9 Vacations That Make You a Better Person

Like most things in our ever-changing world, vacations have come a long way in the past couple of years. While they used to be all about jet-setting to some tropical location, drinking far too many margaritas, and returning home with distinct tan lines and not-so-distinct memories (thank you, tequila), they’re now anything but.

These days, it’s all about taking trips with purpose. With meaning. Whether you’re striving to give back to others or to get healthier and more mindful, you can work on your soul, not just your tan line. And the best part? There are more options than ever to make it happen.

1. Go on a runcation Down Under


Great Ocean Road, Melbourne, Australia (Photo: John W Banagan/Photographer’s Choice RF/Getty Images)

You don’t have to be a diehard runner to reap the benefits of a “runcation” (yes, that’s “run” + “vacation”). They’re becoming more and more popular among people of all fitness levels these days, and for good reason: Planning your next trip around a race is a great way to get yourself to a beautiful destination you may not have visited otherwise — and get in better shape in the process.

Of course, you can seek out races anywhere you like, but allow us to suggest a particularly amazing one: On May 16 to 17, 2015, Australia is hosting the Great Ocean Road Marathon. It’s an assortment of races all along the Great Ocean Road, a gorgeous coastal highway not unlike California’s Route 1 that connects some of the country’s most beautiful and pristine beaches. So just imagine: You’re running, yes, but you’re also taking in some of the most beautiful views in the world (oh hey, #runstagram).


Photo: Great Open Road Marathon/Facebook

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And even though the race has the word “marathon” in the title, running 44K is just one of the options. There’s also a half marathon (23K), a Paradise Run (14K), a Marengo Run (6K), and even a Kid’s Gallop (1.5K) — meaning there’s truly something for everyone. And registration is still open! Cost varies per race, but if you sign up before Feb. 3, 2015, you’ll qualify for the Early Bird Special, which is cheaper. If you miss that deadline, you have until May 14 to sign up and pay the standard fee.

2. Volunteer to take beautiful pictures in Iceland


Kirkjufell night landscape with northern lights (Photo: Coolbiere Photograph/Moment/Getty Images)

Over the past couple of years, Iceland has really stepped up its tourist game. Once a staple under the “who goes there?” umbrella, the country is now a popular destination known for its gorgeous green mountains, stunning sunsets, and waterfalls galore — it’s a photographer’s paradise. And guess what? You can actually volunteer to go take pictures of said paradise to promote the local area and its population.

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There’s a nonprofit volunteer group called SEEDS Iceland (SEE beyonD borderS) whose mission is to promote environmental protection and intercultural understanding. As part of their quest, they host two-week photography “workcamps” where you live and work with a group of 5 to 30 other local and international participants, and you all go out and take pictures of the local area. At the end of the session, they choose the best photos and display them in an exhibition for all to see, under the premise that doing so will encourage both locals and tourists to appreciate the surrounding culture even more.


Photo: Julia Boda/SEEDS

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SEEDS covers your room and board; you’re in charge of the participation fee, which is about $235 on average. To sign up, just go to the website, click on “find your workcamp,” and see which projects interest you (they also have other project options, but we like the photo one best).

3. Pamper elephants in Thailand


Bath time! (Photo: Ekkachai Pholrojpanya/Moment/Getty Images)

Aside from taking pictures in Iceland, another cool way to sidestep the typical “voluntourism” projects (like building houses and teaching English abroad) is by volunteering to help the Asian elephants in Mae Chaem, Thailand. Yes, it’s actually a real thing that people do!

The group that makes it happen is called BEES; it’s an acronym that stands for “Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary.” As the title obviously implies, the sanctuary is run by partners Burm and Emily, who take in old, tired elephants from the tourism industry and give them a more natural habitat where they can live freely. The sanctuary is also a rescue house for other local wildlife and domestic cats and dogs. Most people volunteer at the sanctuary for anywhere from one week to a month; Burm and Emily put you up in typical Thai housing, which is a two-person hut with a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. Your job is to do about six hours of work per day, which involves cutting grass for the elephants, preparing their food, and — wait for it — walking them in the forest (!). You can also do random tasks around the sanctuary, like fixing a fence or building a shelter, or helping feed and groom the other animals.


