Great vacation ideas with both beauty and brains?
December 16, 2012 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend: What are some seductive and alluring travel ideas which feature both a) stunning natural beauty and b) some intellectual stimulation more than just learning about history (e.g. solving some mystery, practicing a language, etc.). This would be for a middle-aged couple in average shape, money (within reason) no object. Length: roughly 2-4 weeks. Specific tour recommendations also welcome.
posted by shivohum to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Dinosaur hunting?
posted by caoimhe at 8:38 AM on December 16, 2012

This might be a bit too extreme, but a good friend raves about the Rickshaw Run.
posted by sueinnyc at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2012

The island of Bali is just gorgeous and there is a school in the village of Ubud where you can learn to speak Balinese and Indonesian as well as attend a cooking academy to learn to cook traditional dishes. My husband and I took language lessons with a personal tutor and I also learned to cook black pudding. Enquiries can be made at the library for available classes and teachers.

There are also plenty of arts lessons to take. We visited the silversmithing school, but didn't have time to make something ourselves. However, the pieces available in the shop were just amazing.
posted by Alison at 9:23 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you like family history and fun maybe a genealogy cruise.
posted by JayRwv at 9:49 AM on December 16, 2012

A trip to the Galapagos! A lot of the adventure is learning about history in a way (especially natural history and ecology) but the wildlife is really amazing. Plenty of stimulation to be had for anyone with any interest in nature or conservation.
posted by silvergoat at 9:56 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

There are a million "cooking school" vacations in Provence and Tuscany.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:10 AM on December 16, 2012

2nding Bali.
posted by okbye at 10:11 AM on December 16, 2012

The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is pretty great. I did a culinary tour there a few years ago - we had cooking classes almost every day, the cenotes and Chichen Itza (and assorted other pyramids/ruins) are amazing, and I practiced my Spanish every day. They also have language classes.

I personally hated Bali. I wasn't prepared for all of the bugginess and it's DIRTY. My advice for Bali is:
- Don't stay in Kuta, even for one night.
- Stay for no more than one week (I think 4 days is plenty), and use the rest of your time to go to Borobudur, Prambanan, and get over to Komodo Island if you can.
- Come mentally prepared for huge cockroaches everywhere, mice and/or rats in the streets (AND in the restaurants, at least in Kuta), and garbage burning in the gutters everywhere. Not to mention the lizards, salamanders, frogs, assorted flying things, etc. etc. which are also pretty big. I didn't mind those guys as much.

We spent just under 2 weeks in Bali last year and I don't recommend it to anyone unless they have a serious burning desire to go. We stayed in Kuta, Nusa Dua ("sterile" but clean!), and Ubud.
posted by tealcake at 10:27 AM on December 16, 2012

Since someone else said Galapagos, my suggestion is Machu Pichu. Inca trail!!!
posted by pick_the_flowers at 10:50 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

InSight Cruises combine beautiful locations with scientific lectures and seminars. I've never been, but it is rare to look over an itinerary without finding items of both intellectual and environmental interest.
posted by 1367 at 11:32 AM on December 16, 2012

(not noticed until after posting my comment: the very next InSight Cruise, Bright Horizons 16, has a pre-cruise option that includes visiting Machu Picchu, Galapagos, and or Easter Island.)
posted by 1367 at 11:36 AM on December 16, 2012

I've always wanted to go on an EarthWatch expeditiion--participants help with research and social development projects, and I think the average traveler is at least 30--it's not for padding college applications with overseas volunteer experience. Might be right up your friends' alley.
posted by tully_monster at 11:54 AM on December 16, 2012

2nding Earthwatch, or even National Geographic Expeditions. I yearn over those catalogs every year. If money is truly no object, what about an Antarctic cruise? That's what I'd do if I had the funds, and it's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
posted by sonmi at 3:54 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I loved Bali and totoally didnt experience the dirt or bug that tealcake talks about and i stayed in both hostels/cheap guesthouses and 'proper' hotels. In terms of SE Asia, i found Bangkok, Vientianne and Phnom Penh to be much much worse.

In Bali we stayed a bit in Kuta but more for the end of trip shopping and to arrange tours. You can arrange tours from here to East Timor (ran out of cash so couldnt go - gutted), Borobudur, Gunung Bromo, Gilli islands etc for cheap and they're convenient. Lots of stuff on those trips for activties (hiking, diving, kayaking, elephant treks, photography, history...)

on Bali itself, my understanding was avoid places like Nusa Dua uless i wanted to be in expensive resorts full of families/all incklusives etc - bascially what i could go to in spain/tenerfire from the UK for much cheaper and less flying time. Kuta is more a party place - lots of backpackers, aussies who i believe come for the surfing and people in transit.

Ubud is lovely and from there we hired a jeep through a random guy down the road from our guesthouse (this is way common) and took that round the island stopping at random places along the way, nicer quieter beaches, beginner dive site (sunken naval wreck rather than fish etc), morning kayak tour to watch dolphins, spa/thermal baths, up round the volcano, stopping to take photos and relax at odd little sites and the incredible rice terraces. The jeep and the petrol cost us about £50, yes £50! that was for about 4 or 5 days round the island. That was about 4 years ago but still, prices wont have changed that dramatically. You can do a variety of classes there too in (cooking and art already mentioned) meditation, diving, massage etc.

My other suggestion would be Vietnam.

Natural beauty in the Karst peaks in Halong Bay (you can do all different trips - you dont have to be on the budget ones with 20 something backpackers), through the middle highlands round by danang (including motorcyle tours with the Easy Riders), again with the rice terraces and wonderful hiking up in the north (Sapa). Also there are some beautiful places like the old french colonnial town of Hoi An (brilliant for cooking classes, surrounding area cultural and beach trips and amazing and cheap tailor made clothes). In the south we went on a 3 day Mekong delta trip which was on a series of different long boats etc at floating markets, local businesses and ngo's alng the main busy strecth of water as well as sleepy backwaters. Also, another idea in the form of languages - i never took any vietnamese classes (or saw them advertised) but an interesting activtiy related to this is the language cafes that happen a lot here and in china. Basically its young students who want to practice their english, they'll meet you for coffee and beer etc and just talk with you so they practice their skills and you can learn a lot from them both practically for your trip and about history and cultural stuff too. I found it so interesting to talk to older people in Saigon/Ho CHi Minh City about the experiences they'd lived through, we had a tour guide who talked about being forced out of his teaching job and into a re-education camp/program - it really put the history and the way I learned it, into context and made me think about war from a human condition kind of standpoint (i.e. what people are capable of doing to each other and what they're capable of withstanding), on the lighter side it was just fun and interesting to talk to college age students from a a totally different country and culture. There are also a load of NGOs and other non-profits throughout the country that you can visit/support/help out with taht could meet the stimulation/must learn or do something and not just be a sunbathing and shopping tourist, element of the question.
posted by moreteaplease at 6:17 AM on December 17, 2012

Take Spanish lessons in Guatemala. For an older couple, I'd recommend Antigua. It's a relatively safe/quiet town with lots of tourists. You can stay with a local family where they feed you three meals a day, 6 days a week, and take 4 hours of spanish a day. On the weekends, you can take trips from there to anywhere from Tikhal to El Salvador and Honduras.
posted by empath at 2:23 PM on December 18, 2012

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