Holidays to Silence the Mind

Active breaks for the traveller seeking downtime  
Banguerra Island Mozambique
Dhows are traditional sailboats that can be hired by visitors to sail around the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique. Photo: Annie Griffiths/National Geographic

Even the busiest body secretly hopes for a quiet place, to be far away from the bustling anthill, the demands of life. Most of us secretly hope to travel to a place without mental clutter, where stillness replaces the noise of the city, where the tangible elements of nature become immediate reality. We can find quiet zones in different ways. For some, it is the absence of sound, the silencing of car horns and human voices. For others, it is to be found in the anonymity of the crowd that throngs a market place. Some climb mountains to reach faraway places without another soul. Others embrace the depths of the ocean, to find serenity there. From the recesses of a forest, to the deck of a sailboat, here are just a few stories of where people choose to go to find their moment of serenity.

In the Wild: Trekking in Agumbe Forest & Silent Valley

There is never absolute silence in the wilderness. At every part of the day, the natural world emits distinctive sounds. Sunrise has birds stretching their vocal chords. Sunset is filled with the sound of nature settling for the night. Then it’s the sounds of owls, nightjars, crickets and other nocturnal creatures. While the air is always filled with this natural harmony, the wilderness is still the easiest place to sit alone and find some internal silence. I like to walk to the top of a mountain, the edge of a cliff, float in a canoe or raft on a lake, or sit in an empty cave and just listen.

It is not easy to enjoy this sort of silence; you have to tune yourself to switch off, to appreciate it. I conduct a variety of outdoor ventures with children, youth, and adults, all of whom rarely spend any quiet time with themselves doing absolutely nothing. During these programmes, I will often make them hike to a vantage point on a mountain, and then ask everyone to sit about 25 feet away from each other and be silent for 20 minutes. This is not a formal meditation exercise. I merely urge people to think about anything that they want to—from childhood memories to a new love, or just everyday life in general. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone who does this in a wilderness setting walks out with renewed energy and fresh thoughts. Even children love this exercise and they are the first ones to request repeats.

With our obsessive urban lifestyles, especially with all our smart gadgets, few people, and this includes kids, give themselves the luxury to disconnect. Travel, in all its forms allows us the luxury to extract ourselves from the routine, and take time out to just sit quietly. It’s quite easy to do when you’re in the wild. Contrary to what most people think, you don’t really have to travel very far—wilderness areas are often close to cities.

The time of the day is very important in creating the right ambience for quiet time. Sunrise and sunset work best, and late night skies are great too. Staring at enormous mountains, endless oceans, a full moon, or an infinite sky allows one to step back and appreciate the vastness of the universe in natural silence. It makes us realise that we are small cogs in a huge wheel. This belittling is not a negative thing. For me it puts everything in perspective. After a short time out in the wilderness, I find clarity, I find it easier to solve problems or make difficult decisions.

—André Morris, outdoor adventure professional (as told to Natasha Sahgal)

Find a quiet zone in the wilderness: Exploring India’s wilderness is easy, there are 103 national parks, 733 protected areas, 67 conservation reserves, plus hill stations, mountains, and millions of acres of countryside that provide the perfect setting. We’re lucky to live in a country with so much wilderness to find quietude.

The Western Ghats are rugged hills that are ideal for the pursuit of down time. The easiest option is to head to any hill station in this range, and take off on a trail from there. A few particularly stunning locations: Konkan Kada, Harishchandragad (Malshej Ghat, Maharashtra), Kaas Plateau in the monsoon (Satara, Maharashtra), Silent Valley (Palakkad, Kerala), and Agumbe Forest (near Mangalore, Karnataka).

One-third of India’s land mass is the Himalayas, stretching from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast. Historically few places can rival what they offer in peaceful and meditative locations. Alternatively, plan to go on an organised trek. There are literally hundreds of trekking routes throughout the country, each offering its own unique topography and landscape.

Note: Don’t enter or wander into a national park or protected area on your own, especially if it is known to have wildlife. Take an experienced guide, or go through a reliable operator who can take you to wild locations, without the crowds, where you can safely spend time. When going hiking from a hill station try to keep to marked trails. Ensure you have a backup for finding your way back—unfortunately in India we have very little in terms of search and rescue facilities in the wild.

