Maybe it’s the natural human desire for self-improvement. Maybe it’s simply the desire to put something novel on Instagram. Whatever the reason, we all now seem hungry to acquire new skills and make the most of our time when we go away. The ever-increasing range of hotel-based courses and tuition packages available to adults make that very evident, especially at this back-to-school time of year.
Some holiday learning courses are so cool they've become popular gifts, such as the day-long cookery classes at the Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Paris, which cost €320 (Dh1,411) and sell like, well, hot cakes. But although booking into a Four Seasons, say, for a half-day city-art tour in New York or week-long surfing course in the Seychelles is easy, it can be more challenging and rewarding to hunt out a class or course abroad that's aimed primarily at locals – and to make separate accommodation arrangements. Learning something that way can be a great way to bond, too – with locals, friends or family – as you throw yourself out of your comfort zone and into private dance classes in New York, Spanish classes in Barcelona or learning how to use centuries-old tools to preserve an ancient woodland in rural England.
1. Glass-working in Venice
Venice has been the centre of glassmaking in Italy since the 13th century, but the number of professional glassmakers has been falling in recent decades. To remedy that, manufacturers Abate Zanetti have set up a school in Murano to train local artisans and anyone else who's interested. Practical courses – taught in Italian and English – cover furnace glassblowing, stained glass, fusing and lampworking (the Renaissance-born technique of using clamps and methane-gas flames to shape still-soft glass into rods and tubes to model into jewellery or sculptures).
The next beginners’ courses in lampworking run from October 8 to 12 and November 12 to 16, and in fusing, or thermoforming, a more recently devised technique that uses glass oxides and glazes to produce minutely coloured sculptural tiles, from October 15 to 18 and November 19 to 22. All provide 18 hours of tuition for €650 (Dh2,955). Private sessions cost €155 (Dh683) per hour. Staying on the island means you get to enjoy a peacefulness long lost from the heart of Venice, and Sofitel’s nearby LaGare Hotel, in a former glass factory, offers a free shuttle to Piazza San Marco.
Doubles at LaGare Hotel cost from £121 (Dh606).
2. Discovering the houses and gardens of Sintra, Portugal
To improve your knowledge of a subject, you need an expert – someone who can inform you, stimulate your curiosity and answer all your questions. This is the person you meet – in different guises – on one of Art Tours’ bespoke trips in Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal or Russia. “Life begins the day you start a garden,” as the Chinese proverb goes, and the magnificent houses and gardens in and around Sintra, former seat of Portuguese royalty, make a particularly rewarding autumn trip.
Summer’s horrendous traffic has mostly disappeared and days are still warm enough for it to be a pleasure to stroll around the various gardens. The guide doubles as your driver on this tour, so you have the luxury of being able to interrogate them to your heart’s content as you explore the palaces and cool green spaces. You stay in appropriate style in an elegant privately owned old house that is only occasionally made available to guests.
Three nights, including transfers from Lisbon, daily driver/guide, and bed and breakfast at a private boutique guesthouse costs about £3,300 per person (Dh16,542); arttoursltd.com
3. Learn Spanish in Spain
Being able to speak at least a little of the local language adds a lot to any trip abroad, even if it’s just seeing horror on the face of a local person who assumes you can’t understand a word when talking rudely about you. Nothing is as effective as being immersed in a foreign language, surrounded by people speaking it. And for intensive, accelerated-learning language courses, GoLearnTo, which runs courses at various levels in Spanish as well as French, German and Italian, arranges homestay courses.
In eight days, participants get 20 private, one-hour, one-on-one lessons with a qualified teacher while actually living with them, in a spare room in their home, and eating all meals together. That might sound odd, but it’s a method used for 40 years that has shown participants make as much progress after one week’s homestay as in four weeks at a non-residential course. The Spanish courses are based in Barcelona, and as well as ordinary flats, there are some five-star family options.
Eight-day courses, including homestay accommodation and meals, cost from £1,096 (Dh5,494); golearnto.com
4. Painting in Fes, Morocco
Once the crossroads of old trading routes linking the Sahara with the Mediterranean, the labyrinthine medina of Fes is now the best-preserved in the Arab world, with brilliant colours and photogenic sights seemingly unchanged for centuries. What makes you look at the scene in front of you in detail, however, is trying to capture it with paint rather than a flick of your thumb on a cameraphone. It’s challenging.
This October, the Moroccan city is the subject of one of the four or five themed painting holidays aimed at “creative explorers” and artists of all standards that Art Safari run each month. Accommodation is the Riad Myra in the medina – it has its own hamman, as well as a graceful courtyard and roof terrace. Under the guidance of one of the company’s painter hosts, guests will take their watercolours or oils to a stimulating variety of locations in and outside the city. Other forthcoming destinations in which to set up an easel range from Norway to Zambia.
Seven nights, including breakfast, in Riad Myra, plus art tuition, costs from £1,799 (Dh9,012); artsafari.co.uk
5. Rural working holidays in Britain
Anyone who likes the idea of working in the fresh air in rural Britain while learning about traditional land-management in the magnificent surroundings of a great estate should check out the National Trust working holidays. Set up in 1895, the Trust preserves historic houses, estates and areas of countryside around Britain. This involves so much work that volunteers are needed year-round. Projects planned for this autumn range from learning to use traditional tools to manage woodland so it remains a haven for wildlife in Pembrokeshire and coppicing hedgerows in Sussex to helping gardeners on a project at Sir Winston Churchill's former estate, Chartwell, in Kent.
