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Spring Travel

Break loose

Three kinds of escapes that offer a change of scenery -- and a whole lot more.

Lend a helping hand: Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy's Antartica voyage. Lend a helping hand: Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy's Antartica voyage. (Photograph from Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy)
By Courtney Hollands, Kara Baskin, and Christie Matheson
March 28, 2010

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Tag-Team Fitness By Courtney Hollands

Imagine spending 24 hours or more with a group of sweaty friends in a passenger van. Taking turns, you and your pals will run about 200 miles combined, through mountains and small towns, whether it’s sunny or pouring. You’ll sleep curled on the van floor, perhaps, or in a sleeping bag under a tarp among the trees. You’ll be exhausted, sore, and willing to trade a limb for a shower. And you’ll have a blast. Just ask thousands of local runners. Overnight relay races, which are growing in popularity and held in New England and throughout the country, are a fantastic way to stretch your physical limits, see the countryside, and make lasting memories with friends and family.

How It Works Step one: Recruit friends, relatives, and co-workers to join your team. Generally, there are 12 people on a team, though more competitive runners can cover the same distance with six runners or less.

Step two: Come up with a clever name. Sorry, but Runn’n Commando, The Muddy Calves, and Live Free or Die Running are all taken. Personalities are welcome, costumes encouraged. An entire team ran New Hampshire’s Reach the Beach relay last year in superhero garb.

Step three: Sign up on a race website. Entry fees vary, but expect to pay about $100 a person. (Some races have additional fund-raising requirements.) Other costs include van rental, gas, water, food, and a few hotel rooms if your team stays in the area the night before or after the race; all of that must be arranged by the team. Two vans will be needed. Typically, one van contains the runners assigned the next few legs, and the other is driven ahead, so the rest of the team can get food or rest.

Races are about 200 miles and split into three dozen legs that differ in terrain and distance. Each person runs between 15 and 20 miles spread over his three nonconsecutive legs. When it’s your turn, hop out of the van, run your leg, and hand off the baton to the next runner at the transition area. Then, rest, ice your knees, chug Gatorade, wait for your next turn -- and repeat. Most of the running is done on roads with traffic; each race has safety regulations and rules.

If you aren’t a regular runner, consider training. Since the race goes through the night, you’ll have at least one leg in the dark. Grab a headlamp and a reflective vest and try a few practice runs after sundown before the big day, so you’ll know what to expect. Another tip: Bring trash bags. Toss in wet socks and dirty shorts, then tie and throw the bag into the back of the van. Your team will thank you.

Why It’s Great: You won’t just be observing great scenery from a distance; you’ll be a part of it, literally going over the rivers and through the woods. The majority of the Green Mountain Relay course, for example, follows or parallels Vermont’s scenic Route 100, hitting seven covered bridges along the way. The founder of that race, Paul Vanderheiden, grew up in Pennsylvania but skied at Stowe and took a road trip around Vermont and New England after high school. “I remembered how beautiful Route 100 was,” he says. “I always thought it would be perfect for a relay race.”

As for running at night, there’s really nothing like it: the road lit only by your headlamp and the starry sky (and if your team is nice, it will be waiting in the van at the halfway mark with water and words of encouragement).

Besides the natural eye candy, there’s the camaraderie. How often do you get to trade your cubicle for a weekend outdoors with friends? “It’s a road trip for adults,” Reach the Beach cofounder Rich Mazzola says. “It’s like college, revisited.”

When the race is over, you’ll have war stories and inside jokes. Remember when you cranked Van Halen to get your friend pumped for a particularly taxing leg? Or when you jumped in the chilly Atlantic Ocean in running shorts and sports bras after reaching Hampton Beach? You’ll meet other teams and might bump into a neighbor. Everyone will have blisters and port-a-potty fatigue. You’ll laugh and reminisce over beers and burgers. And you’ll start planning the next race.

For More Information: Note: Some races, like the Cape Relay, fill up quickly.

- Cape Relay (13relay.com) Quincy to Provincetown, 202.7 miles, May 1-2

- Ragnar Relay New England (ragnarrelay.com) New Haven to Boston, 191 miles, May 21-22

- Green Mountain Relay (greenmountainrelay.com) Jeffersonville, Vermont, to Bennington, Vermont, 200 miles, June 19-20

- Mass Dash (massdashrelay.com) Mount Greylock State Reservation to Boston, 206 miles, July 17-18

- Reach the Beach (rtbrelay.com) Franconia Notch to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, 207 miles, September 17-18

Courtney Hollands is a senior producer at Boston.com. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Experiencing a City, One Bite at a Time By Kara Baskin

Culinary walking tours are an intimate way to explore a city’s culture, history, and, of course, cuisine. Led by a knowledgeable guide, these “movable feasts” last between three and five hours. You’ll sample regional treats at mom-and-pop markets and small eateries, sometimes pausing for historic footnotes about landmarks like churches, taverns, or buildings along the route. Many tours conclude with a large meal at a sit-down restaurant, where the chef personally greets guests.

How It Works: Most companies have websites where you can learn about tour routes and secure a spot in advance. Reservations are important, as tours traditionally accommodate only 10 to 20 guests. Most tours offer a choice of neighborhoods to explore, each with its own ethnic twist. All you need are comfortable shoes, an empty stomach, and a curious palate. “The best thing to do is to be open for anything and everything that comes your way. We want people to connect to neighborhoods, architecture, and cuisine,” says Jeff Swedarsky, owner of DC Metro Food Tours in Alexandria, Virginia.

