The Unplugged Vacation

Want to come home from your next vacation feeling more deeply revived? Leave your tech gadgets – and habits – at home.

On the third day of his white-water rafting adventure on Idaho’s Salmon River, John Rogers reached suddenly for his iPhone. The “ring” he heard was a phantom one — cell phones and smartphones don’t work in North America’s second-deepest river-cut canyon. Which was precisely why Rogers, 48, came on this remote trip with his 15-year-old son and 81-year-old mother in the first place.

A bankruptcy attorney in Glasgow, Ky., Rogers, like many of us, maintains a hectic schedule and relies on technology to keep him on track. Yet he relishes time away from the seemingly constant noise of his computer and phone. “The volume of clients is overwhelming right now, so it’s a blessing to get away into a true wilderness area with three generations of my family,” says Rogers, “It's very calming not having to check email."

Instead of hearing ring tones and email alerts, Rogers paddled and listened to the rushing river for six days. Instead of snoozing in front of the TV, he and his son fell asleep watching the stars. They ate around campfires, spotted bighorn sheep and learned the river’s history. “Out here, you can really let your mind roam free,” he says.

Tethered by Technology

You don’t have to be a lawyer or a high-powered business executive to be distracted by cell phones, emails, pagers and text messages while on vacation. With technology always at our fingertips, it's easy for most of us to check in when we're supposed to be checked out.

Unfortunately, staying connected prevents us from truly enjoying the benefits of time away from the office, including feeling more relaxed and rejuvenated. Yet, about one in five Americans works while on ¬vacation, according to a 2004 study by the Families and Work Institute.

One easy way to unplug is to visit a remote wilderness area, where TV and Wi-Fi are absent. “Being in the wilderness renews your spirit,” says Salmon River Rafting’s owner, Wayne Johnson, who has worked as a river guide on some of the nation’s most remote rivers for 43 years. “It takes three to four days to shed your civilized skin and really relax into the rhythm of nature,” he says. “When you no longer have to keep up with world events or emails, there’s time for individual contemplation.”

In the wild, you escape the drone of machines and leave behind everyday conveniences, such as showering. But you don’t have to relinquish all the comfort and safety of civilization. Most backcountry outfitters, including Salmon River Rafting, carry a satellite phone for emergencies. And for those wanting a more comfortable getaway, unplugged experiences come in all shapes and sizes.

Luxury Without a Laptop

Want to trade the onslaught of bytes and bits for high-thread-count sheets, wine lists and indulgent spa treatments? At the luxurious Little Palm Island Resort in the Florida Keys, vacationers swim, dive, snorkel, sail and enjoy massages. What they don’t do is attempt to telecommute. Their tropical bungalows have no phones or TVs, and Wi-Fi is limited to the Great Room (unless you personally request it). Signs posted all over the island remind guests to refrain from using mobile devices anywhere — including the beach — other than in their private bungalow.

Few things intrude on your tranquility and trigger workplace recollections more readily than overhearing someone discussing business, which is why it makes sense to choose a destination that actively discourages connectivity. “Many of our guests are executives with heavy workloads, and they need their downtime,” says Susan Howarth, Little Palm Island’s marketing and sales director. “Our pool attendant once received a standing ovation for asking someone who was breaking the cell-phone rule to take their conversation to their room.”

Of course, even without such rules, throwing off the shackles of 24/7 Internet connections is easier “when you have the excuse that you’re on a remote Florida Key,” says Howarth.

So just how isolated do you need to be, and how assiduously must you avoid the distracting dings and beeps of modern technology? It depends on how you are wired. “If you check messages once or twice it probably won’t destroy your vacation,” says John de Graaf, executive director of Take Back Your Time, a U.S.-Canadian initiative challenging the epidemic of overwork and overscheduling. “In fact, some people feel more secure and can relax better if they check in with the office occasionally. But if you get in the habit of connecting all the time, it’s just not going to feel like a vacation.”
Going Cold Turkey
The fact is, you can get cell phone and Wi-Fi signals almost anywhere, anytime, so to really enjoy your time off, you need to police your own tech use. That’s how business development manager Trish Hoyt kept her ¬telemark ski trip to the Benedict Huts in the mountains near Aspen, Colo., feeling like a vacation. Even though she saw messages piling up on her BlackBerry, she wouldn’t allow herself to check them.

