Unique travel experiences

There’s nothing wrong with relaxing on the beach for a week or taking in a popular tourist spot — but it’s nice to look for something a little different too. Whether you want an interesting addition to an existing itinerary or an entire trip, here are some ideas to get you thinking.

Get in the inner circle at Stonehenge

Most people never get a chance to walk among the towering stones at Stonehenge because the area was roped off in 1978 to help conserve the site. Usually, the closest you can get is the pathway circling the stones from a distance — unless you brave the crowds at the Summer Solstice.

However, there is another way to gain access for some private wandering time: “Stone Circle Access” visits are held outside of normal visiting hours throughout the year. These visits allow people to explore this historic site under the watchful eye of English Heritage, the foundation responsible for management of the site. The one-hour time slots are offered most mornings and evenings (depending on the season and weather) for groups of up to 26 people. Visits have to be booked and paid for well in advance through English Heritage, and time slots fill up quickly.

A couple of caveats: English Heritage warns that the visits are not guided tours, nor are the usual audio guides available for use — but you can pre-order a print guide. Facilities like the gift shop and food outlets won’t be open, but your reservation can be paired with a visit to the site during normal hours at no extra charge.

For more information, visit the English Heritage website.

Sleep in a museum

Looking for a unique experience to enjoy with the youngsters in your life? Museums sleepovers predate the popular Night at the Museum films, but they’ve been growing in popularity in North America and abroad. Yes, the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History have them, but so do Canadian museums like the Royal Ontario Museum, the Canadian Aviation Museum and the Manitoba Children’s Museum. (Check with the museums in your area or at your destination for details.)

While the exhibits won’t literally come to life at night, the programming always includes plenty of extras, like special activities, evening snacks and breakfast. Depending on the program, fees can range from $60 – $150 per person, and museum members often receive discounts. Neither adults nor children can attend alone — and most museums require a supervision ratio of at least one adult to five children.

Before you book, be forewarned: it’s a slumber party, not a hotel stay. Expect to pack your own sleeping gear, pillows and toiletries — and be prepared spend the night on the floor in the company of other guests. While there are always washrooms on hand, they don’t typically include a shower or a place to lock up valuables. Museum staff members who are trained in security and first aid are always onsite.


Tour the White House

It used to be a staple item on every Washington D.C. itinerary — until September 11, 2001, that is. These days you have to jump through a few hoops to tour parts of the presidential home. The good news is that tours are self-guided and free… if you can get in.

If you’re a U.S. citizen, you’ll need clearance from your congressman and you’ll have to submit a request at least a month in advance. It’s not so easy for Canadians — we have to apply through the Embassy of Canada in Washington. The embassy has to arrange the tours, and the process can take several months. Only groups of 10 people or more are permitted, and not every group will be allowed in. Last minute cancellations are also a possibility, so all visitors should call ahead to confirm their tour times.

For more information about White House Tours, visit www.whitehouse.gov. If you’re interested in booking a tour (and you have several months lead time), email the Canadian Embassy at [email protected].

Tour “off-limits” buildings

It only happens once or twice a year, but it is possible to gain access to places that are normally barred from public view. Many communities participate in a Doors Open event each year. The goal: to give the public access to buildings which have architectural and historical significance — all for free. Guided tours, special exhibitions, displays and performances are often part of the deal too. In addition to local museums, many private institutions and private residences that are normally closed to the public also put out the welcome mat.

In Canada, Doors Open events are held across the country throughout the spring, summer and fall. Similar events are held throughout the United Kingdom as well. In addition, many countries have “Heritage Days” or participate in World Tourism Day (in late September) where museums and galleries are free. In the U.S., International Museum Day happens every year around May 18.

For more information, see Doors Open Canada, UK Heritage Open Days and Do it, see it and visit for free.

Get the best travel photos

To create photos worthy of envy, you’ll need two things: some skill with a camera and an exotic location where there’s unusual flora and fauna. That’s where learning vacations come in. For example, Exploritas (formerly known as Elderhostel Inc.) offers a “Digital Photography in the Galapagos” excursion with a professional photographer and naturalist leading the way.

The idea is to learn to take better photos while capturing sites you won’t see anywhere else. The Galapagos Islands are considered an endangered destination and they offer a wealth of interesting wildlife along with sparking waters and tropical landscapes. The trip also includes excursions in Quito, Ecuador to focus on particular elements of photography — like colour and landscape.

The caveats: this trip won’t come cheap — prices start at $4269 USD per person — and requires lots of physical activity. Be ready to spend a week aboard an expedition-sized boat, and do lots of climbing, walking and navigating your way in and out of watercraft.

Visit the Road Scholar for more details.

We can’t all be Sir Richard Branson and fly into space on a tourist jaunt, but unusual experiences don’t have to be expensive or “out of this world”. However, they will require some research and planning ahead — but the bragging rights are often worth the trouble.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jim Dorian

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