Photo: Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

To sign up, just go to the website and email Burm and Emily directly to see when they have huts and times available.

4. Learn to cook fresh, exotic food in Mexico


Ruins of Tulum, Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico (Photo: Medioimages/Photodisc/Getty Images)


Yucatán-style chicken kebabs (Photo: Mans Jensen/Stockfood)

Raise your hand if you love delicious, fresh, home-cooked food. OK, that was a dumb question because (a) we can’t see you, and (b) we probably know the answer (yes). Point is, most people love a good plate of home cookin’, which is why learning how to whip one up yourself at a cooking workshop in Yucatán, Mexico, could be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

The workshop takes place at Los Dos, a culinary school in the Yucatán that’s devoted solely to local Yucatán fare. Classes are led by the school’s manager, private chef David Sterling, in the kitchen of his own home. Each day, you wake up, have coffee and pastries with Sterling, accompany him to the market, where you pick out the freshest, most exotic local ingredients, and then return home to learn how to use them — all the while listening to him drop some serious knowledge about the surrounding Yucatán area. And at the end of the day, you enjoy the amazing meal you’ve created — and will continue to create back home in your own kitchen.


Chef David Sterling buying habanero chilies (Photo: Los Dos)

Workshop prices include accommodation and food; prices vary depending on length. Three-day workshops are $1,925, for instance, and one-week workshops are $2,950.

5. Visit an ancient healer in Jamaica


Photo: Zimbali Retreats

Apothecaries and herbal remedies are all the rage these days — people are just as interested in seeking solace in an herbal tonic as a gin and tonic. And what better way to get in on the natural healing trend than to visit a certified herbalist yourself?

You can make that happen at Zimbali Retreats, an organic fruit farm located about 20 minutes outside of Negril. Run by locals who’ve grown up in the mountains their whole lives, the farm is completely off the grid, using solar power, solar hot water, and rainwater harvesting. So right there, you’re doing good just by not doing harm to the environment. What’s more, when you go there, you stay in one of their rustic villas or huts, you get a personal chef who uses mostly foods from the farm (or farms nearby), and they offer tons of yoga and meditation classes and healing spa treatments, like a river clay facial in the very spot where Bob Marley used to swim. But the highlight just may be a visit with Bongo Roache, an old Rasta man who looks exactly like what you’d expect an old Rasta man to look like. He’s a certified herbalist who makes his own 100 percent organic remedies, and when you meet with him, he’ll prescribe a personalized regimen of natural foods, teas, juices, and organic remedies. If his own good health and spirit is any indication, that visit alone means you will thereby live a longer, happier, healthier life just by heeding his words of wisdom. Just saying.


Bongo Roache (Photo: Zimbali Retreats)


Villa (Photo: Zimbali Retreats)

Prices vary depending on villa. Just log on to the website for details.

6. Go on a meditation retreat in the Italian countryside


Photo: Simple Peace Retreat Hermitage

Chances are you’ve heard about those superintense meditation retreats where you go sit in total silence in the woods for an entire week. A word about those: They’re hard. Like, really hard. Big props to the people who do them, of course, but they’re not for everyone. And that’s OK! There are also plenty of less extreme versions where you get the zen benefits without feeling like a total zombie.

One of our favorites is the Simple Peace Retreat Hermitage in Assisi, Italy, which is the western countryside. Unlike those minimalist retreats where you have to convince yourself that your straw mat is totally comfortable (#lieswetellourselves), this one actually has amenities — without being too ostentatious. Each retreat has only five participants (beginner meditators are totally welcome), and you all share a beautiful sprawling country house, complete with a kitchen, living room, fireplace, terraces, and gardens. You’re in charge of cooking your own meals, but they provide basic food supplies. Days are bookended with meditation classes, and you’re free to spend the time in the middle wandering around and simply enjoying the peace and quiet of the surrounding countryside. The idea is that you’ll return home not only with a clear head on your shoulders, but also with the motivation to continue meditating in real life.


Photo: Simple Peace Retreat Hermitage

Retreats cost about $923 for a six-day, five-night stay.

