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Late last summer, after my long-term relationship came to a sudden end, I was forced to cancel a much-anticipated cooking vacation to Italy. I was in desperate need of a break, but had little capital and no clue where to go on such short notice.

As I brainstormed my getaway possibilities, it dawned on me that I still hadn’t explored much of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I had moved 16 months earlier. So I decided to cut my original vacation time down to a week and explore my new city with the curiosity and excitement of a tourist. I was going to take a staycation, and I couldn’t wait.

The idea of the “staycation” — vacationing in your own community or region — made its way into the mainstream last year, as everything from milk to fuel prices spiked. “Money just doesn’t go as far,” says Vicki Schot, a budget counselor in Santa Cruz, Calif. “Two years ago, a family of five could take a week’s vacation in Hawaii for $4,000; now it’s as much as $5,000 just for the airfare.”

Staycations offer families and individuals the opportunity to spend quality, nonworking time enjoying ourselves without the hassle and expense involved in complex travel arrangements. Rather than spend money on airfare and accommodations, we can use it to explore places and activities that our hectic schedules and “I can do it anytime” reasoning often keep us from experiencing (and enjoying) at all.

From hiking and kayaking at regional nature preserves to indulging in weeklong wellness experiences, a staycation — like any getaway — can be as active or leisurely as you desire. It just takes a little planning, an open-minded attitude and a sense of adventure.

Local Explorations

Vacations, for many, equal adventure. But if you think about it, there are probably plenty of opportunities for adrenaline-pumping activities — rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking — within an hour or two from where you live.

You won’t be alone in your quest for outdoor action. State parks and recreation areas around the country reported a usage spike during the 2008 season — something many tourism experts attribute to cash-strapped Americans staying close to home.

My staycation provided the perfect excuse to explore the spectacular sights just beyond my front door, and to get a great workout in the process. I hiked through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, following coastal trails and witnessing breathtaking views. I ran through the San Francisco Presidio, and enjoyed both the historical and natural beauty of the former army post. One day I trekked 9.5 miles from my home over the Golden Gate Bridge and back.

One morning I loaded up my bike, drove 50 miles, and spent the day riding through Napa Valley’s beautiful wine country. I later retired to a lovely hotel that offered reduced rates for a midweek stay and boasted a huge pool and luxurious bedding — heaven to my sore muscles and tired body. I could have been a thousand miles from home.

Relax and Recharge

When Scott and Lisa Kee’s 14-year-old twins were away on winter break last year, they had a rare week to themselves. The Plymouth, Minn., couple thought about going somewhere, but with the cost of airfare and hotels, they instead decided to treat themselves to a rejuvenating week at home.

“I asked myself,” recalls Lisa, “‘What would an ultimate day at Canyon Ranch be like, and how can we do it at home?’ I wanted our house to feel like a luxury resort and spa.”

To conjure up the retreat-like atmosphere, Lisa set out candles and bath salts, and indulged by hiring a cleaning service on the first day. They also visited their local food co-op and stocked up on healthy, whole foods so they wouldn’t be tempted by junk food or take-out.

Each morning, Lisa attended a nearby yoga class, while Scott went cross-country skiing. They’d then meet up for breakfast, a massage or a leisurely walk before an afternoon of relaxation — reading, napping and simply being together. “We totally detached from email and paying bills, and concentrated the way you do on vacation,” Lisa says. “It was so amazing to feel that relaxed — it was one of the best weeks of my life.”

Getaways like the Kees’ offer the rejuvenating luxuries of retreat centers and spas without the stresses and expense of travel. They also allow time to reestablish the self-care regimens that often get neglected in daily life.

Joy Rikala, a college professor from Minnetonka, Minn., decided to enroll in a detox program at a local yoga studio during her September staycation because she wanted to rethink her approach to food by eating mindfully for one week. Hoping to increase her energy, Rikala eliminated sugar, wheat, dairy and caffeine, and participated in a daily 6 a.m. yoga session, where she found support from instructors and fellow yogis.

