Their rubbery rounded snouts are instantly recognisable – it’s a huge pod of dolphins, swimming right my way. I tread water as they dart around me in playful rings, their cheery faces making it impossible not to laugh.
Suddenly, I hear a faint high-pitched sound in the distance. Is that – could it really be?! I turn around and there is it – a gigantic blue whale emerging from the cloudy depths of the underwater horizon. I freeze with awe as its humongous form glides slowly past me, resisting the instinct to speed out its way, letting out an audible ‘Whoa’. After a magical few seconds, the whale disappears into the distance, leaving nothing but a few faint ripples.
OK, this encounter didn’t actually happen for real. I’m miles from an ocean, stood in my East London bedroom – and it’s not a scuba diving mask on my head but a virtual reality headset. But this might be the closest I ever get to swimming with a blue whale, and the thrill was palpable.
Plus, after nearly a year of pandemic restrictions and my normal travel-filled world shrinking to a 5km-odd radius, it’s a welcome slice of excitement.
A ‘world’ of exploring
I’m testing the HTC VIVE Cosmos Elite VR headset. It turns out, there are tons of travel experiences for people to explore virtually. You could even do a flight simulation, if you want your ‘holiday’ to feel as close as possible to the real thing. I’m happy to skip that though (flying is my least favourite part of travel – and surely a bonus of doing a holiday virtually is you get to skip the annoying bits) and dive straight into some ‘day trips’ via VIVEPORT.
There’s a bit of setting up first, however. VR travel may not require passports and packing, but you will need to do some prep – checking your laptop or computer’s compatible with the software, then setting up the kit (I’d recommend drafting in a tech-savvy buddy if you find this sort of thing a bit bamboozling). It’s a bit like rushing to the airport and getting through security – a faff, but you know the rewards will be worth it.
The wow factor
Nothing beats the thrill of arriving in a new destination, something I am hugely privileged to have experienced a lot of in real life. Of course, the real thing is a multisensory experience that buzzes with detail and unpredictability – how can the virtual world possibly compare?
My VR trip starts in Paris, with Mona Lisa: Beyond The Glass. One moment I’m stood next to my bed in the bobbly jogging pants I’ve barely taken off since December, a drizzly grey sky out the window – the next I’m in the middle of the courtyard outside the Louvre. The drizzle and gloom are gone and instead, there’s a bright blue sky. I twirl on the spot, wowed by the vastness of the 360-degree views.
The sense of perspective is instant. Your brain automatically adjusts to the dimensions of this new world, as though you really are there – except to enter the museum, all I have to do is point and click with the controllers I’m holding. Inside the gallery, I can click on info symbols next to paintings to activate audio descriptions, a bit like doing an audio tour in real life.
The VR comes into its own when you reach the Mona Lisa. After a brief introduction, as I stand with a crowd of fellow visitors admiring the painting, I’m transported into another room where the history of the world’s most famous artwork is brought to life and a holographic Mona Lisa sits before me.
This is one of many culture-fix experiences to choose from. Next, I head to Spain for the Memoria: Stories Of La Garma experience – exploring the La Garma caves, hailed as being one of Europe’s most important archaeological sites.
It’s believed landslides some 15,000 years ago sealed the caves, and so the wall art and traces of early human life left inside weren’t discovered until much later, impeccably preserved. Through my headset, I am able to get right up close, and can even ‘pick up’ a couple of animal bones featuring carvings from thousands of years ago.
Out in nature
If serenity and escapism is what you’re after, the VR universe has rich pickings. For my nature fix, I start with an experience called Walkabout – where I basically do just walk about in a huge meadow, swishing through tall grasses and wildflowers. With a quick point-and-click, I ‘jump’ onto hilltops and take in the views.
Nature Treks, I discover, has a range of ‘settings’ to explore. I click my way through the menu – one moment ‘wading’ through a bubbling stream and meandering through woodlands, gazing up at giant boulders the next, then following the gentle roar of a waterfall as I traipse through wild trails, stopping every now and then to tilt my head to take in treetops, whose branches and leaves sway and rustle in the ‘breeze’.
No, it’s not a patch on the real thing – but the realness and attention to detail are seriously impressive, and the whole experience leaves me feeling calm and relaxed. It’s fun too – I lost count of the times I gasped out loud or reached out a hand to ‘touch’ things.
And because it’s all make-believe, there’s nothing to stop me when I decide there’s only one way I want this ‘holiday’ to end… with a final ‘dive’ in the ocean to bob along with some orcas and dolphins again, before returning to the real world in time for dinner.