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Despite persistent rumors that reading is a dying activity, a recent poll shows reading was the No. 1 pastime by a fair margin in 2008, and has shown staying power as the leader over any other leisure activity of choice for Americans.
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updated 6/10/2009 10:09:06 AM ET 2009-06-10T14:09:06

Each year since 1973, Harris Interactive has completed a national survey of trends in American leisure time how much of it we have (or believe we have), who has it and who doesn't, how we use it and how it has changed over time. There is a raft of fascinating information in the study, which is well worth a read.

There are many of us who like to continue — or even deepen our involvement in — our favorite daily pastimes when on vacation. And for every hobby or leisure activity, there is an outfitter ready to help you up the ante. Following are the top 10 leisure pastimes in the United States, as well as my suggestions for incorporating these pastimes into your next trip.

1. Reading
Despite persistent rumors that reading is a dying activity, the Harris Poll has found otherwise for some time. In 2008, reading was the No. 1 pastime by a fair margin, and has shown staying power as the leader over any other leisure activity of choice for Americans. (This may be partly due to the large amounts of time many of us spend reading on the Internet.)

Reading is such an integral part of the whole idea of vacationing for many folks that it almost goes unmentioned as a niche — saying you are on a "reading vacation" would be like saying you are going on a "hotel vacation" for many voracious readers. But hardcore bibliophiles think of it in just this way; witness the "50 Books" blog entry,which is packed to the covers with great ideas for extreme reading vacations. Some examples: six weeks in Thailand reading the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Taking a ferry and a bicycle ride to a one-room cabin to read "Anna Karenina" in a long solitary weekend. A two-week trip to Cuba reading "One Hundred Years of Solitude." You get the idea.

Alternately, many travel to visit the homes and stomping grounds of their favorite authors, such as Hemingway's house in the Keys or the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. In the literary hotbed of Dublin, you can take a literary pub crawl, or go big and join in on the Bloomsday celebrations on June 16 every year. The Literary Traveler site is a good resource for folks interested in this type of sightseeing.

2. Watching television
Television watching unsurprisingly comes in as America's No. 2 pastime, but before you start to boo and hiss, it doesn't necessarily have to be the unmitigated evil some may deem. Just because a lot of people watch a lot of television doesn't mean that they're watching "Family Guy" reruns all week — they could be watching movies, educational programs, fitness programs ... ah, what the heck, they're probably watching "Family Guy." But even still.

So where does a traveling TV addict go? To see the real thing in action, of course. Travel to Los Angeles or New York City and you can join the studio audience of any number of television shows. I've been in a few studio audiences over time, and they can be exhilarating ("Saturday Night Live") and very nearly drudgery (a sports show that had some production problems and practically held us hostage for six hours so that the audience did not seem to be changing during the 22-minute show), but it was interesting and memorable in every case.

There are a number of Web sites that help fill studio audiences, many for free or at very low cost; here are a few:

StudioAudiences.com
TVTickets.com
NYCGo.com

3. Spending time with family/kids
"Family travel" is a topic truly unto itself — in fact, I would say that for many travelers, there is no separating "family" from "travel." Given that fact, and also that so much ink and pixels are dedicated to the topic already, I'll simply direct you to our family travel section for trip ideas, and let you know about our upcoming Web site dedicated to family travel, which should be unveiled in the next month.

4. Exercise (aerobics, weights)
Of the top 10 leisure activities in the Harris Poll, none has gained such rapid prominence as a vacation activity as fitness travel. Many spa vacation schedules look more like fitness boot camps, offering everything from exhaustive "civvy" boot camps based on a military model to learn-to-ride camps (horses, surfboards, boats, motorcycles, you name it) of a much more "hang loose" nature. See the following links for more info:

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Fitness boot camps
Sports camps

5. Computer activities
With grandparents flooding onto Facebook and teenagers twittering and gaming around the clock, "computer activities" is a catch-all for everything from sharing family photos online to blowing up a virtual evil empire or — of course — Internet armchair traveling. Maybe you are a garden-variety computer buff who finds him or herself in the Seattle area, catches a glimpse of Bill and Melinda Gates's mansion from the 520 bridge, and wonders if it's possible to have a look at where it all started. Or perhaps you're in much, much deeper than that, and a trip to the Microsoft campus is like visiting one of the Seven Wonders of the World for you.

