Scout Guide: Creative Escapes

In the latest edition of On The Road, we check out seven great escapes with different flavour for the holidays – whether you want to learn to cook, DJ, or throw a mean lasso:

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  • Escabeche of spring vegetables, red mullet and citrus will soon be part of your culinary repertoire after a stay at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Photograph by Mr David Griffen

People often describe a vacation as an “escape”. It’s a reactive word – the implication is that you’re running away from something, namely the monotonous daily trudge of working life. But it’s also possible to be proactive when plotting out your precious annual leave. In fact, there’s no rule that says you have to spend the duration on a sunbed. So why not spend the time – gasp! – learning something?

Around the world there are all kinds of hands-on retreats, offering lessons in intriguing disciplines that can turn your run-of-the-mill getaway into an enriching experience. From penning your first novel in the serrated craters of Iceland to learning how to survive on the smooth plains of the Serengeti, these are breaks you might return from not only with great Instagram snaps, but a new skill. (And even, perhaps, a pair of customised skis – see Bespoke Ski Making, below). Think of them as part-relaxation, part-inspiration.


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  • Above left and right: Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, Reykjavik. Below left: Látrabjarg, Iceland’s most westerly point. Photographs by Mr Roman Gerasymenko and Visit Westfjords

Writers’ retreat – Reykjavik, Iceland

An isolated, misty island shrouded in myths, magic and sagas. Where better to hold one of the world’s finest writing retreats? Aspiring wordsmiths from across the globe will descend on Reykjavik in April 2016 for the third annual Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR), at a four-star hotel on the city’s wooded outskirts. During five days, top authors such as Ms Kate Williams and Mr Steven Galloway will lead workshops on the art and craft of professional writing, complemented by field trips into Iceland’s otherworldly wilds. Now in its third year, the first two retreats featured, among others, Orange Prize-winner Ms Barbara Kingsolver and Pulitzer Prize-winner Ms Geraldine Brooks, and garnered rave reviews. If you believe you’ve still got that book inside you, this trip is definitely for you.

When to go: The IWR takes place every April. Icelandic days are longer by then (sunset is around 10.00pm), but there’s still an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights, which made an appearance at both previous retreats.

Best preparation: Read work by the authors leading the workshops in advance to help you understand their style and writing approach.

Insider tip: “In April, it can be springlike or blizzardy: bring hats, scarves, gloves and a warm coat for the field trips,” says co-founder Ms Eliza Reid. “Try connecting with other participants in advance using our closed Facebook group. If you’re travelling by yourself – as most are – you’ll be able to make dinner arrangements or perhaps sign up for additional excursions with others.”

Book it now:


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  • Left and below right: Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ kitchen gardens and house. Above right: confit cod chorizo red pepper. Photographs by Mr Paul Wilkinson and Mr David Griffen

Raymond Blanc cookery classes – Oxford, England

Oxford, of course, is a world-renowned seat of learning, so it’s apt that one of the best cookery schools in Europe now sits just a few miles from its ancient heart. At the Raymond Blanc Cookery School – based at the French chef’s two-Michelin-star hotel and restaurant Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – you can study everything from the basics of baking to the finer points of filo pastry. One, two and four-day courses are on offer, with residential options so you can unwind in one of the hotel’s luxurious rooms after a day of slicing and sloshing about its award-winning kitchen. Whether you can’t cook, won’t cook or simply wish to be a better cook, this is the perfect way to increase your culinary cachet in style.

When to go: The Cookery School is open year-round; prices are cheaper for weekday classes.

Best preparation: Read Mr Raymond Blanc’s book Blanc Vite, then choose your booking dates carefully. There are shifting seasonal options from the Christmas Dinner Party course to the spring-specific Garden To Plate lessons.

Insider tip: “Many of the dishes we teach have already appeared on Mr Blanc’s BBC programme The Very Hungry Frenchman, so catch up on a few episodes to give yourself a head start,” says head tutor and chef Mr Mark Peregrine.

Book it now:


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  • Left: Mr Matty Wainright, director of The DJ Dispensary. Right: the private pool terrace at Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman. Photographs by Mr Jasper James and Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman

DJ retreat – locations worldwide

Ever fancied the life of a globetrotting DJ? British company The DJ Dispensary offers glamorous week-long retreats at some of the world’s hottest hotels, featuring one-on-one tuition on the decks. Two hour-long sessions a day will have even the most musically incompetent mixing tunes like Frankie Knuckles by the end of the week, culminating in your own live set at a local bar or club on the final night. With locations from the Maldives to the Dominican Republic and Oman, this is very much as glamorous as it sounds.

When to go: DJ retreats run year-round.

