As the pandemic uprooted our lives over the past two years, health and longevity became a primary concern for people around the world, prompting many of us to reevaluate the way we live and work. At the same time, as we return to travel, we yearn for meaningful, personal experiences … those hands- on, all-in immersions in another culture that help us reconnect and often plant the seeds of change in our own lives. The Blue Zones of the world afford a unique chance to do both.
In these five hot spots of longevity, researched by National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner and his team, people tend to live far longer than average due to their healthy lifestyles and deeply rooted traditions, with many reaching 100 years old. As diverse and far-flung as these regions are, they share common factors which have helped inhabitants live not only longer but healthier and happier lives, all pointing to a life in balance with the rhythms of nature. They tend to eat smaller portions of a plant-based diet and stay physically fit through natural movement such as gardening or walking. These close- knit communities also incorporate a slower pace, daily rituals that reduce stress, a sense of purpose as well as a positive outlook and strong social networks and family ties.
Historically, most of these places developed in geographical and cultural isolation, which helped them keep to a traditional lifestyle and promoted self-reliance and an appreciation for what they have. As Western influences seep in, however, younger generations tend to adopt a more modern lifestyle and diet, and the old ways may disappear.
Here we offer tidbits of inspiration from each region and meaningful ways to visit. You can find a wealth of stories, scientific data and information about the Blue Zones at bluezones.com.
Just 30 miles off the coast of Italy but a world away, Sardinia boasts a breathtaking landscape carpeted with macchia, an aromatic evergreen shrub that perfumes the air. Beaches and turquoise waters beckon, but head to the villages in the wild mountain region of Barbagia, where shepherds still tend their flocks. (Look for pecorino cheese made from the grass-fed sheep’s milk.) Raise a glass of Cannonau wine and say, “A chent’annos!” — “May you live 100 years!” Sardinians still harvest the food they eat, primarily sticking to a Mediterranean diet including whole-grain bread, beans, garden vegetables and fruits.
Dive into traditions that haven’t changed in centuries with Sardinia ZonaBlu Tours. On the eight-day excursion you’ll mingle with locals, take an off-road tour into the mountains with local shepherds, sip Cannonau wine under oak trees, make the pasta of the region and visit 5,000-year-old archaeological sites.
On the Italian mainland, indulge in a Blue Zones Longevity Program (and a little pampering) at luxury hotel Borgo Egnazia in the pretty port town of Savelletri in Puglia. The hotel’s Vair Spa partners with Blue Zones LLC to offer a four-day program which includes Blue Zones cooking lessons and workshops, movement classes, spa treatments, a Roman thermal bath and evening social events.
On this tiny island in the eastern Aegean Sea, time slows and nobody seems to take life too seriously. The rugged terrain, wild beauty and warm breezes rich with the scents of honey, herbs and pine lure people outdoors into an active lifestyle. Try the local red wine (many Ikarians make their own, but you can visit Afianes Family Winery at Profitis Ilias), and sample the pure, unfiltered, unpasteurized honey Ikarians consume daily and use as medicine. The centenarians here stick to an uncomplicated, unprocessed diet rich in legumes, vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Celebrity chef, cookbook author and My Greek Table host Diane Kochilas opens her home in the village of Aghios Dimitris to teach small groups about life and longevity on Ikaria. “The New York Times called Ikaria the place ‘where people forget to die,’” said Kochilas. “I like to say that it’s the place where people remember how to live!”
Guests of her week-long Glorious Greek Cooking & Quality of Life On Blue-Zone Ikaria tour learn to prepare healthy, seasonal, traditional dishes and savor them around the garden table amid views of the Aegean. They also visit the island’s artisans, farmers, winemakers, beekeepers, herbalists and goatherds.
With a distinct climate and geography, Okinawa developed a culture and heritage apart from the main islands of Japan. Visitors enjoy its beautiful beaches, subtropical rain forests and stargazing. The traditional food culture, based on a low-calorie, plant-based diet, reflects a ritual of health and well-being. Okinawans embrace the concept of nuchi gusui (“food is medicine”), and the habit of hara hachi bu — eating only until you are no longer hungry — plays a role in longevity and health.
At Halekulani Okinawa, guests can take part in an Escapes program, a series of immersive, authentic experiences inspired by the island’s heritage and way of life. The four-day Secrets of Longevity retreat reveals indigenous Okinawan practices that result in a longer and healthier life, encouraging guests to embrace them in their daily lives.
Experience village life with local tour guide Kumiko T., who works through Tours by Locals to take guests on an eight-hour Blue Zone Ogimi Village Tour in the island’s rural north. In this village recognized for having the highest proportion of elderly persons in Japan, join a local event for the elderly (COVID restrictions permitting) to understand the chimugukuru (beautiful heart) of Okinawans. Savor the Longevity Meal at Emi no Mise restaurant, prepared with seasonal herbs, island vegetables and local seafood. And thrill at the breathtaking natural beauty on a river trek to Ta-Taki Falls in Yambaru National Park.
NICOYA PENINSULA, COSTA RICA
Nicoya Peninsula’s phenomenal rural setting offers a rare close connection to nature. This quiet paradise in a country that’s home to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity is known for its nesting sea turtles, isolated beaches, wellness and yoga retreats and surfing. Don’t miss the chance to adopt the slower pace, simplicity and positive outlook of “la pura vida.” Nicoyans still honor the traditional Mesoamerican diet highlighting the “three sisters” — squash, corn and beans — and enjoy an abundance of exotic, tropical fruits. Fuel your day with a hearty breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and homemade corn tortillas.
Tour Guanacaste brings Costa Rica to life with a range of group or private guided tours of the area’s pristine landscape. Reserve a spot on the six-hour Guanacaste Blue Zone Tour and you’ll start the day at a mountain yoga center to experience yoga in nature and mindfulness classes. Sample local vegan, vegetarian and indigenous Costa Rica cuisine before heading to a recreation center to visit with a number of active and healthy Costa Rican senior citizens.
LOMA LINDA, CALIFORNIA
Just 60 miles east of Los Angeles, within view of the towering peaks of the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, Loma Linda is home to a community of 9,000 Seventh-Day Adventists, currently the longest-living group of people in America. Loma Linda University and Medical Center has been a national center of health and wellness research for decades. The university sponsors lectures and musical programs.
The Adventist faith endorses healthy living tenets which discourage smoking, alcohol consumption or foods deemed unclean in the Bible, such as pork. (Because many Adventists are vegetarians, most of the city’s dining spots offer vegetarian options.) Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, seeds and whole grains and especially legumes and nuts, Adventists remain fit with modest but regular physical activity. A powerful contribution to their longevity rests with the observance of a 24-hour sabbath, a weekly “sanctuary in time” to downshift, be with family, get out in nature and rejuvenate apart from daily stressors.
Make a pilgrimage to the Loma Linda Market, where all the elements of the Adventist diet stand ready for the picking: dozens and dozens of oversized bins of legumes, nuts and grains as well as fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables and an entire wall of gluten- free delights. Or head to Clark’s Nutrition Natural Foods Market, also offering a wide selection of whole and organic foods, organic produce and prepared foods. Pack up your organic goodies and head out on a nature walk in one of Loma Linda’s many parks to enjoy a picnic in the fresh air. Hulda Crooks Park features great hiking, biking and running trails and beautiful views.
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