From post-heartbreak holidays to solo adventures ending in broken bones, we ask travel columnist Anna Hart why she believes travel has the power to heal and transform us.
With a pair of self-confessed travel addicts for parents and having lived in Northern Ireland, India and Singapore by her teens, it’s perhaps not surprising that Anna Hart has travel in her blood. In fact, she’s traveled to nearly 60 countries.
A travel writer, adventure columnist for the Daily Telegraph and former travel editor of Stylist magazine, Hart’s first book, Departures: A guide to letting go, one adventure at a time shows how travel can often be the medicine we need, be it getting through a teenage identity crisis, a break-up or depression. We catch up with her to find out more about the idea of travel as a ‘prescription’.
Meera Dattani: You talk about the power of travel to heal you. How has it healed you?
Anna Hart: I see travel as medicine; a trip is a type of prescription. There was my first ever work assignment abroad as a junior reporter, covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, where I learned to go forth and be nosy, speak to strangers, and do my job. There was a trip to the Amalfi Coast that banished a lingering bout of depression, restoring color to my life when I’d let things slide into the grey.
There was a three-month stint working at organic farms in New Zealand and living in a camper van, where I kicked my city habit and learned how to appreciate the great outdoors. There was a surprise 10-day digital detox around Namibia, which prompted me to re-evaluate the role social media plays in my life, and shifted the power dynamic between me and technology in my favor.
The idea of ‘I just want to go somewhere hot’ is an alien concept to me. I think long and hard about where I’m going. I remember how a January weekend in Naples where I ate delicious pizza and drank red wine totally reset me. The same thing happened on a recent trip to Seville. The architecture, food and wine delivered magic into my winter—like eating a salad after two days of airplane food. In that sense, travel has never failed me as self-help—it’s as good as an intervention, removing you from your circumstances.
Do you think technology—smartphones, social media etc.—can hinder the healing nature of travel?
I believe we need to be more mindful in our social media habits. At the moment, it’s a bit of a buffet—but we’ve not worked out how hungry we are! Social media can be amazing too. I’m often inspired by Instagram and it’s also democratized travel—small hotels can publicize themselves on there, and it can enrich your travel experiences if you do your research.
“Solo travel is the ‘extreme sport’ of travel. You have higher highs but equally lower lows. As a confirmed people-pleaser in everyday life, I find traveling with nobody to please but myself completely exhilarating.”
This need to document and share our experiences is nothing new either—just think of the old explorers. But it’s a problem when people are more focused on getting that perfect photo instead of enjoying the moment in real-time. I often put my phone on flight mode and just use it as a camera and notebook.
Your book is very honest about your life. Did you intend it to be as much about an ‘inner’ journey as it is about travel?
Yes, I did. I see travel as experiential, observational, challenging, something that forces transformation. Over the past 15 years, as a student backpacker, a world-traveling reporter and now a travel writer, it’s been travel that has turned me into the woman I am. But I wanted to be honest about the times I was a terrible traveler! When I was too painfully shy to speak to other tourists on a Turkish tour bus. When I’d choose to sit alone in a Thai hostel dorm eating crisps for dinner rather than brave a café on my own. When I’d turn up in a new city unable to even say ‘hello’ in the language, culturally clueless about the historical sights of Amsterdam, only interested in beer.
I also feel travel journalism has a credibility problem. It’s accused of being too glossy, too aspirational; a world of beautiful people, and their beautiful lives in beautiful hotels with their beautiful partners. It’s useful to correct that and offer a warts-and-all narrative.
You’re a big fan of solo travel. What’s the main appeal?
Solo travel is the ‘extreme sport’ of travel. You have higher highs but equally lower lows. As a confirmed people-pleaser in everyday life, I find traveling with nobody to please but myself completely exhilarating. The joy of waking up when I wanted, doing what I wanted and eating what I wanted, became addictive.
“The thing I find so intoxicating about travel is that when I step off the plane, I’m stepping into a whole new version of myself. Nobody knows if I’ve just been dumped, sacked, or if I’ve left a trail of wanton destruction behind me.”
On the plus side, you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do, and you’re not affected by anyone else’s needs. But it can be lonely and you can find yourself wishing you had someone to share it with. Another issue is safety. I realized there are things you can’t do as a woman. In the US, I wanted to go to a rough biker bar but I knew I couldn’t! I want to be honest about this aspect of solo travel, but I also can’t imagine what it would take to put me off adventuring on my own.
Have you worked out what type of travel affords you the most rewarding experiences?
Yes. I’ve spent half of the last three years abroad, and I’ve really honed my tastes. I realize I’m not interested in anything overly foodie, or spa and pampering, or hotel-focused. I want wildlife encounters, amazing landscapes, physical challenges—those were the trips that moved me.
I also have a thing for emerging city destinations. I loved Detroit. To my mind, it’s one of the most optimistic places on the planet right now, a city that reached rock-bottom and is now steadily on the up. Crucially, it’s a place where young people can afford their dreams, be it owning a cafe, able to afford their own artists studio or restoring their own family home.
You also say travel can challenge you. Anything you’re particularly proud of having achieved?
Last year, I drove along the ice roads in the Yukon, Canada. I’d only just passed my driving test—in east London—then my first road trip was driving alongside truckers on frozen river beds. This is something I adore about my job; that it constantly pushes me, forces me right out of my comfort zone, and makes me a braver, bolder, better person!
The thing I find so intoxicating about travel is that when I step off the plane, I’m stepping into a whole new version of myself. Nobody knows if I’ve just been dumped, sacked, or if I’ve left a trail of wanton destruction behind me. Or indeed, that I’ve just passed my driving test. The opportunities for reinvention are endless.
Find out more about Anna Hart or get your copy of Departures: A guide to letting go, one adventure at a time.