Nearly 30 years after he was shot down over North Vietnam, Admiral James Stockdale returned to Southeast Asia in civvies. But his was still a working tour: He was one of a half-dozen lecturers in the Stanford Alumni Assn.'s "Indochina College," a 16-night cruise making stops in Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi.
The speakers provided passengers with perspectives they wouldn't get on an ordinary cruise. As the ship approached the Gulf of Tonkin, for example, the former POW and Vice-Presidential running mate of Ross Perot recounted events leading to the Vietnam War. Says Ken Oshman, CEO of Echelon, an automation technology company, and one of the 80 vacationers who paid as much as $11,945 for the trip: "We were intrigued by the faculty."
A lot of travelers are eschewing veg-out holidays in favor of vacations where notepads may be more important than swimsuits. Trips with a strong cerebral component are as far-reaching and diverse as the schools, museums, wildlife associations, and tour companies that sponsor them. The intellectually curious can study literature in London or learn to speak Spanish in Guadalajara.
Some journeys mix the pedagogical with the physical. Mountain Travel-Sobek (800 227-2384) provides expert guides on rafting trips in Chile and trekking in the Himalayas. The American Museum of Natural History Discovery Cruises (800 462-8687 outside New York) offers a $14,980-to-$24,490 expedition--sans airfare--to the North Pole, including a visit to see the wildlife in Franz Josef Land, a remote Russian archipelago that until recently was off-limits to foreigners.
Closer to home, travelers can get educational kicks on Route 66 with a St. Louis-to-Las Vegas nostalgia pilgrimage sponsored by Smithsonian Study Tours (202 357-4700). Costing $1,550 plus airfare, the bus tour is led by Michael Wallis, author of Route 66: The Mother Road.
ELDERHOSTEL. In some cases, educational travel may actually mean a return to school. The National Registration Center for Study Abroad in Milwaukee (414 278-0631) coordinates workshops, study tours, and classes for Americans of any age at about 125 colleges and universities in some 25 countries.
Many scholarly trips attract an older crowd, since seniors have the interest, income, and time. Elderhostel (617 426-7788) specifically gears classes and field trips to adults 60 and older, such as "Apple Computers Made Easy" at San Diego State. A typical one-week domestic program costs about $300 plus transportation. International trips typically last two to four weeks and cost $700 to $5,000. Seniors can also take learning trips abroad with Interhostel at the University of New Hampshire (800 733-9753) for $2,000 to $3,000.
The Field Studies Council, an independent charity in Britain devoted to environmental understanding (011-44-743-850674), has 11 centers--ranging from an Elizabethan manor to a converted mill in a landscape immortalized by John Constable. Although some classes may seem arcane--"An introduction to mosses and liverworts"--others cover more broadly appreciated subjects, such as fly fishing.
Adults can head to Ithaca, N.Y., for a week of intellectual stimulation at Cornell's Adult University (607 255-6260). Offerings range from "The Real Jurassic Park: Dinosaurs and Their Descendants, from Tyrannosaurus Rex to the Modern Chicken" to "Architecture in the Modern Age." One-week tuition is about $700, including room and board. Cornell also sponsors trips such as an opera tour in August to Santa Fe, N.M. But CAU's mission is clear: "Education is the purpose. Sometimes travel is the mechanism," says Director Ralph Janis.
Not all vacationers want such a heavy dose of academics. Retired businessman Milton Mandel has taken a couple of trips with New York's Classical Cruises (800 252-7745). One Mediterranean cruise followed the route taken by Odysseus. The other was a culinary voyage from Bordeaux to Barcelona with demonstrations by French chef Jacques P pin. "There were none of the restrictions you might think would go with an educational tour," says Mandel. "Nobody gave quizzes, and you didn't have to be on your best behavior."
HANDS UP. That shouldn't stop people from quizzing prospective trip sponsors. Determine ahead of time just how intensive an educational program they offer: Free time means more to some folks than others. You should also ask if the tour operator sends out reading lists or books prior to departure. Other questions: How many daily lectures will be offered? Will they be at landmarks or in classrooms? What is the ratio of educational staffers to passengers? Sven-Olof Lindblad's Special Expeditions (800 762-0003), a marketer of global adventure trips, usually carries 4 to 10 archeologists, naturalists, and other experts for every 70 to 100 travelers.
The credentials of the guides are critical. An operator in China might be good at handling lost luggage but not know the difference between Ming (a dynasty) and tong (a secret society), says Ann H. Waigand, editor of The Educated Traveler newsletter ($39 for six bimonthly issues plus an annual directory of museum-sponsored tours, 800 648-5168). Some sponsors employ local guides to supplement American faculty. Adbellatif Kriem, who is King Hassan II's personal interpreter, lectures in Morocco on the "Five Pillars of Islam" for TraveLearn (800 235-9114), which markets trips via 243 colleges.
COCKTAILS. Many sponsors can arrange special entr e to museums during off-hours or provide access to the head curator. Some even organize visits to private collections. On "D-Day Remembered" tours put together this summer by Thomas P. Gohagan & Co. (800 922-3088), a Chicago operator that also packages trips for universities and museums, speakers include Lord Charles Spencer-Churchill, the former Prime Minister's cousin, and Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, son of the World War II Field Marshal. Travelers will tour the private quarters in Lord Charles's boyhood home at Blenheim Palace and will be invited for cocktails at the Houses of Parliament. The $4,495 cost includes airfare from New York.
Those not sure where they want to go can tap a variety of resources. Transitions Abroad magazine ($19.95 for six issues; $39 for 12; 413-256-0373) caters to travelers on tight budgets. The subscription includes an Educational Travel Resource Guide and Student Program Directory. ShawGuides (305 446-8888) puts out comprehensive books costing $16.95 to $19.95 on such topics as cooking schools, arts and craft workshops, and photography schools. Travel and Learn by Evelyn Kaye ($23.95, Blue Penguin) offers a broad listing of organizations that specialize in educational travel.
Of course, some travelers would rather not take an organized tour. Mona Winks by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw ($16.95, John Muir Publications) is an irreverent self-guided tour to Europe's top museums. Still, when you're in the Louvre, it might be more enlightening to hear a Leonardo expert explain what Mona Lisa's smile means.
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