Sacred Tours: Get spiritual, get in shape
Pilgrimage tourism is booming. Sound sacrilegious? In fact, ancient crusades are considered to be the earliest form of tourism. Today, an influx of modern travellers are searching out the history, spirituality, and remarkable sights of these walking tours -- generally without the starvation and self-flagellation described in archaic texts. For Americans, pilgrimages in Europe offer the best combo of culture and accessibility, and they're not just for the religious. There's St. Cuthbert's Way, a gorgeous, ever-changing 62-mile journey from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borderlands to Lindisfarne in northern England. And the Camino de Santiago (aka Walk of St. James), dating back to medieval times, is a multi-route trek from Southern France to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain ending at the resting place of James the Apostle. Travellers slice up segments of the walk into day trips, or spend weeks walking large chunks of it. The latter was the plan for Greg and Joni Neutra of Albuquerque who commemorated their 60th birthdays by walking the 480-mile Camino Frances route — enjoying both spiritual and earthly pleasures every step of the way. They met people from around the world, relished communal dinners of great food and wine at the auberges on route and stayed in 4 star hotels and pilgrim dorms alike. Says Greg: "Every day was like a walking party."
Traveler's Advisory: There are dozens of tour companies that can help you plan your trip or just discover options, including sacred trip specialists like Ancient Sacred Site Tours (ancientsacredsitestours.com) and Journeys With Soul (journeyswithsoul.com) or big mainstream tour operators like Backroads (backroads.com).
Glamping: Rough it like a sultan
Telecom exec Randy Jones, 59, spends 100 or more nights on the road, many of them in soul-crushing chain hotels. So when he and his wife hit the road on his Harley, he's in the market for some nature – and also some flat-out luxury. "Glam Camping places are perfect because they're way more unique than hotels, but they're also way more luxurious than an old tent on the ground," he says. One of his favorites is Escalante, Utah's Shooting Star Drive-In, where you can watch outdoor flicks from behind the wheel of one of the park's 60s convertibles and then spend the night deep in the woods in a gorgeous, decked–out vintage Airstream trailer. The high-style resurgence of the sleek, aluminum skinned "silver bullets" from the 30s is one of the most blatant signposts of the huge Glam Camping movement—aka "Glamping" —which first took root in the UK more than a decade ago. Airstream's not your thing? Try luxury teepees, opulent yurts or pre-pitched tents complete with polished teak floors, four-poster beds and claw foot bathtubs. Even the ubiquitous KOA campgrounds now feature deluxe cabins to appeal to those who, says, "who want to get out and camp in high style but don't have the equipment," says CEO Jim Rogers.
Traveler's Advisory: GlampingHub.com connects people with unique luxury camping experiences worldwide, from Gypsy wagons in France to Airstreams on the Maine coast.
The Pro Tour: Let your sports fantasies run amok
Increasingly, sports enthusiasts —yes, men and women in large numbers — are taking their bikes, clubs or racquets on the road to follow in the footsteps of their idols. Think of it as imaginative play for grown-ups. While you'll probably never star on Center Court at Wimbledon, it's possible to call the All-England Club in the morning and book one of ten courts open to non-members. Tiger's not returning your texts? No worry, you can golf at many top PGA courses before or after the pros to see how your scorecards stack up. The Nascar Racing Experience lets you drive actual honest-to-God racecars on real pro tracks (don't forget to sign that waiver!). And the major cycle-touring companies have all worked Tour de France stages into its French tours. Bay Area entrepreneur Stephen Nicholls has struggled through several Tour de France segments, most notably climbing 6200' Mont Ventoux, the most grueling Tour stage. "It was hot, buggy, windy, barren, and worse, all uphill," he says, laughing at the painful memory. "But a great feeling when you finally do reach the top knowing you don't have to do the ride ever again to prove you're the hotshot guy you never were anyway. Head for the nearest bar, then cruise downhill."
Traveler's Advisory: Nascar offers up its Walter Mitty-esque Experience at a dozen different speedways across the U.S., at prices ranging from around $370 to $2000, depending on how many laps you'll drive (http://www.nascarracingexperience.com).
