Experiential travel is the best kind – and what better way to get under a destination’s skin than by learning a new skill under the guidance of local experts? From cooking and dancing to surfing and diving, via a multitude of handicrafts, here are some suggestions for educational, practical activities to try out on your next trip.
Make a hammock in Belize
In Punta Gorda, in Belize’s quiet district of Toledo, barefoot children chase chickens in the yard of an unassuming farmhouse. Stepping over its threshold, you’ll meet a Maya family who make their living weaving baskets, fans and hammocks.
You’re put to work in the garden, collecting freshly harvested henequen plants, then the tutorial begins. It’s intricate, absorbing work, stripping down the plants’ strands and spinning them into a thin thread. Each hammock can take weeks to weave and complete by hand – miss one loop, and everything has to be unwound. You’ll be surprised at the skill and speed of the children lending you a hand – this is the family trade for many Belizean Maya, and they start young.
Cook ceviche in Peru
Ask any Peruvian what their national dish is, and they will say ceviche. Learning how to make this plate of fish delicately marinated in citrus juices and spices is a great way to see one of the best elements of Peruvian cities – the markets. A half-day cookery class typically begins among the market stalls, prodding and assessing the local produce, sampling tropical fruit, and visiting the fishmongers – you need the freshest catch for a good ceviche. It’s a vibrant, noisy, delicious alternative to going to a supermarket.
The shopping expedition over, a top chef will school small groups of students in how to prepare ceviche, before you all sit down to a collectively prepared gourmet lunch.
Scuba dive in Koh Tao, Thailand
The little-developed island of Koh Tao is an excellent place for first-time divers – the currents are gentle and the marine life is varied and accessible. On a ‘Try Dive’, an instructor will teach you safety checks and other basic diving skills, before you embark on a shallow dive up to 32 feet (10m) deep. Even at this depth, there’s much to see. Look out for eels, groupers, barracudas, turtles, nudibranchs and neon yellow boxfish.
There’s an added bonus to diving here too. Since so many visitors are busy exploring the underwater riches of the island’s waters, the beaches remain relatively quiet – ideal for relaxing post-dive.
Take a pastry-making class in Morocco
Set in a former almond warehouse in the heart of Essaouira, l’Atelier Madada offers oriental pastry workshops in a relaxed, informal setting. Here, you’ll learn how to make traditional delicacies such as almond-based gazelle horns and orange blossom biscuits. These pastries are found throughout Morocco and are primarily served to welcome guests and celebrate special occasions.
You’ll watch as the cook prepares the various ingredients, before putting the ingredients together yourself and working the dough into the correct shapes. The distinctive gazelle horn is particularly tricky to master. While they’re cooking in the oven you can sip a customary mint tea, before taking your creations home.
Explore fabric printing near Jaipur, India
Bagru, a village about 19 miles (32km) from Jaipur, has a thriving hand-printed cloth industry. Its simple designs use uncomplicated techniques and earthy shades of natural dye. Textile enthusiasts can learn about the printing, washing and boiling processes before heading to the Chippa Mohalla (printers’ quarter) to see all these methods in action. Here, you’ll observe block printers at work as they hand-block fabrics, and make natural dyes and printing inks.
While the finished fabrics dry in the sun, you can breakfast and drink tea with the artisans, before creating and printing your own patterns under their guidance.
Milk cows in Sri Lanka
Jim’s Farm, in Sri Lanka’s central province, is a working farm with three villas dotted amongst palm tree and pepper plantations. During your stay you can take a tour of the farm and learn traditional farming techniques. Each afternoon at milking time, there’s even the chance to try your hand at milking one of the farm’s cows.
Perched on a rickety stool right behind the cow, one of the farm staff will show you the technique. It takes a few pulls before you get anywhere, but luckily you’re not expected to fill a whole bucket.
Cook, craft and dance at Araveli Cottages & Tented Camp, ME to WE, Rajasthan, India
Staying at Araveli, a Free the Children sustainable development project, equates to an almost total immersion in Rajastani handicrafts, food, and dance.
There are lessons in the art of tie-dyeing, block printing and painting. For the more gastronomically inclined, the camp’s head chef leads classes in how to make the much-loved local afternoon snack of samosas and masala chai. Munch on them while taking in a Bollywood-style dance show. The energy and dexterity of the dancers is a joy to watch, but be warned: after the performance is over, you may be asked to join in with the encore.
Make necklaces and help farmers at Minga Lodge, ME to WE, Ecuadorian Amazon
From morning nature walks to water-based birdwatching aboard wooden canoes, Minga Lodge is a place for those who love activity. The women’s group in Mondaña Town will teach you how to make ornaments and trinkets using local natural objects. Some are beaded designs, but you’ll also learn how to make necklaces out of dried vegetation. These are then sold at local markets, providing an alternative income for the women.
Across the river in Bellavista Village, you can help a local farmer harvest his rice. It’s strenuous work, involving a lot of thwacking movements. Then it’s time to assist cacao producers in pruning their organic trees. With the help of the local shaman, you’ll try and spear a cacao pod with a blow-pipe.
Cook Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, USA
The city of New Orleans is a melting pot of different cultures, and this is demonstrated in the city’s cuisine. French, Spanish, Cuban and Mexican influences are all thrown into the mix, creating the dishes the city is known for: jambalaya, Cajun chicken and the hearty po’boy sandwiches.
The best way to experience Cajun food is with a hands-on cooking class. The New Orleans School of Cooking, a family-owned business, aims to acquaint visitors with the styles, methods and ingredients used in traditional Louisiana cooking.
In a full demonstration and cooking class, you’ll be shown how to make a meal from scratch. Specialties include gumbo, chicken creole and pralines, and classes are led by chefs with a maximum of ten participants. You’ll eat what you cook, washing it down with an Abita – a locally brewed beer – or Deep South lemonade.
Surf on Bondi Beach, Australia
Wide white sands and foaming swells have made Bondi Beach hallowed in surfing lore, but it’s not just a place for experienced wave riders. The instructors here are specialists in helping beginners get going, too.
With a local Bondi surf dude as your teacher, you’ll don your wetsuit and head down to the beach to master basic surfing techniques on dry land. Once you know the simple movements, you’ll paddle out and start catching waves. Your instructor stays with you, and if you’re struggling to catch a wave by paddling alone, your tutor will help propel you into the crest of the wave. No matter your reservations or ability, you’re likely to be able to stand up on the board – not bad for your first ever surf lesson.
Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of Audley Travel.