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10 life-changing escapes

Sure, you could return to your favorite winter beach spot to kick off the new year. Or you could take a vacation that will enrich your mind, body, and soul.
Smithsonian Journeys’ Splendors of the Nile is a 12-day excursion that includes a stunning visit to the Pyramids of Giza, and more. A Smithsonian Egyptologist brings to life the region’s religion, art, and recent archaeological discoveries. Muhammed Muheisen / AP file
/ Source: Sherman's Travel

Sure, you could return to your favorite winter beach spot to kick off the new year. Or you could take a vacation that will enrich your mind, body, and soul. Sherman’s Travel uncovered 10 life-changing escapes, with a splurge and a value option for each. Climb a volcano, explore the Nile, or learn to drive a race car. What are you waiting for?

Phuket, Thailand: Some spa programs are easy: a little massage here, a big salad there. Not the Five-day Puriti Purification Program at Trisara, a luxurious resort located near the Phuket airport on a secluded beachfront sanctuary. The immersive plan starts with a physical and includes daily fitness activities, body treatments, and yoga. You’ll eat raw organic food on the first and last days and only fresh vegetable juices and organic Chinese herbal supplements in between. But the tropical gardens are so beautiful and the private pools so relaxing that you won’t crave a thing—except, possibly, more purification. $4,120/5 days or $7,350/10 days;

St. George, Utah: Red Mountain Spa is set in the stunning and serene southwestern Utah desert—an ideal spot for moonlight hikes, rock climbing, biking, tennis, swimming, and enough other activities to exhaust the tireless. The JumpStart 2008 package for January and February includes guided walks, tai chi, unlimited fitness classes, gourmet meals, and cooking demonstrations. Also available are extras such as day trips to Zion National Park and horseback riding. Save time for treatments at the Sagestone Spa, especially the Adobe Lavender Hydrating Cocoon. From $239/3 days (the minimum stay); 

Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa: Guests come to The Raj for Ayurveda, the ancient whole-body Indian health-care philosophy and practice. This award-winning spa on 100 beautiful Midwestern acres has antiaging and weight-loss regimens, along with treatments for ailments like Alzheimer’s and hypertension. A one-week stay includes two to three hours of daily treatments, yoga, health coaching, and cooking classes. French provincial rooms are elegant and comfortable. $4,700/1 week;

Mysore, India: Indus Valley Ayurvedic Center, an innovative clinic and spa resort, offers traditional, therapeutic treatments in a palm tree–lined setting in the Chamundi Hills. The weeklong program includes sessions with a doctor, massages, yoga, lessons in Ayurvedic practices, and detoxing treatments. Accommodations are in the lovely main house or in cottages scattered throughout the grounds. From $1,160/1 week;

Southeast Asia: Stanford University’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia Suitcase Seminar, led by a former Stanford art history professor, includes tours of the Forbidden City in Hue and Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang. The 20-day trip is immersive, featuring traditional welcoming ceremonies, water-puppet performances, and visits to monasteries and the Phnom Penh university. Dec. 28-Jan. 16 and Feb. 15-Mar. 5; from $7,765, which includes visas and airfare from San Francisco or L.A.;  

The Nile: Smithsonian Journeys’ Splendors of the Nile is a 12-day excursion that includes a stunning visit to the Pyramids of Giza. A Smithsonian Egyptologist brings to life the region’s religion, art, and recent archaeological discoveries. Four nights are spent in hotels in Cairo and Luxor, four on the Mirage II ship cruising the Nile, and the last at Aswan’s Elephantine Island Resort. Various departures Jan.-Apr. and Sept.-Nov.; from $1,849, based on double occupancy;

Dalton, New Hampshire: Learn to drive like a pro during a three-day course at Team O’Neil Rally School. The first two days cover basics like braking technique and skid control, and on day three you’ll move on to closed loops of real roads with gravel, trees, and other obstacles. Instructors are on hand at all times, and safety is a major consideration. One-, two-, and four-day sessions are also available, and students typically stay in one of many hotels in Littleton. $2,950 covers tuition only;

La Jolla, California: Make your Peter Pan fantasies come true at Torrey Pines Gliderport, one of the oldest paragliding schools in the country. You’ll spend the first few days of the basic training program on the ground learning to control, launch, and fly the wing. Then you’re ready for your first solo flight off a 300-foot cliff. You’ll soar for three to five minutes and land on the beach below. The course lasts from three to five days, depending on individual ability and agility, but has one flat rate. There are no accommodations, but there are several hotels in the area. $895 covers tuition only; 

Kali Gandaki Valley, Nepal: Volunteers on the Chairro Gompa Restoration Project help redevelop an ancient Buddhist monastery (gompa) under the snow-capped Himalayas. The setting is stunning, encompassing a high-desert moonscape and colorful, orchard-filled valley. You’ll work on projects that can vary from building to restoration and art conservation. During the afternoons, you’re free to hike the villages, pick apples, visit schools, or keep working. You’ll stay in a modern, family-run guesthouse with comfortable but simple rooms. $2,495, fully tax-deductible;