In the Air: Paragliding in Bir & Kamshet

Indonesia Nusa Dua Paragliding Indian Ocean

Soaring above the Indian Ocean in Nusa Dua, Indonesia is thrilling and the views of white sands and clear waters are calming. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

While paragliding, I feel like I’ve been stripped bare from technology, from proximity to the earth, and from any outside support. There is no engine to help me fly, just a glider that I can control. For me there is no greater connect to the elements—when I am in the midst of one of them, using the wind to keep me flying.

There are different sorts of glides, depending on the place. Bali is perfect to fly off a cliff and float above the sea effortlessly. In Himachal Pradesh you can go thermalling. This is an advanced technique where gliders ascend using columns of rising air—a method that birds use to gain height as well. In fact, while flying we look around for birds to follow them in to the thermals (since they know best) and then ride up the same ones.

A few months ago I went to Bir in Himachal Pradesh to do a course in thermalling. I arrived at Bir a day earlier than the workshop and decided to do some gliding on my own. It was a day of perfect weather and I soared from one thermal to another, leading to a three-hour-long flight all the way to Dharamshala, 30 km away. I rose up to 4000 metres, the highest I had ever been. I was soaring by snowy Himalayan peaks and it was so calm and disconnected from real life that my mind was soon in a dream-like state. I have done longer distances after this, but this one flight was special because of the absence of anyone else. Usually there are other gliders along, and I will be connected to a radio at least. But this particular time I went without my radio set and was totally free from human sound—it was just me and the strong sound of the wind.

Paragliding starts off with an adrenaline rush during take-off but once in the sky, it is complete calm and almost meditative. Whenever mid-life stressors kick in, I take to the skies. Paragliding gives my mind exactly the quiet state I need at that point.

—Vistasp Kharas, interior designer and air junkie (as told to Natasha Sahgal)

Find a quiet zone in the skies:

There are two ways a first-time paraglider can start soaring the skies; go for a tandem ride or do a paragliding course. Tandem rides usually last for ten minutes and no prior experience or training is needed. There are several spots around India where this is possible. The Bir-Billing stretch in Himachal Pradesh is one of the most scenic. Soaring above the Arabian Sea at Varkala Beach in Kerala is now gaining popularity. Take off is from the cliff on the main beach and landing on the beach. International pilots are usually around to take travelers on tandem rides. To be able to go on longer and solo flights, you must do an introductory course (P1) and then move on to more advanced courses. Kamshet in Maharashtra has several paragliding schools that offer these courses. (Temple Pilots 99700 53359; Nirvana Adventures 022-2605 3724; Indus Paragliding 98690 83838; approximately ₹16,000 for 3 days which includes stay, food and travel). The best time to glide in India is the winter months of October to February. Gliding is not possible in the monsoon.

This sport is extremely popular in Europe, especially in France. Many experienced gliders take off from Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe; the French Alps provide a picturesque backdrop. Other notable spots among thousands worldwide are in Germany, Nepal, Turkey, Norway, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia.

At Sea: Sailing in Chennai & Mumbai

Banguerra Island Mozambique

Dhows are traditional sailboats that can be hired by visitors to sail around the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique. Photo: Annie Griffiths/National Geographic

An engine on a sailboat is anathema. It has already served its purpose, once it has powered you away from the hustle and bustle of the port. You kill it the moment the sails are set, and the all-pervading racket is soon replaced by the silence of the sailboat’s hull making way through the waters, swift as a shark and agile as a dolphin.

It is not even an hour before the cacophony of sounds and lights of the shore are distant memory. The sounds of the city—car horns, cries of vendors, and the innumerable municipal decrees—fall away with each passing mile. You might still see the coast, but at that distance the boat is out of the reach of any of the entanglements of your normal life. You are left alone to listen to what the oceans have to offer, her sounds and her sights.

It is time to put your phone on flight mode!

The wind picks up into a steady gale and fills the boat with a nautical orchestra—waves crashing on the bow, the hull slamming on swells, wind whistling through the rig, the creaking and groaning of stressed wood, and surf breaking all around. It is a very different mix of sounds. The sort to which the mind of the solitary voyager can ascribe all sorts of meaning, music, and rhythm.

Even when I’m on a long voyage alone, overcome with exhaustion and apprehension, the comforting music of the sailboat on the seas, brings calm to my mind. It is this and the solitude that is my reward for wetting my feet.

—Lt. Cdr. Abhilash Tomy is India’s first non-stop solo circumnavigator.

