High-Energy Vacation or Restful Retreat?
Karen Misuraca

With the white sound of the rushing Merced River in his ears, my husband, Michael, sat on a soft bed of pine thatch beneath the arms of a 200-foot-tall evergreen in Yosemite National Park, reading Ken Follett's Cold War thriller, Code to Zero. The mid-summer heat, intense in the thin air of the High Sierras, made him drowsy, and he fell asleep. At least, that's what he told me when I met him back at the hotel after my afternoon of hiking to the top of Vernal Falls with a park ranger and a family from Kansas City.

Since my profession as a writer is a solitary one, conducted indoors, I need to propel my neglected quadriceps up a mountain, or paddle a kayak around a lake, in order to blast the cobwebs out of my mind, and I want to have some social interaction, and maybe even make new friends. To recover from his work life, which demands strenuous physical activity and constant nose-to-nose contact with macho denizens of the construction industry, Michael loves nothing more than to escape to a quiet place where he can lie down and the phone doesn't ring. Therein lies our vacation dilemma.

How do we weigh his dream of restorative solitude with my hankering for exercise and fun? We plan ahead, oh, so carefully, to satisfy both our vacation styles and to come home rejuvenated and tension free. Destination resorts in gorgeous natural settings, with plenty of outdoor sports for me and hideaways for him are our top choices; and we sometimes opt to just check into a spa retreat for a weekend of guiltless pleasure and renewal. (Even at a spa, Michael and I go our separate ways. He likes guided meditation classes, Swedish massage and traditional yoga. I get into Shiatsu and pulse-pounding, deep tissue sports massage. We meet at the Jacuzzi.)

When children come along on our trips, flexibility becomes our watchword. We try to combine invigorating activities with quiet play and time to hang out together. The kids are never bored when we let them choose their own daily schedule, and we are happy with that, as long as parent-time-alone is part of the deal, too.

Whether a romantic retreat, a romp in the woods with the kids, or a soothing spa experience, relaxing breaks from reality several times a year are top priorities for us. We believe in the power of our vacations to dissolve the anxieties of daily work and family life, and to wash away the fears and apprehension that seem to spin out of the newspaper headlines and haunt our dreams.

Skip Your Vacation at Your Peril
There appears to be a relationship between obtaining relief from stress, and physical and mental health. A study of the frequency of annual vacations taken by men at risk for heart disease reports that stress influences disease, and regular vacations serve a health protective function. The co-author of the study, Dr. Brooks B. Gump of the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York at Oswego found that working for years without taking vacations puts people at risk for early death. He said, "What is critical is being able to take true breaks from life's stressors and, . . . . of greater importance, taking breaks from potential stress. So, whatever the form or location of the vacation, it may be most effective if all potential stressors are removed. This would mean that your stressors at work, for example, cannot find you. You do not leave a phone number with the office; you do not check your email, you do not bring your laptop."

Leaving your cell phone and your laptop at home may feel like cutting off your own arm, yet, just the sight of these technological links may make it impossible to truly let go of worry and tension—potential stress, as Dr. Gump calls it. The key words here are "let go"—let go of real and imagined threats; let go of malfunctioning relationships and, if you leave newspapers and TV at home, too, you can let go, at least for a while, of what the media throws at you.

Even before you leave home, your vacation may be helping you to relax. Dr. Gump's study found stress can be diminished even in anticipation of a vacation. So, bring home the brochures and start planning.

The Healing Power of Nature
Number one on my list of requirements for a vacation that satisfies my needs and those of my husband is getting close to nature. "We have become divorced from nature and from the 'relaxation response' ," says Dr. Mary H. Tabacchi, a professor at Cornell University. Among the results of her study of vacations, she found that, "Many of us can be healed by nature and exercise in good, clean fresh air in scenic surroundings. Time has a way of standing still during those outdoor stays."

Her personal dream vacation is what she calls a "hiking spa", where you can get hard physical exercise and enjoy restorative mind and body treatments. She describes it as a "rustic outdoor experience with indoor pampering—the luxury to enjoy nature, exercise, mindful activities, eating healthfully and consciously without the pull of others and without the stress of the workday world."

Spa Your Way to Tranquility
Tabacchi's research indicates that a stay at a destination spa resort can renew the mind, body and spirit more than any other type of vacation. As compared to people who chose non-spa holidays, those she surveyed after their spa getaways said that they came away with "more acumen, energy and creativity" at work; and they felt more energetic, alert and "in the zone".

According to Tabacchi, in the serene setting of a spa, "One can spend some time soul searching, and determine the truly important issues in life. When you relax totally, it becomes clear what is important and what is not. Yoga and meditation in addition to cardiac exercise are the backbone of a simpler, forgiving life and lifestyle. These methods of relaxation often need to be relearned or reinforced in a secure setting such as that provided by destination spas."

