Skip to main content

Top 10 smart vacations

  • Story Highlights
  • Seasons of My Heart offers Mexican cooking lessons in Oaxaca
  • Take a crash course in astrophysics at Camp Denali in Alaska
  • Get command of whitewater paddling basics at Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School
  • Next Article in Travel »
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(Sunset) -- Come home from your next trip relaxed and smarter. Where to learn Spanish, whitewater rafting, astrophysics and more

Sedona Spirit Yoga & Hiking offers four-day retreats among the red rocks.

Sedona, Arizona

Find your path in Arizona

In Sedona, the path to enlightenment involves hiking boots and yoga mats. Sedona Spirit Yoga & Hiking offers four-day retreats where you'll take guided hikes through red rock wilderness to vortex sites, places where the Earth's energy is supposedly strongest. You'll also learn meditation, experience a Native American sweat lodge and maybe even nail that eagle pose. Abbreviated three- to six-hour yoga hikes are also offered.

Play hooky: In between downward dogs and trail switchbacks, check out uptown Sedona's restaurants, which include vegan and raw choices, or browse art galleries.

Info: September-June; from $995, including lodging and breakfast; yoga hikes from $90; 888/282-9901. --Nora Burba Trulsson

Oaxaca, Mexico

Mix up moles south of the border

Learn to tell your chiles from your chapulines (toasted grasshoppers) at Seasons of My Heart, a cooking school in the Oaxacan countryside of southern Mexico that kicks off with some serious market research. Guided by Mexican food maven Susana Trilling, sample and buy local delicacies, then head back to the chopping blocks and stoves of Trilling's spacious blue-tiled kitchen to create complex moles and picante bisques.

Play hooky: While you're in Oaxaca, ascend the ruins of the ancient city of Monte Albán for spectacular vistas of Oaxaca Valley.

Info: Year-round; $75 for full-day class, including transportation from Oaxaca City. -Edie Jarolim

Don't Miss

Ensenada, Mexico

Speak Spanish in Baja

Get beyond your Mexican-restaurant-level Spanish without going back to school by spending a week at the Baja California Language College in Ensenada, Mexico, where there are no exams or grades. Thursday afternoons are set aside for excursions to a winery or a local taqueria to learn the difference between salsa verde and pico de gallo -- en español, of course.

Play hooky: Afternoons and evenings, you're free to surf, explore the area's burgeoning wine region or practice your language skills at the harbor's fish market as you search for the perfect tacos de pescado.

Info: Year-round; $279 for weeklong classes in which you log 30 hours; 877/444-2252. -David Lansing

Near Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Blaze some trails in Colorado

Connect with your inner cowboy at the Vista Verde Ranch, a cluster of cabins and a main lodge on the flanks of the Continental Divide 45 minutes north of Steamboat Springs. With 80 horses, daily clinics and morning and afternoon rides, greenhorns and seasoned equestrians can develop their skills in the arena and on trails threading through the aspen forests. Plus, resident horse-whisperer Orval Bedell is on hand to teach rodeo tricks such as how to rope a calf.

Play hooky: Soak in 105 degree mineral waters at the Strawberry Park Hot Springs ($10; 7 miles north of Steamboat Springs; 970/879-0342).

Info: June-September; from $3,200 per week, including meals, lodging and activities; 970/879-3858. --Jad Davenport

Salmon River, California

Master whitewater paddling

Get command of whitewater paddling basics at Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School, a wilderness hideaway on Northern California's Salmon River, about 112 miles northeast of Eureka. You'll start by practicing stroke technique, wet exits and rolling in the lodge's flat-water pond before graduating to day trips on the warm class I-II water of the Salmon and Klamath Rivers. Don't sweat it if you can't master a roll on the first day: Otter Bar's instructors shadow your every paddle stroke, and if you go over, they're more than happy to right your boat (in kayak-speak, the "hand of God").

Play hooky: The wood-fired sauna and on-call massage therapist can work out your paddling kinks.

Info: April-September; $2,190 per week, including meals, lodging and gear; 530/462-4772. --Katie Arnold

Kauai, Hawaii

Rock out in Hawaii

Dig beneath the surface with geologist Chuck Blay of TEOK Investigations on hikes all over Kauai, including a kid-friendly amble along the southeast coast to wild Maha'ulepu Beach.

Play hooky: See a reverential torch-lighting ceremony at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort (808/742-1234).

Info: Year-round; from $100 ($75 ages 5-12), including lunch; 888/233-8365. --Harriot Manley

Nootka Island, British Columbia

Surf off an island

What better place to learn to surf than at a lodge set in a coastal rain forest with views of bears, eagles and whales? On Nootka Island, off British Columbia's Vancouver Island, Tatchu Surf Adventures offers instructors, beginner-friendly waves and water temps that hit the 60s. Crowds? No way. The island has only six residents.

Play hooky: Sip scotch in the sauna.

Info: May-October; $2,218 U.S. per week, including meals, lodging and gear; 250/934-6600. --Steve Hawk

Denali National Park, Alaska

Unravel celestial mysteries

To understand what makes the Northern Lights so spectacular, take a crash course in astrophysics at Camp Denali, an 18-cabin retreat inside Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve. During three- and four-night programs, Neal Brown, space expert and director of the Alaska Space Grant Program, will explain the magnetic forces that create the aurora borealis and other atmospheric phenomena. By day, you can grill Brown with questions you might have; at night, he'll call your cabin if he spots the elusive lights above.

Play hooky: Spend your mornings moose- and caribou-watching with 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley as a backdrop, visible on clear days from just about everywhere on Camp Denali's 67-acre plot.

Info: Book now for September 2009; from $1,425, including meals and lodging; 907/683-2290. --Matt Villano

Yosemite National Park, California

Take in terroir at the Ahwahnee

Roll out of bed at the Ahwahnee, drink in the Half Dome view, then sip some California wines at Vintners' Holidays. Winemakers host daily seminars, and a closing gala is held in the hotel's dining room.

Play hooky: Hike to Mirror Lake and walk in snow-dusted valley meadows.

Info: Annually in November and December; from $1,008, including two-night stay; 801/559-4884. --Sara Schneider

Bishop, California

Snap to it in the Sierra

Paint alpine meadows with pixels in the eastern Sierra Nevada during Mountain Light's three-day photographic workshop in Bishop, California. Both amateurs and pros learn to turn landscapes into works of art using a variety of techniques, including lens selection and filters. Days begin well before dawn during field trips to secret meadows and iconic locations such as Mono Lake, followed by lectures and critiques back at the gallery.

Play hooky: Time is tight, but for a pick-me-up you can always sneak next door and order an espresso forte and pecan-topped coffee cake at Black Sheep Espresso Bar.

Info: Classic Workshop: September 25-28, October 2-5 and 9-12; from $1,395, including meals and lodging; 760/873-7700. --J.D.

Enter to win a monthly Room Makeover Giveaway from

Copyright 2004-2009 Sunset magazine. All rights reserved.

All About Travel DestinationsTravel and Tourism

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print