Learning Vacations: Travel for Your Mind
Would you like to return home from your next vacation with something more than a collection of photos, souvenirs, and famous place-names you can drop during dinner-party conversations?
Then you may be a prime candidate for a learning vacation. We're not talking about days filled with dry lectures and rigid class schedules. "This isn't regimented travel ... This is hands-on learning," says Evelyn Kaye, author of "Travel and Learn: 1001 Vacations Around the World". Kaye grew up in England and travels extensively worldwide from her home in Boulder, Colo.
Something for everyone
The possibilities for learning vacations are nearly endless. For instance, how about a wine and cooking tour of Tuscany? You'd visit local markets to buy groceries, learn to prepare gourmet meals, tour area vineyards, learn to choose the perfect wine to accompany different foods, meet local restaurateurs, and more.
If you're a U.S. Civil War history buff, you might enjoy a riverboat cruise that lets you tour battlefields and follow cavalry routes, with lectures by historians on the way. Or perhaps you'd prefer a guided tour along the path of the Underground Railroad.
Other tours could take you to faraway places such as Costa Rica, New Zealand, Nepal, or Antarctica, where you'd learn about the area's ecology, wildlife, native cultures, and history from expert guides. Some tours give you the opportunity to meet locals, sometimes in their homes. Visit with a Chilean cowboy, or a Chinese farmer, or a Hopi flute-carver.
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Perhaps you'll want to immerse yourself in a hobby, be it photography, golf, or quilting. Or how about a two-week drumming and dancing workshop in Ghana? A Pacific harps retreat in Cancun?
Or you may want to expand your life experiences, and learn more about yourself in the process, by helping out on a South Dakota Indian reservation through a volunteer program, or by working alongside scientists on an eco-expedition.
Beyond the herd mentality
As a participant in a learning travel program, you'll tour with a group of people and be accompanied by a guide, or guides. Erase, however, any images of the numbing "see five cities in seven days" tours, in which you're shepherded around in a herd of tourists. "In the old days," Kaye says, "tours just meant getting on and off a bus with a bunch of people. Things have changed."
This isn't regimented travel; this is hands-on learning.
Learning tours involve much more than watching passing scenery through bus windows, with the requisite photo-op stops. "You get to see behind the scenes," Kaye says.
What's more, you'll travel with a small group, say 25 people at most. "These aren't just motley groups of people," Kaye notes. "They picked this trip because they have a specific interest" that you share.
Guided tours also offer key advantages over trying to plan a self-guided adventure, which can take a lot of research and preparation. Expert guides know the best places and the inside information. Plus, you'd find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to arrange certain experiences on your own.
"It might be hard for you to have an evening at home with a family in France," Kaye says, "or to see a special ceremony in Africa that only happens once a year--unless you know ahead of time what to do and how to get there ... I think traveling on your own is great. But a guide can give you an inside look you might not find on your own, particularly if you have limited time or don't speak the language."
Whatever your personal interests and passions may be, there's a learning vacation to suit you.
Sifting through the choices
The toughest aspect of learning vacations may be choosing from the vast assortment available. To get an idea of what's out there, see Kaye's book. She also recommends ShawGuides, which lists some 5,300 sponsors of learning travel programs, as a good starting point.
How can you size up a trip in advance? First, find out how long the business has been in operation, advises Kaye. "Companies that have been leading trips for 10 years or more probably are pretty stable," she says. "I'd be careful with a brand new company. It may be fine, but I'd give it a few years to work out the kinks."
As you look through promotional materials, you may wonder if a trip that seems so perfect is all it appears to be. To find out more, ask the company for the names of a couple of recent customers you could contact. "That's one thing I do when I pick companies for my book," Kaye says. "A responsible company will be happy to give you that information. If they make a fuss, I would be suspicious."
Also, find out the guide-to-participant ratio. Is the group the right size for you? Is the trip targeted to a particular age group? "Ask the company what its market is," Kaye advises, "because every company knows to whom it appeals ... You may want to be sure you'll be with a group of active younger people, or active older people."
A guide can give you an inside look you might not find on your own.
For certain types of trips, some women may prefer a women-only group, Kaye points out. Take, for instance, outdoor adventure programs, which Kaye includes in the broad definition of learning vacations.
"If you're a woman who's trying something for the first time--such as a biking or hiking trip--you might want to go with an all-women group," Kaye suggests. "Women in (outdoor adventure) groups with men often find themselves outpaced by men, who sometimes have a deep desire to be first ... Women tend to be more supportive, and they don't care if you're last."
Yet another factor to weigh is whether the trip offers enough free time to suit you. Different programs have varying proportions of free time and scheduled activities, but most allow some unstructured time. For instance, if you're on a group bicycle tour in France, there may be afternoons or days for you to wander on your own. "Yet, they've booked the places to stay," Kaye points out, "so you know you'll have a bed for the night. That gives you the freedom to do what you want."
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