With the white noise of the rushing Merced River in his ears, my husband, Michael, sprawled on a soft bed of pine thatch beneath the arms of a 200-foot-tall evergreen in Yosemite National Park, engrossed in Ken Follett's Cold War thriller Code to Zero. The midsummer heat, intense in the thin air of the High Sierras, made him drowsy, and he dozed off. 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.
As a writer, I usually spend an inordinate amount of time alone and indoors. To rejuvenate, I need to propel my neglected quadriceps up a mountain or paddle a kayak around a lake. And I want to have some social interaction, 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 seeks a quiet place where he can put his feet up and get away from ringing phones.
We had to survive a couple of less-than-dreamy vacations before we realized that our time-off desires can be quite different. Now, with that awareness well established, we plan getaways that offer activities, as well as soothing spots to do nothing, that appeal to us both.
We believe in the power of 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 newspaper headlines and haunt our dreams. Destination resorts in gorgeous natural settings seem to work magic on us. But more than any place, we've found, vacation is a state of mind.
Skip Vacation at Your Peril
These days, we can almost keep a straight face when we tell people we're headed off to exotic locales on doctor's orders. People who work for years without taking a vacation are at risk for early death, says Brooks B. Gump, associate professor in the psychology department at the State University of New York at Oswego. Gump coauthored a study that examined the vacation habits of men at high risk for coronary heart disease over a nine-year period and concluded that the frequency of annual vacations affected the risk of death.
"What is critical is being able to take true breaks from life's stressors and, more importantly, taking breaks from potential stress," Gump says. In other words, take your vacation—and don't let work and other responsibilities infringe on your time away. "Whatever the form or location of the vacation, it may be most effective if all potential stressors are removed," Gump says. "This means don't leave a phone number with the office, don't check your e-mail, and don't bring your laptop."
Just the sight of your phone or laptop may make it impossible to truly let go of worry and tension—potential stress, as Gump calls it. The key words here are "let go"—stress-busting vacations are those during which you can let go of real and imagined threats, work, chores, malfunctioning relationships, and, if you leave newspapers and TV behind, what the media throws at you.
Getting away is such a powerful antidote to stress that just thinking about it may help you relax. Gump believes you can diminish stress simply by anticipating a vacation. So, bring home the brochures and start planning.
While just about any time away can rejuvenate, a vacation in a gorgeous natural setting is probably the best defense against everyday tension. Mary H. Tabacchi, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, polled 500 spagoers and a similar number of vacationers who didn't visit spas. The spagoers reported feeling significantly more creative, energetic, and focused as well as better able to make decisions and handle challenges than those who hadn't visited a spa.
"We have become divorced from nature and from the relaxation response," Tabacchi says, but "many of us can be healed by nature and exercise in good, clean, fresh air in scenic surroundings."
Tabacchi's ideal vacation is what she calls a "hiking spa"—tough physical workouts combined with restorative spa treatments. She describes it as a "rustic outdoor experience with indoor pampering—you have the luxury to enjoy nature, exercise, and mindful activities, and eat healthfully and consciously, without the pull of others or the stress of the workday world."
In the serene setting of a spa, Tabacchi says, "you can spend time soul-searching and determine the truly important issues in life. When you relax totally, it becomes clear what's important and what's not. Yoga and meditation in addition to cardiac exercise are the backbone of a simpler, more forgiving life and lifestyle. These methods of relaxation often need to be relearned or reinforced in a secure setting such as the destination spa."
But don't take Tabacchi's word for it; only you know what's best for you. It could be a healing retreat where you can rest and turn inward, or a strenuous physical challenge to blast away the worries of the world, or a busy schedule of guided tours, classes, and social interaction. Which type of vacation will reset your life-balance button and heal your tension-tattered psyche? There's only one way to find out. So, go for it—and remember, no matter where you end up, all you really need to do is relax.