I just came back from a week offline. I was in Indonesia, on a two-masted pinisi, sailing east. The ship had no Wi-Fi at all. None of the places we docked – to meet friendly locals, to snorkel, to see Komodo dragons – were connected. When we were close to the coastline, I spotted the occasional mobile mast, and a couple of guilty looking fellow passengers checked texts – but, generally, the mood was analogue, the atmosphere news-free and the only chatter human to human.
It was only the third time in perhaps five years that I’ve been in a place or situation for any length of time without the opportunity to connect to (or trap myself in) the net. Old habits returned, like curiosity, patience and thoughtfulness. After all, we text and even email one another without saying as much as “hello”. We stop WhatsApp exchanges without “goodbyes”. We share our fake news on Facebook and saturate our pics on Instagram. Going back to real-time, real-life conversation was like being reborn ca. 1985.
Being off grid frees up so much time – according to Ofcom, the typical UK adult spends 23.5 hours online per week. I wonder how much this actually increases when we find ourselves on a beach, on a city break, far from loved ones.
Our will tends to be week when Wi-Fi is made available. But it’s getting harder and harder to escape online temptations. Almost all buses and trains are internet-friendly, and aeroplanes are getting there, for a price. Mobile masts on mountain tops spread their communications over remote valleys. Powerful relayers bounce satellite services across deserts. Apparently, 93 per cent of Greenland’s population have access to Wi-Fi (though that might be largely because they can’t go very far for most of the year).
Being unconnected is a human rights problem in some countries, for some people. For most Western travellers, however, an offline escape might be the one chance to delink from bills and other burdens, the woes of Brexit, the pesterings and pettinesses of family and work, the arguments and self-promotions of friends and acquaintances, routine, ruts and rivalries.
Here are some suggestions for those looking for the luxury of a low-tech holiday.
Countries where you might struggle to connect
Notwithstanding the fact that Greenland’s householders are connected, this huge icy country is, according to its own tourist board, a “chance to unplug from the world wide web and get in touch with marvellous natural surroundings, yourself and your travel companions – and it’s probably better to come to Greenland with this mindset.”
Visitgreenland.com notes that it’s possible to purchase Wi-Fi in most places “albeit at a higher price than you’re likely used to”. Nuuk library offers limited free internet access for all, and accommodations like the fine Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Hotel Qaqortoq, Vandrehuset and Hotel Hans Egede in Nuuk offer their guests free Wi-Fi in their rooms.
Despite having the largest number of internet users in the world, China’s internet censorship is pretty extreme. The so-called “Great Firewall of China” involves authorities monitoring internet access and blocking website content. Facebook (banned since the 2009 Ürümqi riots), Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, Pinterest, and Reddit are all on the blacklist, while Google’s China subsidiary is severely limited.
Internet was introduced to Cuba back in the late 90s but its development has been piecemeal. Most public access, and tourist access at hotels, is through scratchcards that seem designed to malfunction – long passwords are easily rubbed off if you scratch a little too hard, and the minutes purchased never seem to be quite as many as promised. Mobile phones work but it’s expensive to call home. Web censorship has eased off, but in July the government moved to shut down gamers’ private network SNet.
The Iranian government uses speed throttling – reducing bandwidth to slow down downloads – to frustrate users and limit communications. This happens in the lead-up to elections and whenever there is political upheaval as during the Arab spring. About half of the Iranian population has some kind of internet connection, mainly in the cities. Wealthy Iranians use VPNs to get round censorship of popular social media and news sites. Iranian hard-liners have called for tighter Internet censorship, including the blocking of Instagram, even while members of the political class are keen users.
Internet is strictly controlled in North Korea. Permission is only with special authorisation, mainly for government reasons, and access to the global internet is limited to a small group of elites. Nonetheless, the smart phone market is growing fast, and local clones of successful Western phones are improving. Foreign visitors can make international phone calls and go online by purchasing an international USIM card, available at the airport and a few other locations for a very un-Communist €200–250 euros. Note that the Foreign Office currently advises against travel to North Korea.
“The number of places where you can’t access the internet continue to diminish and, aside from pockets where physical geography, such as rock formations, blocks a mobile data signal, it’s increasingly political actions and economic challenges, rather than technology, that keeps a place offline,” said Mark Weeks, MD EMEA, Akamai.
“As smartphone penetration creeps up, even in developing nations, the idea of large-scale internet black spots becomes less likely as providers combine wireless, fixed and mobile technologies to bring the internet wherever there’s demand. Just as it’s no longer possible to blame being on a transatlantic flight or being on the tube for being offline, claiming that you’re beyond the reach of the internet on a beach or in the countryside is fading into the past. People who want a true digital detox holiday, will increasingly have to learn the self-restraint to turn off their own phones.”
The press and communication system of Turkmenistan is state-controlled, which means most social media apps are blocked, what you are seeing is heavily filtered and also that you are being watched while you’re trying to access your emails. Roaming charges for foreign phone users are sky-high. Some five-star hotels have fast Wi-Fi.