The £150 (Dh752) charge includes basic meals and bunkhouse accommodation. You could think of the cash as a donation and perhaps check into the exquisite 16th-century, 17-room Gravetye Manor, whose 400 hectares include gardens laid out by William Robinson, a pioneering British gardener in the Victorian era.
6. Memoir-writing in Wales
In a magnificent 19th-century mansion in the peaceful village of Hawarden, Flintshire in rural Wales, the Gladstone Library is Britain’s only residential library. Anyone who would rather settle down with a book than do almost anything else will instantly like the sound of that, but the library’s special appeal to would-be writers is the inspiration as well as space and peace and quiet it provides for starting your own book.
A writers-in-residence scheme means that each year a different published author oversees a variety of courses. This autumn’s include Complex Emotion, Detached Appraisal: Writing A Memoir with Keggie Carew, author of Dadland, a one-day course on November 24 that costs £35 (Dh175).
After that, you could choose to hole up in one of the 26 rooms or the new suite and then get to work. The rooms are simple but comfortable, with a desk and old-fashioned Roberts radio, but no distracting television. The Gladstone common room provides a roaring fire and sofas, and the Food for Thought restaurant serves a robust dinner at about £10 (Dh50).
Double rooms with private bathroom cost £100 (Dh501); a suite costs £125 (Dh626), both including breakfast; gladlib.org
7. Salsa in Cuba
If you are an enthusiastic dancer, on the other hand, and want to immerse yourself in a dance culture, then two weeks of salsa could be huge fun. In Cuba, salsa is a national obsession, expressed most fervently in the second city, Santiago de Cuba, home of traditional Cuban music and dance. Responsible Travel has been running small-group dance holidays there since 1998, with the next two running from October 15 to 29, and December 19 to January 2.
This being a total-immersion holiday, you stay not in a hotel, but on a homestay with a local family. Led by tutors from the Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, one of Cuba’s top dance companies, classes run each morning and afternoon, with 30 hours of dance practice during the fortnight and a dedicated professional Cuban dance partner for every participant. And with evening outings to clubs ranging from the small and local to famous spots such as the Casa de la Trova, you should go home able to really rip it up on the dance floor.
Fourteen days, with homestay accommodation, dance classes and excursions, cost from £1,525 (Dh7,645); responsibletravel.com
8. Surfing in the Seychelles
Surfing is exhilarating and great exercise. The essential thing when learning how to keep your balance on the board, a process that inevitably involves falling into the water a lot, is that you stay warm in the process. Inexpensive surf schools such as Peniche Surf in Portugal provide great tuition, but require a wetsuit to make the chilly water endurable. Go somewhere hot, on the other hand, with warm sea and sunshine all day, and you will pay more but learn faster, simply because the process will be happier.
At the Seychelles Four Seasons, Tropicsurf run bespoke sessions, mixing in yoga classes and massages. For complete beginners, A Dip in the Ocean for €495 (Dh2,182), provides an hour of yoga before a two-and-a-half-hour surf class. Go with the Flow, at €750 (Dh3,306) focuses more on yoga, with five hour-long yoga sessions to get your muscles ready for two surfing classes. And The Perfect Wave, at €1,095 (Dh4,826) puts the focus firmly on the surfing, with four sessions plus an hour of yoga and of massage.
Double rooms cost from €1,055 (Dh4,649), including breakfast; fourseasons.com
9. Secretly learn to dance in New York
It’s never too late to learn to dance. Enough people have taken that maxim to heart to make dance one of the three most popular categories of learning holidays (the other two are language-learning and cookery). But the process can be embarrassing. One of the best places to learn is New York, partly because it’s home to so many great dancers (think of all those Broadway shows) who supplement roles by teaching, and partly because American have-a-go enthusiasm and optimism means even the most self-conscious are treated encouragingly in a class. Search on YouTube for the encouraging “Learn to dance in three easy steps” clip hosted at the Broadway Dance Centre, then jump on a plane.
Founded in 1984 on W 45th Street, off Times Square, the centre is the city’s leading drop-in dance-class venue, with no pre-booking needed and numerous classes for beginners among the 350-plus running each week. Then you can dance your way along Broadway to Columbus Circle and your hotel.
10. Family playtime in China
Among hotel groups, Alila has been particularly enterprising in putting together packages aimed at helping families do something enjoyable together that also celebrates the local area. In Oman, for instance, at the Alila Jabal Akhdar, parents and children can join a free three-kilometre Butterfly Trail experience to discover more about the mountains and the 40 species of bird and 11 species of butterfly living in the region.
In Bali, at Alila Ubud in the foothills of the centre of the island, the whole family can learn how to paint eggs and create traditional Balinese masks or kites (from Dh92 per child, with double rooms from Dh1,400, including breakfast), or at Alila Manggis, in the east of Bali, children can join a Junior Chef cookery class (Dh92 each, with doubles from Dh680, including breakfast).
In China, the newly opened Alila Yangshuo, a former sugar mill amid karst mountains that’s now a 117-room hotel, organises a two-night Play Alila package, including a family baking session with the hotel’s chef and a painting class.
Two nights for two adults and one child at Alila Yangshuo, including the Play Alila package, costs from Dh897.