Image: Mahout Course, Thailand
Anantara Resort Golden Triangle
Learn to train elephants during a 'mahout' course at the elephant camp at Anantara Resort Golden Triangle, near Chiang Rai, Thailand.
updated 10/7/2008 4:12:49 PM ET 2008-10-07T20:12:49

Adult education can be a beautiful thing. Lovers of the finer things in life—like Aston Martin cars and Valrhona chocolates—can learn about them by taking special courses offered by their parent companies ... often in exceedingly pleasant surroundings.

Learning vacations can teach you everything from how to drive an Aston Martin and gamble in Monte Carlo’s renowned casinos to how to make truffles using Valrhona’s fabled chocolate. At the very least, they'll turn you into a great date.

Other “status skills” you can pick up include glass-blowing—taught at a school outside Seattle founded by the famed artisan, Dale Chihuly—wine and scotch-making, tango and ballroom dancing, and even learning how to be a mahout, or elephant driver. Hint: It's all in the knees.

And these courses won't set you back a semester. Waltz lessons, given by Vienna’s famed Elmayer Dance School, are 50 minutes long, while Glengoyne Distillery, a scotch producer outside of Glasgow, offers a Master Blender course that includes a tour of the distillery and necessitates the drinking of fine scotch.

The elephant riding course (which focuses on learning to care for and train with elephants) is three days long, while the tango courses are offered as part of four and eight-day packages. The glass-blowing courses given at Chihuly’s Pilchuck School require some commitment, however—each one is each 17 days long.

Many of the courses are offered in exotic destinations, making for an unusual, edifying vacation. The mahout program, for example, is given at an elephant camp run by Thailand’s National Elephant Institute at the posh Anantara Resort Golden Triangle, north of Chiang Rai (hardly a hardship post). Gambling classes are taught at the swank Monte-Carlo casinos in Monaco, naturally, while Valrhona’s chocolate courses are held at the company’s headquarters near Lyon, France. Tango courses are available at the Maison Dandi Royal, an Art Nouveau hotel located in San Telmo, a bohemian neighborhood in Buenos Aires.

Kathy Holler, managing director of destination sales for Virtuoso, a consortium of high-end travel agencies, says taking a vacation to pick up new skills—which she dubs “experiential travel”—is very popular today.

Traveling has become very personal she explains. “We’re all very busy and have limited time. Experiential travel in some way touches your soul. When you go home, you take a treasure with you, something you learned. It stays with you a long time.”

Linda Viviani, a Napa Valley winemaker who also runs a travel company that offers courses to those interested in blending their own wine, says these do well because “people want to learn why your wine tastes different than mine. And wine is a collector’s item. You can bring it home and share it with your guests.”

Pallavi Shah, owner of Our Personal Guest, a custom tour operator in New York, finds vacation courses serve other purposes.

“People are driven all the time to do something, they’re psychologically in the habit of multi-tasking. Why on Earth would you go on a vacation and do nothing if you do something all the time?” she said.

Image: Pilchuck Glass School
Pilchuck Glass School
Learn to blow glass at the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by master glass artisan and Tacoma native Dale Chihuly in 1971. The school offers five consecutive sessions of 17-day courses from May to September.
Taking a course in a locale famous for a specific skill can also be a more authentic—if not unique—experience, than picking it up at home: You can learn how to tango at a dancing school near your home, but if you take a course at the Maison Dandi Royal, you will not only get daily group lessons, but also attend “milongas,” tango dances frequented by local Argentinians—porteños—and a tango dinner show. And you’d be hard-pressed to learn how to drive an elephant anywhere outside of Thailand.

These courses can even help you achieve personal goals, as Anita and Fred Chu, a couple from St. Louis who dance as a hobby, recently found out. The Chus—he’s an eye surgeon and she’s a retired neurologist who runs his practice—went to the Maison Dandi Royal in April and October of 2005. They made their first visit to learn how to tango, so they could do the dance at their 25th anniversary party the following July; their second visit was to further hone their skills.

“We love to travel and know how to speak Spanish, and also like to immerse ourselves in different cultures,” Mrs. Chu explained.

Their studying evidently paid off: The Chus have tangoed on their local Fox TV station and been asked to give stage performances.

Taking a course to pick up a new skill might not turn you into a local star, as it did the Chus, but you’ll no doubt have fun and probably learn a thing or two.


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