Twenty years ago most Brits settled for a sun lounger and poolside pina colada on their holiday. These days activity holidays are all the rage. According to ABTA, twice as many of us will go on an activity holiday this year, compared to just a decade ago. With good reason: for one thing, sunbathing is great for about five minutes, but mind numbingly dull after that. For another, our lives are now so busy that holidays are the only time left for pursuing hobbies or learning a new skill. Activity holidays aren’t just fun – they’re a modern-day essential. Here are 8 reasons you need to do an activity holiday – and why you need to book one NOW.
Turns tourists into travellers
Activity holidays show you a side to a country tourists don’t normally see. Learn to cook with Flavours Holidays in Tuscany, for example, and the local host will escort you to local markets and artisan food shops. They’ll also take you to their favourite out-of-the-way trattoria and bars. You’ll meet locals, swap menus and get a proper glimpse of the real Italy. Likewise on their painting and photography holidays, tutors will take you way off the tourist path, to practice portraits in tiny hilltop hamlets and little-visited villages.
Focusing on a new skill or activity literally takes your mind off things. No mortgage, no office politics – just how on earth do I paint those vivid red poppies and terracotta rooftops, or how the hell am I supposed to hold this Pilates position and breathe at the same time?
Activity holidays demand focus
They promote concentration, dragging your mind away from the usual tiny stresses that usually make up the day. In fact, neuro-scientists mapping the brain liken the experience of complete concentration and absorption you get while painting, say, to mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga.
No-pressure way to make friends
On a group activity holiday you’ll be surrounded by like-minded people. By definition, they’ll be up for new challenges and experiences. In other words, you’ll have a bunch of possible friendships on tap. The relationships can form as big a part of the holiday as the activity itself.
Travel on a single trail
Little wonder, then, that activity holidays are such a hit with single travellers: Flavours Holidays estimates that 70% of their guests are travelling solo. Partly that’s because of their no single supplement policy; but also it’s because activity holidays are a brilliantly low-pressure way to make friends. You’re focusing on a shared experience, without the horror of having to approach strangers for a chat.
Makes you happier
A bold claim, we know, but scientists at Harvard and the University of California have recently discovered that holidays can actually alter gene function, dampening stress, boosting the immune system and lowering levels of proteins linked to dementia and depression. Effects, they found, were still apparent one month after the holiday ended – longer if people had been on an activity holiday. Theories posited include the idea that once home, activity holiday participants typically carry on practising the skills developed. This way they effectively reinforce those positive genetic changes on a daily basis. It’s the holiday gift that keeps on giving.
Can holidays reverse the effects of depression?
Other scientists go even further. Kelly Lambert, a behavioural neuroscientist at Macon Randolph University in Virginia suggests that activities such as painting may actually stimulate parts of the brain affected by depression, effectively reversing its effects.
Develops problem-solving skills
Whatever holiday activity you go for, there are bound to be hiccups along the way. The path to greatness is paved with adversity – or, when trying to perfect puddings on a cooking holiday, say, with panna cotta that looks more like milkshake than Michelin-starred pud. Dealing with disaster has two benefits: for starters, you quickly learn to deal with disappointment. For another, you have to adapt, to come up with creative solutions to the problem of a pud that just won’t set. Thinking outside the box becomes second nature.
Improves communication skills
Activity art holidays such as painting, drawing and photography help you tap into your subconscious, allowing you to communicate your feelings to yourself and the outside world. Art activity holidays allow you to access feelings buried deep within, and enable you to deal with those feelings by giving them a physical shape, removing the anguish involved when keeping feelings hidden. In fact, psychologists often prescribe art therapy for patients who have suffered psychological trauma: it helps release emotions in a safe, non-threatening environment.
Carves out valuable “me time”
We live in busy times. Between mortgage and work stress and emails and kids, who on Earth has time to take up something as time-consuming as Pilates? As for learning a whole new language? Forget it. Except forget it you absolutely must not. Pilates is a life-changing practice, the ultimate antidote to our modern lives doubled over a laptop or phone. And a new language? It rewires the brain, fires up the synapses, simultaneously opens up a whole new world of travel – not to mention self-confidence.
Some activities are just so much better abroad.
Learn Italian with Flavours Holidays in Italy, and you can reinforce everything you’ve learned on excursions to towns and restaurants. It’s total immersion, and it accelerates your language learning like nothing else. Do a Pilates holiday with Flavours, and you’ll be stretching out al fresco, gazing from your gorgeous villa across a sea of vineyards and hills. It beats the hell out of a chilly village hall back home.
Improves memory and concentration
Activity holidays boost memory function and sharpen the mind. Just as a runner exercises their heart, so painting holidays, language courses and cooking classes exercise the parts of your brain responsible for memory and concentration. People who regularly practice creative activities are shown to have less chance of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Activity holidays aren’t just a great way to meet likeminded people and develop life changing skills – they’re also aerobics for the brain!
Lorne Blythe is the owner of Flavours of Italy Ltd, a specialist travel company.