Costa Rica: The Sea Turtle Conservation Project in Costa Rica helps protect the critically endangered Leatherback Turtle, whose eggs are poached for their aphrodisiacal properties. Volunteer duties include digging out eggs from nests and transferring them to a hatchery, as well as night patrols. This is a trip for beach lovers, not luxury seekers, as lodgings are rustic, with volunteers living together on the beach in a cabin or tent. But those turtles sure are cute! $995 for 1 week;

: You’ll click like a pro after the International Center of Photography’s Los Glaciares National Park weeklong workshop. Start with a tour of Buenos Aires, then  move on to the park, a World Heritage Site with snowy mountains and glacier-fed lakes. Subject matter, setting, and variable lighting make for challenging photographic conditions, which participants master through lessons and critiques. Mar. 1-9; $4,880;

New Mexico: National Geographic photojournalist Carole Devillers leads small groups to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where snow geese, cranes, coyotes, and bald eagles are the subjects. A typical day involves sunrise and sunset shoots, with hands-on composition and light tips. Jan. 18-20 and Feb. 1-3; from $375;

Tulum, Mexico
: Casa Magna, a new destination from the creators of Amansala Bikini Boot Camp, is made up of two luxurious villas on a stunning stretch of beach near Amansala. In January and February, a rotating cast of yoga instructors will lead weeklong sessions—ironic, given that this is the former home of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Guests have access to Amansala activities, including massages, snorkeling, and visits to Mayan ruins. Dwellings are luxuriously airy, with terraces, hammocks, and ocean views. Jan.-Feb.; from $2,000 for 1 week, based on double occupancy;

Big Island, Hawaii: For eight years, Yoga Oasis has been luring guests to its lush retreat in a rain forest near black-sand beaches. The Maha (“great”) Yoga program includes pranayama yoga, Chi-Hatha yoga (incorporating traditional Hawaiian healing with Qigong visualization and energy techniques), and afternoon yoga labs tailored to individual needs. In free time, visit Volcano National Park, waterfalls, and geothermal hot ponds. Accommodations are jungle-inspired and comfortable. From $600 for a 3-night minimum (5 is the suggested stay);

Baja, Mexico: Sustainable living may be the latest trend in ecotravel, but NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, has been doing it since 1965. On a two-week Baja sea-kayaking trip along the Sea of Cortez in February, you’ll learn to read tide tables, understand currents, and create camps in sandy beaches and rocky coves. Downtime activities include skin diving, spear fishing, and basking in the sun. This is leave-no-footprint camping, with backcountry meals and sleeping under the stars. Feb. 3-16; $2,990;

St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands: Lost meets Survivor in a weeklong Earthskills Caribbean Rendezvous retreat at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, where you’ll learn age-old skills like hide tanning, foraging for edible plants, making rope from natural fibers, and carving spears and slingshots from local wood. Usable skills back at the office? No, but it will make outstanding watercooler fodder. Housing is modest: farm-rustic cabanas and tents. Feb. 24-Mar. 1; $655 for tents, $955 for cabanas;

Oxford, England: Connoisseurs flock to Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in the English countryside for the luxurious hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant. But you can take the chiffonade home with you after a four-day course at the Cookery School, where you’ll learn how to prepare classic French dishes amid the comfort of a five-night hotel stay. All levels of expertise are welcome. From $4,590;

Cuernavaca, Mexico: Master the basics of Mexican cuisine at La Villa Bonita, where budding chefs are taught by Ana Garcia, the chef at Reposado (one of Cuernavaca’s most popular restaurants) and the star of a new PBS cooking show. Culinary field trips and excursions to nearby ruins round out your cultural immersion. Guests stay in a 16th-century private mansion. The four-night/five-day package does not include nightly dinners but does cover transport to and from the Mexico City airport. From $1,150 for 4 days; 

Ecuador: Mountain Travel Sobek’s Volcanoes of Ecuador is an 11-day trip for adventurers who want a tough but stunningly beautiful above-the-clouds challenge. After an altitude-adjusting first day in Quito, the group climbs three snow-capped volcanoes (including Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world), with ample recovery time between ascents. Highlights along the way include soaking in hot springs and marveling at glaciers. Travelers stay in charming haciendas, lodges, and mountain refuges. Jan. 4-14; $3,295;   

Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: G.A.P. Adventures’ Kilimanjaro Trek follows the Marangu Route to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain. The physically challenging trip lasts seven days, with a gradual ascent assisted by local guides. The payoff, after trekking through thick rain forest and alpine zones, is a view of the world from 19,340 feet. Accommodations are in comfortable and scenic mountain huts, most of which have running water. $1,120;

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