Best Places for a Sabbatical
In the summer of 2010, Sarah Bailey, 27, was up for a big promotion at a TV network. There was just one problem. “I didn’t want the job,” she says. “I was craving adventure.” She gave notice and spent the next six months in Europe, teaching English, volunteering on organic farms, and rock climbing. “I can’t remember when I’ve felt happier,” she says.
Not long ago, leaving a solid, stable career to go traveling might have seemed rash—or worse, evidence that you couldn’t hack it in the “real world.” But that mind-set is rapidly changing, thanks to a recession that’s left many feeling burnt out (and skeptical about their job security), as well as the influence of real people who’ve ditched the daily grind to embark on a life-changing adventure.
“The popularity of Eat, Pray, Love and the tremendous proliferation of travel blogs shows that we’re fascinated by the idea of escaping our everyday lives to take a journey of self-discovery,” says Tara Russell, a life sabbatical and long-term travel coach based in San Francisco. “While Brits, Europeans, and Australians have established breaks built into their careers, Americans only just now are starting a national conversation about the legitimate need for time away—and how we can get more of it.”
One way, as it turns out, is simply to ask. Employers across a broad range of industries, from media to marketing and medicine, are granting—and even encouraging—sabbaticals. “ These are breaks of anywhere from four weeks to six months which are used to volunteer or pursue educational or personal growth,” says Russell. This year, corporate giant IKEA even ran a lifestyle sabbatical contest, which will grant one winner the opportunity (and the funds) to take a year off to help improve the lives of others.
So what’s your dream? To perfect your coq au vin at a French cooking school or become fluent in Spanish in South America? Would you want to summit Mount Kilimanjaro or volunteer to protect a Central American jungle?
“Immerse yourself in something you’d never the time to do—or the access to—at home,” says Russell. “Go right up to the edge of your comfort zone; try something that almost seems daring or even a little scary.”
For Bailey, the idea of staying home now seems far more daunting than any of the challenges she might have faced on the road. But would she make the same decision to leave again?
“Absolutely,” she says. “There were random moments when I’d be at the top of a mountain and think, ‘Wow, if I was still in New York, I’d be staring at my computer right now.’”
Argentina: Master the Tango (and theLingo)
There’s no better place to discover passion than in Buenos Aires, birthplace of the Argentine tango, an oenophile’s paradise, and the most cosmopolitan city in South America. Dive into the culture by taking Spanish language classes in the mornings (try the Instituto de Lengua Española para Extranjeros); going wine tasting in the afternoon, and learning the tango at night. You can go to a professional school (such as DNI Tango) or visit a milonga, a dance hall that offers free classes early in the evening, before the experts heat up the floor.
New Zealand: Volunteer on an Organic Farm
Few places in the world are as green (or topographically stunning) as New Zealand, an island nation of wide-open spaces and small towns, where sheep still outnumber people 10 to one. The locals believe in working the land in a sustainable way that preserves the environment, and invite visitors to join their progressive farming movement through WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). You can work on an organic farm or vineyard or a small family garden, or help with energy-saving projects.
India: Tap Into Your Inner Peace
Most of us can barely get five minutes to breathe, let alone find an uninterrupted stretch of time to sit, meditate, and reflect. Yet that’s exactly what you’ll get when you attend a two- to four-week program at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala. The course was designed by generations of swamis to help you develop positive thinking, deep relaxation, and “inner peace” through the practice of ancient yogic techniques for balanced living. While your days here are structured (you’ll be waking predawn to mediate, do yoga, and learn devotional practices), the experience promises to liberate you spiritually.
In the rural village of San Rafael del Sur, 95 percent of homes are rapidly deteriorating, sanitation is poor, and clean sources of water are constantly compromised. But by volunteering through Habitat for Humanity’s 10-day Global Village Program, you can help transform the locals’ circumstances by building a community of 50 two-bedroom homes made from sturdy, weather-resistant materials. If you’re looking to make a longer-lasting impact, apply for a six- to 12-month program, where you can rebuild villages in Haiti, become an emergency responder in Slovakia, or assist with microfinance projects in South Africa.
Florida: Join the Circus
Ever fantasized about experiencing life under the big top—as a performer? Sarasota, in Central Florida, is home to the Ringling Brothers campus and is one of the top circus arts training schools in the country, run by fifth-generation trapeze master Tito Gaona. His four-day program will teach you how to fly on the trapeze, reach new heights on the trampoline, and balance on a giant ball.
Romania: Dig Up Archaeological Wonders
Budding archaeologists can help unearth mysteries in the ancient city of Dacia (now Deva), located in the medieval environs of Transylvania—the place where the brutal ruler Vlad the Impaler first inspired the Dracula legend. Through this multiweek program with Projects Abroad, you can work with Romania’s Museum of History to conduct digs and restore ruins across several sites. You’ll also help to identify and uncover ancient graves, recover bones and other artifacts, and compile reports on nearby Saxon churches.
Bahamas: Snorkel for Science
The things you love to do on vacation—getting sun and playing in the ocean—may actually help preserve the environment, thanks to a cool aquatic program run by the Earthwatch Institute on San Salvador Island. You’ll work alongside scientists, snorkeling through crystal-clear waters to survey endangered coral reefs and document the threats to their health. On land, you’ll map corals in tidal pools and monitor beach profile data for changes. The goal: to find ways to repair and rebuild reefs damaged by bleaching, storms, and global warming, making them safe for future generations.
California: Become a Master Chef
Fans of shows like Top Chef know there are more than a few bankers and lawyers who chucked the corporate grind for new careers in the kitchen. If you harbor similar foodie fantasies, test your mettle by signing up for Basic Training Boot Camp at The Culinary Institute of America. Here, you’ll learn to cook and bake like a professional, preparing a litany of dishes under the watchful eye of the school’s chef-instructors. If you’d rather indulge your inner (Julia) child, head to France to join Relais & Châteaux’s L’École for Chefs, a training program where students are placed in “internships” at one of several Michelin-starred properties across Europe.
South Africa: Diversify Your Contribution
Not exactly sure how to make the greatest impact during your sabbatical? Rather than devoting your time to a single cause, sign up for Edge of Africa’s Absolute EDGE program and embark on an eight-week sampler platter of volunteerism. You’ll rotate between established projects throughout Cape Town and South Africa, working with the big five on game preserves, assisting with youth sports coaching, teaching preschool children, and helping to conduct HIV- and TB-awareness workshops. If you fall in love with a particular project, you can stick with it through the end of your program…or beyond.
National Parks: Get Inspired by Nature
Fancy yourself the next Ansel Adams or Georgia O’Keeffe? Then head to one of at least 30 national parks (including Acadia, Denali, Zion, and Crater Lake) to join the artist-in-residence program. While living rent-free in a furnished park house, you’ll have the opportunity to create pieces inspired by the rugged natural surroundings and give talks to visitors about your artistic experiences in the park. If you’re not an artist but still want to immerse yourself in nature, you can join one of the nearly 200,000 people who volunteer each year rebuilding trails and acting as campground hosts at parks nationwide.