“The whole getting-away-from-it thing was wonderful,” Cottell says. “Children have more fun running around with nature than they can at home with all the electronics. Playing chess or playing with the dogs is much more fun than watching Nickelodeon or Hannah Montana. And I can spend hours reading, chatting and having a glass of wine with friendly people.”
Alternatively, the opportunity for less interaction and more introspection was what drew Ria Sharon to a wireless vacation. She chose to stay in a thatched hut on the beach at Maya Tulum, located just a short drive from Cancún, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The eco-resort consists of 45 secluded beach cabanas, along with a spa, yoga halls and a sizable restaurant. While the rooms here have electricity, there are no phones or televisions — simply spectacular views of the pristine beach just outside your front door.
When she visited the resort four years ago, Sharon brought books to pass the time but ended up not cracking a single one. Instead, she wrote in her journal and pondered goals for her life. She has taken a similarly disconnected vacation every year since that trip.
“How many times do you change your location but not your mind-set or activities?” she asks. “Modern technology has made it possible for us to stay connected regardless of where we are, so a real vacation requires a conscious effort to unplug.”
But in the age of smart phones and Internet-addiction facilities, powering down can be a daunting thought, especially for those individuals with high-pressure careers. When Maureen Poschman, a public-relations specialist from Aspen, Colo., began preparing for an 18-day boating trip with her boyfriend through the Grand Canyon a decade ago, she was terrified — but not because of any element of danger. Rather, she wondered: Could she really survive that long without phone or e-mail?
Not only did she survive, but she actually reveled in the detached freedom. She even cried the night before they returned to civilization. “It was glorious — one of my best vacations ever,” she says. “You don’t realize how connected we are and how your brain never gets a break.” She has continued to take similarly isolated vacations ever since.
Finding renewal in nature has been something travelers have sought since the Industrial Age. Science backs what writers and philosophers like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wallace Stegner and countless others have asserted for more than a century: that spending time in the wild leads to better mental health and improved cognition. According to studies by University of Michigan professor Stephen Kaplan, nature is a “soft fascination,” which means that relishing a sunset or walking along a beach doesn’t require the work of watching television. Therefore, such activities provide a vacation for the prefrontal cortex as well as for the soul. The brain can soak up pleasing images, but it can also wander, reflect and recuperate.
But be forewarned that, while the lifestyle at these off-the-beaten-path destinations may be easy, the journey to get there often isn’t. To arrive at Peru’s Manu Wildlife Center, for example, Glenda Schroeder of Glen Allen, Va., flew first to the city of Cuzco, where she boarded a 12-seat plane bound for the small airstrip known as the Boca Manu Aerodome. From there, she took a 90-minute motor-canoe ride down the Madre de Dios River to finally reach the lodge, which is set deep within the Peruvian rain forest in a Biosphere Reserve zone.
The experience offered by the center, however, is a rich reward for anyone willing to make the trek. The 22 private bungalows, constructed from materials attained in an environmentally conscious fashion, were built in an area of the jungle that boasts more plant and animal species than anywhere else in Manu. Nearly 600 species of birds make their home in the area, in addition to otters, deer, monkeys, tapirs and more. Guests can observe the animal life from the comfort of their rooms — which have windows facing the foliage and are equipped with mosquito nets — or from various blinds located short distances from the center.
“You are in their world,” Schroeder says of Manu’s wildlife. “The monkey and jungle noises change from early morning to evening. If you are in tune with it, they are the ones that actually wake you.”
At Robin Pope Safaris’ Nsefu Camp in Zambia’s remote Luangwa National Park, guests like me are similarly able to experience fauna in their natural habitat. The camp, the oldest in Zambia, is remote — 90 minutes by jeep from a small airport — but it is located in an active animal area on a bend of the Luangwa River. The facility’s six round rooms, known as rondavels, are sturdy and comfortable; each offers a private bath and views of the river, where elephants, puku, warthogs and other animals drink and graze. I find out firsthand how integrated the camp is with its surroundings when, one afternoon, I must wait for three young elephants to finish munching on the tree leaves that shade the riverbank terrace before I start in on my own lunch there.
Though we maintain a safe distance from the animals, our guides remind us not to step out of the car when we’re in the vicinity of lions, leopards or elephants and not to venture out after dark. Here, we’re a link somewhere in the middle of the food chain.
It’s impossible not to consider time differently here. The Luangwa River is a rarity unspoiled by man — a series of oxbows meandering through a rift valley that is more than 175 million years old. At night, as I sleep without so much as a fan to relieve me from the 100-degree heat, the quiet is broken only by the occasional cackle of hyenas stalking the camp and the echoing roar of lions feeding in the near distance.
One day we arise before the sun and drive hours to reach the Mtanda Plain. We watch imposing herds of buffalo, zebra and impala migrate to a watering hole as a pink sun peeks over the horizon. It’s here, sitting by a fire as our breakfast cooks, where I realize that off-the-grid destinations like these have the power to transport us not only to another continent but also to another time.