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Debate: Unwind or Recharge on Vacation?

He likes to lounge by the pool. She opts for active travel. Which kind of trip do you prefer?

Via Contributors
skyline of Istanbul, image
Photo caption
Do you try to see everything you can when you arrive in a city like Istanbul or relax and wander around?


UNWIND In early September my wife and I arrived in Istanbul just at the end of Ramadan, which is followed by a three-day holiday. During our visit, the major tourist spots were shut down, meaning no Topkapi Palace, no Hagia Sophia, no Blue Mosque and no Grand Bazaar. We even had trouble finding a dervish willing to whirl.

No problem. For us, the first thing on our tourist to-do list is: Don’t make a to-do list. It’s not like we stay cooped up in our hotel, or wander aimlessly through the streets, like a drunken Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, but we prefer the freedom of the open agenda. In Turkey, for example, we whiled away much of the first closed-up morning at a coffee joint in Taksim Square, met a Turk who told us where the locals eat on the Asian side, and took a ferry over there to grab an uncrowded bite later in the day. We never did make it to the bazaar, but we undoubtedly saved a fortune in needless rug purchases

In Maui a few years ago, we felt vaguely guilty about backing out on a half-planned excursion to Hana, the drive that everyone absolutely must take, in favor of lounging around the pool. I’m sure we missed some nice scenery, but my wife and I still talk about “getting misted” with spray bottles that contained a hint of wintergreen, only one of the small pleasures to emerge that day as the result of doing next to nothing.

Look, this is not to suggest that, if in Florence, you should spend the afternoon tossing day-old baguettes to the piccioni in Piazza della Signoria instead of gazing at the wonder of Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia. But my theory is that you should severely condense your planned stops, even cut them in half, because the majority of your vacation memories will come from those moments when you didn’t do anything in particular. Spend some time waiting for the unexpected, waiting for that delicious first spurt of wintergreened water to gently caress your face and awaken you to the blissful reality that . . . you have nothing to do until dinner. —Jack McCallum

RECHARGE I’m told I need to take time off. Slow down. Lie on a beach . . . do nothing.

I agree with all of it. Except the “do nothing” part. A laze-about vacation? Not for me.

I already spend a fair amount of time doing things like staring out the window—while I work. As a writer, I have to sit still for long periods of time, thinking, while I try to fire up the synapses needed to conjure a paragraph. So the first thing I do with a few days off is park my car, get on my bike, see the sights, take a hike.

I’m not Type A. People go on vacation to refresh and relax, right? When you move your body or learn something new, go on a volunteer vacation or spend days in a museum, you’re more likely to end up relaxed.

Brain science backs me up on this one. When you expose yourself to new experiences—interact with locals at an outdoor market, learn to fly-fish, kayak on a moon-splashed lake, or help release baby turtles into the sea—your brain releases noradrenaline and dopamine (which make you feel alert and enjoy the moment), and the exertion brings on the much ballyhooed endorphins. All of which is just what the vacation doctor would prescribe for contentment and renewal.

And I’m not the only one who’s opting for active, experiential travel. Says Peter Greenberg, trend watcher of the globe-trotting scene and travel editor for CBS News, “People want bragging rights—not just about where they went, but what they experienced. It’s all about participatory travel these days . . . about being much more active on their time off.” Ferris Bueller, who didn’t exactly sit around doing nothing on his day off, was ahead of the curve, it turns out.

When it comes down to it, Re-Creation—one of the goals of vacation—is the same as recreation, just with the hyphen.

Doing nothing for hours? I can stay home for that. Or better yet, sit down to work. —Jamie Stringfellow

Photography by seregalsv/Shutterstock


This article was first published in March 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.