So you've escaped middle age and are ready for the long calm of retirement.
What next? If you spend too much time rocking on the front porch, will your brain droop into autopilot?
One antidote for this is educational travel. Visit those exotic places that were only daydreams during your nose-to-the-grindstone years, and learn while you do it. Better still, travel with a group of people who share your interests and your age bracket.
One organization specializing in this kind of travel is Elderhostel, which says it is dedicated to providing "exceptional learning opportunities to adults at a remarkable value." Translation: Travel with other seniors, learn interesting stuff, eat decent food and stay in comfortable lodging, at a price that won't turn your retirement budget to mush.
Intrigued by this idea, my wife and I picked Elderhostel for our first educational travel venture, a two-week tour of Israel last spring. We liked it enough to sign up for a second Elderhostel gig, this one to float the tributaries of the Amazon River in Peru next spring.
What's the attraction to this type of travel? The advantages include:
Package price. Elderhostel pitches a single price without hidden costs. Pay once and the essential costs for your trip are covered.
Learning. Lectures by experts allow you to learn more, and be more immersed in a local culture, than you would as an average tourist.
Birds-of-a-feather. It's fun and comfortable to travel with other seniors who generally share your interest in travel and learning.
Elderhostel is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1975 on five college campuses in New Hampshire, based on the idea of inexpensive lodging and noncredit classes. By 1980, participation grew to 20,000 people in 50 states and Canada, and in 1981 Elderhostel offered its first international programs. Today Elderhostel says it attracts more than 160,000 participants annually to nearly 8,000 tour packages in more than 90 countries.
Elderhostel says the average cost of programs in the United States and Canada is a little over $100 per day, while international programs, not including airfare, average a bit over $200 per day. Elderhostel emphasizes a package price that covers meals, taxes, gratuities, lodging, lectures, excursions, activities and travel within a program, such as shuttles to various sites.
Participants provide their own transportation to domestic programs. For international programs, you can book the flights yourself or have Elderhostel do it.
Rates vary widely by destination and type of trip. My wife and I paid just under $10,000 to visit Israel. Our planned trip to Peru will cost around $11,600 for two. Both price tags include round-trip airfare from the United States.
Also on the high end is a 24-night study cruise of Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and a nearby island called South Georgia for around $14,000 per person. This price covers expert lectures, experienced group leaders, field trips, lodging, most meals, gratuities, taxes, ship travel, air shuttles and round-trip air fare from the United States to Buenos Aires. The cost varies by departure city.
But Elderhostel also offers programs for less than $600. You can study "The Cajun Experience" in Louisiana for $547 per person, including meals, five nights of hotel lodging and expert-led sessions ranging from how to dance the Cajun waltz to the history of Acadian migration from Nova Scotia to south Louisiana. You provide your own transportation to and from the program site in Lafayette, La.
While Elderhostel makes no claim to five-star luxury, we gave good marks in Israel to our hotels, food, guides and expert lecturers.
One member of our group, 64-year-old Bill Stovall, a retired business analyst from Thorp, Wash., said fancy food and lodging aren't the goal. "We take these tours for the learning and exposure to a different culture," he said.
Our group hit the usual tour stops from the heights of Masada to the salty depths of the Dead Sea.
What set it apart was hearing lectures from an array of expert speakers: a prominent Israeli archaeologist, a leading Christian clergyman from Jerusalem, a Palestinian, a retired Israel Defense Forces commander, a former Israeli intelligence officer, an Ethiopian refugee, a longtime kibbutz resident, an artist specializing in Jewish mysticism and a holocaust survivor who was a childhood friend of Anne Frank.
These discussions ranged far beyond anything we could have arranged on our own.
Stovall's wife Lora, 61, a retired financial adviser to local governments, was pleased that the tour emphasized learning over typical tourist shopping sprees. "We want experiences, not material goods from our travels," she said.
Others enjoyed being immersed in an ancient culture. "Our guides were conservative, observant Jews. One of the satisfying characteristics of this trip was being included in some of the Sabbath rituals they shared," said Mary Barton, 83, a retired homemaker and teacher from Louisville, Ky. She was traveling with her husband Clarence, 79, a retired hospital chaplain and adjunct professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Our tour group was a potpourri of Jews, Christians and people of no strong religious leanings. This variety was an attraction for Esther Weinstein, 63, a retired public school music teacher from Henderson, Nev., making her fourth Elderhostel trip.
Though she was raised in the Jewish faith, Ms. Weinstein thought she could have a richer experience by traveling with a mixed religious group. And she liked the idea that Elderhostel tries to pair up those who are traveling solo. "The thought of being in the midst of a `sheltered' group was also reassuring to me as a solo female traveler," she said.
While the emphasis is on over-55 travelers, Elderhostel has added intergenerational programs for grandparents and their grandchildren. It also accepts younger participants as long as they are accompanying someone who is 55 or older.
Our group included a family foursome. Vere Chappell, 78, a retired philosophy professor from Pelham, Mass., and his wife Sheryl, 77, were joined by their 41-year-old son, Vere "Bogie" Chappell, and his wife Lita-Luise Chappell, 55, of Laguna Hills. Lita-Luise Chappell said their group seemed to be a good example for others, showing how family members could share and adapt.