According to a survey by Cable, a UK broadband and mobile provider, Vietnam’s average broadband speed was “10 times slower than Singapore”. Vietnamese internet accessibility is blocked by the government, especially to sites that are critical of the government. Information about overseas political opposition, religious topics or human rights is also sometimes blocked.
Bhutan, Central African Republic, Chad, Lesotho, Malawi, Solomon Islands, Somalia and South Sudan have limited, slow, dysfunctional wifi networks and, in rural areas, very limited mobile phone coverage. So, digital nomads: stay away!
Accommodation offering a digital detox
Hoteliers are now waking up to the fact that some of their high-paying guests need a break from the phone and the net (of course, dingy hostels and old-school seaside B&Bs were always ahead of this curve). Business people who spend too much of their life in Hyatts and Hiltons and wired-up conference spaces understand “luxury” to mean less rather than more.
Sometimes the service is optional. For instance, a silver switch next to the beds in the Villa Stéphanie spa resort in Baden-Baden activates a copper grid in the walls that blocks all wireless internet signals. At the starkly beautiful Fabriken Furillen hotel, located on a remote peninsula in Gotland, Sweden, guests can book into the Wi-Fi-free and off-grid Hermit’s Cabin; the nightly rate decreases every day as you prove yourself up to the challenge.
In Spain’s paradores, and in similar colonial-era and medieval buildings that have been turned into tourist accommodation, signals struggle to get through the thick walls and/or down into the buried patios. The country’s Vincci chain of hotels is offering a digital detox package, including massage, candlelit dinner, “thermal circuit” and the increasingly on-trend “voluntary submission of electronic devices”.
In Chile’s posh adventure-oriented Tierra Patagonia, there are no TVs, no phone reception and no Wi-Fi beyond the common areas. Keeping screens outside bedrooms and encouraging people to enjoy the vistas and natural spectacles is an approach increasingly found across South American wildlife lodges, Amazon river retreats and in the more isolated East African safari camps.
Britain, so avid for its 5G, also boasts plenty of lodgings that deliver an off-grid break. Skiary Guesthouse, on the road-free shores of Loch Hourn, has no electricity but does have board games, home-cooked meals and whisky. Lit by paraffin-fuelled lamps, warmed by a driftwood-burning stove, it’s ideal for switching off.
There are also no TVs, phones or Wi-Fi in any of the 200-odd UK properties owned by the Landmark Trust. What’s more, many of them are truly eccentric, you could stay in a ruined castle in Warwickshire, a water tower in Norfolk, or a Pineapple in Dunmore, Scotland.
See more UK ideas at visitbritain.com/gb/en/places-stay-uk-grid-romance
Stop surfing and feel the waves
Sadly, or wonderfully – depending on your point of view – Wi-Fi is now widely available on cruise ships, ferries, long distance buses and even in taxis. This revolution has taken place in the last decade, with the larger cruise lines competing over who has the fastest connections.
Some Antarctic cruises, using former expedition vessels, only offer internet on one or two computers and the connection tends to be slow, expensive and hit and miss. Weather and satellites can affect the service, and you might be restricted to using a specific URL and sending only emails – which could be charged per size/byte. Thus, a large hi-res photo of a lovely berg could cost £500 to send!
Greek inter-island ferries, Amazon riverboats, UK canal barges and traditional tall ships and Indonesian pinisis have resisted the pressure to provide their passengers with net services.
Those opting to cross the oceans aboard cargo ships have also enjoyed a digital detox, with the connections available at best patchy. As one passenger reported, “My screensaver was now the restless Pacific”, as he happily swapped virtual entertainment for a pod of orcas.
Enjoy the clouds – instead of the Cloud
Only a handful of airlines offer free inflight Wi-Fi, including Emirates, JetBlue, Norwegian, Turkish Airlines, Air China, Philippine Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines and Nok Air. Most airlines charge well above terrestrial rates for making calls and for connection to the net, even while offering heaps of films, music and games free of charge.
As Alain de Botton has noted, air travellers are missing out on the wonders of the sky: “There is not much talk about the clouds that are visible up here. No one seems to think it remarkable that somewhere above an ocean we are flying past a vast white candy-floss island that would have made a perfect seat for an angel or even God himself in a painting by Piero della Francesca. In the cabin, no one stands up to announce with requisite emphasis that if we look out the window, we will see that we are flying over a cloud, a matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable.”
Flying is surely the ideal opportunity to look out of the window and enjoy one of the everyday miracles of modern travel. Perhaps one day selected seats will come with a digital detox as part of the experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ryanair try to charge for the right to go offline.
The unconnected town: Green Bank, Virginia
In this US township (pop. 143), internet and bluetooth are outlawed, and you can’t make a call on your mobile, or send texts. It is part of a federally mandated zone where the needs of a government high-tech facility come first – in this case the huge Robert C. Byrd telescope, which looms over tiny Green Bank.