| | By Mike Rosen-Molina
Berkeley residents Marilyn Kaplan, 68, and her husband, Stuart Lichter, 67, are vacationing in Hawaii. But while most people stay in expensive tourist traps along Waikiki Beach, the couple relaxes in a private cottage in a sleepy Honolulu suburb. Instead of fighting the crowds at the island’s sightseeing hotspots, they explore the neighborhood. They make field trips to the local movie museum, to the secluded gelato maker who makes fresh sorbet from seasonal island fruits, or to Shangri La, the Morocco-inspired mansion estate of heiress Doris Duke on the outskirts of town.
“We enjoy not being in the middle of the tourist area,” Kaplan says. “We get to see more of life here, more of how people really live.”
Few hotels exist in this part of Honolulu, and there aren’t any cottage rentals. The couple can stay here because they’re participating in a home exchange. While they stay in Hawaii, the cottage’s usual residents are vacationing in Berkeley, staying for free in the Kaplan/Lichter house. The couple also exchanged cars with their host family, so they’re able to travel around the island without paying for a rental.
Home exchanges are just one of the ways that boomers are redefining what it means to take a vacation. They tend to be old hands at travel: Many began with the traditional backpacking tour across Europe after college, and have continued to seek out new experiences throughout their lives. But now, they’re looking to do more than sightsee. While a boomer can still appreciate the majesty of the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre’s “Mona Lisa,” a growing desire to experience the world as locals see it—rather than as tourists—now drives boomers to explore travel options outside of the usual pre-packaged hotel-and-tour variety.
“Baby boomers are more likely to step out of their comfort zone,” says JoAnn Bell, vice president of Road Scholar programs. Formerly called Elderhostel, Road Scholar is a nonprofit travel-and-education group that organizes low-cost educational trips for older adults. “They’ve already done the 30 countries in 30 days tour. They don’t want to see the Eiffel Tower. They want to visit the small Paris cafes, to learn to make crepes, to shuck oysters,” Bell says. “We’ve found that boomers want something more experiential. They don’t want to be in a classroom learning about whale watching, they want to be down on the wharf, hearing the ocean, and picking up algae.”
From a nighttime bird-watching expedition to see the exotic owls and nightjars of Costa Rica to a tour of New England wineries, Road Scholar offers programs for any interest and activity level. Cost depends on the trip, but can be as low as $700 for a week living in a Shaker village in Berea, Ky., or as high as $11,000 for a month of nature hikes in Australia. Meals, accommodations, and transportation are included.
Road Scholar was founded in 1975 in Massachusetts, when social activist Marty Knowlton journeyed across Europe and stayed in youth hostels. He began to wonder why nothing similar existed for older adults in the United States. He was also inspired by the idea of giving older adults opportunities for continuing education and personal growth. So he started Elderhostel, which eventually became Road Scholar. The programs usually have a set itinerary, where expert guides lead whale-watching expeditions in Newfoundland or archeological digs in Turkey.
Despite taking its inspiration from no-frills European hostels, Road Scholar often provides accommodations that are a bit more amenable to more mature travelers. Depending on the location, accommodations range from hotels and retreat centers to lodges, shipboard cabins, or safari tents. Most programs offer single room options and many offer private bathrooms. Road Scholar also has negotiated special rates with most major airlines for program participants.
Initially, Road Scholar catered mostly to people between the ages of 65 to 70, but in recent years has begun to see more travelers as young as 50 or as old as 85.
“People are staying active longer,” says Bell. “In the old days, people would put off travel until they retired. But now many aren’t planning on retiring anytime soon. They might continue working until they’re 80, so they don’t want to put off these experiences until then.”
In response, Road Scholar is developing some shorter excursions to meet the needs of working scholars who can’t afford to take long vacations from the office. With just a weekend to spare, participants could visit the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and hear stories from retired intelligence experts, or attend the Eastern Music Festival to meet professional orchestral musicians and ethnomusicologists in Greensboro, N.C.
Boomers still appreciate seeing amazing sights, but they’re looking for deeper connections—both with their fellow travelers and with the places they visit.
“Boomers are looking for soft adventure travel,” says Douglas Friedman, founder of WorldQuest Tours. “They want to be fun, healthy, and mobile. They want to greet the culture and be part of the extraordinary experience—they want to do sights rather than see sights.”
WorldQuest Tours organizes trips that cater to people who want to go beyond sightseeing to live authentic local experiences. Participants will visit Bangkok markets for ingredients to cook local Thai dishes, practice yoga on the roof of an Indian palace, or soak in the natural hot springs of Aguas Calientes on the road to Machu Picchu, Friedman says.
Although the company also offers custom packages, the main attraction of WorldQuest Tours is its 66-day soft adventure tours that can include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Dead Sea in Jordan, and the Galapagos Islands. (The tour itinerary varies depending on time of year and availability.) The usual world tour itinerary through other companies often rushes travelers through countries so quickly they barely have time to unpack before moving on to the next stop, Friedman says. In contrast, a WorldQuest Tour, which costs approximately $35,000, can linger up to a week in any destination to give travelers a chance to delve deeper into the local culture, looking beyond the popular tourist destinations.
Another way that boomers seek additional meaning in their travel is through volunteer work, often called “voluntouring.” It’s a way to get a closer look at a world often closed to tourists, to learn about real problems facing the less fortunate and, most importantly, a chance to do some good.
