Spirit Level

Take out a green prescription on the West Coast.

Miles Holden

Humans have long sought to commune with nature—in a forest, on a beach, beside a river or up a mountain. There’s something about the combination of light and air, flora and fauna, sun and solitude that seems to recharge our senses.

Science agrees. Yale School of the Environment recently published a summary of research in the field of ecopsychology, which found that “nature is not only nice to have, it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive function”. It’s part of a body of evidence that has health providers recommending green prescriptions, which require patients to spend time exercising in nature as part of their treatment. In Japan, the practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, creates what physician Qing Li calls “a bridge between us and the natural world”. A Frontiers of Psychology paper demonstrated that even a small amount of time in nature was enough to improve mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate in students from Cornell University. Now, Tourism New Zealand is trying to get Kiwis to experience that feeling for themselves by booking a “recharge holiday”.

Given the psychological toll of 2020’s COVID-19 restrictions and the continuing disruptions of 2021, a stop-and-drop holiday at the beach or the bach might seem appealing. But Tourism New Zealand research has shown that active holidays involving creative stimulation, physical activity, reconnection with culture or building relationships leave us feeling more refreshed and rejuvenated.

It’s something Sabrina Poulin has seen first-hand in customers that have been on Active Adventures’ trips along the wild West Coast. “There’s a definite sense of achievement,” she says.

Like many other tour companies, Active Adventures was heavily reliant on international tourists, particularly Americans, before the borders closed last year, so was forced to tailor its trips to the New Zealand market. The trips it developed were between two to five days and were more focused on getting into the backcountry. And while the company considered offering self-guided itineraries, it has been offering guided trips for over 25 years, so it decided to stick with what it knows.

On its new West Coast Adventure ‘Gecko’ guided trip—a five-day tour that starts in Christchurch and ends in Queenstown—you get to stroll to a waterfall in Arthur’s Pass (the hikes are never more than two or three hours or more than 300 metres elevation), take a scenic flight over Milford Sound, see Franz Josef Glacier, soak in hot pools, and spend time kayaking and biking in some of the world’s most beautiful surroundings. It’s the Readers Digest version of the entire West Coast… and if travellers have a desire to do more, the tour guides can arrange it.

Most customers are from the North Island, and haven’t spent much time in the South. While the physical challenge of exploring the region is one of the main drawcards, says Poulin, there are plenty of others.

“People are always surprised how much they learn about their own country and culture, especially compared with a self-guided tour. Our guides are experts on so many things, from plants to Māori history.”

With a maximum of 14 people on each trip, the connections that are made in these small groups can also last a lifetime. “We have groups who stay in touch after their trips and plan other adventures together. It turns into a bit of family for a few days.”

Guides look after the catering, accommodation is typically family-run establishments such as the Rainforest Retreat in Franz Josef or the locally staffed Edgewater Resort in Wānaka, and activities support local operators, many of whom have been struggling due to the lack of international tourists.

The days are full, and there’s never an hour lost on the trip, says Poulin, so visitors feel recharged, as well as appreciating the physical and psychological benefits of an active break.

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