Voluntourism: Lend a hand, see the world
The voluntarism concept has been around since at least 1958, when California's Sierra Club kicked off organized conservation trips. But it's exploded in the last few years into the single biggest slice of the adventure travel market. Here's why: It allows you to combine good works with bold, once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences. You could find yourself on botanical research trips to the Amazon, school building in Latin America or trail reclamation in North America. Between 2004 and 2012, more than a million Americans took the plunge. It's a cheap, albeit not free, way to see the world. The advantage of volunteering with long established non-profits and NGOs is the low price tag, mostly in the $500 to $900 range sans airfare, though the accommodations are often basic. Too basic? Voluntourism has become so popular that now many high-end private companies such as Hands Up Holidays offer packages that combine luxury touring with service.
Of course, you can expect a few communication difficulties along the way, as Ken Budd found out when he volunteered for a children's home in Kenya. While having lunch with one local, he commented that the taxis were much nicer in the city then the ones he'd experienced in small towns. "I meant to say 'matatus' which means taxi, but instead I kept saying 'matitis', which I later learned means … boobs. So basically I was sitting in a restaurant saying, "You know, the boobs are much nicer here in the city than what I've seen elsewhere."
Traveller's Advisory: Get started by visiting the International Volunteers Program Association site (volunteerinternational.org, an umbrella organization overseeing dozens of service travel groups.
Culinary Travel: Stuff yourself silly
Whether traveling the southern U.S. in a holy quest for the best BBQ brisket or Panang to find the ultimate curry mee (prawns and cuttlefish and pork blood, oh my!), trips structured around gastronomy have become a true growth area in the vacation biz—and more boomers then ever seem eager to channel their inner Bourdain. Some map out their own country-specific food tours; some chase seasonal items like Beaujolais Nouveau or McRibs (seriously); others sign up for overseas cooking classes or professionally-run food tours. According to Erik Wolfe, author of Culinary Tourism: The Hidden Harvest, the biggest share of the millions of new food pilgrims each year are spurred by the popularity of culinary shrines like The Food Chanel, and also a trend toward "the comfort and pure pleasure of good food during tough economic and political times. Now people taking those interests abroad."
For California-native Lynn Bennett, 53, her frequent culinary travels overseas are all about connecting deeply with different cultures since "We all speak the same language of food." She recalls an evening in Tuscany where she and other travelers were drinking wine in a local kitchen. "There was this tiny Italian grandmother sitting at the head of the table and she only spoke a few words of English. Suddenly, she stands up and goes to the kitchen door and screams at the pasta cook, 'Touch the noodle!' We knew it was time to eat."
Traveller's advisory: One man's pet is another man's pot-au-fue. Start learning the difference at the World Food Travel Association site (www.worldfoodtravel.org).
Ghost Hunting Vacations: Be afraid, be very afraid
A couple years ago Richard Southall, 42, author of Haunted Route 66, wanted to take his fiancé on a special vacation for Halloween. He booked into the Farnsworth Inn in Gettysburg, the site of fierce Civil War fighting, long rumored to be haunted. "The owner let us in the attic and the walls were full of bullet holes that let the light in," says Southall. "As we got to the end of the attic, the door closed by itself." They stayed the night in a room that had overwhelming smell of roses. The next morning they discovered that it wasn't a room freshener. "It was where they stored the dead bodies of the soldiers, covered with flowers because of the smell."
Sounds like the perfect vacation? You're in luck! Prompted by the growth in spooky hit reality-TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted, ghost tours are sprouting like the undead in virtually every state, and around the world. Salem offers up its popular Haunted Footsteps Ghost Tour, highlighting the events of the 1692 witch trials; Louisville's historical society serves up 8-hour long "paranormal investigations" at the abandoned Waverly Hills Sanatorium—starting at midnight, natch—considered the most haunted building in the U.S. Dave Schrader, host of Darkness Radio, a popular ghost-obsessed show in Minneapolis, leads haunted tours to such destinations as Romania and Scotland. His trips fill up instantly, and almost all participants are 40+. "It's sort of like going to baseball fantasy camp…except we go to Vlad the Impaler's home town," he says. He says the reason people on his trips are fascinated by the paranormal is simple. "They've reached the age where they're asking, 'Ok, what comes next?'"
Traveler's Advisory: Haunted America tours (hauntedamericatours.com) is a weirdly comprehensive guide to all things spooky.