“When we get adults over 50 inquiring about voluntouring, they’re coming to us at a stage in their lives where they want to give something back,” says Aaron Smith, founder of GoVoluntouring, a website that helps match aspiring volunteers to the right opportunity, based on the needs of the organization and the volunteer’s skills and goals. “They think, ‘I’ve lived a really good life, and I want to see something different. I want to leave a positive legacy.’ They’ve got a lifetime of experience to offer.”
Volunteering for nonprofits is a good way to find a home away from home, as many will provide local accommodations for eager volunteers; Go Voluntouring includes chances to work at a children’s clinic in Peru or do art restoration in Puglia, Italy. Closer to home, Yosemite calls on volunteers to staff visitor centers, pick up litter, and build trails. Last year, 9,500 volunteers donated more than 187,000 hours of service to the park.
In fact, that lifetime of experience makes boomers an increasingly sought-after volunteer demographic.
“They’ve been in the work force, they know how to work with people,” says Martha Sortland, assistant director for YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colo., which makes extensive use of boomer volunteers. “They bring those decades of knowledge in regards to making things happen. Younger staff can be super enthusiastic but they can get frustrated.”
The YMCA of the Rockies is a little different from the local branches one might find in the Bay Area. This Colorado branch opened in 1907 as a summer training ground for YMCA presidents from around the country and evolved into a year-round resort. But volunteers are the lifeblood of the YMCA of the Rockies, and it depends heavily on an army of volunteers that hails mainly from California and Texas—retirees seeking adventure.
Volunteers, who receive free room and board, operate the telephone switchboard, cook meals, teach fly-fishing, or run games of capture the flag. Many stay in dorm-style lodging, but others choose to live in their own RVs; the park has its own RV lot for volunteers. The Estes Park resort is a fairly isolated outpost in the Rocky Mountains—it’s a solid one-hour drive to either Denver or Boulder—so volunteers quickly become close friends.
One of those volunteers is Carolyn Thomas, 69, who comes to Estes Park every year from Sacramento, sometimes spending up to five months there with her husband. She began as a switchboard operator, but since then has worked in the YMCA’s library and museum. Later, she started the park’s geocaching program, an outdoor treasure hunt game where the players use a GPS receiver to track down hidden stashes of goodies.
“They welcome creativity here,” says Thomas. “When you retire, life gets rather boring. When we’re here, all our creative juices are flowing. It gives you the satisfaction to give back after all the good years. There are no TVs here, so it really brings families together. There are 20 kids outside playing beach volleyball, the wildflowers are blooming. It’s so fabulous.”
In all ways, boomers are moving toward travel experiences that more reflect what it’s like to live in a host country. They’re frustrated by the way the tourism industry shuttles travelers from one pre-packaged sight to another, where their only interactions, whether in the hotel lobby, the airport terminal, or at the Parthenon, are with other tourists.
They want to know what it’s like to live as a local, to find the hidden surprises that tourists overlook and only knowledgeable residents can find. Programs like Road Scholar and WorldQuest Tours make hands-on interaction an integral part of the travel experience, while volunteering can put you in the heart of a new community. But it doesn’t take much to get out of the tourist-trap rut. The Kaplan/Lichters take up to five trips a year, from Hawaiian vacations to international excursions to places like Spain. For them, a home exchange makes a trip more than just a change of scenery; it also gives them a chance to meet the real people who live there.
Other travelers find similar success with renting apartments; while not free, rentals also give vacationers a chance to get more settled into a local lifestyle. Websites that let you search for such accommodations include Vacation Rentals by Owner.
In 2010, the Kaplan/Lichters stayed in a home in Seville, Spain, as they attended a Flamenco dance festival. But the woman at whose home they were staying happened to still be in town.
“She would come over,” Kaplan says. “We got to know her and become friends. The next time that we went to Spain, we didn’t do a home exchange with her, we stayed with her as her guest. She’s since come to Berkeley and stayed with us.”
The couple met their Spanish friend through HomeExchange.com, an online directory of interested exchangers. Founder and president Ed Kushins, 66, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of HomeExchange listings are from baby boomers. The site has grown from just 1,000 members, when Kushins founded it in 1994, to more than 47,000 today.
Los Angeles–based Kushins has frequently exchanged homes with the Kaplan/Lichters, coming to Berkeley to visit his grown children who live in San Francisco. For Kushins, a home exchange means he can live locally while seeing his kids. He doesn’t have to eat every meal in a restaurant, or plan every moment around a sightseeing activity. Instead, they can simply hang out as a family, comfortably, at home.
Another exchange brought Kushins to Amsterdam, where he lived in his host’s houseboat on a canal one block from the Anne Frank House. He recalled sitting on the deck, sipping a gin and tonic, as tour boats zipped past.
“I’m sure they were jealous of us,” says Kushins. “They probably thought we were locals, but we were just tourists like them. The only difference is we didn’t have to go back to a hotel afterward.”
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly. He’s lived in Germany, South Korea, Ghana, and the Philippines.
Trading places: Berkeley couple Marilyn Kaplan and Stuart Lichter vacation regularly in places like Hawaii (above) and Spain, by exchanging homes with other families. Photo courtesy Marilyn Kaplan And Stuart Lichter.
Road Scholar; roadscholar.org.
Vacation Rentals by Owner; vrbo.com.
WorldQuest Tours; worldquesttours.com.