Immerse Yourself in a Culture While Learning

The Growing Market for Experiential Vacations

Have you ever wanted to bring home something more than photographs from vacation? Something more lasting and useful than a t-shirt? Consider taking a learning vacation and be part of a new wave of travel that is growing in popularity.

Frequent travelers sometimes feel as if they’ve visited every museum in Europe or seen every temple in Asia—and indie travelers in particular want a deeper experience than the main tourist sites provide. As we seek deeper travel experiences, learning vacations provide the ultimate souvenir: a new skill or passion to carry with you. Sometimes called experiential travel, a learning vacation can give you the opportunity to do something you’ve always wanted to do while truly discovering a country’s culture—and can enrich your life long after the trip is over.

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One of the most familiar and oldest forms of a learning vacation is language school or immersion—but today, the opportunities are nearly limitless. How about picking up some photography skills or how to cook a little-known cuisine? What about surfing and yoga, or learning how to drive a race car? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Dishing up Lao cuisine

Cooking classes are a popular learning option all over the world; in places world-renowned for their cuisine, such as France or Thailand, culinary options abound where you can pick up the know-how for that perfect soufflé or gangaree curry. But venture off the path a little bit, into some lesser known ethnic styles, and you can really impress back home.

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In Laos, award-winning executive chef of Hotel de la Paix, Somroj Mepiern, enthusiastically teaches guests the art of Lao cooking—similar to Thai and Cambodian food in some ways, but generally less spicy and with its own unique signature dishes. “Lao food is not well-known in the rest of the world,” Chef Somroj says. “Many Asian cuisines are popular throughout the world: Thai, Chinese, Indian…but most people have yet to discover Lao cooking.”

One interesting aspect of Lao food is that this land-locked country is the only Asian nation that eats sticky rice, rather than steamed rice, almost exclusively. One of the best aspects of the Hotel de la Paix cooking school, as is the case with many similar courses, is that it begins with a trip to the local market. At eight in the morning I set out with Chef Somroj—just your typical day, strolling through cobblestone lanes between Buddhist temples, checking out delicacies on offer such as freshly-gutted tadpoles, live wriggling larvae, water buffalo ears, and live snakes.

As we seek deeper travel experiences, learning vacations provide the ultimate souvenir: a new skill or passion to carry with you.

The Luang Prabang morning market is bustling, and besides the slightly disturbing (to a Westerner) items for sale, there are also a plethora of beautiful vegetables, aromatic herbs, poultry, meat, and sweets. After a couple of hours we return to the hotel’s Ka-Toke Cooking School, where we whip up Lao specialties including Naam Kaow (rice crepes stuffed with pork and vegetables), Mok Pak (steamed vegetables in a banana leaf), and Panang Gai (red curried chicken).

As I discovered, Lao food does indeed have its own distinct flavor and style and is quite interesting and unique. All in all, it was a great day with Chef Somroj, who has been cooking since age 17, when he became an apprentice in a hotel restaurant. “Just like an artist who sees his paintings in his mind first,” Somroj says, “I see the food, I see the dish and all its ingredients in my mind first, before it comes together on the plate.”

Read Trading Places: Laos, 5 Dishes No Traveler to Laos Should Leave Without Trying, and How to Plan an Extended Trip in Southeast Asia

Photography, yoga or surfing in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has been an increasingly popular destination for American travelers and transplants for more than a decade. The peaceful nation’s thirty-four parks and reserves make it a nature-lover’s dream. The landscape from one side of the small country to the other is diverse, with volcanic mountain ranges, rain forests, fertile valleys dotted with coffee plantations, and of course the warm waters of both the Pacific and the Caribbean.

This stunning tropical beauty, abundance of nature, and friendly people present the perfect canvas for photography, a hobby enjoyed by most travelers that allows them to bring their experiences home. This provides a near-perfect combination of learning, practice, and vacation.

The School of the World in Playa Jaco offers a digital photography classroom in the midst of paradise. The one-to-four week programs are designed to give students a working knowledge of the elements of photography, including lighting, composition, apertures, shutter speeds, and basic photo editing. Learning how to improve photo shots is a major goal, and students are taken on excursions in search of great locations.

