CNBC Travel

Travel writers name the world's 15 best escapes for peace and quiet

Moments in Time
Moments in time
Most memories don’t stick.
But some are never forgotten.
Where stillness, beauty and joy give way to a profound peace.
The past few years have been turbulent, which is why we asked these writers to reveal places where they found their inner calm.
THE EMPTY QUARTER  |  Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

I sank my toes into the bone-dry sand in Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Oasis, close to the Saudi border. It’s an otherworldly, mysterious and astounding place, far removed from civilization. An ocean of soft, multi-colored sand and towering dunes define this remote, quiet place.

The Empty Quarter, known as Rub’ al Khali in Arabic, is the world’s largest contiguous sand desert spanning more than 250,000 square miles across four countries: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and the UAE.

The only signs of life in this barren wilderness may be the sporadic sight of prancing gazelles, Bedouins and trekking camels. Vast and inescapable on foot, the Empty Quarter is considered dangerous because of its extreme heat and lack of water, but to explore this natural wonder is worth the risk, albeit always with a guide.

Transcendental is how I’d describe the few hours I spent in this wild yet beautiful corner of the world, where I soaked in the stunning natural landscape amid ancient Emirati culture.

- Tracy Kaler
Photos: & videos: Tracy Kaler and Getty Images

Stop, put the
phone away
Rose Reading Room  |  New York Public Library, U.S.

Up the stairs at the main headquarters of the New York Public Library is a room that feels like it was torn straight from the pages of a Harry Potter book — where you can be surrounded by people, and yet immersed in silence and tranquillity.

There's something about libraries that sparks productivity and creativity within me. And the Rose Reading Room, with its frescoed ceilings and ornate decor, adds a layer of aesthetic brilliance to what would otherwise be considered run-of-the-mill work. It’s especially good for people-watching too: Tourists frequent the room, though they aren't allowed at the wooden desks unless they’re there to read, research or work.

When I see them crowded behind the velvet rope barrier, taking photo after photo and whispering to each other in awe, I want to tell them to stop, put the phone away, and feel the tranquility of this space.

It's a rare feeling in the heart of Manhattan.

- Sebastian Modak

The greatest show on Earth
PLENEAU ISLAND  |  Antarctica

I still have many years of awe-inspiring moments ahead of me, but I often wonder if I will ever feel the overwhelming sense of joy, peace and oneness with the world that I did in Antarctica.

While on a morning kayaking adventure just off the mainland, I spotted an unusually large group of penguins hopping like flying fish over the water’s surface.

Soon, I found myself surrounded by a feeding frenzy as humpback and minke whales joined the fray, surfacing in every direction. The sound of air shooting through blowholes ricocheted off surrounding icebergs, and the sun shone down like a spotlight on the greatest show on Earth.

Antarctica constantly makes you feel tiny, alone and utterly insignificant — in a good way. To know you could walk in any direction for miles and never run into any sign of civilization is as rare as it is humbling. Even if traveling via an expedition cruise, it’s easy to disengage — whether on land, on the ship deck or, yes, floating in a kayak — and reap the rewards of true solitude.

- Sebastian Modak

A scent that reminds
me of summer
CENTRAL PARK  |  New York City, U.S.

With its rounded arches and patterned walls, the architecture of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace Arcade reminds me of home and the feeling of security I sense sitting in one of Austria’s magnificent baroque churches.

Wandering around Central Park on a hot day in August, I got caught in a massive downpour. Seeking shelter in the arcade, I sat down on the damp floor of the interior walkway. The distinctive smell of raindrops hitting sun-warmed plants and cobblestones lingered in the air — a scent that reminds me of summer in the countryside.

Leaning against the wall, camera in hand, I observed the people around me: adults upset as their plans were disrupted, passing tourists following their strict sightseeing plans, joyful children hopping into the puddles and grownups surrendering to the forces of nature.

The rain came as quickly as it went away. But the moment is burned into my memory forever.

-Petra Loho
Photos: Petra Loho

A nightscape blanketed in a billionfold stars

Manguri Station is one of the stops during the voyage of The Ghan, the iconic train that cuts across Australia’s Red Centre. It’s a simple platform in the middle of the desert, surrounded by an ochre emptiness, a jumping-off point for the opal mining town of Coober Pedy that feels like a portal into another realm.

Upon returning from our visit to the dusty outpost, we were welcomed by a bonfire that raged against the dusk sky. Night fell quickly and the golden hues of daylight faded into faint whispers in the darkness. As the cold air draped heavily upon us, people trickled back to their cabins aboard the train, but I lingered on, fascinated by the cosmos.

