20 of the most relaxing holidays
The astonishing landscape of Landmannalaugar, its mountains streaked in varying shades of orange and brown (and at times, blue and green), still feels remarkably off-the-beaten track in Iceland. Those that do make it here come for the hiking or – and more appropriate for those in search of relaxation – the hot springs. These are about as natural as they come – scalding water emerges from underneath lava to meet a cold water flow, creating the perfect, scenic conditions for a soak.
Ang Thong National Park, Thailand
Though Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan have plenty of perfect beaches for even the most weary of traveller, head to nearby Ang Thong National Park for a real sense of getting away from it all. This group of 42 small, lush islands boasts the kind of winning combination of sand and rainforest that millions of Western travellers have dreamt of since The Beach. Whether you dive among the coral reefs, seek out your own pristine bay or spot macaques in the rainforest, you’ll have left stresses of real life far behind you.
Stately Budapest remains one of the grandest of Europe’s capital cities. The highlight of any visit is undoubtedly the chance to wallow in one of the city’s restorative spas, fed by thermal waters from subterranean springs. The Art Nouveau Gellért Baths offers an air of exclusivity among its mosaics and stained glass, while the Széchenyi Baths are the hottest in the city, with outdoor pools and water rapids to add to the experience.
The Seychelles is the stuff that tropical-paradise dreams are made of. Ridiculously soft white sand, clear azure waters and a lush interior that’s just waiting for exploration – it’d be hard for even the most stressed-out city dweller to not arrive here and feel themselves instantly relax. Though the name conjures up images of honeymooners and expensive resorts, it is thankfully possible to stay here on a smaller budget – making paradise a much more affordable possibility.
Cosmopolitan Vancouver, scenically set by the water and ringed by mountains, feels like the best of both worlds – a vibrant, exciting city within spitting distance of some astounding nature. The city itself has a laid-back vibe that has much in common with the US’s west coast cities, and there’s arguably no better place to experience this – whether on the beach or on two wheels – than semi-wild Stanley Park, the city’s green heart.
Bay of Islands, New Zealand
It’s worth making the stunning Bay of Islands, in the far north of New Zealand, your final stop after indulging in the country’s plethora of adrenaline-filled activities as it’s the ideal place to recharge. This subtropical region is best explored from the water, where you might get to spot whales, penguins and dolphins, and even the largest island – Urupukapuka – remains remarkably tranquil.
Sacred Valley, Peru
North of Cusco, the Sacred Valley stretches out towards Machu Picchu. Here, in the steep-sided valley, you’ll find the evocative Inca ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, in dramatic positions high above the river. Once you’ve spent a few days exploring, head a bit downriver to Urubamba, which is becoming something of a spiritual centre, to relax under the snowy peaks of the Andes.
There are plenty of places to relax in the Yucatán, but head away from the coast to colourful Valladolid and you’ll discover a much more local side to the region. The greatest pleasure here is in exploring on foot, ducking into little shops as they take your fancy, trying the local specialities – of which panuchos, small tortillas stuffed with refried beans and topped with pork, are a particular highlight – and cooling off in the wonderful natural cenote (sinkhole) on the edge of town.
Treasure Beach, Jamaica
On an island that’s synonymous with chilling out, Treasure Beach particularly stands out for its laid-back charms. The beaches are blissfully quiet by Jamaican standards, and there’s still very much a local heart to the beachside community, which definitely adds to its appeal. This is undoubtedly the place to come to discover the island’s gentler side.
The cultural heart of Bali, Ubud is picturesquely set among paddy fields and remains a magnet for healing treatments and local art and music. Hire a bike and take a leisurely ride out into the lush surrounding countryside before heading back to relieve any aching muscles with a Balinese massage. In the evening, check out a traditional dance show at the atmospheric Ubud Palace.
The Dordogne, France
It’s hard not to be enchanted by the Dordogne as it winds its way past dramatically-sited château and medieval villages. The region is best appreciated at a slow pace – whether floating down the river in a canoe, over the fields in a hot air balloon, or over a leisurely lunch in a sun-dappled square. Even driving here is a pleasure, and it’s hard to beat driving the quiet country roads at dusk as the river glints appealingly beside you.
Let’s be honest, you’re unlikely to head to Bora Bora for anything other than the delights of sun and sea. The ultimate way to do it, if you can afford to, is to stay in an over-water hut, from where the peaceful sunsets and vast expanses of aquamarine water are yours alone to savour. If it all gets a bit too quiet for your liking, explore the beautiful lagoons by boat, hike into the interior or experience the vibrant underwater life on a diving trip.
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
The largest national park in the UK, and right in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, the Cairngorms boast the kind of jaw-dropping scenery that’ll impress you even in the worst weather. And if it does turn out to be dreich (dreary), it’s hard to beat cosying up by a fire in a Highland pub with a glass or two of whisky.
Joshua Tree National Park, USA
The silence of the desert is what hits you first on arriving in Joshua Tree National Park. There’s undoubtedly something otherworldly about the eponymous Joshua Trees (which are in fact yucca rather than trees), and the park is at its most magical at dusk, when the desert shifts into varying shades of orange, pink and red. The best way to experience the park is on foot – clambering over giant boulders, hiking down to an oasis, or just finding a shady spot from which to soak up the silence.
Kosi Bay, South Africa
Tucked up in the far northeastern corner of South Africa, right by the border with Mozambique, Kosi Bay feels like a bit of an adventure to get to – and is blissfully undiscovered by most other tourists. Hippos wallow in the waters around here, while the bay itself is fabulous for snorkelling, and the beautiful stretches of sand are so quiet and secluded you won’t quite believe your luck.
Las Alpujarras, Spain
Though the hairpin bends that litter the roads through this mountainous part of Andalucía may mean you arrive feeling a little less than relaxed, it doesn’t take long to slip into the sleepy rhythms of this beautiful region. Spend your days exploring the quiet white-washed villages, tasting the delicious local jamón, or taking a leisurely ramble along a mountainside path.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Famously laid-back, Amsterdam is not a city to rush through. Join the locals and explore by bike – at a meandering pace, of course – or wander over bridges and quiet side streets to discover the city’s most alluring side for yourself. It feels especially magical in winter, when countless cosy bars provide the perfect respite from the chilly northern air.
Nong Khiaw, Laos
North of Luang Prabang on the wide Nam Ou river and surrounded by striking limestone karsts, the village of Nong Khiaw is one of the best places in Laos to kick back and relax. While there’s plenty of activities on offer in the surrounding countryside, it’s really about the simple pleasures here – chilling out in your riverside hammock, ideally with a cold Beer Lao in hand, as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Caye Caulker, Belize
Caye Caulker more than lives up to its motto of 'Go Slow', and at just 35km northeast of Belize City it makes for an easy escape – and best of all, at affordable prices. This relaxed and easy-going island is only just over 8km long; the big appeal here, in addition to the gorgeous white-sand beaches, is the abundance of opportunities that the reef – 1.5km offshore – provides, not least snorkelling among the coral canyons.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
It’s not hard to be blown away by the majestic landscape of the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. The centrepiece is undoubtedly the immense Paine Massif, of which the Torres del Paine themselves usually steal the show, towering over the almost too-reflective-to-seem-real waters of Lago Nordenskjöld. There’s plenty to explore in the park, but it’s hard not to just want to find a great vantage point and soak it all up.
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