“I’m like Marie Kondo on steroids,” explains a laughing Sarah Wilson, the New York Times-bestselling author of the I Quit Sugar books that transformed her into a globally game-changing wellness advocate. “Her ethos is to throw stuff out — mine is to not buy stuff in the first place.”
A former editor of Cosmopolitan Australia who became a hugely successful healthy-living entrepreneur, Sarah’s Buddhist-like commitment to placing experience above material trappings extends to her traveling life too. Whether embarking on a book tour to New York and London or hiking her way around the world, she moves through time zones and entire continents for months on end with nothing but an 18lb (8kg) carry-on bag of bare essentials and a small supply of “fancy” things (some silk singlets, shell tops and a special dress for parties).
An avowed hiker, Sarah sidesteps the standard measures of luxury in favor of free-wheeling and usually solo nomadic adventures. Naturally curious and loquacious, she can set out with a loose agenda, trekking from town to town and befriending locals along the way. Hiking, she says, helps streamline and quiet her mind.
While it was an autoimmune disease that led to a life-changing decision to cut sugar from her diet and share her learnings with the world – amassing millions of online followers in the process – she has also been unblinkingly honest about living with mental illness. Her 2018 memoir, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, details her most difficult experiences, while also examining how she may have found success because of, not in spite of, severe anxiety.
Speaking one morning from her Sydney home before a ritual swim at nearby Bondi Beach, Sarah is quick to extol the link between hiking and wellbeing. Even in Australia, on a free weekend, she’s liable to daytrip inland with little more than a map and few notes of cash to traverse bushland, rocks and creeks. Whether it’s for finding calm or decluttering the brain of a lifestyle that requires us to keep multiple tabs open in our minds at any given time, traveling through nature, she contends, is a very primal and satisfying fast-track to mindfulness.
What else did you learn about hiking while researching your book? I found countless studies that show the connection between hiking and the soothing and modulation of anxiety. And they’ve been able to look at it from the point of view that the part of the brain that evolved to walk is the same part that evolved to be the fight or flight mechanism, so the prefrontal cortex. Essentially, we can’t walk and be anxious at the same time. The brain is a mono-tasker, and walking really quashes the anxious mechanism.
What was a particularly remarkable hike? One of the most memorable was hiking down the south of Spain through the Sierra Nevada. I met this guy through somebody and ended up staying with him and his wife. He was in his sixties, but was a walking expert who had written quite a lot of guides. He put together this wonderful walk that went through some of the most arid land you can imagine, through farmland and over mountains. I would eat two or three massive omelets for breakfast and two coffees and then head off to hike for eight hours until I reached the next town. For seven days I hiked around this area on this route and ended up in Ronda, which is an incredibly beautiful town.
What about in Australia? I love the hikes around Sydney, particularly in Ku-ring-gai National Park. It’s got a very special, grounded energy. And it’s semi-tropical and there’s just dozens of incredible hikes. You can catch a train to get there and I love hikes where you can orchestrate a walk that goes from a train station to another train station. There’s this wonderful sense of completeness.
You travel solo a lot. What sort of friendships do you make along the way? I was on the road, literally living out of one bag, for eight years — hiking around the world, basing myself in different areas – and it only dawned on me quite recently that a lot of what I was doing was trying to find my tribe. And my tribe are the kinds of people who you meet sitting at a bar in New York, or passing through the same taverna in Crete, or you meet on Instagram and then work out that you’re both going to be in Portugal at the same time. I’ve developed some of the most nourishing relationships by being a loose unit out in the world, where people take me as I am and I take people exactly as they are. Incredible, like-minded people who are on a similar mission, in many ways, which is to connect, connect, connect.
Living lightly very much informs how you travel too, right? Yes, I have a hashtag that I sometimes use on my posts: #hikedontshop. Essentially, I think that whenever you’re hiking, you can’t go shopping, so I don’t accumulate things. It started out of necessity. I had a childhood that was certainly not opulent, and I often had to go without. So I developed my life around going, ‘Well, I can make do without that.’ And then it became something that just felt comfortable and made sense.