The waxing crescent moon was a beacon floating just above the horizon. I then realized the moon was setting, giving way to a nightscape blanketed in a billionfold stars. The Milky Way was radiant in all its celestial glory.

It felt as though I had zoomed out of my body. I was but a tiny spot in the middle of a vast continent, somewhere at the bottom of the Earth, orbiting the sun, floating in the galaxy, in this immense expanse of unending space. It was an arresting reminder of how small yet infinite we are, that we are but specks in an unfathomably grand universe.

- Stephanie Zubiri
Photos: Scott A. Woodward

A place for reflection
and stillness
Khogno Khan Mountain  |  Mongolia

After driving 200 miles from the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, followed by an hour of off-roading across vast, awe-inspiring grass steppes, the tiny 17th-century monastery at the foot of a sacred mountain came into view.

Over the centuries the monastery was repeatedly ransacked, forcing its monks to flee. Such a troubled past gave this remarkably beautiful spot an undeniable sense of melancholy. But ultimately, the overriding feeling was one of peace.

My only companions were dozens of white butterflies which flitted gracefully between fragrant bushes under the shade of birch trees. A bubbling stream was dotted with smooth boulders that served as the perfect place to sit and breathe it all in.

My mind turned to my parents, both of whom had passed on. Then, almost on cue, a ray of sunlight broke through the treetops and landed on me, immediately warming my face, making me smile, reminding me that they were still looking out for me, thousands of miles from home, all these years later.

- Chris Dwyer
Photo: Chris Dwyer

We felt at peace with the world

“We felt at peace with the world,” wrote Sergeant Thomas Hibbert in his travel diary in 1945. While World War II raged on, the British soldier documented a 10-day trek from Darjeeling to what was then The Kingdom of Sikkim. Accompanied by three comrades, Hibbert journeyed over the almost 12,000-foot-high Sandakphu, the highest peak in West Bengal, India.

Decades later, I felt the same sense of peace standing on Sandakphu's top, watching the sun rise over the “Sleeping Buddha,” a shape formed by mountain peaks in the Eastern Himalayas. The awareness of one's tininess ignited a warm feeling running through my body. At sub-zero temperatures, I soaked up this profound insight that only the beauty and power of nature can convey.

Karen Claire shared this moment of awe with me. I had met the 70-year-old on the way to the summit. Suffering from severe asthma, the frail New Zealander finally fulfilled her dream and followed in the footsteps of her father, who trod the same path with Sergeant Hibbert nearly 70 years ago.

- Petra Loho
Photos: Petra Loho and Getty Images

You can feel
the history
Ryokans  |  Japan

Soothing hot spring baths, minimalist design and a sense of tranquillity make traditional Japanese inns, or ryokans, a wonderfully calming and culturally immersive experience.

Food is a key component. Through a dozen or so small but beautifully presented courses, kaiseki dinners showcase the attention to detail, seasonality and subtlety that brings Japanese cuisine so much acclaim.

Each ryokan has its own character. You can feel the history soaked into the nearly 200-year-old Hiiragiya, the best ryokan in Kyoto. Yet Hoshinoya Kyoto is a sleek, contemporary reinterpretation.

And while those two are pricey, not all unforgettable ryokan experiences cost a fortune. In the middle of the pandemic, after a two-day hike with my son along the Michinoku Coastal Trail, we stayed at Ragaso in Tanohata village, in a region still rebuilding itself from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. For around $100, it had the one thing that marks the best ryokan stays: hospitality with a staff that made us feel at home.

- Rob Goss

All I felt was gratitude
Tbilisi  |  Georgia
The calm I needed
Volta Region  |  Ghana
An incredible feeling
ATIU  |  Cook Islands

When “Tbilisi Loves You” is the airport’s Wi-Fi network, it’s fair to deduce that there is a warmth toward visitors. My time there was exactly that — a cornucopia of feasts, wines and passionate locals eager to share their culture. Every evening left me electrified.

I like to walk as much as I can while traveling, to take in all the sights and sounds. One morning, while staying at Meidan Square in Old Tbilisi, I decided to hike up to the Narikala Fortress to take panoramic photos of the city. It was then that I stumbled into the National Botanical Garden of Georgia.

I was suddenly enveloped in a greenery of calm. The pathway filled with rows of cypress trees is seemingly endless, and I felt my sense of being shift. My mind became quiet — in a good way — and all I felt was gratitude.

- Cheryl Tiu

The Wli Falls is the tallest waterfall in West Africa. I vividly remember stepping into it and looking up — and seeing a huge rainbow. I felt such a profound sense of peace.

Back home in Maryland I am a registered nurse, which can be an overwhelming career. But the feelings I came with lifted with ease, knowing that priceless natural beauty like this exists in this world.