Peace and Quiet or Active Fun?
A healing retreat where you can rest and turn inward; a strenuous physical challenge to blast away the worries of the world; or a busy schedule of guided tours, classes and social interaction—which vacation will reset your life balance button and heal your tension-tattered psyche?

Get Out There and Do It

Multi-Sport Canyonlands Safari
With a small group of intrepid thrill seekers and a cadre of gung-ho guides, expect to push your limits in a stunning desert landscape of red sandstone spires, buttes and canyons. Warm up with a quiet float through breathtaking Ruby Canyon and a hike up Rattlesnake Gulch. During 5 days of non-stop shock and awe, hold your breath for Class III and IV white water rafting in the Westwater Canyon of the Colorado; cool off by hauling your fat tire bike across streams at the foot of the La Sal Mountains and Six Shooter Peak. Hike on slickrock trails in Arches National Park to hidden petroglyhs in Devil's Garden. Some nights are spent at plush safari-style camps on the sandy banks of the river; others are pure luxury at a 4-star guest ranch, where you can end your high-energy canyonlands saga with a restorative yoga class and the "Happy Feet" hiker's massage. Canyonlands/Arches National Parks Trip: (800) 575-1540, http://www.austinlehman.com. $2,698 pp.

Riders in the High Country
For a hassle-free way to explore the High Country in Yosemite National Park, without the burden of a backpack or setting up camp, sign on for a High Sierra Camps Saddle Trip. A network of trails above 7,500 feet meanders through some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, past glacier-polished domes, snowy peaks reflected in alpine lakes, and waterfalls in the rugged Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River. Groups of 10 riders are led by park rangers to five basic, well-organized camps situated 8 to 10 miles apart, just the right distance for a exhilarating ride with time to rest, explore on foot, fish for rainbow trout, and meditate and doze in a sunny meadow. No worries about getting lost or carrying gear; and, you can take showers, dig into hearty meals and sleep in a tent cabin. High Sierra Camps Saddle Trip: call between September 1 and November 20 to request a lottery application. (559) 253-5674, http://www.yosemitepark.com. 4-days $744 p.p.; 6 days $1,171 p.p.

Snowlight in Vermont: Skiing Inn to Inn
Your winter blues will fade as you glide on new snow through an aromatic spruce and birch forest past silvery, ice-bound lakes. As pristine as a postcard between January and March, the Catamount Trail in Vermont's Green Mountains is dotted with vintage country inns, each about 8 to 10 miles apart, perfect for a 5-night, self-guided, inn-to-inn cross-country ski trek. The company, Country Inns Along the Trail, makes it easy by arranging every detail of your expedition, from maps and advice for experienced and beginning skiers; to booking romantic rooms and gourmet meals in historic bed and breakfast inns; providing car shuttles. Groomed and untracked backcountry trails trace ridges with panoramic views of the Adirondacks and Mount Moosalamoo. Start with a tour of the two-century-old village of Brandon on the Neshobe River, and a candlelight dinner at the circa-1870 Churchill House Inn. Set off in the morning from the doorstep of the inn to explore the lush Green Mountain National Forest, as popular for summer hiking as it is for winter skiing and snowshoeing. Linger by an icy brook, try some ice fishing, then ski on to the Blueberry Hill Inn and head for the sauna before dinner by a roaring fire. Country Inns Along the Trail, (800) 838-3301, http://www.inntoinn.com. From $750 per person.

More Spa = Less Stress

Blue Hawaii Hideaway
On the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the calm, azure waters of Makaiwa Bay are protected from the surf by coral and lava reefs. Guests at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel laze in blue cabanas on the beach and on hammocks between waving palms. The heady scent of ginger, pikake and gardenia lure them from their reveries to "Fire and Ice," the Asian-Pacific-style spa tucked away in a village of thatched hales (huts). Surrounded by lava rock and a riot of tropical greenery, the spa is completely private and silent except for birdsong. Unique is the outdoor lava rock sauna and rainforest showers; a new Watsu pool, the la'au meditation garden, and island-style treatments—aaah, the Lomi Lomi Hula massage. The annual "Ke Kumu" gathering is scheduled here for May 2005, when Ruth Hartung, Deepak Chopra, Hawaiian masters and other mind-body experts will lead a multi-day retreat focusing on life balance and personal renewal, health and well being, including yoga-related seminars. Nearly all of the plantation-style guest rooms are within sight and sound of the Pacific. Mauna Lani Bay Hotel: (800) 367-2323; http://www.maunalani.com. $385-$750 per room; special $575 two rooms.