It turns out that the Microsoft campus isn't open to the public, but a short side trip to the Microsoft Visitor Center may cover you. (Sorry Mac people, the Apple campus is not open to the public, and the company does not offer tours or a visitor center.)

If you're not interested in the Seattle area, your choices are almost limitless if you hit the high seas. Many cruise lines have established so-called "enrichment cruises" that include intensive computer instruction; read more at Best Enrichment Cruises.

6. Fishing
Fishing is almost by nature a "vacation" from the concerns of daily life; it's not likely you'll see someone checking e-mail or yakking into a cell phone when they have a formidable fish on the end of a line. So a fishing vacation is an old vacation staple.

However, as many of the most popular fishing locations close to home have become overfished and overcrowded, fisherpeople have begun venturing further afield over the past few years. Outfitters are now offering fishing trips to places like Yellowstone, Central America, the South Pacific and even the Arctic Circle. Check out this list at FishingVacations.com.

Don't want to go to all corners of the planet to go fishing? Think about stealing a day away from the rides to go fishing at Disney World. As I said, the fishing vacation is an American staple — that you can do it at Disney is the proof.

7. Going to the movies
Going to the movies is more a weekend activity than a vacation activity, so we'll have to up the ante considerably here to make it worth your precious vacation time. This should do it: sign on to be a movie extra. InsideHollywood's guide will get you started; WiseGeek.com also has a short and sweet guide to the process that will be worth it if movies are your passion. One note of caution: Beware of scammers offering placement services for a fee. For the most part, these people take your money and little more.

Another popular option for traveling movie buffs is to visit sites featured in their favorite films. The following links are a sample of the kind of film tours available:

On Location Tours (New York City)
Boston Movie Tours
Hawaii Movie Tours

8. Golf
Surprise, golf is a favored leisure activity. Or is it? Like time at the computer, for a certain type of golfer/businessperson, golf is often very much a time to get work done. And many golfers treat their chosen pastime like a day at work — talk about driven (no pun intended); even weekend warrior golfers are nearly obsessive when they actually get on the golf course. It turns out that this is precisely the type of thinking that lends itself best to a massive industry catering to the (usually) well-off golf travel clientele.

TripAdvisor's Editor's Picks for the Best Golf Vacation selects the cream of the crop, and has this telling factoid about Hilton Head: "Though only 12 miles long, this sophisticated southern island has 22 golf courses." If one golf course is good, then 22 golf courses must be even better, right? I told you these folks are obsessive ...

9. Walking
Taking a walk would seem perhaps to be the least remarkable activity among the top 10 — walking is perhaps the most mundane human activity after eating and sleeping. As noted by Wendy Bumgardner, George Carlin used to poke fun during his comedy act, "'Walking Magazine'? What's next, 'Breathing Magazine'?"

Nonetheless, almost every great city has any number of walking tours, whether of a neighborhood, a park, a waterfront area, a historical district, you name it. Theme parks and zoos also often offer guided walking tours, many of which take you behind the scenes to see the inner workings of the place. The best place to find these is at the local tourist bureau.

For more hardcore bipeds, there are "walking events" and "walking festivals," the more aggressively named "trekking" tours and more. Since Walking Magazine went out of business in 2001, Baumgardner's About.com site has filled the gap on the Web, and includes specific information on planning a walking vacation. Our own Walking Tours and Trips is another great primer.

10. Gardening
Gardening has always had its place in the daily life of the home. Book stores are heaving with new gardening books all the time, call-in gardening radio shows compete with political analysis and cable television is fully into the game with a channel named "Home and Garden Television" (the stealthily but still insanely popular channel better known as HGTV).

Flower shows are a time-tested way for gardening buffs to indulge their pastime, but for the hardcore gardening traveler, try Coopersmith's garden tour company, which offers tours in Great Britain, Europe, New Zealand and the United States. For a large list of garden tour companies, see this list.

Space allows us only the top 10 here, while the Harris poll includes almost 40 more leisure activities, all of which might give you some ideas for your next trip. Well, most of them; a trip about travel (No. 20) seems a bit redundant, and even I would be hard-pressed to tie in No. 43 to any specific travel idea — sleeping is a vacation unto itself.

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