Hoyt, 46, of Golden, Colo., packed the device for emergency use during the four-day excursion; her fiancé left his iPhone in the car at the trailhead. The couple then skied in six miles to join a group of other ¬professionals in the hut, located at a snowy 10,970 feet.

“Checking messages would have been a social faux pas because everybody there was on vacation,” recalls Hoyt. “The others probably had their gadgets, too, but no one used them.” Because visitors to Benedict Huts, part of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, share everything — including bedrooms with bunk beds, wood-chopping duty and communal cooking — even a quick text message would become public knowledge.

“Working during vacation is a choice,” Hoyt adds. “I’m often guilty of replying to messages on holidays, but this time I decided we were going to enjoy a true vacation in a beautiful natural setting.”

Hoyt did make one exception to her tech ban. “One of my friends caught big air coming off a ski jump some snowboarders built,” she recalls. “I snapped a picture of him with my BlackBerry and emailed it to his wife. I know I’m a bit of a tech addict, but it was too fun a moment to pass up.”

Family Values

Disconnecting from technology can lead to reconnecting with your companions, as Pablo Miranda of Stillwater, Minn., discovered on a recent family camping trip in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. He, his two ¬teenaged children, his girlfriend and seven of her family members boated to the remote lake-island campsite, leaving behind video games, cell phones and iPods.

“Normally I have to text my 17-year-old daughter to communicate with her,” says Miranda, 43, who owns a house-painting business and is a world-music DJ. In the Boundary Waters Wilderness, where there’s no electricity or running water, the whole family had meaningful conversations, especially around the nightly campfire. They also snorkeled, canoed from island to island, captured crawdads and played card games — with no other humans for miles. “My kids won’t admit it, but I think they were actually relieved not having to stay in the loop with their friends,” he says.

Miranda observed how the family adapted to ¬living outdoors: going to bed at nightfall, sheltering from the rain, timing the day’s first swim when the sun warmed the water. “Life quickly centered around nature instead of the TV or talking on the phone,” he says. “It reminded me of the value of being present with each other. Catching and cooking a northern pike together is a memory my kids will always remember.”

The Sound of Silence

Want to really detach from the outside world? A ¬meditation retreat is the ultimate unplugged experience. Rebecca Wachtel, 33, a film and television makeup artist, found that a silent meditation retreat in northern New Mexico’s mountains was the perfect antidote to her high-speed Los Angeles life.

“Like a lot of people, I spend mindless hours on the computer,” Wachtel says. So when she learned of the 10-day retreat, held in silence except for nightly talks by the teachers, she knew it was an opportunity to turn off the tech and focus on spiritual work.

Solar-powered Vallecitos Mountain Refuge — located amid thousands of acres of national forest where there’s no cell-phone reception — became a place for Wachtel to cultivate mindfulness. “We have the illusion that we can hear, see and feel all at once,” she says. “If you pay attention, though, you realize your senses only work well one at a time.”

On hikes through the forest, for example, Wachtel’s senses were so heightened that she noticed the subtleties around her, like the sound of wind in the aspens. “This retreat put me into a quiet space — a state that’s ingrained in all humans — in which I was in tune with nature.”

Months later, Wachtel says she still benefits from the meditation retreat. “Now when I take a break from work, I go outside, look at the sky, and pay attention to the simplicity around me. Taking that mental vacation from my BlackBerry is freeing and helps me be more connected to the world and free from the stress of the mind.”

Before Your Disconnect

Take these steps to alleviate any pangs of guilt (or anxiety) you might have about unplugging from the office:

  • Leave out-of-office messages on email and voice mail explaining that you’ll be out of range until your return; provide a backup contact in case there’s an urgent request.
  • Prep colleagues for your absence. Before you depart, role-play how they might respond to urgent matters.
  • Make a list of true emergencies that merit interrupting your vacation (if you can be reached).
  • Schedule one or two check-in times with a coworker so you can call for brief but productive updates.
By Laurel Kallenbach/ March 2010/ Experience Life Magazine
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