Best preparation: Choose which genre of music you’d like to play (what’ll it be, house, reggae, funk or dubstep?) and list your favourite upbeat tracks.

Insider tip: “Plan your outfit in advance,” says Mr Matty Wainwright, director of The DJ Dispensary. “You’re going to be DJing live to crowds at the end of the week and you’ll want to look the part.”

Book it now:


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  • Left: Mr Michael Freymann from SPURart. Above right: colourful houses along the River Inn, Innsbruck, beneath the Nordkette moutain range. Below right: the view from the Nordkette overlooking Innsbruck. Photographs by SPURart and Innsbruck Tourismus

Bespoke ski making – Innsbruck, Austria

James Bond is renowned for both his skiing ability and his bespoke suits, but what about a combination of the two? In the Austrian town of Innsbruck, close to where a number of the Spectre scenes were filmed, an innovative local company called SPURart offers bespoke ski and snowboard crafting weekends. You turn up on a Friday evening and by the Sunday afternoon you have your own high-quality, customised skis or board to carry back to your lodgings at the boutique Nala Hotel, a short stroll away.

When to go: The workshops run from October to April; go early in the season to ensure a good outing for your new skis or snowboard.

Best preparation: Have a rough idea of what you want. SPURart will call you beforehand to help you choose the shape that’s right for you.

Insider tip: “Your new skis or board will need a few days’ ‘rest’ after they’ve been made, so don’t expect to be skiing or riding at the end of that first weekend,” says SPURart’s Mr Michael Freymann.

Book it now:


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  • Left: vineyards and olive groves at the Benziger Family Winery. Right: the wine cellar at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. Photographs by Benziger Family Winery and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

Sommelier experience – California, USA

Why pay for a standard wine tasting when you could be leading one in the future? California’s Sonoma County is renowned for its premium wine and now one of its top hotels (the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa) is offering a Sommelier Apprentice Package. Designed for amateur oenophiles looking to immerse themselves in their liquid passion, it’s a two-night programme where you’ll get to soak up an assortment of sommelier secrets at the best local vineyards, from grape types to weather patterns. All while enjoying some expert tutelage on the next wave of up and coming wines, which you’ll also get to sample, of course.

When to go: The annual “California crush” in September/October is considered peak time, when the grape harvesting and crushing takes place.

Best preparation: Research the major Sonoma wineries – particularly the Benziger Family Winery – beforehand, noting the grapes they use and any exceptional wines to look out for.

Insider tip: “Keep a particular eye out for any food and wine pairings on offer and ask plenty of questions about the flavours and how they combine,” says Ms Debra De Martini, the hotel’s head concierge.

Book it now:


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  • Left: one of the luxury tents at the Serian Camp in the Masia Mara, Kenya. Right: a herd of zebra in the Mara North Conservancy. Photographs by Serian

Safari training camp – Kenya / Tanzania

In a wild stroke of fortune for nature lovers, African holiday expert Gane & Marshall is now inviting guests to join its annual safari guide training camps. You’ll link up with local guides out in the Masai Mara or Serengeti for between one and three weeks of hands-on coaching, covering everything from traditional wilderness skills to animal identification. Based at one of the company’s luxury Kenyan or Tanzanian camps, the teaching combines centuries-old bush lore and modern science, while leaving enough time to immerse yourself in the raw environment, where you’ll have opportunities to document, paint and photograph.

When to go: The three guide-training weeks all take place in March.

Best preparation: There’s plenty of hiking involved: buy a pair of good walking boots and spend time breaking them in properly.

Insider tip: “Invest in The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals, a superb guidebook that comes in handy pocket form,” says Mr Jeremy Gane of Gane & Marshall. “That, and the best binoculars you can afford.”

Book it now:


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  • Above left: Black Mountain Ranch, Colorado. Below left: rides through the Rocky Mountains offer views over open pastures. Right: put your roping skills to the test

Cowboy college – Colorado, USA

Bind and gag your inner-city slicker with a hands-on ranching retreat in Colorado. Black Mountain Ranch, a family-run dude ranch that dates back to 1903, offers seven-night stays, including  shooting, fishing and riding tuition. The highlight is an overnight pack camp at the end of the week, where you ride out at sunset before enjoying dinner around an open fire in the back country, and a night out under the stars.

When to go: Adult-only weeks run throughout September.

Best preparation: Order a cowboy hat in advance – you’ll look the part and keep the unrelenting sun off ( has an excellent online selection).

Insider tip: “Say yes to everything,” says Mr Niall Douglas, MD of Full Circle Travel, which offers Black Mountain Ranch packages. “The ranch is designed for you to do as little or as much as you like, so to make the most of it, keep trying new things.”

Book it now:

~Mr Porter


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