On the road: For seniors, travel offers chance for adventure, learning, serendipity


5 14 Prime travel

Former Bellingham City Council member Louise Bjornson and her husband, Dale, visited Iceland in September 2010. During their visit they went to Gullfoss, which some people consider Iceland's most famous waterfall. Louise is holding onto a rope because there is not much distance between the path and the cliff above the falls.


For all the research and planning that goes into travel, Louise Bjornson says it's also important to look out for the moments that are unexpected.

"Travel is an experience," she says.

A former Bellingham City Council member and an experienced traveler, Bjornson has fond memories of a Christmas walk in Seville, Spain, where she watched locals setting off fireworks in celebration, and of friends she has met along the way, such as the bed-and-breakfast owner in Iceland who helped her research the genealogy of her husband, Dale. They discovered that he and her husband were distantly related.

That wasn't on the itinerary.

"You always want to plan a trip well," Bjornson says. "But things happen, and you just have to enjoy it."

Bjornson, 71, has always been a traveler. But for many Whatcom County seniors, retirement is when they finally have the time, and sometimes the disposable income, to take trips that seemed out of reach when they only had a few weeks of vacation each year, kids in college, and other demands on their time and money.


Nearly a third of all leisure travelers from the United States are 55 or older, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That share is expected to grow as baby boomers continue to retire.

Whether through a well-researched travel agent or through programs targeted at older travelers in Whatcom County, there are many ways to experience the country and the world.

"There is definitely an increase in people who are baby boomers who say, 'I've worked hard and saved my entire life,' and they're looking at trips to Italy, South America; big international trips," says Linda Muljat, a group travel agent with Bellingham Travel and Cruise.

Many of today's mature travelers are in good health and looking for adventures.

"This isn't the sit-back-easy-on-the-bus-trip group," Muljat says.

Popular destinations include places like Costa Rica, where visitors do a lot of hiking and have other opportunities to be active, such as zip lining and rafting. Canal boating down a river, a cruise-like experience, also is popular, whether in the Midwest or in France and Germany.

Even people who aren't physically able to tackle "adventure" trips are looking for memorable times through food, history, culture and architecture.

"A lot of younger people want to go on a vacation and rest," Muljat says. "When they are older, they want to learn and experience."

Cheryl Willis says she finds the same mindset among the travelers she organizes trips for through Bellingham Senior Activity Center, whether the trip is two-hour jaunt to Seattle, a boat trip to Alaska or a flight to Ireland.

"They are looking for mentally stimulating experiences," Willis says.

Willis has recently organized trips to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters, to a special behind-the-scenes trip to the studio of glass artist Dale Chihuly, and to the kitchen of a skilled chocolatier.

Last year, the senior center hosted a trip along the northern stretch of the Mississippi River in a replica paddleboat. People learned the history of the river and stopped at the hometown of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Mo., and at St. Louis, all accompanied by historians for an educational adventure.


For many senior travelers, going with family or friends, or meeting friends through a tour with the common connection of Whatcom County, is a safe way to experience new places.

"Many people make lifelong friendships along the way," Willis says. "There's a lot of laughter."

Bjornson, who has gone on several trips through the senior center, including the Mississippi River outing, says that while she could have arranged a trip to the Midwest on her own, there was no other way to see the locale in such detail.

For extended trips, Willis says they hold informational meetings to help people with questions about traveling with prescriptions, evaluating whether some activities will be too strenuous for certain travelers, and how to pack efficiently so they can handle their own luggage.

Willis says there are safeguards for people who have difficulties with mobility or who don't have as much energy as others in their group. Itineraries typically include rest stops or breaks every two hours, and on extended trips they are always in the location where they will spend the night by dinner time. At that point, the traveler can stay in for dinner and rest, or join the group for dinner and, on some nights, an evening activity.

Susan Bakse, director of alumni programs at Western Washington University, says there is an educational component for trips picked for their alumni travel program.

Bakse says many of the tours are focused on alumni 60 and older. Often, the trips include university faculty, who share their knowledge of science, history and culture.

Bakse says they try to keep groups small, so people can get to know each other and have good access to experts, including professors and guides who speak the native language where they are traveling.

The program offers up to a dozen trips a year for alumni and family and friends of alumni. This summer, people will cruise Lewis and Clark's path along the Snake and Columbia rivers, visit the thermal attractions of Iceland, and enjoy the art, food and history of Tuscany, Italy, with the guidance of a Western professor.

With each trip, travelers are given a reading list ahead of time, in case they want to learn before their journey begins, Bakse says.

People in the groups can buy travel insurance through the university, for protection if they become ill or have a medical emergency.

At the senior center, Willis says she will continue to work with their travel committee to help members fulfill their "dream list" of places they want to visit and experiences they want to enjoy.

For some, it may just be a day in Seattle, perhaps to a Mariners game, because they're unable to drive or don't want to hassle with parking.

"There are wonders of the world," Willis says, "but there are also things locally that are not to be missed."

Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.


For details about group tours through Bellingham Senior Activity Center, visit wccoa.org and click on the tour link, or call 360-733-4030, ext. 47015.

For details about group tours through Western Washington University Alumni Association, visit wwu.edu/alumnitravel or call 360-650-7283.

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