“The digital photography revolution has made it easier for people to experiment and learn how to improve their photography skills, without the cost or waiting time of film,” says Brian Phelps, director of School of the World.

This stunning tropical beauty, abundance of nature, and friendly people present the perfect canvas for photography, a hobby enjoyed by most travelers that allows them to bring their experiences home.

But the learning opportunities don’t stop there. The school combines its photography courses with your choice of surfing, yoga, or Spanish lessons — their motto is “Educating Travelers in Inspirational Environments.” It opened in 1997 with the goal of taking a creative approach to learning by combining aspects of a language school, surf school, photography workshop, and adventure travel to create an unforgettable travel experience. Yoga is the newest program of the school, rounding out a truly unique combined learning experience available nowhere else.

“Surfboards are more common than cell phones in this small town,” says Phelps. “Due to the fact that the Playa Jaco area is well known to have great waves and warm water year-round, it is only natural that so many people come here to learn how to surf.”

Lodging is included for all students, but homestays are also available for those who wish to stay with a local family. Breakfast and dinner are included, and the cost is the same as the programs that include accommodations at the school.

Check out our adventure trips in Costa Rica

Becoming Mario Andretti

Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there are places where you can actually learn the ins and outs of driving a race car and try your hand at the track, and you don’t have to go to such exotic destinations as Asia or Central America to incorporate learning into your travel.

The resort town of Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin is home to Road America, a scenic four-mile, 14-turn track spread over 640 acres and known as “America’s National Park of Speed.” In the early 1950s the streets of Elkhart Lake transformed into an open-road race circuit as top sports car drivers traveled from around the world to take on the hills and sharp corners and show off for thousands of adoring fans. In 1955 the racing moved to the Road America track after the state legislature banned racing on public roads.

In addition to its renowned history of pro and amateur racing, the facility also has a driving school where you can take on race car driving. After you’re teamed up with one of the Road America instructors, you learn advanced car control techniques through intense drills involving braking, cornering, and acceleration. The program includes a variety of autocross courses and a tour of the 4-mile road course.

Check out this video from BMWNA Motorsport to see what a lap at Road America looks like from inside the car.

When I visited, my group started with a fun obstacle course challenge. With a high-tech disc (actually a frisbee) attached to the car, containing a tennis ball, our challenge was to weave in and out of the cones to complete the course as fast as possible—without knocking the tennis ball out of the disk. This was a great way to get familiar with the course and car, but we were all relieved when the disk was taken away and we could get on to the real business of the day – actually seeing how fast we could make it around the course.

Danica Patrick, the race car driver making waves because of her gender, says that Road America is one of the tracks that she vividly remembers. “That’s probably because it has so many hills, and it’s a memorable track. It’s definitely unique from a road course perspective,” she told AP Sports.

Road America also has motorcycle racing instruction, outdoor survival skills, and other adventures such as go-karting, paintball, and geocaching, making it fun for all ages and interests.

This small sampling of learning adventures around the world just shows that, no matter where your travels take you or what new skill you’d like to pick up, these type of experiences can not only broaden your life but connect you more deeply to the places you visit.

Find out more about learning while traveling:

Photo credits: Sunset picture from School of the World, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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Leave a Comment

  • Erick Widman said at 2012-08-16T15:55:32+0000: The School of the World in Costa Rica sounds amazing. I really liked all the options you featured here. Now I wonder if there's a way to combine car racing for me and a cooking school for my wife?
  • MrsMolly Taylor said at 2012-08-20T16:39:03+0000: language school in Guatemala was a life changing experience. Thinking abt cooking school in India is just mouthwatering though.
  • Katie Boyer said at 2012-08-16T17:06:12+0000: Experiential travel sounds similar to service learning abroad, great options to learn about culture and give back too :)
  • Adventures of a Carry-On said at 2012-08-16T14:34:34+0000: I've been to language school in Italy and Mexico. Learning a language is truly the key to understanding the culture.