0845 625 0445; golearnto.com) you can master surfing in Portugal, photography in Morocco, or take Spanish and tango classes in Argentina. On its new cookery holiday in Puglia, guests stay in a renovated 17th-century masseria (a fortified farmhouse, pictured right) and learn to cook local dishes with ingredients from the school's organic farm. Eight days, from April to November, cost £1,095 full-board including tuition, excursions and transfers, but no flights.

Safaris are magical experiences, but it's perhaps more rewarding to learn the skills of a game ranger. Ecotraining in South Africa (00 27 3 752 4753; ecotraining.co.za) has courses from wildlife photography to bush skills and tracking. The 14-day game ranger course costs R22,500 (£1,758) including full-board accommodation, training and game drives but excluding flights. You will learn about eco-system management, anti-poaching techniques and game capture.

Authentic Adventures (01453 823 328; authenticadventures. co.uk) is launching painting trips to Kathmandu, Havana, Ithaca and Aracena in Andalucia, where a week, from 9 June, pitching your easel amid picturesque pueblos blancos, is £1,329 excluding flights.

Responsible Travel (01273 600 030; responsibletravel.com) offers Ghengis Khan Warrior Training in Mongolia where you can learn how to make a bow and arrow, and how to fire it from a standing position and from horseback. You'll be taught horse-herding, as well as the battle tactics used by Ghengis Khan. The nine-day trip costs from £2,150 including full board, activities and transfers, but not flights.

If you yearn for the land, there are bushcraft and survival courses to get you started. Mumbleys Farmhouse, near Bristol (01454 415 296; mumbleysfarmhouse.co.uk), has smallholding courses such as beekeeping and sheep-shearing and has added rural skills such as knitting, felting and rag-rugging.

Lucy Gillmore

Giving back

Not all life-changing journeys have to focus on your own life. Some of the most rewarding trips involve giving your time, or skills, to others on a volunteering holiday.

To make sure your trip is of genuine benefit to those you are intending to help, look out for Tourism Concern's new Gap Year and International Volunteering Standard (GIVS) kitemark, due to launch in 2012 (tourismconcern. org.uk), and Fair Trade Volunteering, a new standard for volunteer placements (fairtrade volunteering.com).

Your first choice is between a life-shifting volunteering trip or "voluntourism", which involves adding a period of volunteering to a typical holiday. If you're seeking the former, VSO (020-8780 7500; vso.org.uk) pairs up skilled volunteers with development projects around the world. Though known for long-term assignments, the organisation also offers placements of up to six months which are designed for professionals with qualifications and experience in fields such as advocacy, finance, agriculture, fundraising and IT. Successful applicants' expenses – from flights and visas, to accommodation and a living allowance – are paid for them. Current vacancies include a six-month post in India for a physiotherapist.

Camps International (0844 800 1127; campsinternational.com) also offers volunteer programmes for professionals, including month-long "Arkitrek" expeditions to Borneo for architecture and design professionals. Two of the days are spent on a marine conservation project, with time for swimming or beach volleyball. But the purpose of the voyage is to build sustainable infrastructure for an isolated community. Prices start at £1,650 per person, including accommodation but not flights, insurance or visas. The same company also organises two-week "healthcare outreach" volunteer programmes, placing healthcare professionals in temporary rural clinics in Kenya. These cost from £675 per person, including 13 nights' accommodation and most meals but not flights, insurance or visas.

Other reputable volunteering trips are available through Tribes Travel (01728 685 971; tribes.co.uk), which introduced a range of hands-on holidays in Peru, Morocco, Nepal and South Africa earlier this month. In South Africa, options include the Bokamosa Bicycle Project, outside Pretoria. This helps people to run small delivery businesses using bike-trailers or to provide their children with two-wheeled school transport. Bike repair skills are taught to the community and bicycle tours for tourists are being developed. The project specifically tries to attract visitors with business, marketing, accounting or bike skills. Prices start at £2,260 per person for four-week placements, including flights and full-board accommodation.

To muck in on holiday, "WWOOFing" is a popular way to earn your keep while travelling. The initials stand for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – sign up as a member (£20 for an individual or £30 per couple) and you get access to a long list of organic farms, gardens and smallholdings offering food and accommodation in return for labour. Enthusiasm is more important here than a degree in biodynamic farming. Current listings range from tree planting on a community-run conservation site in North Wales to beekeeping at a lodge in Bali. (See wwoof.org or wwoof.org.uk).

