After all the hours at the office glaring at your computer or sitting in endless meetings, the idea of passively gazing out the window on a tour bus or eating your way through a cruise ship's buffet five times a day may not seem like the perfect vacation. You're not alone. A growing number of people are vacationing to expand their minds, hone a skill or gain in-depth understanding of another culture. The travel industry has even coined a term for such travel: experiential.
"Experiential travel is the hot ticket these days, and 'authentic' is the prevailing buzzword," says Gary Mansour, who created the Boomer Project, a division of the Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond, Va., that studies 50-plus boomer travel. These global wanderers are not the typical retiree who has waited for decades to take the trip of a lifetime. These are currently employed, are demanding "real" experiences and are willing and able to spend the time and money to enjoy them.
Jay Toberman, author of Don't Quit Your Day Job! Adventures for the Working Stiff, says, "Businesspeople often hit their 40s and 50s and begin to question why they're not trying something new. A nine-to-five job isn't inconsistent with adventure. It merely means that travelers need to find adventures that fit within whatever parameters they have."
For some, like Bradenton property manager and investor Amanda Edge of Edge Sharff Properties, adventure meant a safari in the African wilderness last summer with three friends who were also career women. "You see how the people in these countries live, go through the villages and you realize how lucky we are. You don't get that lying on a beach."
That said, Edge didn't suffer in the wilds. "The tents were on stilts and had air conditioning and their own private baths. But at night you could hear the roar of lions, trumpet of elephants and hippos playing in the river. The first night we heard swishing sounds and suddenly this great big elephant was eating leaves right in front of our tent. You realize how small you are and where you are in the food chain. Pretty low down," she says with a laugh.
For other travelers, like Steve Lawson of St. Armands Travel, an adventure of a lifetime was a trip to Tahiti, where he hiked, drove four-wheel vehicles and attended a wedding hosted by a local family. "It was unbelievable," he says. "The whole key is the culture. Why go to a place where the tourists eat? Go where the locals go."
For these travelers, the experience is the reward and the secret is to avoid traveling in a pack and staying at Americanized hotels. Linda Defina of Palmer Ranch Travel says she's helped local businesspeople arrange a cooking course in Tuscany, a film class in Paris, a safari in Africa and kayaking in Turkey. "Villa rentals are very, very popular," says Defina. "Also, river cruising in Europe on the Danube or from Prague to Budapest. They put bicycles on the boat and you can bike or walk into the little villages so you get more of the flavor of the country."
But experiential travel also can encompass tamer off-the-beaten-path luxury experiences, such as private access to museums, events or celebrities normally not available on the average tour. Ed Rudd of Adventure Travel of Sarasota cites examples of highly customized trips that entail VIP access to museums, trips to artists' studios to see how prints are made, and clients who attend a Broadway musical with a backstage visit that includes learning one of the songs and singing it with a cast member.
Rudd's personal favorite? "I did a cooking school in Italy with a very small group of people. We stayed at an agri-turismo, a working farm, and the grandmother taught us how to make spaghetti from scratch. We had our own rolling pins.kneaded, rolled and attempted to cut it into strips, then cooked it. It was great fun."
Other executives choose a vacation that involves perfecting a sport or hobby. "They're going to a week-long tennis academy to brush up on their skills," explains Jennifer Carnam, VP project development director for the Boomer Project. IMG Academies in Bradenton, for example, caters to executives who want to improve their tennis or golf game, or perhaps just want to take an intense break to improve their fitness and mental edge with the same trainers elite athletes use.
We've gone through countless travel guides and Web sites, and talked to our local expert travel agents about the best dream trips. The choices are endless, ranging from walking, hiking and kayaking to study tours of all types, with costs ranging from basic to princely. Here are a few that intrigued us. Note that the prices quoted are based on the land tour. Tour operators will help you get air travel to the destination, or you can arrange your own.