On the river, I passed waving fishermen and Ghanaians dancing to Afrobeats by the palm trees. Ghana is a travel-friendly country that I always recommend to others as their first destination on the African continent. Ghana is a place where one can find warmth — in its weather and its people.

- Shandorf Yirenkyi Jr. 
Photo: Shandorf Yirenkyi Jr. 

Atiu is one of the largest of the Cook Islands, yet it lacks shimmering lagoons and beach hotels. It has about 400 residents. And in January 2020, I was the only visitor.

During the day, I explored sea caves. At night, I cooked simple meals and read books.

On my final morning, I walked to a beach I hadn’t explored. Days before, conservationist “Birdman George” Mateariki told me Cyclone Timo, lurking near Fiji, might push giant frigatebirds toward the shore. To no avail, I watched for them as huge waves caused by the faraway storm crashed over the harbor walls and onto the deserted beaches.

As I reached Matai Beach, I spotted a flock of low-flying, diving birds. Finally! They flew toward me. Soon I was surrounded by soaring, circling frigatebirds. It was an incredible feeling. For a couple of minutes, the whole world was just them and me. It was a fitting farewell for a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

- Carrie Hutchinson

The only noise was the whirl of the wind
Kamalame Cay  |  Bahamas

After more than a year of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd and other political and social upheaval, I was exhausted.

When my water taxi docked on Kamalame Cay, and I saw the lush greenery and white sand beach, I exhaled — finally. The private island resort is near the world’s third-largest barrier reef with acres of coconut palm groves and stunning vegetation.

There were no crowds. The only noise was the whirl of the wind, the waves. I heard my thoughts. I took long walks along the water.

The sunsets soothed, as did the over-the-water spa with the wind blowing, the sea splashing and the thrill of a stingray swimming below my Swedish massage.

With the pampering and Mother Nature’s magic, I left the island better than I arrived, assured that somehow everything would be OK in an upside-down world.

- Sheryl Nance-Nash

One of my fondest memories
Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park  |  Bilbao, Spain
I felt at home
Howzak House  |  Isfahan, Iran
An astonishingly beautiful mountain town
TAWANG  |  India

Ihad been awake for more than 36 hours. Jetlagged and filled to the brim with pintxos and Rioja, I popped into Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park on my first night in Bilbao.

As the city’s main public green space, the park would likely be teeming with locals on a sunny day. But it was sleepy at 10 p.m. on this misty Sunday night, with only a few people and their dogs.

Though I rarely enter a park after dark, that brief time remains one of my fondest memories of the two weeks I spent in Spain’s Basque Country. I didn’t do much in Dona Casilda that night except people-watch, listen to the splashing fountain, and sense Bilbao preparing for a good night’s rest.

- Tracy Kaler

Nassi and Babak, the founders of this unassuming guesthouse in the Ebn-e Sina area of Isfahan, want guests to understand Iranian culture. So they offer guided walks to a nearby cultural haven, where I handled 100-year-old wooden blocks used to produce intricate qalamkar fabrics, and listened to string music from the kamancheh, a bowed string instrument.

The house, a converted 90-year-old residence, says a lot about the culture too. I would see this every morning when sunlight filtered through the preserved stained-glass panels atop my windows and door, as birds chirruped their greetings. I felt it as I worked on my laptop, with my legs within the heated korsi — a low-lying heated table — to fend off the late winter chill.

Whenever I stepped out, the fatherly Mr. Rahnama, the housekeeper, offered tea, soup or bread to enjoy on one of their daybeds. Despite the stark cultural differences between us, I felt at home, cocooned in this oasis.

According to an old Persian saying, “Isfahan is half the world.”  And Howzak House was my world in this distant land.

- Morgan Awyong

Tawang is an astonishingly beautiful mountain town, tucked away in India’s extreme north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. This secluded part of India is ethereal, with its towering Himalayan peaks, glacial lakes and jaw-dropping mountain panorama.

I feel privileged for having spent my early childhood in this Himalayan town. The sheer simplicity of life, the fascinating Monpa tribal people, those visits to the 400-year-old Buddhist monastery — with monks chanting “om mani padmme hun” and indulging in a game of snow football with my friends — remain etched in my memory.

The town’s hallowed spiritual ambience is palpable and His Holiness the Dalai Lama is revered as God incarnate by the local Monpas. Incidentally, Tawang was the first place the present Dalai Lama went to after fleeing Tibet when Chinese forces invaded in 1959.

- Subhasish Chakraborty


Editor: Monica Pitrelli
Design and production: Bryn Bache
Photos and video, unless otherwise stated, courtesy of Getty Images.
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