“I spent the whole week concentrating on ‘healthy’ me,” she says, “and I learned a lot about my body and how the fuel I put in it affects my energy output. It was such a positive experience.”

The Hybrid Staycation

Many of us enjoy a mixture of activity and downtime on vacation, and this is where staycations really hit the mark. You can combine active outings, such as trail riding, a trapeze lesson or kayaking a local river, with quieter activities that feed your need for reflection and relaxation.

When Catherine Gulliver, a sales rep for a market research firm in Boston, discovered that she’d lose vacation time if she didn’t use it, she decided to take a week off to enjoy Newburyport, the coastal community where she had moved a few years earlier. She didn’t want to be too ambitious, but she had a few things on tap, including spending time at the beach, painting, and exploring the town and some nearby parks.

One afternoon she took a 30-mile bike ride. She spent hours walking on the beach and snapping pictures around town, and in the evenings painted the images she captured. She spent an entire day creating a vision board for her future. She also hosted a few guests and was able to cook and entertain, which she seldom has time to do. “I was like a lady of leisure in my own home,” she says.

“It was definitely relaxing,” she adds. “It was just really nice to take time to do these things. And it gave me an appreciation for why other people vacation here.”

With time, the economy will undoubtedly improve. And though far-off locales will never lose their allure for those with wanderlust, travel-industry experts suspect the staycation also has staying power.

“People are always looking for good deals and ways to supplement longer vacations with shorter ones,” says Cathy Keefe, a spokesperson for the Travel Industry Association. “People now know that they can stay closer to home and still have a lovely, restful experience in their own backyard.”

At the end of my staycation, I was definitely rejuvenated. I packed in a lot of activity while balancing it with enough downtime that I didn’t burn out. I also realized how much more there is to explore — right here where I live.

Plan Ahead

The challenge of a staycation, of course, is fighting the temptation to just hang out at home or tackle the chores on your to-do list. For it to be a rejuvenating and fun experience, though, it has to feel like a vacation. That means planning it as you would any getaway.

  • Set a budget. “If you only have $500, figure out what you can do for that amount,” advises budget counselor Vicki Schot. Maybe your staycation will include one splurge — a nice dinner, a day at the spa or a concert. Plan for it. Make reservations and buy tickets in advance.
  • Do some research. State tourism offices are great resources for ideas about activities and events in your area, as are chambers of commerce, and local and regional newspapers, magazines and Web sites.
  • Create an itinerary. Having a schedule of fun activities will reduce the chances of falling into weekend mode and keep you looking forward to each day.
  • Be flexible. Plans change. The weather doesn’t always cooperate. Allow yourself some leeway for spontaneity, fun and whatever feels right at the moment.
  • Hold the phone. If you really want to feel like you’re away from it all, have the post office hold the mail, and put a message on your voicemail and email that you’re on vacation.
  • Establish rules. Setting ground rules upfront, like limiting TV and computer use, will eliminate the urge to check your work email or whittle away the morning in front of the tube. Let your kids help decide what activities will make your staycation special.

Creating a Healthy Staycation

Find great adventure-based activities in your own community and region.

  • Take day trips. Identify regional or state parks within a one- or two-hour drive from where you live. Pack a lunch and then spend the day hiking and exploring.
  • Be an athletic tourist. Visit for a schedule of athletic events in your community, then join other locals in traversing the area’s streets and trails.
  • Become an explorer. Buy a hiking- or biking-trail guide, subscribe to, or contact your local Sierra Club chapter for insight into natural areas you haven’t yet experienced.
  • Challenge yourself. Take a class with the money you save by not leaving home and learn to kayak, rock climb or golf. Or sign up for a cooking, gardening, painting or Feng Shui workshop. Learning something new will shake up your usual home routine, and you may just discover a fun, new hobby.
  • Hit the club. If you belong to a great fitness center or athletic club, plan to spend a whole day there soaking up fitness classes, saunas, spa services and other amenities for which you don’t usually have the time.
  • Go on retreat. Look for yoga, fitness, detox or meditation retreats going on in your community or region. Do a quick Web search to see what’s coming up near you.

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