Best Midlife-Crisis Trips
Jane Goldstein, a Boston corporate attorney, was turning 40 when she decided she needed to scale Kilimanjaro. Climbing for eight days with a cast of characters that included a recent widower, her best friend, and four Texans, Goldstein grew fond of the Kilimanjaro-trekker’s mantra of pole-pole, Swahili for “slowly.” It was, she says, “a wonderful pace of life.” Closing in on the summit, she realized the purpose of her trip: it made her feel like she could do anything.
Goldstein’s tale is hardly unusual—midlife restlessness is so common it seems like a cliché. But psychologists say it’s real: a period of discontent that can produce feelings of boredom, doubt, anger, and unease. Traveling has always been a remedy, but more people are forgoing cars and tattoos these days in favor of real-world exploration, according to Portland, ME–based travel agent Pam Hurley. “With travel,” she says, “you forget about the money and remember what you get mentally, physically, or spiritually.”
Of course, treating a crisis of this magnitude requires more than a weekend at the beach. So midlifers seek out trips with at least one special quality, like adventure, danger, learning, physicality, or goodwill. Add a “now-or-never” layer to the trip and you could well be on the path to healing.
One time-sensitive option: the Tibetan plateau, which environmentalists say is rapidly diminishing due to global warming. It’s also where Tibetan culture is at its best preserved, making for a fulfilling photography workshop. Plateau Photo Tours runs a two-week expedition that combines access to little-seen areas of nomadic Tibet with a crash course in picture-taking. World-renowned photojournalists provide hands-on instruction in a small-group setting, and the company also dabbles in philanthropy, hiring locals and donating partial proceeds to development programs.
But when it comes to a midlife crisis, not even the sky has to be the limit. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic can jettison you right into outer space, with a three-day trip that begins at space camp and ends in free-floating about the cabin. Aircrafts depart from a traditional runway, launch into orbit from 60,000 feet, and glide back home. More than just a chance to live out those adolescent Mark Hamill fantasies, viewing Earth from the void is the ultimate perspective-altering destination. It also makes for pretty killer cocktail-party chatter—at least for those who can afford the $200,000 price tag.
Whatever you decide, though, a successful trip boils down to challenging yourself with something new. “The best sort of midlife travel takes you to an unfamiliar place,” says Atlanta travel agent Betty Jo Currie. “To be something, do something, so profoundly different—there’s a freedom that comes with that.”
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Why Go Now: The trip can last anywhere from one to three weeks and include five to eight days of climbing, depending on how fast you want to ascend. An immense physical challenge—Boston attorney Jane Goldstein prepared by running up bleachers at her local high school with a backpack full of law books—scaling Kilimanjaro with a group of like-minded travelers creates new bonds and a heightened appreciation of nature. Reaching the summit isn’t even necessary; most hikers say the deepest change happens on the way there.
Go with: Mountain Madness.
Visiting the Golden Temple, Amritsar, India
Why Go Now: Less frenetic than the Taj Mahal’s Agra, the spiritual capital of the Sikhs is home to the holy shrine the Golden Temple, a moving study in art, architecture, and religion. Up to 3,000 pilgrims visit the temple each day to pay homage to God. As Atlanta travel agent Betty Jo Currie says, “There’s nothing like an ancient religion”—not to mention a 500-year-old temple covered in 365 pounds of solid gold—“to make you feel like a speck.”
Go with: Abercrombie & Kent.
Reconnecting at Esalen, Big Sur, CA
Why Go Now: Since the ’60s, Big Sur’s Esalen Institute—devoted to the “exploration of human potential”—has satisfied many a wanderer in need of change, including Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Campbell, and Joan Baez. Programs—anywhere from 2 to 28 days—in East/West philosophies, spiritual reconnection, and humanitarianism are geared toward enhancing the ever-popular mind-body connection. A weeklong soak in the center’s natural hot springs, overlooking the Pacific from a Big Sur cliff, can be just as healing.
