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February 10, 2023

My Learning Holiday – an Education on Vacation

Melanie Bell

©Getty Images/Tatomm

In September 2022, I sat in a room full of paintings in the South of France, across from a best-selling novelist. A group of us listened intently as she guided us through the intricacies of plotting fiction while the sun blazed outside.

I was on a writing retreat – a learning holiday.

Learning holidays combine instruction and skill development with exploration of a destination. And they're growing in popularity.

Educational Vacations

If you yearn to learn while traveling, there are plenty of options to explore: you can find group or solo trips; you can practice a language; learn a new art form; explore history; try a new sport; or engage in a combination of activities.

This wasn't my first time mixing education with travel. As the U.K. began to open up from COVID-19 restrictions, I did a couple of budget-friendly "eduvacations."

I used the Workaway website – which matches travelers with hosts offering accommodation in exchange for labor – to spend two weeks on an estate in South Wales. I helped with chores around the bed-and-breakfast and garden while learning about farming and the local area from my gracious hosts (and their pigs, ducks and chickens).

On another trip, I spent a week working on a farm in the Scottish Highlands, learning how to care for horses – and sleeping in an actual barn. Both experiences were a lot of fun!

I thought of those travels as I contemplated holiday destinations last year. I'd been saying for years, "Someday I'll go on a writing retreat." With travel restrictions lessened, it felt like time to take the plunge.

Writing in Good Company

I'd been drafting a novel for a year and a half and wanted to get it done. A writing retreat seemed like the ideal way to focus on my goal while traveling and finding a social community.

I researched retreats and decided on Chez Castillon, a gorgeous 18th-century home owned by two U.K. expats who host creative retreats in France's wine country. The September retreat was led by Julie Cohen, author of award-winning novels that have sold over a million copies worldwide. I figured I'd learn a lot from someone with that experience.

Chez Catillon: the writing retreat.

The first surprise of the retreat was the age gap!

I'm in my mid-thirties. The other participants? Some of them had children my age. I felt a little awkward edging my way into the group, but everyone was welcoming. After some wine and cheese by the pool, I relaxed considerably!

The participants ranged from someone brand new to creative writing to a seasoned author of multiple self-published books. We all had things to learn from each other.

Discipline and Accountability

Having heard stories of writers who went on retreats and didn't end up writing, I wasn't sure how much work I'd do poolside in the balmy French climate. But I chose a retreat where I'd be happy with either outcome. Work or no work, it would be great to spend time in a beautiful house, eating delicious food and chatting around town in the fluent French I don't get many chances to use.

I enjoyed all of those things – and learned more about writing than I'd thought possible. Before the retreat, Julie had read outlines and chapters for participants' projects, so she was able to give individualized feedback. As a mentor, she zeroed in on my challenge of complicating my story while struggling to articulate its heart.

"I wasn't sure how much work I'd do poolside in the balmy French climate."

Another day, she led a workshop on plotting novels with the help of sticky notes. She showed me that the structure of my novel wasn't working as intended. I spent a morning organizing colorful notes as I reorganized the plot. It's a much more coherent manuscript now.

I learned much about self-publishing from one participant, and a great deal about thinking through plot structure from others. I found activity partners to swim or run with in the mornings. And in a group of peers who took their writing seriously, I took mine more seriously, too.

Toward the Future

I'm glad to have gone on a writing retreat last year. In terms of both enjoyment and accomplishment, it was more than I'd hoped for. I'd love to go on another learning holiday and experience that unique mix of culture and activity engagement. Maybe I'll do something language-related next time!

If the idea of a learning holiday piques your interest, consider looking for something that matches what you already love to do (like writing for me), something you've always wanted to do, or a challenge you'd like to take on. Do your research and find options that seem exciting – not just educational.

And once you're on the road, stay open-minded. Part of the fun of learning on vacation is that you don't know what you're going to learn until you learn it!

Have you been on a learning holiday? How did it work out? Let us know in the Comments, below!

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