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Elderhostel Adventures with Your Grandkids

Elderhostel has trips to satisfy curious travelers of all ages.


SEEING THE GRAND CANYON or the rainforests of Costa Rica is thrilling enough. But sharing it with your grandchild can make the experience that much richer for both of you.

Each year, Elderhostel, the not-for-profit educational travel organization based in Boston, offers nearly 300 intergenerational adventures. From bicycling in the Amish country of Indiana, to sailing on the coast of Maine, to exploring the ruins of ancient Greece, there are trips to satisfy any curious traveler.

“These programs bring generations together," says Fran Rivkin, associate vice president of North America programs for Elderhostel. They also give grandparents the chance to spend one-on-one time with their grandchildren—without hovering parents. The format encourages interaction. "Doing educational activities, they are learning from one another," says Rivkin.

“It makes it easy for the grandparents. You don’t have to worry about where to stay or decide where to eat, and they provide transportation so you don’t have have to drive,” says Charlene Borgeson, 72, of Grand Ledge, MI, a former teacher and high school secretary, who has taken six grandchildren on Elderhostel trips. “The kids learn history. They learn about the area, and they have fun together.”

Most of the programs are suited for kids ages 8–12. The groups are small: 44 max. While there are some kids-only activities (to give the grandparents a break), most activities are intergenerational. “We keep folks busy,” says Rivkin. “The grandparent is responsible for the grandchild, but they have some help.” Here, four of their intergenerational programs.

Exploring the Grand Canyon and the Wild Southwest. At 7,000 feet elevation, the mountain city of Flagstaff, AZ, is home base for a five-night Elderhostel run by Northern Arizona University. The group gets to know one another on a ropes challenge course, where kids love to see their grandparents zoom across on a suspended wire zip line, says Jennifer Beltz, assistant director of the program.

Participants raft on the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, go into the woods to learn primitive survival skill, and visit an arboretum to see raptors. One evening, an entomologist shows off an array of bugs, including Brazilian cockroaches, which usually leaves the group “freaked out and enthralled at the same time,” says Beltz. In another session, an educator helps the kids build models of the Grand Canyon with layers of clay.

The highlight for many is riding a steam engine train (complete with a Wild West show and mock robbery). At the Grand Canyon, everyone in the group closes their eyes and, at the count of three, gazes into the canyon at the same time. “I remember the first look over the rim of the canyon,” recalls David Borgeson, 72, who went with his wife, Charlene, and then 10-year-old granddaughter. “It makes your tummy turn. It was a neat deal.”

A Taste of Show Biz in Branson. Have a rising diva in your family? Love the theater? The Show Biz Kids Elderhostel program in Branson, MO, (which bills itself as the live entertainment capital of America), combines behind-the-scenes workshops, nightly shows, and a little hands-on performing.

Professionals share the basics of acting, comedy, dance. A ventriloquist even teaches how to make a dummy drink out of a glass of water, says Bob McGill, one of the founders of Ozark Adventures, the not-for-profit corporation that hosts the program. The group attends nightly shows, such as the Acrobats of China. Afterwards, they get a sneak peek at the theater’s lights and sound systems.

On the last evening, the participants become the stars. The grandparents and grandkids team up to sing, do a skit, or recite a poem in a talent show, complete with a judge’s (usually kind) critique. “They really put themselves into it,” says McGill, “They get to know another side of each other.”

Beatrice Hess, 79, a retired elementary school teacher of 35 years, from Sisters, Oregon, says she particularly enjoyed seeing a different part of the country (the Ozarks) with her granddaughter Grace, 10. Hess, who has taken several grandchildren on Elderhostel trips, likes the organized schedule and the group dynamic. “This way they get to play with other kids and make friends,” she says.

Up Close and Personal at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. If you’ve ever wondered how they carve huge monuments on the side of the mountains, this trip explains it all. In the unique terrain of South Dakota, participants see the contrast of lush mountains and the desolate Badlands. Visitors can catch a glimpse of deer and turkeys from the private decks of the lodge they call home for the week, with a view of Mt. Rushmore.

During the classroom sessions, kids are engaged in hands-on activities to grasp the magnitude of the carvings. They learn to use a scale model and a pointing system to multiply and draw the monument on a big sheet of butcher paper. Another day, an actor playing Abraham Lincoln teaches the kids to write with a quill pen. There is horseback riding and a trip to nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, where they take home a blast fragment.

Brave ones can ride the President’s Slide at Rushmore Tramway—go up in a chairlift and  come back down on a sled (with brakes) on a half-pipe slide that drops about 2000 feet. Two parallel slides allow the grandparent and grandchild to experience the thrill together. “They are screaming all the way down the mountain. It’s a riot,” says Wes Shelton of the Black Hills Educational Institute.

From the Rain Forests to the Volcanoes of Costa Rica. For a foreign adventure that’s safe and still relatively close to home, Costa Rica offers a rich cultural experience and natural beauty. You need to be able to hold up under the heat and humidity and walk roughly half a mile at a stretch for this 10-day trip. But your efforts are rewarded with a diverse mix of scenery.

Hiking through a rain forest on a hanging bridge over a river, you’ll see creatures in every direction—monkeys, birds, and bugs. In the forest, the group takes a river ride in motorized canoes with covers on the top for another view of the wildlife. (You may spot an 18-foot crocodile.)

The adventure includes walking around the base of an active volcano, taking a swim in a waterfall, and playing soccer with local kids. A visit to a plantation to see how pineapples grow and nab a taste along the way is especially interesting for kids who’ve grown up in the city, says Frank Richmond of Holbrook Travel in Gainesville, FL, who coordinates the trip. Along the coast, kids and grandparents can snorkel and kayak in the ocean.

Caralee Adams is a regular contributor to NRTALive & Learn. 

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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