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Learn while you travel: if you are 55 or older, don't miss the golden opportunities offered by Elderhostel to become a globe-trotter.

Are you (or your spouse) on the wise side of 55? Do you like to travel? Interested in expanding your horizons? Do you like meeting new people? Then you really should look into Elderhostel.

Elderhostel is a non-profit organization dedicated to combining the fun of travel with the satisfaction of learning--for people age 55 and older. Working with 600 universities, museums and other institutions, Elderhostel offers more than 9,500 programs at 2,600 locations in nearly 100 countries (but mostly in the United States).

While some Elderhostel offerings last as few as three days or as many as 12, most programs run about six days, with participants typically arriving on Sunday to register and get acquainted. Depending on the specific program, the week is likely filled with lectures, discussions, demonstrations, field trips, performances, films, hands-on involvement and other instructional activities.

On Friday or Saturday, participants go their separate ways, although Elderhostel programs are often the spawning ground for ongoing friendships.

"We hear from many people who say they met someone at an Elderhostel program, then started attending other hosteling programs with them," said Despina Gakopoulos, Elderhostel spokesperson. "One pair of couples has been doing this for seven years." Naturally, friendships started via Elderhostel often flourish outside the programs, too.

Four-Decade Tradition

Elderhostel began in 1975 after world-traveler Marty Knowlton returned to the United States from a four-year walking tour of Europe, where he stayed in the youth hostels popular there. Expanding on the bare-bones youth hostel concept, Knowlton teamed up with friend and university administrator David Bianco to offer the first five Elderhostel programs to 220 participants.

Within five years, word-of-mouth promotion increased that figure to 20,000, and today Elderhostel annually serves nearly 200,000 participants.

Elderhostel offerings are grouped into three broad categories--exploring the United States and Canada (cultural and historic themes, American cities, national parks and other home-grown topics), Adventures Afloat (where all sorts of ships and boats become floating classrooms) and international. Specific programs are all over the geographic (and topical) map. Locales range from South Dakota to South Africa, New York to New Zealand, and Georgia to Japan.

While getting there (and back) may be part of the full, Elderhostel's heart and soul involves learning. But that's fun, too--especially since there are no exams, no grades, no homework, no educational prerequisites and no college credits to worry about.

"For me, Elderhostel has been a wonderful vehicle for poking my nose into places and things around the world," said retired scientist Galen Frysinger, a veteran of 36 Elderhostel programs. "I've learned about places and people and events I would not have encountered any other way."

Pick any topic, and there's a good chance Elderhostel has developed a program on that subject: the ecology and geology of the Grand Canyon, Thanksgiving feasting in Vermont, the travels of Lewis and Clark and many more.

You can learn to paint on Nantucket Island, hike in the Appalachian Mountains, help conduct endangered species research in Kansas, study the ecology of the Everglades, examine New York architecture or explore any of dozens more learning opportunities. Incidentally, the most popular program is a course on the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Whatever the topic, the Elderhostel "faculty" consists of knowledgeable experts, university professors, museum specialists, local scholars, skilled professionals or others ready to share their information and expertise.

Military Flavor

While there are no Elderhostel programs aimed specifically at veterans, some offerings do have a military flavor. In August 2003, for example, one group of hostelers spent a week in London studying the World War II alliance forged by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

In September, another group studied the last days of the Civil War in Virginia (dozens more programs cover other aspects of the Civil War).

And in November, a group of hostelers will spend 11 days in Hawaii helping to restore the Battleship Missouri (berthed at Pearl Harbor), aboard which the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

Many hostelers participate as a couple, in which case only one of the pair must be 55 or older. But plenty of singles attend Elderhostel, too. Folks going solo often have the choice of a single room (albeit at a higher price) or being assigned a roommate. With or without a partner, you're almost guaranteed a good time. "I met so many nice people" said Bobbi Prange, a retired nurse and first-time hosteler. "I felt part of the group right away, and there was a sense of togetherness all week."

The type of lodging depends on the program and may occasionally involve tents, dormitories, rustic cottages, cruise ship cabins, country inns or other unique kinds of housing. Generally, however, hostelers stay in comfortable motel or hotel rooms with private baths. Usually, all meals are provided-sometimes tastefully seasoned with local flavor.

The cost of an Elderhostel program in the U.S. or Canada averages $115 per person per day, which includes--in addition to lodging and meals--all lectures, field trips, demonstrations and other extras (but not the expense of getting to the program site). Many U.S. programs cost less than $500. Overseas programs cost more, but the higher prices include airfare.

Prange raves about the value of her Elderhostel ski trip to Park City, Utah. For $630 she got a week's stay in a nice hotel, six days of skiing, two ski lessons, all meals (including a box lunch for the slopes), rides to and from the ski hill, and even a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "The only extra money I spent was for souvenirs and maybe a glass of wine with dinner," she said.

Family Offerings

If you can't bear the thought of being away from your grandkids, nieces or nephews, you can take them along on one of Elderhostel's special intergenerational programs. A few of these outings are even designed to accommodate three generations of learners and travelers.

Among this year's family offerings are programs that involve tracing Lewis and Clark's journey through Montana, an African wildlife safari, a week of choral and instrumental music in Connecticut, and a study of the Harry Potter books and movies in England.

Because those 55 and older are getting more active all the time, Elderhostel includes a variety of offerings for people who prefer their learning vacations on the go. Regardless of your skill level, you can spend Elderhostel days biking, skiing, backpacking, horseback riding, sailing, trekking, golfing or in some other way burning calories out of doors. Programs that involve significant physical activity are rated for the level of exertion required, so participants know when registering what will be expected of them.

Elderhostel also offers programs--in the United States and overseas--that allow participants to volunteer their labor to numerous worthy causes. One perennial favorite has hostelers working to beautify the 100 or so gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, while other service programs involve tutoring children in Arizona, building homes in Guatemala and working at a zoo in Hawaii.

Whatever Elderhostel program you choose, you'll likely end up agreeing that travel was never like this. For many people older than 55, school may have been a temporary affliction, but learning goes on forever.

For more information, write Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111-1746, call 1-877-426-8056 or visit their Web site:

GARY TURBAK is a free-lance writer based in Missoula, Mont.
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Author:Turbak, Gary
Publication:VFW Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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