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Dare to Dream

Athletic fantasies become reality at these sports-immersion schools.

surfer

It’s the twinge you get when you see a kite surfer effortlessly riding the waves, a rock climber scaling a cliff, a skier tearing up the slopes. The twinge of longing: I wish I could do that. . . .

You can! And you should. Scientists who study aging tell us that a key to living a long, happy life lies in our ability to keep learning and moving. Increasingly, people are stepping out of their comfort zones and challenging themselves to learn new athletic skills. The benefits, they’re discovering, are worth the growing pains: Not only are they becoming proficient at a new sport, but they’re also developing more confidence and courage while staying physically and mentally fit.

Need a nudge to pursue your athletic dreams? A beginner sports-immersion camp may be just the thing.

Challenge Yourself

At training sites across the country and around the world, outdoor outfitters are offering fun — and intense — introductory courses for newbie athletes. Led by certified instructors and lasting anywhere from a couple of days to two weeks, these getaways immerse participants in their activity of choice. They learn the basic skills and techniques, and then get plenty of opportunities to put their newfound knowledge into practice.

On his first surfing vacation, for instance, Joe Waters discovered that getting up on a surfboard isn’t so hard — it’s staying up that’s the challenge. At 63, Waters likes to stay active, riding his motorcycle and mountain bike, golfing, and skiing. Surfing, however, was a longtime dream. “It’s something I wanted to accomplish while I’m still physically strong and have a lot of energy,” he says.

So last February, Waters joined seven other adults for a seven-day beginners’ class with Surf Camp, Inc., in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Instructors taught them how to lie on the ­surfboard, carry it into the water, fall off safely and avoid rip currents. They also learned how to read the waves and catch the right one.

They practiced, and then practiced some more. “By the end of the week, most of the group were standing on their boards,” Waters says. “None of us were great surfers, but we were all to the point where we could jump on the board and ride for some distance.”

That modest success was enough: Waters was hooked. He’s since gone on Surf Camp trips to Costa Rica and attended the company’s base camp in North Carolina for private lessons. The president of a waste-recycling company in Medina, Ohio, Waters casually mentions that during an upcoming business trip to San Diego, he might “head up to La Jolla” to catch some waves.

A New Passion

It’s not unusual for novices like Waters to progress from nervous beginners to devotees after a sports vacation. “They catch the bug,” says Karen Najarian, who leads beginning backpacking trips through Yosemite National Park for REI Adventures. Discovering that in just a few days you can actually excel in a sport you had only dreamed about doing is exhilarating. And once you get a taste, there’s a good chance you’ll just want more.

That’s what happened when Jason Gould, a 37-year-old photographer and former pro bike racer from New York City, went on his first river-kayaking trip last May. He was familiar with rivers, having done a fair amount of canoeing. But he was looking for a little more action. “I wanted to try something with more excitement than a lazy paddle down the river,” he says.

An Internet search led him to Zoar Outdoors in Charlemont, Mass., for a three-day course on the dam-controlled Deerfield River. It was just enough to whet his appetite. “I saw a lot of room to improve and lots of possibilities,” he says.

He returned to Zoar twice more to practice his ­newfound hobby and felt his world expand. “It changed a lot of things for me,” he admits, adding that river kayaking has become his passion, shaping his free time and schedule in completely new ways.

“If you’re really curious about a sport, going and ­learning that sport is the only way to do it,” he says. “To try something in a day and walk away with any real experience is hard. It takes time and practice.”

Taking It All In

While tackling a new sport is fun, it can be a “sensory overload,” says Marty Molitoris, director and owner of Alpine Endeavors climbing school in New Paltz, N.Y. With any learning experience, students are required to absorb a lot of new information, learn to use new equipment and then embody this knowledge to execute the activity. Progress, not perfection, is key to keeping the activity fun.

“You need to learn to move, stand and breathe in new ways. There are technical skills and motor skills involved. If you don’t do it often, you forget or your performance level goes down,” he says. “When you do it for a few consecutive days, you start to feel comfortable. And the more comfortable with the skills you are, the more you can do bigger objectives and more climbs.”

For Elizabeth Winter, 26, a naturopathy student in San Francisco, a 10-day scuba-diving vacation on the tiny island of Utila, off the coast of Honduras, promised to be an exciting and challenging intro to scuba ­diving. Through a package offered by Utila Dive Centre, she received basic and advanced open-water certifications from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), which allow her to dive anywhere in the world at depths up to 100 feet. The first certification was a ­“rigorous four days,” she says, while the advanced ­certification took two more days and included night and deep dives, and even an exploration of a sunken ship.

Once certified, Winter was diving four times a day, twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. “I really didn’t do anything else, because by the end of the day I was so exhausted,” she says. But she can’t wait to do it again.

“Scuba diving is a super way to travel to a lot of great places,” she says, “and it’s a great way to meet really interesting, cool people.”

With Competence Comes Confidence

“Wow, I can do this!” is a phrase instructors frequently hear when their students start mastering the skills. And spreading the learning curve over many days — allowing your mind and body to integrate the information and then practice what you’ve learned — is what creates that competence, says Molitoris.