Balanced Living in the Sonoran Desert
Against a backdrop of palms, pools, waterfalls and wildflowers in the high desert of southern Arizona, Miraval Spa Resort caters to a sophisticated, high-achieving clientele who seek to restore to good health their jangled nerves and tired bodies. The new Mindful Stress Management program offers a strategy for minimizing the damaging effects of stress. After individual consultation, a plan is devised to integrate meditation, an exercise regimen, a healthy diet, and behaviors to fend off tension and anxiety. Each guest goes home with just the right 'recipe' for maintaining a perfectly balanced, tension-free and rewarding lifestyle. You can also skip planned programming and go rock climbing, hiking and horseback riding in the desert, and choose from a blockbuster array of daily activities from yoga intensives to mindful eating seminars; Thich Nhat Hahn's "Deep Listening"; nutrition and cooking classes; Tai Chi and Chi Kung. Miraval Spa Resort: (800) 232-3969, http://www.miravalresort.com. $385-$695 p.p. including meals, spa services or golf, activities and airport transportation.

Scent of the Sea
Between the brooding shoulders of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the craggy coastline of the Pacific Ocean, the wild beauty of Big Sur, in Central California, is at once romantic and energizing. A thousand feet above the ocean, nestled among hundreds of acres of meadows, gardens and fern glens, the elegantly rustic Ventana Inn has a country atmosphere, with stone, wood, soft earth-toned fabrics, and a feeling of isolation. Two lap pools, Japanese hot baths (including some 'clothing optional' areas) and saunas are comforting at the end of a misty day exploring beaches and trails. At the recently renovated spa, warm, healing Pelotherapy mud wraps alleviate aching muscles and joints, while Thalasso therapies, using algae and seaweed, and sensual aromatherapies, melt worries away. With other guests or on your private deck, you can indulge in an astrology readings or guided yoga, Tai Chi, massage and mediation. Hike on your own from the inn to groves of centuries-old redwoods and secret waterfalls, or take the guided "Meditation Walk", a 3-hour experience that starts with yoga, then an easy, completely silent hike on a forest trail, a traverse of the Little Sur River, a picnic in a wildflowery meadow (quiet conversation OK), yoga again, and return to the inn. After dark, walk up lighted stairs through a forest to the candle-lit, 4-star restaurant. Over-sized guest rooms have wood-burning fireplaces. Ventana Inn: (800) 628-6500, http://www.ventanainn.com. From $429 per room, with packages available.

Making Family Memories

Alaska for All Ages
For the rest of their lives, your children will remember their adventures in America's last frontier, the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska: seeing orcas, sea lions and porpoises a few yards from their kayaks; riding the Alaska Railroad; cruising a silent fjord, exploring a sparkling glacier; biking on the Iditarod trail. Guides who love kids make sure that quiet tidepool walks; s'mores and stories by the campfire, and quiet time is on the menu, too. Guaranteed: you will never hear the words, "I'm bored." One of the top multi-sport tour operators in the world combines busy days in the magnificence of Alaska with restful stays at wilderness lodges and a chateau-style resort in the Chugach Mountains. Kenai Peninsula Trip: (800) 575-1540, (406) 655-4591, http://www.austinlehman.com. $2,398 p.p. with family discounts; designed for children ages 7-12.

In the northwoods of Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the largest resorts in the Midwest, Destination Kohler, presents a smorgasbord of activities for families. Mom can spend her days at the "Sports Core" in health and fitness classes—from powerball to kick boxing, spinning and yoga ball, yogalates or yoga power—while Dad plays golf on Whistling Straits, one of America's most challenging courses. Children are welcomed by an enthusiastic staff at "Kids Core" for indoor and outdoor play, from swimming and boating on Wood Lake to tennis lessons and games. Among myriad surprises on the sprawling grounds is the antique solarium, shipped from England and now standing in one of the four courtyard gardens as a light-filled ice-cream parlor. At the adjacent, private wilderness preserve, families go canoeing, fishing for trout and salmon, and horseback riding Slip away to the spa for Foot Renewal—bliss after a hike; "tsunami" hydrotherapy, and a champagne-bubbly soak in a chin-high copper tub. Ramble on miles of trails in the grassy highlands; take a carriage ride; tour leafy Kohler Village, one of the earliest planned garden communities in the country. Couples like the upscale, Tudor-style American Club hotel; families are comfortable at the casual Inn on Woodlake. Destination Kohler: (800) 344-2838, http://www.destinationkohler.com. $135-$315 per night.

Sunny Oregon River Valley
You will need several days to do it all in this lush river valley at the foot of the Cascade Range—leave some time for just hanging around, too. Kids love this huge resort for all the fun: 35 miles of paved bike paths, 3 elaborate swimming complexes, canoeing on the calm Deschutes River, star parties with astronomers, rocket-making, nature hikes, and, best of all, "Camp Funnigan", where they meet their peers and play all day with a lively bunch of camp rangers. Parents get to play, too, on 4 golf courses and more than 2 dozen tennis courts. Get in on the scheduled activities, or spend time alone fishing or picnicking in a pine forest. Stay in a hotel room, a condo-style unit or a fully-equipped home. A 2-bedroom condo in mid-summer is about $200 a night. Sunriver Resort: (800) 801-8765, http://www.sunriver-resort.com.

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.