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Years ago, my extended family was in the midst of planning an exotic trip: a journey to Turkey, with a visit to Istanbul and a sail down the coast with stops at Izmir, Bodrum and Antalya. It's always good to get away, but this trip proved to be a transformation. Walking through the markets of Istanbul and bargaining over prices, touring rug factories, eating breakfasts that were so far removed from what I was accustomed to, getting into deep discussions with our tour guide and visiting ancient places I had only heard about, left me with a new sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, religion, politics and culture.
It turned out that traveling to another world helped me open my eyes to new ways of living. I gained a fresh perspective of what I wanted out of my life.
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Updated January 8, 2020
That trip, and others since under a whole range of life's experiences, turned out to be exactly what I needed, and I'm not alone. In conversations with friends and family, travel agents and counselors, and fellow travelers, it seems we all are looking for opportunities to create something new in our lives when we take a trip. "While the term transformational travel can imply that change is guaranteed, it's not," says Jake Haupert, co-founder of the Transformational Travel Council, an organization that supports travelers and the travel industry to create more intentional travel experiences. "It doesn't have to be some monumental career or relationship change, it can simply inspire a bit more empathy, a stronger sense of stewardship. It may motivate one to ride a bike to work, spend more time with kids, live a healthier lifestyle, become a more loving partner.
"No matter how big or small, it's the process of travel that can change us."
How Does a Cruise Change You?
Cruise travel continues to evolve and grow to serve travelers looking for all sorts of different kinds of transformation. Certainly, a cruise, where you can visit many different countries, all without having to pack and unpack; check into and out of hotels; and catch ferries, trains and planes to the next place on the schedule, offers unrivaled convenience and simplicity. But there's more transformational value than that, as cruise lines appeal more and more to experienced travelers who want more than just a "Netflix and chill" holiday.
Lines are responding to the fact that travelers today are intentionally setting out to explore new depths, whether in their experiences or in their own life's goals. As life gets busier, more and more people are looking at trips as ways to awaken new passions. They want travel that feeds the soul and inspires wellness by forming new habits with food and fitness. Don't we all want to connect with new cultures through food or simply to connect with loved ways in new ways?
Offerings both onboard cruise ships and in ports of call increasingly aim to connect people with people, whether it's through shared experiences, experiments with cuisine and opportunities to be inspired, whether it's a day spent volunteering during your voyage or shared bonds made with new friends.
"As there has always been and always will be, there is something deeply moving when one is connected to the sea," Haupert tells us.
How can a luxury cruise vacation help you effect your own transformation? Read on.
It used to be that writing a check once a year, or participating in a walk to support a friend's cause were the ways that many of us chose to give back. But as being generous, both in time and donations, has become more a part of life, it's more of a year-round constant.
"Charitable travel has grown steadily into a $2 billion industry," says David Searby, president of BeachCorps, an organization that connects vacationers with volunteer work to support long term sustainability campaigns. "The industry is working toward that goal: an enjoyable vacation with real impact."
As a pioneer in creating a shore excursion program aimed at voluntourism, Crystal's own "You Care, We Care" arranges opportunities, all over the world, for both passengers and crew to come together and make a difference in a day. Founded in 2011, efforts include beach cleaning in Puerto Vallarta, arts and crafts at a children's burn center in Lima, maintenance of a salmon hatchery at the Sound Science Center in Sitka and helping zookeepers feed animals at the Rostock Zoological Garden in Germany.
The program features activities during a day in port, and the cruise line does all the heavy lifting of choosing the charity, organizing transport and handling logistics. Other areas that are involved in "You Care, We Care" range from renovating local schools to poverty relief and from educational assistance to cultural preservation.
A friend just back from a cruise tells me that her latest adventure included a voluntourism shore excursion to a retirement village. There, the group was given gloves, rakes and hoes and spent their vacation day working together to take care of the grounds and gardens. "It was," she tells me, "among the most satisfying days I've had ever spent ashore."
Having a transformational vacation doesn't have to mean becoming a yogi master or incorporating fried crickets into your daily meals at home. On a simpler scale, cruises present one of the easiest and best ways for families of all ages to connect, share treasured experiences together and maybe come away from it with a new perspective.
Our annual family travel experiences traditionally involved renting a home at the beach. As the years have progressed, we've found it difficult to identify the perfect destination to please the multiple generations we wanted to gather together. Grandma was having trouble with stairs and uneven terrain and might not make it down to the beach to hang with everyone during the day. Meanwhile, the oldest grandchildren were getting bored and wanted a place with easy access to "hanging out" spots. The parents of the youngest children wanted just the opposite -- simple pleasures and quiet time.
A friend recommended we "press the easy button," which she described as a multigenerational family cruise. She had just returned from a trip with 25 family members celebrating her in-laws' 60th wedding anniversary. Needless to say, those 25 members had varying ages, interests and abilities so a Caribbean cruise turned out to be just the right approach. Not only was there something for everyone -- early-bird dinner for seniors, a nightclub onboard for the older kids and activities for the littles -- but the really beautiful thing turned out to be the unexpected times together.
"The ease of the vacation, the fact that no one was fighting over who would cook dinner or who would clean up, meant that we had uninterrupted time together," she tells me. "My youngest children spent hours hanging out with their grandparents on the ship in a way that wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. No one had to rent a car or plan an outing. It was all taken care of. Although we were there to celebrate an anniversary, we left cherishing the uninterrupted time we had together and how we all got to know each other in new ways."
