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Field Trips

To prepare for a walking trip exploring the plants, forests, and culture of the Portuguese island of Madeira, Mary Stewart trained vigorously:  She’d signed up for a locally guided expedition, a Road Scholar trip that required a “spirited” level of physical activity. It’s one of the organization’s 5,500-plus expert-led learning adventures in more than 150 countries for travelers age 50 and up.

Stewart, a recently retired art professor, enjoys excursions that challenge her fitness, but that’s not what has led her to take 33 trips with Road Scholar, which has been offering travel packages (initially as Elderhostel) since 1975. It’s the people and the learning opportunities that keep her going back.

One of her most memorable treks, the Great Railways of Switzerland package, was loaded with expert lectures and tours exploring everything from transportation systems to Swiss languages. She enjoys Utah’s Zion National Park so much that she’s traveled there four times with Road Scholar groups to study the geology, flora, and fauna under the tutelage of guides who she says are supportive and enthusiastic. 

“Other participants tend to have interesting backgrounds, too,” says Stewart, who met two of her best friends while on a trip in Greece. “They’re thoughtful and committed to the activity.” 

Monna O’Brien, 64, recalls the expertise of her guides during a 14-day safari to Kenya and Tanzania, which crossed the Serengeti Plain to the Maasai Mara reserve, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Great Rift Valley. “They are so busy teaching you, it’s amazing,” she says. “Every single person who talked with us was an expert in their own way.” 

O’Brien, an executive producer at a bustling Chicago advertising agency, also appreciated having someone else do the planning. “It’s very relaxing because you don’t have to figure everything out,” she says. With all the details handled, participants can focus on learning and connecting.

“Six months after people come back from trips, they’re no longer talking about the meals, the accommodations, the airline, or the logistics,” says Road Scholar CEO James Moses. “Instead, they talk about what they learned and the people they met.”

Edu-ventures — education-based travel — gives people the opportunity to learn with and about each other in a nonthreatening way — even if they have different perspectives. “Creating a sense of understanding between people is especially important today,” says Moses. “I think it’s critical to humanity to be making these connections — across the United States, in particular, and across the world. It’s so important for there to be an open dialogue.”

The following four getaways are designed to expand your horizons while accommodating a variety of vacation schedules. 

1. Culinary Crawl: An Afternoon 

Chefs dish out the flavors of Santa Fe 

What: Enjoy learning about the food, flavors, and history of Santa Fe, N.M., with Santa Fe School of Cooking’s Restaurant Walking Tours. 

Where: Gather at Santa Fe School of Cooking for food and drink, then head off on one of three curated tours. Each excursion is led by a school chef and takes participants to four locations, a unique mix of restaurants, kitchens, and tasting rooms.

Who: Hungry and thirsty adults (every stop offers alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages) who can walk 1.5 miles at 7,000 feet. Meet with chefs, sommeliers, restaurant owners, and other food experts to sample a variety of tasty fare. 

“The tours are great for people visiting Santa Fe who want an overview of the restaurants,” says tour creator Nicole Curtis Ammerman, who came up with the idea after a chef brought her a special dish to try in a restaurant. “A lot of locals come, too.” (For those interested in an immersion course in farm-to-kitchen Southwestern cooking, the school also offers a four-day New Mexico Culture and Cuisine Tour.)

Why: “Eating, drinking, and meeting foodies is a beautiful and fun way to spend an afternoon,” says Ammerman, whose mother founded the Santa Fe School of Cooking. “Rain or shine, we walk through the heart of downtown Santa Fe talking about food, seasonality, and the history of the country’s oldest capital city. There’s a lot to take in.” 

Cost: $115 + tax;

Try it near you: Check out tasting events at a cooking school, visit a restaurant that offers unfamiliar cuisine, or try something new on your favorite restaurant’s menu.

2. Historical Tours: A Day

Discover Savannah, Ga., by trolley

What: Learn about the history of Savannah while riding a trolley. Drivers share lively, entertaining stories about the city’s people, landscape, and architecture.

