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Twenty Trips

by Jill Culora | Published April 2008 | See more Condé Nast Traveler articles

Why return home from a trip with nothing more than a tan? A growing number of travelers are dumping do-nothing holidays in favor of following a dream or fulfilling a fantasy. Whether it's learning to fly a glider in New Zealand, to bullfight in Spain, or to cook in Mexico, there's an educational vacation that will let you tap into your hidden talents. Jill Culora reports on places around the world that offer the ultimate souvenir

Standing thigh-deep in a glassy river in backcountry Maine, reeling in a wild salmon that has taken a carefully chosen fly, I'm sorry I waited half a lifetime for this moment. I've enjoyed angling in lakes and oceans since I was a girl, but could never find the time it takes to learn the fine art of fly-fishing—at least a few days at the elbow of a pro. But when planning a recent holiday in Maine, I suddenly realized the obvious: I could use my vacation to follow my dream deferred. That realization not only led to one of the most enjoyable trips I've ever taken but also introduced me to a pursuit I now look forward to making a regular part of my travels.

I'm certainly not alone. Learning a new skill or delving into an area of interest—whether the French Resistance or Renaissance painting—while on vacation is the latest indulgence in travel. A recent Travel Industry Association survey reports 56 percent of travelers would like to take an educational trip—outranking interest even in spa and family travel—and ShawGuides.com, an Internet directory for travel learning opportunities, cites an increase in site traffic of between 10 and 15 percent annually. "More Americans than ever are looking for self-improvement," says Kristin Lamoureux, tourism studies director at George Washington University. "That's why we're seeing such growth in educational travel and experiential learning." The participants, she says, are mainly from among the 78 million baby boomers who make up more than 40 percent of all leisure travelers and who now have their families and finances in order and are eager to take up new challenges.

Marijke Postema, 64, of Snohomish, Washington, is typical of the travelers increasingly searching for an active learning adventure. Postema was surfing the Web for inspiration on how to spend her next vacation when she came across a weeklong surfing school in Costa Rica. "By the second day, we were standing on our boards and riding waves in," Postema says. "Just talking about it makes me want to do it again."

Of course, taking a learning vacation doesn't mean spending all your time on a surfboard or in a classroom. Many travelers say that their educational odyssey gave them entrée into a culture that they would never have been privy to as regular tourists. "I loved the routine of heading to class every morning while the rest of the city was starting its day, and having my coffees and empanadas in the same shops and chatting to the people behind the counter," says Dani Cooper, 42, of Sydney, who traveled to Buenos Aires to attend a language school. "But the highlight for me was the chance to sit in people's houses and talk to them about their lives in their language, albeit in very basic words. It opened my eyes to how very similar we all are in terms of our dreams and desires." Getting away from the relentless demands of our everyday lives can also provide us with the luxury of time and a lack of distraction that allows us to learn in a way we can't at home. Some say it can even enhance creativity. "Stepping out of your ordinary situation allows you to see things in a new way," says author Linda Lappin, who teaches writing workshops in Viterbo, Italy. "If the environment is interesting and stimulating, it unlocks parts of yourself that through habit are not accessible when you are in the same place all the time." Actor turned education activist Richard Dreyfuss says he was drawn to a Panamanian cruise because it offered a highly informative Apple technology experience combined with Shakespearean performances and lectures. "I needed the tutorial the cruise offered, and I was sick to death of always hurrying somewhere," he says.

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