Why It’s Great: This is a sensory, experiential way to immerse yourself in the life of a city, led by a passionate insider. “Food is culture,” Swedarsky says. “This is a chance to explore a city beyond the monuments and attractions.”

Guides, who already have relationships with shopkeepers and restaurateurs, serve as helpful conduits between guests and destinations. They’ll have scouted out eateries and can act as interpreters at places where the staff doesn’t speak English or menus are indecipherable. New York native Candy Chan, who runs New York Food Tours, offers a “Freakiest and Funniest” tour in which she exposes diners to Chinese rarities like chicken feet and thousand-year-old eggs. Because she grew up eating such things, she can reassure guests -- and order without drawing puzzled looks from wait-staff who might otherwise push tamer dishes. Plus, seasoned guides notify places about tour group arrivals, so that in addition to insider knowledge, you’ll often get access to off-the-menu treats and preferential seating.

You’ll also get a culinary education. “These tours make people more aware of what they eat,” says Michele Topor, the longtime owner of Boston North End Market Tours. “For instance, many people who visit the North End think that chicken and veal Parmesan are Italian. They’re not. Those dishes were transformed here. Eggplant Parmesan is Italian, though.”

Finally, these tours are economical. Though prices vary, they tend to run anywhere from $40 to $75, which includes food, not to mention conversations with locals, visits to neighborhood attractions, and thorough explanations of various dishes.

“People have been more interested in these tours since the recession,” Swedarsky says. “It’s great for people who want to have a good time and still get value for their dollar.” And, of course, you won’t leave hungry.

For More Information: Most major cities offer food tours. When reserving, ask about your guide’s credentials and inquire about refunds in case of inclement weather. Here are resources for popular tours on the East Coast. For tips, recommendations, and insider advice about tours in other parts of the country, try food sites such as egullet.com and chowhound.com.

Boston area:

- Ahla Food Tours 617-821-7667, brooklinetour.com

- Boston North End Market Tours 617-523-6032, northendmarkettours.com

- The Cambridge Center for Adult Education 617-547-6789, ccae.org

New York City

- New York Food Tours 917-617-7158, foodtoursofny.com

- Foods of New York Tours 212-209-3370, foodsofny.com

Philadelphia

- Taste of Philly Food Tour 215-545-8007, tasteofphillyfoodtour.com

Washington, D.C.

- DC Metro Food Tours 202-683-8847, dcmetrofoodtours.com

Kara Baskin is a writer in Arlington. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

A Helping Hand and a Broadened Mind By Christie Matheson

How long can you lounge poolside before boredom creeps in? An hour? Maybe two, if the cocktails are good? If you’re itching to do something, and if you love the feeling of satisfaction you get when you help other people and the planet, skip the schmancy resort -- that’s so 2007, anyway -- and do some good on your next getaway with a volunteer vacation.

How It Works: Sign up with a reputable, responsible organization with a track record of arranging worthwhile volunteer projects. It’s not wise to show up unannounced someplace you’ve heard needs aid (Haiti or Chile, for example) and expect to lend a hand for a few days on your own. This might not be safe, and it definitely won’t be helpful. Look for organizations running projects in parts of the world that interest you, and make sure that the work suits your skills and the lodging provided fits your preferences. This is a vacation, after all, and in most cases you will be paying a fee to participate. So you should enjoy it, even as you’re working hard.

Opportunities range from restoring trails in Vermont and Maine with an Appalachian Trail Conservancy crew (no cost; sleep in tents), to caring for abandoned infants in Romania with Global Volunteers (about $2,700 for two weeks; sleep in a modest hotel), to accompanying Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy’s voyage to Antarctica to fight climate change (for about $15,000, you can sleep in a deluxe suite aboard the MV Le Boreal).

Read the fine print and be aware of your responsibilities beyond the cost of the trip itself. Find out whether transportation and meals are included, what equipment and supplies you need to bring, if any, and if you must secure any of your own lodging. If possible, ask the organization to put you in touch with a past participant so you can get an accurate sense of the trip and its requirements.

Why It’s Great: You get to explore a new place, and you’ll return home with so much more than a suntan. (Besides, whose skin needs that?) In addition to a resounding sense of accomplishment and a proven boost to your self-confidence, volunteering is linked to serious health benefits. Studies show it staves off depression, increases longevity, and helps keep your heart in good condition. And veteran travelers will appreciate that working hard, delving into a community, and interacting with locals means feeling less like a tourist and more like you really got to know your destination. Just keep in mind that you won’t save the world in a week or two. Think of your trip as part of an ongoing effort to help, not an ultimate solution.

For More Information: - Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (800-554-7016, akphilanthropy.org) offers high-end “philanthropic journeys” in support of humanitarian and environmental initiatives.

- Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304-535-6331, appalachiantrail.org) sponsors trail restoration work in New England and all along the Appalachian Trail.

- Habitat for Humanity (800-422-4828, habitat.org) builds houses around the world for low-income and impoverished families.

- Global Volunteers (800-487-1074, globalvolunteers.org) provides an array of opportunities to help infants, children, and elders and to build homes and facilities worldwide.

- Sierra Club (415-977-5522, sierraclub.org/outings/national/service.asp) organizes hands-on service trips to some of the nation’s most beloved parkland and preserves, including Monhegan Island in Maine, Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, and Riverside Park in New York City.

- For more ideas, check out the “Make a difference . . . on a volunteer vacation” section of Charity Guide (charityguide.org).

Christie Matheson is the author of Discover Rhode Island and Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.