Wanderlust at 50-Plus

Four adventures for life in retirement.

Illustrations by Nathalie Dion

Do you recall with misty-eyed nostalgia the tinny charm of VW microvan campers or the psychedelic adventures of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters? Do you remember when every soulful-eyed boy with shoulder-length locks kept a dog-eared copy of On the Road or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tucked in his backpack? Well maybe it’s time to hang your love beads on the rearview mirror, slap a flower-power sticker on the backpack, and hit the road. As tonic for these dreary winter days, we offer four alternatives to sate your inner Kerouac.

Roam Smart(er)

Active and edifying adventures for intellectual travelers. 

Some people’s ideal vacation involves sitting in the sun with a book and a beverage. Others prefer a more active escape—a chance to discover new cultures, meet people, or learn about the world. If you’re the curious sort, then consider putting a learning adventure on your itinerary.

A number of colleges and universities in Virginia offer programs for older adults, including the University of Richmond’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where the array of offerings includes travel opportunities. Celeste Miller and Lee Ann Pickering are active Osher volunteers and members, as well as lifelong travelers, who have visited every continent and destinations from Cuba and Bhutan to Machu Picchu and Easter Island.

Why travel with an education-focused organization? Miller and Pickering cite a range of reasons, from the convenience of letting someone else handle planning and logistics to the emphasis on learning and unique cultural experiences. Pickering says she’s had dinner on the floor of a hut in the Amazon and discussed politics in a Buenos Aires home on the eve of a presidential election. Miller has participated in volunteer activities and, on her trip to Cuba, connected with a relative living there. Both also note the benefits of working with travel organizations that focus on the interests and needs of older adults.

Think again, though, if you imagine that traveling with fellow seniors means the trip will be slow-paced and sedentary. UR’s Osher has a 2019 trip scheduled with Road Scholar, a not-for-profit organization that bills itself as “the world’s largest and most innovative creator of experiential learning opportunities.” It offers a dizzying array of options, from extravagant to affordable, for the lifelong-learner market: strenuous mountain trekking, culture-rich canal cruises, birding jaunts, Buddhist retreats, service learning, workshops in Freudian dream interpretation. Browse their offerings and indulge in a reverie of imagined adventures. RoadScholar.orgSPCS.Richmond.edu/Osher

Get Rollin’

Planning to ride into retirement? Join the club.

In 2017, Fran Wenbert of Williamsburg rode 11,503 miles on her bicycle to win the “most miles ridden” award from her cycling club, Williamsburg Area Bicyclists (WAB). And as 2018 wound down, she was aiming to break 12,000 miles, including a total of 20 hundred-mile “century” rides, before year’s end. Impressive for any cyclist, her riding resume is particularly remarkable for the fact that Wenbert is 61 and took up cycling only three years ago. Wenbert notes that her age makes her no outlier, either. Many of her fellow WAB-ers, she says, have long since crossed the AARP threshold. There’s a club member who’s 89 and still riding. Inspired by Wenbert’s example? You can find local cycling clubs like WAB throughout Virginia; many offer beginner/newcomer-friendly rides and events. 

The state also boasts a growing network of multi-use trails free of vehicle traffic. Among these are beautifully scenic options for off-road bicycles, such as the 31-mile High Bridge Trail and 57-mile New River Trail, and the mostly downhill Virginia Creeper trail. For all kinds of bikes and bicyclists, there are the 18-mile paved Mt. Vernon Trail along the Potomac and the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park between Shirlington and Purcellville. And the newest jewel in the crown is the 51.7-mile paved Virginia Capital Trail between downtown Richmond and Jamestown settlement. It was the Capital Trail, which passes near her home and for which she now serves as a trail “ambassador” volunteer, that helped turn Wenbert into a serious cycling convert.

Ready to roam farther? The Adventure Cycling Association and the Rails to Trails Conservancy are great resources for finding trails, riding routes, and other information; Adventure Cycling also offers guided tours including a two-day “intro to road touring.” Or enjoy one of the fully supported small-group tours for riders “50 years of age or better,” from Asheville, North Carolina-based Senior Cycling. 

“If you want to be outside and get exercise and enjoy being with people,” says Wenbert, “bicycling is a phenomenal activity.”

