My first ‘learning’ holiday was a Spanish language course in Valencia. I was sixteen and homesick. Then I met Enrique, a tall, blonde train driver. We drank sangria and stayed out until 7am. I didn’t learn much Spanish, but I was still at school – learning and holidays were mutually incompatible.
It was another fifteen years before I tried putting them together again. I enrolled on a salsa weekend, this time in Barcelona. We practised the steps in a studio in the morning and whirled around the dance floor, fuelled by tapas and rich red Rioja, at night.
My first cookery course was in Cornwall. An editor at The Independent sent me to Rick Stein’s school - as a joke. I had set fire to my kitchen making teriyaki salmon for my book club friends. I dragged my heels thinking I would hate it, but was immediately hooked. It was the perfect pint-size package: the setting, a little Cornish fishing village, the group gregarious, the food gourmet – and the wine flowing. I skipped home with a folder full of recipes and a passion for Padstow.
Since then I’ve learnt how to make organic cosmetics in France, bread in Cumbria and pizza and pasta in Italy. I’ve done tai chi in Umbria and learnt how to be a mahout in Thailand.
And I’m not alone. A Mintel report published in August 2009 highlights the growing trend for learning holidays and our changing tastes as far as overseas travel goes. We no longer want to just flop on the beach - we crave new experiences and want to come home with a new skill. It might be a niche market, but it’s one that’s expanding rapidly.
But why do we feel the need to learn something on holiday? By definition a holiday (or holy day) is a time of rest. Do we really need our free time timetabled? Have we lost the ability to amuse ourselves? Or even to relax. Check out the growth in yoga and spa breaks too.
In the Guardian last month, Dea Birkett railed against this ‘new wave of foreign travel anxiety’ – the fact that you’re made to feel guilty if you’re not combining your holiday with saving turtles or embarking on a programme of self-improvement.
However, if you enjoy painting or you’ve always wanted to pick up a brush, what could be lovelier than setting up your easel on a Tuscan hillside surrounded by rippling fields of wildflowers? You love Italian food but never seem to have time to learn new recipes or techniques. You can’ t cram in that Pilates class at home…
We’re all so used to multi-tasking that it makes sense to combine a couple of interests on holiday, or use the time to experiment with something new. After all it’s not like being at school – the classes are fun and relaxed and there’s plenty of free time. A learning holiday just gives a bit of structure to your days and allows you to go home feeling that you’ve spent your time well.
It’s also about immersing yourself in a different culture, of course, rather than just skimming the surface. And how much more fulfilling is it to tuck into a plate of pasta that you’ve created with an Italian chef in an old Tuscan villa than sitting down to that same dish in a local restaurant - knowing that you’ll be able to recreate it back home for your friends?