To Book: Contact the Esalen Institute directly.
Photographing the Tibetan Plateau, Tibet
Why Go Now: Environmentalists say the Tibetan plateau, an elevated landmass that spans Tibet, China, and India, is in imminent danger of melting. Learning-based workshops lead caravan tours throughout some of the more remote regions of the diminishing plateau—home to the highest percentage of Tibetans anywhere in Tibet, and a place where Tibetan culture is at its best preserved—with hands-on instruction on bringing home the sort of photos that’ll undoubtedly top the neighbors’ snaps of the Grand Canyon.
Go with: Plateau Photo Tours.
Building Furniture in Auburn, ME
Why Go Now: New England cabinetmakers Thos. Moser hosts a small number of travelers per session for its new Customer-in-Residence program, a weeklong tutorial in crafting a piece of furniture out of environmentally sound American cherry. Travelers—in search of a career change, gifts for the grandkids, or just a new place to sit down—learn to master fine woodworking tools by day. At night, they’re free to explore the nearby coastal town of Freeport, where the entire class stays in the historic Harraseeket Inn.
To Book: Contact Thos. Moser directly.
Surfing in Tavarua, Fiji
Why Go Now: Duuuuude—it’s not an act. Paddling a surfboard is proven to reduce stress—midlife or otherwise—while cultivating that six-pack that never really happened. Pacific Islanders, meanwhile, believe the ocean is the source of youth. The tiny Fijian island, which fits just 36 guests at a time, is at the base of Cloudbreak, one of the biggest surf breaks in the world, and Tavarua staffs some of the best surf instructors around. Learn to hang ten, or just play Gilligan for a week with a book and a mai tai.
Go with: Tavarua Island Tours.
Biking Through Umbria, Italy
Why Go Now: Pedaling through expansive vineyards, olive groves, and medieval hill towns is visually rewarding in itself, but at the end of a good, long haul, what’s better than a celebratory glass of Orvieto? Group cycling trips through the Italian countryside expose travelers to new friends and make accessible foreign ground not typically covered, while good food and wine minimize the boot-camp feel. The best part? Seeing Italy without concern for calories.
Go with: DuVine Adventures.
Flying into Outer Space
Why Go Now: If you wonder how space travel can change your life, you obviously haven’t seen Star Wars. Richard Branson’s much-hyped Virgin Galactic space odysseys include two days of “astronaut training” and the chance to become one of fewer than 500 people who’ve ever left the planet. Groups of six take off from a traditional runway, then launch into orbit from 60,000 feet for a few minutes of free-floating about the glass-walled cabin. Looking down at Earth allows for a “profound evaluation of the meaning of life,” says Pam Hurley, an authorized Virgin Galactic travel agent in Portland, ME. At the very least, it’ll help dislodge any feelings of being trapped.
Go with: Hurley Travel Experts.
Teaching English in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Why Go Now: Philanthropy is fantastic, but a one-week, hands-on stint volunteering in Cambodia—still in need of much aid—can be much more personally satisfying. It can also pretty quickly make a person grateful for his life back home. Globe Aware’s volunteer vacations in Angkor Wat engage travelers in making a genuine influence on others’ lives in a very short time: teaching English, working with children, distributing wheelchairs to adults and children in rural villages. The accommodations will be modest, but the Khmer food and magnificent Angkor Wat temples make the authentic experience entirely welcome.
Go with: Globe Aware.
Saving Dolphins in Galaxidi, Greece
Why Go Now: You could tour Greece’s more populated islands and cities, many of which are by now overrun with club-hopping tourists. Or you could opt for a more altruistic, no less adrenaline-pumping experience. Dolphin conservation trips in the Ionian Sea, among 4,000-year-old villages and world-famous archaeological sites, let travelers assist marine biologists in protecting and studying marine life. Weeklong trips are truly hands-on: surveying for dolphins, collecting data, analyzing photos. The only thing better than swimming with dolphins may be saving them.
Go with: Global Vision International.