7. Meditate on the go at the Westin hotels in Hawaii


Photo: Design Pics/Eryk Jaegermann/Getty Images

Let it be known: Hawaii’s wellness game is on point. They’ve got sun, sand, surf, organic food, and salt air — all of which help make you a healthier you. But even though the islands already give great wellness on their own, you can take your health to new heights if you stay in one of the Westin chain’s four Hawaiian hotels — the Westin Maui Resort & Spa, the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas on Maui, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas on Kauai, or Moana Surfrider, a Westin Resort & Spa on Oahu.


The pool at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas (Photo: the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas)

Earlier this year, the Westin hotels launched a wellness initiative called the Westin Well-Being Movement, in which they encourage guests to follow their “six pillars of wellness” — Feel Well, Work Well, Move Well, Eat Well, Sleep Well, and Play Well — during their stay. They’re actually one of the first hotel brands to focus on well-being in such a serious way. To help you reap the benefits of their wellness pillars, they stock their hotel rooms with Heavenly Beds (literally the best beds you will ever sleep on, ever), offer a nourishing superfood-heavy menu, and even provide rental workout gear so you don’t have to bring it with you on your trip. But here’s the coolest part: They also recently partnered with a global group called Headspace, whose mission is to teach the world to meditate. As part of this partnership, Westin now gives their guests headsets that play five-minute meditation sessions, so they can take them and go meditate wherever, aka at the beach.


Spa at the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas (Photo: the Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas)

Prices vary; log on to westin.com for specifics.

8. Do a digital detox in the Caribbean


Photo: Norbert Eisele-Hein/JAI/Corbis

You’ve probably heard of the countless “digital detox” camps that are popping up all across the globe. The idea is that you “disconnect to reconnect.” You surrender use of your gadgets, journal about how it feels to be tech-free, and by the trip’s end, you’ve reconnected with yourself and your core values — meaning you go back into the wild, wild world with a calmer, more balanced state of mind.

Now those retreats are great, don’t get us wrong, but let’s be honest: They’re kind of like summer camp for adults. So if channeling your inner rah-rah-rah isn’t really your thing, there are other detox options that are way less intense — like going to St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean.

There are 32 little islands total, and most of them offer a “digital detox” option. Basically, all that means is that you fork over all of your gadgets when you check into your hotel, and they keep them in a locked safe behind the front desk (though they will give them back to you if it’s an emergency). There’s also no Internet or television in your room. It’s essentially a much looser environment than the structured detox camps, because detox is only an option—it’s not the sole purpose of the place. And once you’re sans gadgets, you’re free to relax at the beach, explore the tropical gardens, or go on all sorts of eco-adventures, like hiking and whale watching.


Snorkeling in the Grenadines, Caribbean (Photo: Onne van der Wal/Nature Picture Library/Corbis)

To sign up for a Caribbean digital detox, call St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ main line, 784-456-6222, and they’ll help you arrange your tech-free stay.

9. Go hiking among the red rocks in Utah


Snow Canyon State Park, St. George, Utah (Photo: Utah-based photographer Ryan Houston/Moment Open/Getty Images)

Colorado is not the only place that has red rocks. Utah has them, too. And though you may not associate the state with this particular natural beauty, you should — and a great place to start is the Red Mountain Resort in St. George.


Red Mountain Resort (Photo: Red Mountain Resort)

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In a nutshell, this entire resort epitomizes health and wellness. You can’t really go there and not leave feeling like a better version of yourself, because everything they do is designed to improve your well-being. At the resort itself, they offer superhealthy cuisine like raw zucchini Alfredo and sweet potato hash, amazing in-house fitness classes like Booty Beats (just as it sounds) and all yoga everything, and every spa treatment under the sun (think “warm lava detox wrap”). But the best part is just outside the resort’s walls: the red rocks themselves. Simply put, they are stunning, and the resort offers guided hikes and bike rides and horseback rides through them, yoga and rock-climbing classes on them, and more. Plus, it’s appealing to both men and women, so you can go there with your partner and each find something you love. You’ll leave this place feeling extra fit and rejuvenated — not to mention quite pleased with all of the action on your Instagram feed.


Namaste (Photo: Red Mountain Resort)

Prices per room vary; log on to the website to book your trip.

So, what’s the overall message here? It’s all about reclaiming your vacation. Try one of these, and you’ll return home not just more relaxed, but in a better place than you were when you first got on the plane.

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