Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Zoltan Serfozo  /  Alamy
Scaling Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of like-minded travelers creates new bonds and a heightened appreciation of nature. Reaching the summit isn’t even necessary; most hikers say the deepest change happens on the way there.
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updated 2/18/2010 9:48:38 AM ET 2010-02-18T14:48:38

Jane Goldstein, a Boston corporate attorney, was turning 40 when she decided she needed to scale Kilimanjaro. Climbing for eight days with a cast of characters that included a recent widower, her best friend, and four Texans, Goldstein grew fond of the Kilimanjaro-trekker’s mantra of pole-pole, Swahili for “slowly.” It was, she says, “a wonderful pace of life.” Closing in on the summit, she realized the purpose of her trip: it made her feel like she could do anything.

Goldstein’s tale is hardly unusual—midlife restlessness is so common it seems like a cliché. But psychologists say it’s real: a period of discontent that can produce feelings of boredom, doubt, anger, and unease.

Traveling has always been a remedy, but more people are forgoing cars and tattoos these days in favor of real-world exploration, according to Portland, Maine–based travel agent Pam Hurley. “With travel,” she says, “you forget about the money and remember what you get mentally, physically, or spiritually.”

Of course, treating a crisis of this magnitude requires more than a weekend at the beach. So midlifers seek out trips with at least one special quality, like adventure, danger, learning, physicality, or goodwill. Add a “now-or-never” layer to the trip and you could well be on the path to healing.

Reconnecting at Esalen, Big Sur, Calif.
Daniel Bianchetta
Since the ’60s, Big Sur’s Esalen Institute—devoted to the “exploration of human potential”—has satisfied many a wanderer in need of change. A weeklong soak in the center’s natural hot springs, overlooking the Pacific from a Big Sur cliff, can be just as healing.

One time-sensitive option: the Tibetan plateau, which environmentalists say is rapidly diminishing due to global warming. It’s also where Tibetan culture is at its best preserved, making for a fulfilling photography workshop. Plateau Photo Tours runs a two-week expedition that combines access to little-seen areas of nomadic Tibet with a crash course in picture-taking. World-renowned photojournalists provide hands-on instruction in a small-group setting, and the company also dabbles in philanthropy, hiring locals and donating partial proceeds to development programs.

But when it comes to a midlife crisis, not even the sky has to be the limit. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic can jettison you right into outer space, with a three-day trip that begins at space camp and ends in free-floating about the cabin. Aircrafts depart from a traditional runway, launch into orbit from 60,000 feet, and glide back home.

More than just a chance to live out those adolescent Mark Hamill fantasies, viewing Earth from the void is the ultimate perspective-altering destination. It also makes for pretty killer cocktail-party chatter—at least for those who can afford the $200,000 price tag.

Whatever you decide, though, a successful trip boils down to challenging yourself with something new. “The best sort of midlife travel takes you to an unfamiliar place,” says Atlanta travel agent Betty Jo Currie. “To be something, do something, so profoundly different—there’s a freedom that comes with that.”

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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