Find a quiet zone at sea:

There are two ways for aspiring sailors to learn the ropes in India—join a sailing club or enrol for sailing lessons. West Coast Marine in Mumbai offers sailing courses for enthusiasts of all skill levels (022-22856127; www.westcoastmarine.co.in; an introductory two-hour sailing lesson costs ₹800, see here; if you enjoy the experience, sign up for regular lessons, ₹1,000-2,000 per lesson). The Royal Madras Yacht Club in Chennai invites newcomers to spend a day at the club, and get a feel for sailing before taking a plunge with membership. It organises races for members every Sunday morning (92821 07449; www.rmyc.in; membership fee ₹1,00,000; guest visit costs approximately ₹750, Sunday only). A comprehensive list of sailing clubs and schools across the country can be found at www.yai.org.in. Outside of India, Thailand, New Zealand, Greece and the Caribbean are fantastic options, though there are many other places for sailing.

Under Water: Diving in Goa & Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Coral Reef Andaman Nicobar Lakshadweep

Coral is actually a colony of small marine inverteberates that live and grow for hundreds of years. Photo: Umeed Mistry

Before you can settle down to the serenity of the world under water, there is a process. First, there’s the long boat ride out to sea, the buzz of the small engine subsumes all sounds. The horizon draws the eyes, and its vastness clears the head—allowing the noise and clutter of thoughts to fall away. On reaching the dive site, a ritual takes over. Weight belts are tightened, air supply started, and with a wordless signal and splash, I tumble into the ocean. There’s salt water in my mouth, the ocean is pressing down on my ears, and I’m sucking on the regulator so hard my teeth hurt. But soon, I’m weightless in the water; in equilibrium with it. My breathing slows, and the sound of it stops filling my head. The water is warm; the gentle swell cradles me back and forth.

Now there are no engines and no splashes. The boat is just a rippling shadow above, framed by the light of the sun. My ears tune in to the soft crunch of parrot fish turning coral into sand, and the dull echo of metal on air tank as the dive instructor tries to get my attention. Other senses are heightened, and small details stand out: the slight shifting in the ocean floor that gives away a camouflaged flat fish; a small nudibranch in startling colours clinging to rock; the odd shape of a polka-dotted black-and-yellow box fish. On a night dive, the experience is magnified. The absence of sound and almost all most other sensory perception, sharpens what I can see in the beam of the torch. Sleeping fish with their eyes open bob in the swell and there’s the minute sound of a large red lobster scuttling across the ocean floor. Phytoplankton illuminate the water around me in tiny pinpoints of light.

The depths of the oceans offer personal joys that cannot be shared with loud exclamations. We must simply see and savour the sight for what it is. When I miss diving, I miss the wealth and beauty of the underwater world. I also miss its calming embrace. I miss the stillness, the economy of movement. The way one powerful kick can propel my body a long way, the way one breath inhaled or exhaled allows the body to rise or fall. Most of all, I miss the way the mental state starts to reflect the physical, and the mind becomes rested and receptive.

Neha Dara, Deputy Editor, National Geographic Traveller India

Find a quiet zone under water:

The best places to go diving in India are the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep, between late-October and February. Go on an assisted dive (where an instructor familiarises you with the equipment and basic breathing skills and guides you on a dive; ₹4,500) for a sampler, and if you enjoy the experience, sign up for certification (4 days, ₹20,000 onwards). Most dive shops in the Andamans are located on Havelock Island. Some popular diving schools are Andaman Bubbles (www.andamanbubbles.com) and Dive India (www.diveindia.com). You can also learn scuba diving at Port Blair, Neil Island, Wandoor and Chidiya Tapu, but Havelock is most convenient for beginners. If you don’t have time for a long holiday, you can learn diving on weekends at the inland dive training institute run by Planet Scuba in Bengaluru; and by Lacadives in Mumbai (check www.lacadives.com for details). Other places for diving in India are Goa (Barracuda Diving, Baga, www.barracudadiving.com and Dive Goa, Panaji, www.divegoa.com) and Karnataka (www.barracudadiving.com). Dive schools like Planet Scuba India and Lacadives (www.lacadives.com) also organise diving trips to sites in Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives etc.

Appeared in the August 2012 issue as part of “Quiet Places”. Updated in November 2016.
Also read Urban Quiet: Find Your Spot of Calm In 4 Indian Cities.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?