On an exotic cruise to Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), a more adventurous set of grandparents were able to give members of the same family a different kind of life-changing experience. "On one of the excursions we got to know several Burmese people, and were so impressed by their attitude," she says. "They were very happy people with simple needs who clearly took great joy in life's most ordinary treats. They wanted to give us gifts as we left even though we could see they lived in poverty. We came away from that trip with such an appreciation of life in simplicity and of the giving spirit."
Even more powerful, she notes, is that the trip did not get forgotten. "Months later around the holidays, our grandchildren who normally sent us lists of suggested gifts said they would be happy to donate their gift money to charities that year."
Vacation Is a Great Time to Kick-Start Fitness and Well-Being
Personal change is hard enough, but when you add in the shopping, the driving, the measuring, the YouTube tutorials, the constant temptations and interruptions, serious and long-lasting change can be hard to tackle at home.
That's why we're looking to a cruise vacation as a chance to focus on launching some new habits. On a cruise, you can devote yourself full time to your goals whether it's simply walking every day, pushing yourself to learn a new skill or taking on a major lifestyle change like committing to a new diet.
For Caroline Goodwin, a neophyte cruise traveler, a voyage presented the perfect way to break old habits and form new ones while still indulging and having adventure. "I needed to kick-start some new habits, but I also needed the brain space and the time to commit to doing it right. The cruise gave me all that and more. I researched my options like crazy because I wanted to do it all -- I wanted to try a whole foods diet, free of processed food and extra sugar and additives, I wanted inspirational groups and lectures to attend, morning yoga on the deck and shore excursions where I could hop on a bike and go explore with like-minded people. This was the best gift I ever could have given myself, and it's one that's stayed with me a year after that magical trip ended."
True Bucket List Experiences
Have you ever dreamed of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and penning your own Hemingway-style reflection? Or, kayaking the fjords of Norway while learning from locals how to catch your meals along the way? Or, gather your whole extended family together for a visit to your ancestral village on a remote Greek isle? You're not alone.
"The number of travelers who are asking us for trips that deliver meaningful life experiences has tripled in the past two years," says Wendy Perrin, longtime travel advice columnist whose trip-planning site delivers transformative trips. "These travelers want to achieve a long-held goal (say, learning to cook the perfect tiramisu, or seeing their seventh continent); celebrate a milestone anniversary or birthday via a multigenerational family activity (say, hiking to the top of a famous waterfall together, or finding their ancestral village); explore foreign cultures through food and drink (via cooking lessons in the homes of locals, for instance). These travelers are not just looking for R&R; they're looking for a trip of a lifetime where they return home newly inspired or with a new world view."
You can turn to a qualified travel counselor -- or your cruise line -- to organize these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. At Crystal for one, there are "boutique adventures," in which passengers have private experiences, such as a lunch at a family-run winery in Funchal, your own viewing of the Contini Bonacossi Collection at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or a cooking lesson and village stroll with a Michelin-starred chef in Taormina.
With more than 2,000 different tour options and experiences offered, no request is too demanding for the cruise line. Whether its camel riding through the desert followed by a meal with the Bedouins, catching a glimpse of the penguins of Antarctica at play, helping to rescue marine animals off the coast of Spain or getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican, the experience you've always dreamed about can be yours.
On a Cruise, the World is Your (Culinary) Oyster
It's the gift that the late uber-chef and super-culinary-traveler Anthony Bourdain has left behind for all of us: There's a new culinary adventurousness that's taken hold among those of us who believe that food local to the region you're visiting is one of the best ways to understand the history, culture and people that make a place unique. It allows you to engage with locals for authentic experiences that offer lasting impact.
"There's a growing sense of wanting to be connected to the place you're visiting, not just the glossy tourist side," says Alisa Cohen, founder of Luxe Traveler Club. "It's definitely a trend in travel -- the idea of being able to dig a little deeper into the place where you're visiting."
Foodie cruisers are also using their vacations as a first step to change their food habits at home whether it's with a favorite new recipe, technique, ingredient or shopping method. Excursions today present a whole range of shopping and cooking opportunities with expert chefs, local fishmongers, farmers, pastry chefs and more, so you can stop in the Italian Riviera and learn how to incorporate Amalfi lemons into your dishes, sail the coast of Spain and learn paella techniques from the local masters or cruise the Rhine and experience the best of farm-to-table (cruise) cuisine after exploring the countryside.
Tami Motes was one such traveler who went on a cruise through Southeast Asia in search of a food adventure that took her off the usual tourist track. What started as a desire to simply enjoy the local food and perhaps come home with some new recipes, ended with a new appreciation of a simpler way of shopping as well as a commitment to not waste the bounty she had access to in her supermarkets at home.
"When I cruised Vietnam and Thailand, we were able to spend time in the local markets, both a walking tour and a scooter tour in another location. We experienced buying just what we needed and then used the ingredients in a cooking class. I left not just with delicious food and recipes but a new way of shopping and cooking -- not stockpiling ingredients the way I used to but buying as I go, and therefore also wasting less. It has stayed with me long after my trip ended."
That experience is not uncommon. Today's travelers can be found asking directions to that little-known hole-in-the-wall that doles out to-die-for dumplings, or that stand in the hawker market that has the Michelin-rated chicken rice bowl. Ports of call are no longer just for souvenir stands and duty-free shops but a chance to challenge yourself to find the best street food; or on river cruises to connect with local families and share a meal in their homes; or on European cruises to do culinary walking tours of cities while returning to experience a cooking class onboard.
Amanda Orr has written for People, The Washington Post, Huffington Post and more, and is the author of "A Spoonful of Sugar." She's currently at the beginning of what she's hopefully calling a "transformational" two-year assignment in Amman, Jordan, with her family where she plans to learn how to make great hummus and falafel, travel the region and hopefully write her second novel.