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How to plan a vacation that’s truly restorative

VACATION
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There's an art to planning time away that allows you to come home refreshed.

I used to say that I wanted to take a vacation to a hotel room where I could spend all day sleeping. That was mostly a joke, but it definitely had an element of truth in it. What I really wanted was a chance to unplug, rest, and recharge … which is not what most of us tend to think of when we think of a vacation.

The vacations I see on Facebook are full of doingWhether it’s Disney World or Europe, they are filled with long days of going, seeing, experiencing, and without a doubt, enjoying all the activities the destination has to offer. But y’all, regular life is busy. It’s so busy that the idea of taking a vacation only to be equally busy in a new and different place holds literally no appeal for me.

That’s actually not a bad thing, much to my relief. It doesn’t mean I hate fun or anything — it just means that when I think of taking a vacation, I imagine something restorative … which is ideally what a vacation should be. Taking a restorative vacation requires more planning, introspection, and self-control than most of us are used to, but the tradeoff is worth it, according to Tonic:

Do vacation right, and you’ll feel less stressed, tired, and dissatisfied, and more happy and energized when you return, research shows. “The people who get a true break and are really getting away have much better benefits when it comes to their health and happiness,” says Katie Denis, chief of research and strategy for Project: Time Off. Here’s how you can make your holiday work in your favor instead of wearing you down …

Instead of aiming to check as many destinations and activities off your list as possible, ask: “How do I want to experience this place?”… Eat as many whole, fresh, local foods as you can and drink lots of water—wellness expert Riza Niam suggests taking a filtration bottle to avoid contaminants in tap. Exercise also helps, but that doesn’t mean holing yourself up in the hotel gym doing squats. Instead, get out and explore your surroundings on foot or by bike, kayak, or stand-up paddleboard, he says.

It’s no surprise that the key things that turn a vacation into a time of relaxation and restoration are the same things that smooth out and improve the quality of our everyday lives. We tend to think of vacation time as a chance to break all the rules, throw temperance out the window, and pretend that calories and alcohol have zero negative effects when consumed in excessive amounts. Is it any wonder that people tend to come back from vacation more drained and exhausted than when they left?

I love the idea of approaching a vacation in a new way by asking ourselves, “How do I want to experience this place?” rather than “What do I want to see/do?” For me, the question “what do I want to see?” always feels like it comes loaded with obligations, particularly if I’m in a place with unique artifacts or architecture that I likely won’t return to. There can be a sense of pressure to see all the things because it’s my only chance — but that just turns my vacation into another checklist to complete. It’s absolutely liberating to ditch the tourist guide and list of must-sees and instead create an experience that we will savor and enjoy — obligation-free.

Of course, savoring an experience requires us to be well-rested, reasonably healthy, and definitely sober. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been looking forward to learning to paddleboard for the first time — if you’re hungover, bleary-eyed, and full of cheese, the experience is likely to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Eating good food, sleeping enough, and moderating our alcohol content on a vacation isn’t a punishment, it’s a gift to ourselves. It allows us to make the most of the time and place and fully enjoy it.

So the next time you’re planning a vacation, change the narrative. Don’t make a list off the things you want to see (and definitely don’t make a list of all the things you think you should want to see!). Instead, ask yourself what kind of experience you want to have — then have the self-control to give yourself that gift.

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