Find Your Trail: WABOnline.org | DCR.Virginia.gov/state-parks | VaCreeperTrail.org | NoVaParks.com | VirginiaCapitalTrail.org | AdventureCycling.org | RailsToTrails.org | SeniorCycling.com

Go #VanLife

Enjoy versatility and luxury with a decked-out adventure van.

If you search the term #VanLife on Instagram, you’ll find endless images of beautiful young people leading lives of seemingly unfettered freedom in tiny homes on wheels, brought to you courtesy of strategic product placement and PhotoShop.

But Mike Canino of Off Grid Adventure Vans in Gaithersburg, Maryland, says in reality it’s the “50-plus” adventurers who fill the year-long waiting list at his fast-growing van-conversion business. This is not surprising, considering that, at the high end of the market, a brand-new adventure van with features like four-wheel drive, hot-water showers, solar power, and custom cabinetry can set you back more than $200,000—hardly your typical millennial’s disposable income. Off Grid’s eco-friendly base model starts in the more reasonable $70K range, but you can add features from a WiFi signal booster to a shower and composting toilet.

Apparently #VanLife retirement is a trend that hasn’t escaped AARP’s notice; last fall the organization ran a sponsored ad on social media featuring “Kathleen and Karl,” a photogenic couple of empty-nesters, and their tricked-out home-away-from-home adventure van.

These vans offer comfort and convenience without the stodgy vibe, maneuverability challenges, and gas-guzzling heft of a full-size RV. That works for Off Grid’s older customers; Canino says they aren’t the “digital nomads” looking to live out of their vans. “They’re not going to be blogging from Joshua Tree,” he says. Rather, they want the benefits of being able to travel with the ease and versatility an adventure van makes possible. “What is more important to them is the mobility,” he says. “They want to get out and do more and see more.” OGAVans.com

Test-drive the Life

Dreaming of tiny homes and off-grid explorations? Outdoorsy.com, which brings peer-to-peer sharing to the RV market, lets you give #VanLife a whirl for a weekend or more. Eric Johnston of Charlottesville, who rents his solar-equipped 2014 Ram Promaster conversion van via Outdoorsy, says most of his renters are curious to try out the experience—whether for a weekend of camping or a week traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Tempted to try it? Use referral code Outdoorsy.com/invite/ericjc26 to receive $50 off your first rental of any RV.)

For a more traditional rental, AceRV rentals in Herndon has you covered. You can rent the fantasy to its fullest, complete with galley kitchen, full wetbath, and an LED TV. AceRVRentals.com

Meet the World

Whether you want to host or travel, this club connects you with fellow seniors. 

When Peter Mangan of Dublin, Ireland, started renting out his home on Airbnb several years ago, he enlisted his father, widowed and in his 70s, to help with day-to-day management. Then he started noticing something. “When older guests came to stay, there was a natural bonding between my dad and his guests,” says Mangan. “All of a sudden they were doing things together”—visiting the local pub, having dinner together, sightseeing in the area. “It was transformative,” says Mangan. “It gave my dad a whole new lease on life and a sense of purpose.” And the visitors were raving in their reviews about how spending time with Mangan’s father was “the highlight of the trip.”

A lot of brainstorming, focus-group testing, and fine-tuning later, The Freebird Club was born in 2017 as a “peer-to-peer social travel and homestay club for older adults.” Although it’s sometimes billed in the press as an “Airbnb for seniors,” the model is different in important ways, meant to foster social interactions as much as to provide a place to stay. First, you join as a member (minimum age, 50) for a small fee and create a detailed profile that includes your interests, favorite things (such as books, music, or travel destinations), and a one-sentence “philosophy of life.” There is a vetting process for new members to confirm their identity, which adds a level of security for hosts and guests. And the host always lives on the property, too, and commits to offering a range of host/guest interactions, from a minimum of “a warm welcome for an independent traveler” to acting as a local tour guide—allowing guests and hosts to match their desired level of connection.

In the barely two years since it was launched, The Freebird Club has grown to include members from 72 countries worldwide and has won several social impact awards. Mangan is now working to enlist investors and draw more hosts to the platform. And what he has seen so far confirms that members truly are embracing the social component. “What we are seeing,” he says, “is people really planning to do things together.” TheFreebirdClub.com

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum