The Great American Vacation has grown less and less relaxing through the years. Holiday weekends bring traffic jams, itineraries force families into a rush-around schedule, amusement parks cram vacationers into long lines, and there’s no end to the money that can be spent.
This kind of hassle can leave a cynical taste in the mouth of travelers: The whole thing eventually seems like, well, work.
So it may seem strange that many are turning to real work to find relaxation — but educational, volunteer and working vacations are a growing trend among travelers.
“The trend in tourism is that people want hands-on, ‘let me touch’ vacations,” says Jan Love, director of tourism for Handmade in America. “They want to be actively involved.”
Handmade in America, a local nonprofit group, recently released the book Farm and Garden Trails of North Carolina, a listing of “trails” that incorporates small farms, craft-makers and artisans around Western North Carolina. Visitors to the small businesses can learn about raising Alpaca llamas or making soap, working side-by-side with the business owners.
The idea behind the book was to generate support for the small-agriculture businesses in the region, Love says, but the travelers take something away as well. “It has a feeling of going back to your roots,” she says.
Learn to grow
For those unafraid to get their hands dirty, a growing worldwide network of organic farms is offering room, board and education in exchange for volunteer work. The phenomenon is called WWOOFing, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms.
“It’s still so new,” says Marion Griffin, a 25-year-old farmer from Asheville who spent four months in New Zealand working on an organic farm. “It’s a good way to throw yourself in and get to know the people and to learn more about cultures.”
Farms that participate invite volunteers to work on the farm, affording visitors benefits like room, board and hands-on lessons about farming, building and sustainable energy. In return, farmers get often-needed help. Programs vary from farm to farm, and some offer stipends for longer hours.
Participating farms and volunteers can seek each other out at www.organicvolunteers.org; the listings include the hours and the length of visit needed, but also enticements such as horseback riding or nearby beaches.
Four hours of work a day left Griffin with plenty of time to explore the New Zealand countryside. She remembers hanging out with the family that ran the farm and traveling with other volunteers she met there. Often her hosts would point them in the right direction, telling them the places they should see.
“I’ve met a lot of people here who say, ‘This is how we’re going to travel,'” she says. The majority of organic farms listed on WWOOFing Web sites are in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the U.S. North Carolina is home to a handful of participating farms, and others are spread throughout the Southern Appalachians. Travelers in the U.S. can make their way across the country on the farms, even to Hawaii.
As WWOOFing has grown, so have the numbers of people participating. Unfortunately, some show up for the cheap rooms rather than with an interest in farming.
“A lot of people just do it for a cheap way to travel,” Griffin says, and some farms are reweighing the benefits and costs of WWOOFers to their farms. At least one local organic farmer who’s been taking in volunteers may reconsider the terms.