Maximize Your Brain Power with Educational Travel

Enjoying sushi in Tokyo on G Adventure's Japan tour

Photo courtesy of G Adventures


Why is learning so good for your brain?

“It stimulates the brain, which increases the connections between the neurons,” says Dr. Sharon Cohen, neurologist and medical director of Toronto’s Memory Program. It can even generate new growth, a possibility that scientists didn’t discover until recent years.

“When I was in medical school, we were taught that new brain cells were not possible for adults. But now we know that’s not true.” The more we learn, she explains, the more we have in reserve to guard against cognitive decline.

Vacations also stimulate your gray matter. Changes in routine, even something as simple as counting up a foreign currency, are beneficial. Travel can help for a different reason, as well. “Stress management is very important in the protection of your brain,” says Cohen, and getting away can often be an opportunity to relax.
So, why not add some learning to your next vacation? By the way, it can be a lot of fun, too.



Educational travel is hardly a new concept. Since 1874, lifelong learners have flocked to the Chautauqua Institution ( to attend lectures, listen to concerts, and take summer classes. For nine weeks, the institute’s calendar is chock full of offerings that include ceramics, Photoshop, bridge for absolute beginners, glass fusing, ukulele, gentle yoga, and a class entitled, Uncommon Communities from Multicellularity to Multiculturalism (hmmm, I’m intrigued).

Mike Keenen, who took several courses at Chautauqua, says what he noticed most were the participants’ eyes. “There was so much enthusiasm that it reminded me of Cocoon, the 1985 movie directed by Ron Howard, when a bunch of seniors dive into a swimming pool and are immediately energized with renewed vigor.”

Though this year’s season is over, it’s never too early to start planning for next year. There are also plenty of other fun ways to learn off the campus in Chautauqua County ( this fall.

Learn to distinguish between thirteen varieties of grapes on Johnson Estate Winery’s ( Great Grape Walk on Sept. 5, 15 and 22 in Weston. Guests receive clippers and baskets to take grapes home.
Be intrigued by historic stories on the annual Saints and Sinners Walking Tour hosted by the Fenton History Center ( at the Lakeview Cemetery in Jamestown.

Request a docent tour at the Robert H. Jackson Center ( to learn about the enduring impact of Jamestown’s Supreme Court justice and US chief prosecutor at Nuremburg, Germany. Though you can explore the collections and displays in the 1850’s Italianate mansion on your own, the docents have a wealth of knowledge and fascinating stories to share. Docent tours are available anytime during regular hours.


Haliburton School of Art and Design

Like the Chautauqua Institution, this campus located two hours north of Toronto has a slew of week-long courses and shorter workshops during the summer to quench your thirst for knowledge, especially in the arts. A smaller selection is also available during the shoulder seasons. During the week of October 21–25, choices include a painting course on composition and color, mosaics, stained glass, and totem carving. Day workshops on November 2 range from embroidery, metal ornaments and jewellery making, to herbal soaps, salts, and salves. Fall is an especially beautiful time to visit, as the campus is set in a mixed hardwood forest that shows off its red, orange, and yellow foliage brilliantly. (


Road Scholar

Founded in 1975 as Elderhostel, Road Scholar ( started as an educational program designed to combine non-credit classes with inexpensive lodging for older adults. Two hundred twenty participants signed up for its inaugural year. Today, the not-for-profit organization offers 5,500+ learning adventures to over 100,000 curious travellers annually. Programs run the gamut from short, local adventures like Hiking the Finger Lakes Trails, to multi-week, cultural programs that include Living and Learning in Bordeaux, France, or a 131-day circumnavigation to study the fascinating histories of South America, Polynesia, Australia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Grandparent programs give you the opportunity to bring your grandchildren along for a shared learning adventure. Take your budding anthropologist to Athens and Mount Olympus or inspire dramatic youngsters with expert theatre techniques on Broadway. I have to admit that just reading their catalogue gave me an acute case of wanderlust. Road Scholar also awards more than $200,000 in financial assistance, including grants for family caregivers.


Enriched tours

A learning adventure can come in many forms, and sometimes it’s best when you’re having so much fun you don’t even realize how much knowledge you’re picking up along the way. Some touring companies facilitate this better than others.

National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures ( are designed to take travellers deeper into the cultures and habitats of the places they explore. They offer greater hands-on exploration and interactions with local experts, all within the structure and security of traveling in a small group. On their Iconic Japan Tour, G Adventurers take a sushi class with a master in Tokyo and gain an understanding of Kembu, an ancient Samurai art form in Kyoto. The Explore Costa Rica Tour includes visiting and meeting with one of the researchers at the Sea Turtle Conservancy Program to learn about the different species of sea turtles in the region and the initiatives that protect them.

On a recent cruise to Alaska with UnCruise (, a travel company specializing in small ships and intimate, off-the-beaten-track excursions, I was very impressed by the in-depth knowledge the guides possessed on the plants and wildlife of this enormous state. While we bushwhacked (hiking without a trail) and kayaked, our enthusiastic leaders pointed out vegetation (including what berries were edible) and regaled us with facts about the abundant Alaskan wildlife.  Evening talks on the ship included the history of Glacial Bay National Park, bear behavior, and whale communication.

Our newly-acquired knowledge was put to the test during a fun (but surprisingly competitive) trivia night. I learned that it was the Devil’s Club not Devil’s Claw plant that is poisonous to humans but not to bears. I may have lost the competition, but with any luck, my neurons just might be firing a little better.  


Jennifer Merrick is a freelance writer, photographer, and avid traveler based in Toronto.




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