Bike, Hike and Elephant Ride in Thailand
Backroads was voted one of the world's top tour operators by Travel+Leisure readers in 2006. They offer biking, walking, rafting, sailing and many other multi-sport vacations throughout the U.S. and the world, even as far afield as Antarctica and Uganda. But one we liked is the cultural and physical excursion offered by Backroads' trip to Thailand's Golden Triangle. You can explore the traditions of the Buddhist culture while pedaling past rice paddies, hiking to tribal villages and venturing through the forests on an elephant. The trip ranges from $2,698 to $3,198 for seven days, six nights. www.backroads.com.
Lions and Tigers and Bares in Africa
Amanda Edge and three friends, all busy professionals, carved out a little more than two weeks for their safari in Africa. The trip was organized by Ryan Hilton of Admiral Travel, a native of Zimbabwe who has been recognized for South African tours by Conde Nast Traveler. There's no mistaking the enthusiasm in her voice as she describes the experience, from the helicopter ride over Victoria Falls to the cruise where they were "mooned by a bunch of locals," she laughs. "Even before we left the hotel grounds we saw zebras and monkeys galore."
For families, an upcoming safari includes Cape Town and the Mala Mala private preserve. The tour of eight days costs $5,750 per adult sharing, and up to two children stay free in the room. If you're not taking children, another choice is G.A.P. Adventures, which manages an array of safaris. Spend eight days exploring the vast Serengeti Plains in search of elephants, buffalos, giraffes, rhinos, lions, cheetahs from $1,395.
Whet Your Appetite in Paris
One of the world's most civilized pleasures is great dining. The typical tourist eats. The experiential traveler cooks the meal himself and returns home with his newly-learned skills to show off in his own kitchen. And what more perfect experience than the Cordon Bleu? The distinguished cooking school offers classes in several locations. For the true bastion of haute cuisine, however, don't settle for less than Paris. Cooking sessions last from a half-day to four days depending on the session. Courses span a variety of levels, from the basic to the superior. Most are translated into English. Prices range from $178 for workshops to $1,084 and up for a four-day course.
Nature, Up Close and Personal
Nonprofit Elderhostel specializes in 8,000 learning adventures in more than 90 countries for those 55 and over. Involve yourself in history, culture, nature, music, walking and biking, and study cruises. One that combines learning with an incredibly scenic location is "Natural Wonders: The Real Costa Rica." Discover an active volcano at the wondrous Arenal Volcano National Park. Visit the rainforest and learn about tropical plants and exotic birds. See coffee production, a banana plantation and more. It begins at $2,023 per person. www.elderhostel.org.
The Inca World and Machu Picchu
For a stunning adventure, the Inca Trail passes through a cloud forest in the Andes before winding up at the lost city of Machu Picchu. Though officially closed to protect its eco-structure, the trail is open to a few licensed operators. One of them is an Adventure Center tour that visits ancient pre-Incan ruins and an unusual Witches' Market. Participants stay in the home of a local Indian family. Designed to be affordable, the 13-day tour starts at $1,864.
High-flying World Tour
Our ultimate dream vacation: a World Wildlife tour of 10 countries that starts in Orlando and soars off on a private Boeing 757 jet specially equipped to carry just 74 passengers in luxury. Learn on board with lectures as you head to South America, the South Pacific, Australia, Papua, New Guinea, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. Tour Easter Island with archaeologists, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, visit Machu Picchu in the Andes, hike in Australia's Daintree Rain Forest, four-wheel drive into the Dubai desert, drink champagne atop the dunes, and much more. For 24 days, it's $54,950.
Ensure Your Experience Lives Up to Expectations
Experiential travel is meant to be mind expanding. It doesn't have to be arduous; however, some trips, by their very nature, entail physical challenges. Adventure and sports-oriented travel companies typically rate tours according to the physical difficulty. One even adds a category of "culture shock" level. Be realistic about your stamina or desire to rough it. It's better to enjoy the activity than to be overwhelmed.
If you're concerned about safety in a specific locale, check the State Department's travel warnings at www.travel.state.gov. And, of course, if you have special health concerns check with your travel agent or tour company to ensure that the appropriate medical care is within range.
With the wide range of travel options available, you should be able to match the experience to your interests, your finances, your abilities and the time you can afford off work. To explore opportunities in experiential travel, talk to a local travel agent who can arrange the tours as well as the air connections to meet them. Or explore some options on Web sites such as these: