If your idea of a learning experience on a trip involves more than a build-your-own martini bar, pull up a chair and take down a few notes. “How-to” vacations are becoming increasingly popular with inquisitive travelers who want to get back on the plane smarter, fitter and with a sense of accomplishment from their journey. We’ve found places that let you develop new skills and learn tips from industry pros — all in luxurious surroundings. School was never this much fun.
“Customers have a thirst for knowledge and want to learn something different,” says Daniel Newberry, head director of sales and marketing at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, who has noticed increased demand for “experiential” vacations in recent years. His urban hotel has worked with local wineries to create customized wine-tasting and winemaking tours, offered healthy cooking seminars with its chef and arranged private painting demonstrations with the artist-in-residence, Jacqueline Poirier. Aside from merely experiencing insider access and expertise, “guests leave with something more: the ability to continue the activity on their own,” Newberry says.
Other travel options dedicated entirely to one experience—like craft-beer brewing—are also on the rise. When Maria McFee and her husband planned their most recent vacation, they were looking for an education-intensive trip along with fellow beer aficionados. They settled on a Bon Beer Voyage—an upscale river cruise through Holland, Belgium and France.
By day, they toured tiny French farmhouse breweries and exclusive monasteries where Trappist monks have brewed for 200 years; by night they enjoyed private tastings at local restaurants and gourmet meals prepared by their cruise’s personal chef (think pairings like chocolate soufflé and a Belgian quadruple beer or a salad dressing prepared with a light golden ale). “It was research and development for us—in the most fun way possible,” says McFee, who is planning her own start-up brewery in Boca Raton, Fla.
Whether you’re a neophyte or a semi-pro, luxury how-to vacations are available for all types of personalities and skill levels. Maybe you’d like to do something really exotic, like learn to drive elephants (and bathe them) at Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa’s Elephant Camp in the hills of Northern Thailand. After a short lesson, you’ll know the basic commands to communicate with these magnificent creatures, whom you’ll bond with during treks across rice paddies and bamboo groves. For artistic inspiration, travel to the serene South of France for a workshop with classically trained figurative painter Andrew Petrov. He’s offering trips June 19-29 and July 3-13, which, according to Petrov, is the “perfect time to catch the lavender and sunflowers, and even the tail end of poppy season if [you’re] lucky.”
Foodies will appreciate the chance to cook alongside top chefs at Tennessee’s Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Blackberry Farm, which offers three-day epicurean workshops packed with wine tastings, hands-on seminars and cooking demonstrations—sign us up for the Blood, Bones and Wine series March 17-20, with James Beard Award-winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton of New York’s Prune. And if you’re looking for some low-key adventure, channel your inner cowboy (or cowgirl) with a cutting horse clinic at Texas resort The Inn at Dos Brisas. After learning to use your horse to separate a cow from a herd, brush up on organic gardening techniques with resident farmer Lisa or learn to make a cocktail with fresh herbs and ingredients with the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant’s mixologist.
Mastering a new skill on vacation might even inspire you to make a life shift. For Lara Tallman, now owner and driver for the Skullcandy Team Nissan, a vacation to Bondurant Racing School in Arizona six years ago changed her life’s direction. She signed up for the three-day course because she was a big car enthusiast and thought it would be a fun way to improve her driving skills. “It’s intense—you maybe have time at the end of the day for a massage and a nice meal,” she says. Many driving students stay at the nearby Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, home to Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Kai Restaurant and Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Aji Spa.
Tallman followed up with another recently to Kalama Kamp surfing camp in Turks and Caicos, led by famed big-wave surfer Dave Kalama. With 7 a.m. beach workouts, all-day surfing, stand-up paddling lessons and snorkeling during “down time,” it was her perfect kind of interactive adventure. “I love to push myself to a new extreme, even on vacation.”
Photos Courtesy of Blackberry Farms, The Inn at Dos Brisas, James Franco, Anantara Golden Triangle Resorts and Spa and iStock/rmanera