Where: With 15 stops on a regular route, Old Town Trolley Tours (owned by Historic Tours of America) runs its trollies continuously during the day through Savannah’s old town — from the waterfront to the fountain of Forsyth Park.

Who: All aboard! This rolling approach to a historical tour is great for families with varied interests and abilities who want to see and learn a lot without expending too much energy. “Taking the trolleys is a delightful way to get around rather than walking that whole distance,” says Douglas Holen, 84, of Minnetonka, Minn. “It’s handy.” 

Why: The option to get on and off the trolley at any time allows you to explore on foot at your own pace. “The trolley drivers made recommendations, including historic mansions, churches, and parks to visit, at each stop,” says Holen, who appreciated learning about the city’s Victorian architecture, local lore, and the history of the textile manufacturing buildings that now house the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Cost: About $30 for a one-day ticket with unlimited hop-on and hop-off privileges;

Try it near you: Visit a local history museum, take a walking or Segway tour, or check out a monument or military fort.

3. Art and Natural-History Museums: A Weekend

Visit Chicago’s museums to learn about the world

What: Spend a weekend in Chicago exploring the city’s massive art and natural-history museums.  

Where: Chicago has many world-class museums housing collections of classic and contemporary art, nature, history, science, culture, and sports. You might want to start with the Art Institute of Chicago and Field Museum. Wherever you choose to visit, plan ahead to see special exhibits that might interest you. 

Who: Couples, families, groups of friends, or individuals of all ages. Spencer Hanlin, 25, a linguistics student in Boston, enjoys visiting museums because “you can learn something new and be entertained at the same time.” He particularly appreciates Chicago’s large, dynamic museums.

Why: Museums not only introduce you to local culture, nature, and history — they bring the world to you. When Hanlin was growing up, he visited his community’s natural-history museum regularly, but it had a relatively small collection and rarely hosted visiting exhibits. So he was excited to experience the diversity of the exhibits at the Field Museum.

“I also made a point to go to the Art Institute of Chicago to see an exhibition of Japanese wood-block prints, which I enjoy,” he says. “That’s not something that’s exhibited a lot in the United States.”

Cost: Field Museum, $38 adult, $27 child; Art Institute of Chicago, $25 adult, free for children;

Try it near you: Stop by an art or natural-history museum, independent art gallery, or nature preserve.

4. Scientific Quests: A Week 

Dig for understanding at James Madison’s Montpelier

What: Partner with archaeologists in actual research — including archaeological digs  — to better understand the lives of enslaved African Americans.

Where: Montpelier, James Madison’s historic home in Orange, Va.

Who: People 12 and up interested in learning the processes involved in archaeology and historical research. No prior training is required. “What people really like about the experience is being treated like they’re intelligent adults, not like they’re going to break something,” says Matthew Reeves, PhD, director of archaeology at Montpelier.

Why: “People come away with a better understanding of the archaeological process,” says Reeves. They also leave knowing their work has contributed to a growing body of research that’s uncovering the lives of people whose stories aren’t yet well known. “Of the 130 people who lived at Montpelier, 120 of them were enslaved African Americans,” he notes. “Most of the artifacts we’re finding belonged to them.” 

Cost: $750 for a one-week expedition (plus $250 for housing and two meals);

Try it near you: Learn about science at local labs and planetariums or by attending lectures at colleges.

This originally appeared as “Field Trips” in the September 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

Road Scholar Trips

What and where: Want to learn about the Scottish Highlands or go birdwatching with your grandkids in Costa Rica? You can. How about picking up horsemanship basics in the Ozarks? Yep. Global tour packages cover culinary arts, adventure sports, science, aviation, space stations, woodworking, folk dancing, and more.  

Cost: All-inclusive excursions (except airfare) range from $399 for an Adirondack Mountain Music and Dance Workshop to $39,995 for Road Scholar World Academy, a 115-day cruise around the globe. Scholarships — including grants for caregivers — are available.

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