REI’s Karen Najarian loves it when people who take her backcountry backpacking course in Yosemite realize that they don’t have to be athletes to hike through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. “Most of them have never done this before,” she says. “They are afraid of bears, that they won’t be able to keep up, that they will hold the group back, all this stuff. By the end of the trip, they just feel awesome.”

That newfound confidence is exactly what Elaine Parker, a tour leader with Sojourn Bicycling and Active Vacations in Vermont, strives to instill in her snowshoe students. By the end of her five-day Vermont Winter Wonderland snowshoe tour, students can use a map and compass, and identify animal prints in the snow. They’ve also covered up to 15 miles a day, even in subzero temperatures.

Judy Bayer of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., discovered that snowshoeing through the tranquil Vermont countryside is thrilling — even at 20 degrees below zero. Bayer, 70, an active bicyclist and sports enthusiast (she just tried snowboarding a few years ago), was surprised by how easily the skills came. “At first we were tentative and cold, but we soon felt like experts,” she says.

“As a tour guide, it’s a big part of my job to help people feel less apprehensive and more comfortable,” says Parker. “That’s why I get everyone out on their snowshoes on the first afternoon, so they can find out they can do it, and that it’s fun, too!”

Pick Your Trip

When selecting a beginner sports vacation, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Student-to-instructor ratio. Depending on the sport, one instructor for every two to four students is typical and usually allows enough individualized ­attention. If you’re looking for more personalized instruction, inquire about one-on-one lessons.
  • Solo or group getaways. Sometimes you want to travel with friends or family; other times you may prefer to go it alone. Many sports-trip outfitters offer a range of options to accommodate any preference.
  • Length. How in-depth do you want to go? You can get an introduction to a new sport in a day or two, but if you want to get over the learning curve, consider a longer trip. The more time you spend practicing your activity right after learning it, the closer you will be to mastering the skills and techniques.
  • Variety. Spending multiple days focusing on learning a new sport can be physically — and mentally — challenging, so many sports-vacation outfitters offer additional activities to round out the experience and provide much-deserved breaks. Decide if you want all-out lessons or practice, or if you wouldn’t mind a little downtime. Many outfitters also arrange private ­excursions if you have a side adventure in mind.

For a list of outfitters that offer beginner instruction in a variety of sports, see the Web Extra!

WEB EXTRA!

Get Out There!

Sports- and adventure-travel companies offer a number of beginning-level trips. An Internet search of your sport of choice is a good place to start, but here are a few to pique your interest.

BACKPACKING
REI Adventures: Offers all-inclusive, four-day introduction to backpacking trips in Yosemite National Park; capped at 10 students, the trips have a guide-to-student ratio of 1:5. $675/person; www.rei.com/adventures

Appalachian Mountain Club: Offers guided overnight and two-night backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maine. From $278/person; www.outdoors.org

ROCK CLIMBING
Alpine Endeavors: Offers two- to seven-day rock-climbing trips in New Paltz, N.Y., for beginning to intermediate students; includes camping or other lodging, equipment, instruction, and some meals. $675 to $1,075/person; www.alpineendeavors.com

Adventures in Good Company: Instructional rock-climbing and yoga trips for women in prime climbing locations, such as Joshua Tree National Park, Calif., and around Boulder, Colo. From $995/person; www.adventuresingoodcompany.com

SURFING
Surf Camp, Inc.:
 All-inclusive seven-day beginning adult and family surf trips to the British Virgin Islands, Costa Rica and Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Includes two surf lessons and two meals each day, plus lodging. Some trips offer additional activities. $1,750 to $2,195/person; www.wbsurfcamp.com

Green Iguana Surf Camp: The six-day–seven-night “basic” package in Playa Dominical, Costa Rica, includes a five-day surfing fundamentals course (surfing twice per day), equipment usage, accommodations, and side activities like river tubing and visiting a reptile park. $1,095/person; www.greeniguanasurfcamp.com

SNOWSHOEING
Vermont Winter Wonderland Tour: An all-inclusive five-day snowshoe adventure that includes lodging at New England inns, day and nighttime snowshoe treks, horse-drawn sleigh rides, animal tracking and most meals. $2,095/person; www.gosojourn.com

RIVER KAYAKING
Zoar Outdoor: Offers two-, three- and five-day beginning river kayaking camps in Charlemont, Mass., that include lodging, instruction, equipment and most meals. $280 to $570/person; www.zoaroutdoor.com

Kokopelli River Center: This Ashland, Ore., kayaking outfitter offers a five-day “Camping and Kayaking: Whitewater Immersion” for beginners. $799/person; www.kokopellikayak.com

SCUBA DIVING*
Utila Dive Centre:
 All-inclusive packages in Honduras that include PADI open-water certification and dive options including two or more dives per day, plus night dives, expeditions to coral reefs and sunken ship exploration. $749 to $979/person for seven days; www.utiladivecentre.com

*The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) is the recognized certifying body for scuba-diving courses. Visit the PADI Web site for information about scuba trips and resorts around the world; www.padi.com

Kelle Walsh is a writer in San Francisco.

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