Secrets of a Great Vacation

Nine suggestions to make this year's vacation great!

Posted Jul 02, 2011

Ah, summer. Hot, relaxing days at the beach or cool escape to the mountains. Vacation. Kids at camp. Time to yourself. Maybe now you'll finally get a chance to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Maybe you'll even get to the movies a couple of times this summer.

Most of us look forward to summer as if we were still in school, as if summer was going to be a time off from homework and a chance to hang out with buddies from early in the morning till it gets dark late into the evening. As we get older, we fantasize about languid days and long, slow dinners that start with cocktails sipped on the back porch (who cares if we live in a tiny apartment in the middle of New York City, it's a daydream, after all).

But that's the problem. It is, for most of us, a daydream, not a reality. Summer seems to go by faster every year. Before we turn around, it's September, and we haven't read a page of the book or seen a single movie. Forget the cocktails and the relaxed dinners with friends. That closet we were going to clean out, finally, this summer? That was a total fantasy!

Even kids don't have a real vacation anymore. Oh, I know, we're all complaining about how kids are mollycoddled these days and how hard we used to work bagging groceries at the little store down the street instead of being sent off to camp for two full months; but in case you haven't noticed, it's really hard work being a kid right now. If for no other reason than that you have to try to be the incredible human being that your parents think you're supposed to be (there's an interesting, if somewhat troubling, article about this issue by Lori Gottlieb in the Atlantic Monthly, which you can check out by clicking here.) 

Home from camp, youngsters have to get started on all of the summer homework they've ignored till now (whose smart idea was that, by the way?), and of course parents have to nag them to do it. It's also time to buy clothes and school supplies, and generally ramp up for the fall. But who needs little ones to remind us of the old rhythm of school years? With or without them, most of us begin to rev up our motors as September approaches, as though the three designated months of summer actually provided us with any really significant down time.

But here's the thing. We really do all need some time to rest and relax. Our psychological and emotional engines need a non-working period to cool off. David Ogilvy, the king of early advertising theory, says it in his classic book Confessions of an Advertising Man -- creative juices flow better when we are giving our brains and our bodies time to rest and rejuvenate.

I know. Life doesn't stop being stressful just because the calendar says it's July. Adult work doesn't stop like school for two or three months. And vacations can be as nerve-wracking as the rest of life - more, sometimes. So what's a person to do?

Here are some simple suggestions to make the summer (and maybe the rest of the year, too) a little more relaxing:

1 - Daydream about your vacation all you want; but then get real. The more planning and organizing you do ahead of time, the more you can relax when the time comes, whether you are at the beach or sitting in your own backyard (or in the living room of your small apartment).

2 - Having organized and planned as much as you can, now you have to remember that these plans are not written on the tablets that Moses got on the mountain. They can and should be changed, altered, even ignored. If you planned to go hiking through the woods, but the day is so hot that you can't stand to be out in it, don't go. The point of a vacation is to let go of all of the rules and stressors of the rest of your life. Go to the movies instead. Sleep late. Get your nails done.

3 - Don't beat up on yourself or your travel partners when (notice, I say when, not if) things don't go exactly as you imagined. I did say to plan and organize; but once everything is set out, try to think of it as an outline, not a requirement (see number 2 above). And remember that it doesn't make you a bad person if you aren't doing what you thought you were going to do, and it doesn't make your partner, child, husband, or friend bad if they aren't doing what you thought they were going to do.

4 - Remember that travel can be stressful in and of itself. If you are traveling, make time to just de-stress. Because I live in an apartment in New York City that is extremely well-situated for visiting the city, I frequently have friends and family staying with me (I don't flatter myself that it is me they've come to see!). My husband has a mantra that he repeats daily to any and all visitors: "You can't see everything there is to see in a single trip. You will have a much better time if you select a few things to do and plan to come back again! You will also have a better time if you come back to the apartment to rest sometime during every day. Nobody can go-go-go every minute without wearing themselves out. It's better to take it a little easy - just sit in our living room, have a cup of tea, and listen to the sounds of the city. And then when you go home, you won't need time to recover from your vacation."

5 - If you are traveling with another person or a group, whether they are friends, family or strangers, make some time to be by yourself! Travel can be stressful (am I repeating myself? Of course, but for a good reason - we all too often imagine trips without taking this into account - which leads to disappointment, frustration and, of course, a failure to relax). Time alone, just to veg out, to sleep, or to actually read a couple of pages of that book! - can help you cope better.

6 - Eat regularly. I can't say this enough. Our daily schedule, as hectic as it may be, is something we use to structure ourselves. And structure makes us comfortable. When we loosen the structure, we also loosen our habits, and we often end up eating too much or too little. Pay attention. It's not fun to get home feeling fat and bloated, but neither is it fun to be always hungry and uncomfortable. I take snack foods with me on any trip, short or long, so that I can have something to nibble on while I'm waiting for the restaurants to open or my travel partners to get hungry. Nabs, nuts, dried fruit, and a large dark chocolate bar are part of my standard traveling equipment. Sometimes they come home again; but often they have had to be replaced along the way. Far from making me gain weight, they work to help curb my appetite and keep me eating regularly when my schedule is thrown off by too much fun!

7 - Get enough sleep. This one, too, is crucial. You can't party every night and sightsee every day without damaging your equilibrium. And the point of a vacation is to do the exact opposite - to restore your sanity, right? So make sure that you get your regular quota of sleep, even if you're just hanging out on the beach during the day.

8 - And speaking of hanging out on the beach, get at least a little bit of exercise every day. Your body and mind will both benefit from it. And so will your spirit. I'm not talking about playing tennis or running every day, if that's not your thing. Walking through a new city is a great workout. But suntanning isn't. Neither is sitting in a sightseeing bus or spending hours in a car. If that's what you're doing on this vacation, make sure that you get out and stretch a little and walk a little. Take a bike ride if you can (and if it appeals to you). Go for a short swim. Nothing major. Just get the blood flowing through your muscles and brain, and you'll feel more rested when you get home!

9 - And finally, remember that vacations are just short blips on the screen of our lives. We daydream about them for a lot longer than we actually live them. My mother used to say that she got a lot more pleasure planning any trip than she did actually being on it, and although my brothers and I took it personally when we were young, I understand very well what she meant now that I am an adult. A huge part of the function of vacations is to provide us with daydreams about being out of the stress of our daily lives. But the reality of vacations is seldom exactly what we imagined. Try to remember that that's how it's supposed to be. Enjoy the time as much as you can, but don't expect perfection. And when you're feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or just unhappy during your vacation, let yourself daydream about how relaxing and comforting it will be to be back in your regular day to day routine!

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