Wellness is a huge part of your life. How do you stay on top of things while traveling? I try to time international flights so that I arrive with enough time to do some sort of exercise before getting into bed. If I’m flying to LA, I always try to get in at six in the morning, and I’ll go and do a couple of laps around Runyon Canyon, and I basically just wear myself out. When I fly into New York, I generally arrive in the afternoon, which gives me enough time to do a two-hour walk around Manhattan. Even when I’ve been really stuck and got in at midnight, I’ll still do a couple of laps of the fire stairs in a hotel, and it’s not to be fit, it’s just to ensure that I’m getting oxygen through my body, and that I can get to sleep that night.
Where was your last vacation? Tasmania – hiking around the Tasman Peninsula and camping in the national park over New Year’s Eve, eating oysters straight from the bay.
Where will your next vacation be? I’m planning on doing the GR20 hike across Corsica in late June. It’s meant to be the toughest hike in Europe. Which may or may not be hyperbolic.
The thing you can’t travel without? Earplugs. I’ve researched the most effective version and buy in bulk!
Plane, train or automobile? I love trains. The pace and rhythm are such a soothing counter to the frantic pace of most things. Plus, they tend to deliver you into the middle of a city — usually the most exciting hub. You can get straight on with things.
The people you’d most like to sit next to on a long-haul flight? Very small old ladies, in general. However, if I was happy not to sleep at all, Russell Brand would be my pick. I’d truly love a committed, heartful conversation with the guy. I think he’s brilliant.
What is your in-flight ritual? Compression socks, meditate during takeoff, pull out computer (I do my most considered writing on a plane).
The language you wish you spoke? I learned French from a textbook while working in a pub in London when I was 18. I’d like to speak it properly. I love the flirtatious dance of the tempo of French.
When were you happiest while traveling? I was hiking in Crete and I lay down in the scorching midday heat under a tree on the rocks. I sunk into the earth and slept, my head resting on a rock. When I woke 15 minutes later, I realized, “this is my happy place.” The wrongness, the rawness, the freedom…all of it sees me connect fully with life. This is what makes me happy.
Desert island or downtown? I like the robust dance between the two. I call it pulsing.
If you could live at any hotel, which would it be? I really am not a great fan of hotels. I am not comfortable in ‘fancy’. That said, Colombe d’Or in St Paul-de -Vence would satisfy me quite nicely. It has an incredible history of artists residing there to paint and write, and the area is surrounded by incredible hiking!
What is your room service indulgence? I don’t do room service — I always get out and about when travelling.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night? I stayed in a convent in Venice for a week when I was 18. It was very cute – the nuns blessed me each night, and it was lights out at 8.30pm!
What is your favorite market? To be honest, the Byron Bay markets here in Australia. I also love the San Miguel market in Madrid for meeting locals.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be? Paris in the 1920s, an era when women were rewarded for being smart, creative and a bit crazed.
What are the show-off spots in your hometown? Bondi Beach. I live 100 meters from the water. I have lived by oceans around the world, and I think the water in Bondi is particularly special — invigorating! A ferry ride across to Taronga Zoo, then a hike around the harbor is very special, too.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year?
A weekend in Tasmania.
A week in Paris.
A month in Crete.
A year in a desert, anywhere.
Your biggest extravagance on the road? Booking accommodation and flights last minute.
Describe a memorable meal from your travels. A chicken curry in Dalat in Vietnam after riding ten hours uphill in 40°C [104°F] heat. I’d actually passed out (I also had food poisoning) and my brother revived me under a cold shower and took me to this hole-in-the-wall place which had the one meal (the curry) in a massive cauldron. I ate three serves and cried as the minerals brought me back to life.
Travel hell is? Perfumed hotel rooms.
Where are you ashamed that you’ve never been? Nowhere. I work hard not to feel shame or regret.
Three favorite stores on earth? A hard one — I don’t tend to shop!
Most treasured travel memento? A teapot I bought in New York when I was 21. I drink green tea from it daily.
Why do you travel? To connect with humanity and understand it better.
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