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FITNESS | KATHY SITH

Active Vacations Strengthen Body and Soul

June 29, 1998|KATHY SITH

"How was your summer vacation, George?"

"I don't know," George says. "I haven't gotten my pictures back yet."

That old joke still cracks me up. Unfortunately, though, it contains a lot of truth. Too many of us seem to vacation the way we live. Days are overly organized and frantic, leaving no time for a battery recharge. So when we get back to the office, we're actually relieved to not be on vacation anymore. Either that, or the entire vacation is spent vegetating on the beach or by the pool, and the only muscle that moves is in the index finger, motioning for the waiter to bring another drink. Then, once back in the real world, it takes a week to get the brain jump-started and working again.

There is, however, a third alternative. Active vacations.

Active vacations are exactly what the words imply: periods of time devoted to pleasure, rest and relaxation that nonetheless require physical exertion or an expenditure of energy from the vacationer.

According to travel professionals, active vacations are the fastest growing segment of the industry. For one thing, people are generally more active than they were in previous generations. Older people now aren't satisfied experiencing their vacation through a bus window; they want to walk and even hike. And while we baby boomers apparently were born with a very active travel gene, families have grown tired of rushing through theme parks, where they end up eating bad hot dogs and spending half the day in lines. No wonder that, back at the hotel, they're cranky and bored, or that they argue and moan.

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Today, dozens of companies and outfitters offer an enormous range of active vacations for almost any budget, age or physical capability. From camping in the Sequoias to trekking through the Himalayas, from white-water rafting down the Colorado to interpretive hikes with a naturalist, the kinds of vacations open to us are limited only by imagination.

My friends, for example, are history buffs who every year walk the battlefields of a particular war. With their two boys, ages 12 and 10, they've experienced a part of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, marching from one battle site to another the way the combatants did. When they return to L.A., they're armed with a sense of living history. (You can imagine how interested the kids are in history.) This year, they're going to Europe to investigate World War I.

My first exposure to an active vacation came 10 years ago, when my husband and I joined up with a small group for a two-week guided bicycle trip through the Alsace region of France. We made terrific friends, ate delicious food, and stayed in charming hotels and chateaus. It was a wonderful way to get the lay of the land and the feel of the people. And at the time I was seven months pregnant.

Since then, we've gone on kayaking trips down several rivers, horseback-riding expeditions through Idaho's Sawtooth National Recreation Area and a walking tour of Norway, where I got into some extraordinarily interesting discussions with members of the group during those daily five-hour strolls--total strangers before we started the trip.

Of course, we've also done our share of lying on the beach; sometimes that seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered. But what we've discovered is that, as a family, an active vacation is an incredibly nurturing, bonding experience that pays emotional dividends throughout the year.

When it was just the four of us out there in Idaho, we realized that we had to rely solely on each other for entertainment and information. My two girls knew there would be no TV, no video games, no movies, no other friends. Everyone had to figure out how to stay dry when it rained and stay warm when it was cold; how to catch fish for dinner and where best to brush their teeth. Some days we traveled for miles, others we didn't go far at all. It was "City Slickers" without the comic complications, and the experience strengthened our family by bringing us closer together. Now, we make sure to do something like that every year.

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Anyone considering an active vacation should do homework ahead of time, and that means plenty of research. The more prepared you are, the more enjoyable the vacation will be. Travel agents are one resource. The Internet also has become a great place to locate outfitters and vacations. I suggest logging on to http://www.gorp.com (gorp stands for "great outdoor recreation pages"), which can hook you up with a range of activities for both individuals and groups of every age and almost any budget. Perhaps the best source of information is personal recommendations from friends. We've learned to ask them to share their vacation experiences--good and bad--and that information has been invaluable in planning our trips.

When you come back from your active vacation, you'll detect yet one more advantage of having gone. Unlike returning from, say, Hawaii, which inspires nothing more than a been-there, done-that attitude in your friends, your, let's say, bike ride across Vermont will have everyone asking a zillion questions.

In answering them, you'll find that you've become a fuller person--full of stories, full of life, your soul nurtured by the people you met and the places you saw. And you won't even have to wait for your photos to know that you had a good time.

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Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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