For short-term placements, conservation is often a popular choice. Inspired Breaks' trips (01892 701 881; inspired breaks.co.uk) range from adventure holidays to hands-on volunteering placements. One that combines the two is a 28-day Orang-utan Experience in Malaysia. The trip is split between two projects, in Kuala Lumpur and Sabah, with prices starting at £1,749 per person, including accommodation and most meals but not flights.

In the Peruvian Amazon, you can follow up a conservation placement monitoring wildlife, planting trees and mapping areas of interest with a four-day Machu Picchu trek. Prices start at £1,133 for two weeks, including full-board accommodation but not flights, with Crees Expeditions. The trek costs from £575 per person (020-7581 2932; crees-expeditions.com).

Rhiannon Batten

Well-being and fitness

To beat the January blues, take a good look in the mirror – and then do something about it. It's that time when many of us vow to detox, embrace a new regime and give ourselves a physical and mental spring clean. And there's no shortage of body-and-soul specialists in exciting locations to spur you on.

If you have trouble sleeping, head to LaSource in Grenada, north-west of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. This "holistic" all-inclusive resort offers complimentary yoga, t'ai chi and meditation every day – along with a recently launched scuba-yoga programme which uses yoga and meditation to help with breathing and relaxation before and after each dive. Kuoni (01306 747 008; kuoni.co.uk) offers a week's holiday, including flights from London, from £2,081 per person based on two sharing.

Chef, nutritionist and author Daphne Lambert is decamping from Penrhos Court in the Welsh Borders to spend a year in residence at the organic Trill Farm in Devon (01297 631 113; trillfarm. co.uk). She is running a series of Green Cuisine courses (green cuisine.org) here, including "Seeds of Change" from 20 to 22 January, for £325, full board. The weekend workshop begins with an (optional) live and dry blood cell analysis to check your free radical damage and blood toxicity. The workshop aims to cleanse and revitalise your body, with vitality-boosting green juices, nutritional smoothies, yoga, country walks, talks on food and vitality, the digestive system, gut biodiversity and cookery classes.

BTCV (01302 388883; btcv.org. uk/shop) has two new wellbeing weekend breaks in February and March that combine conservation work with yoga and reiki sessions. Volunteers help with coppicing, scrub clearance and creating dead hedges, then head back to base to relax. Full-board accommodation is included. The first venue is Akeley Wood (3-5 February; £155) in Buckinghamshire, where you stay at a 150-year-old cottage overlooking the Grand Union Canal. At Snelsmore Common (16-18 March; £120), a rare lowland heath in Berkshire, you can stay in a cottage in the grounds of Douai Abbey, home to a community of Benedictine monks.

The Hill that Breathes (00 39 0722 347 895; thehillthatbreathes. com), a quirky retreat centre, is located close to the mountains in Italy's Le Marche region outside the town of Urbino. The hub of the hill is a renovated farmhouse where guests stay, surrounded by cabins and tepees for treatments, with a salt-water pool. The organisation runs "F**k It" weeks that teach you to reassess the important things in life. The 2012 programme will be revealed on Monday.

Alternatively, breath coach Alan Dolan (00 34 690 162 426; breathguru.com) runs Breathing Space retreats from his villa in Lanzarote. For some, learning to infuse the body with oxygen and energy can have physical benefits; for others it's an emotional or spiritual journey. Three-night breaks cost from £455 per person full-board including a one-to-one session each day; flights not included.

Looking later in the year, Wildfitness (020-3286 4886; wildfitness.com) is launching its first fitness breaks on the Isle of Wight, involving cross-country running over the Downs, dips in the sea, barefoot sprinting along the beach, skipping sessions, boxing and breathing and mobility classes in the 15-acre gardens, before bedding down in Northcourt, a Jacobean manor house on the edge of the pretty village of Shorwell in the heart of the Downs. The three-day Energizer Course – in April, July and September – costs from £650 per person, all-inclusive.

La Alcantarilla (00 34 691 831 399; alcantarilla.co.uk) is a rambling old farmhouse in Andalucia, just outside Ronda. Here, terraced gardens brim with lavender, roses and fig trees and there's a pool with a panoramic view. The property has rustic-chic interiors and the walls are decked with paintings by its owner Gabriella Chidgey, an artist and Rambert-trained dancer. She is hosting a handful of pilates, yoga and movement weeks. The first course runs from 11 to 18 May and costs €850 per person full-board, excluding flights. LG

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