Website Review:

If you’ve ever heard of a group called “Elderhostel,” it likely struck you as something you wanted no part of. If you heard the name with no previous knowledge, you’re probably thinking of senior citizens who are very unfriendly, antagonistic, “hostile.” Like your mother-in-law, except not named Ruth. If you knew a little more background, you’re likely aware that this is a collection of aged adventurers who travel around the world in large packs, their giant tour buses descending on quaint European guest houses and turning them into ointment-scented gin-rummy dens.

That branding was apparently a problem for leadership of the organization, who recently changed their name to the contrived “Exploritas.” As President James Moses explains it, that’s a combination of the words “explore” and “veritas,” the Latin word meaning “truth.” If they’re really that concerned with branding, perhaps Mr. Moses should consider some rebranding himself, to make me stop thinking of a 120-year-old prophet leading the Jews out of Egypt, with an optional side-excursion to the beachfront hotels of Sinai.

You can even click on an audio link at his blog to hear him pronounce the new word, lest you think it rhymes with “margaritas.” (So it’s come to this — Moses has a blog).

Elderhostel was founded in 1975 and originally offered programs to those 60 and older who were interested in combining travel with learning opportunities. It’s grown from a small start-up in the Northeast to a worldwide organization, offering hundreds of excursions to its members. Not too long ago, it dropped its minimum age requirement to 55, then started allowing younger spouses to come along, then adult children, then well-behaved grandchildren. That slippery slope now results in the controversial name change, which Moses finds he has to vigorously and constantly defend.

Seems that the old-timers in Elderhostel became concerned they were about to be taken over by pierced whippersnappers and skateboard-riding jackanapes. As Moses himself revealed, “the erroneous idea that we will be seeking new participants as young as 21 has become a lightning rod, and led to the false fear we will be overrun with the overly energetic. We won’t be actively seeking any participants younger than Baby Boomers, but neither will we be turning them away.” Basically, he assures members that “most people in that age range choose to do other things with their available time” — such as avoiding anyone over 35 — so there’s no need to worry today’s youth will want anything to do with us.

Well, whether they’re called Exploritas or GrouchTrek or GeezerQuest or CootTroupe, the former Elderhostel has a comprehensive and interesting website, which I’ve chosen for this week’s Website Review.

The home page is a very busy affair, with colors and sounds and moving things that could frighten less-daring seniors, and confuse even the most adventuresome. At the top you see the world “ELDERHOSTEL” gradually transforming into “EXPLORITAS,” which if you happen to catch it in mid-morph will make you think you ended up at “ELDEXHOSTPLORITELTAS,” provoking you to look in the mirror to make sure the left side of your face hasn’t started to droop. Under that is a banner of destination categories such as Europe, Asia, Antarctica, etc., and under that is another banner featuring programs like Adventures Afloat and Road Scholar. Down the right side are a number of links for special offers and new features, and down the left side is a slightly edited site map of missions, histories and disclaimers. By the time I found what I wanted, I was ready to put my feet up, grab a lemonade (Sweet ‘N Low, please), and start telling you about that time in 1962 when I rode a bike.

When I finally get to the travel opportunities, I must admit I’m pretty impressed. You can take a trans-Caucasus odyssey through Azerbaijan and Armenia, float down Vietnam’s Mekong River on a barge, or even venture to obscure nations like Brunei, Uzbekistan and Africa. You can spend New Year’s Eve in Iceland (a so-called “celebration of fire and ice” likely to provoke memories of your hemorrhoid surgery), visit the Grand Canyon (though admittedly it’s “Oregon’s Grand Canyon”), or choose the mysterious option titled “Northern California: Byzantium Revisited.”

And what you’ll do once you get to these places includes so much more than simply not drinking the water. In Costa Rica, there’s the hike-kayak-snorkel package that allows you to do three different things that might get you killed. (Question: Can they just entubate me, strap me to the bow of the kayak, and then I’ll walk back to the hotel when I’m done?) There are pastimes like winter sports, birding and something called “homestays,” which I guess is the same thing as signing off of the website and going back to your knitting. Or you can pursue those learning opportunities they talk so much about, including history, local culture and how to work a computer.

Concerns about activity level are addressed in an honest fashion. Exploritas realizes that some participants will have limited functionality, so you can measure your own personal situation on a seven-level chart, to make sure that if you sign up for that Antarctic para-sailing outing, you really do know how to freeze. Level one requires only being able to get yourself out of bed and climbing a few stairsteps. At level two, you have to be able to stand for an hour, get off a bus and walk a few blocks. Levels three and four require you to walk on an uneven surface, presumably stuff like cobblestone streets and Afghanistan. At level five, you claim to be able to walk five miles; at level six, you can do up to six hours of strenuous activity; and at level seven, you must have a “high level of physical fitness, expect full days of strenuous physical challenges” and probably survive a total lack of oxygen.

There’s a new social networking option called “Exploritas Connection” which allows members to share their stories and photos, join groups and make friends on something called “line.” After creating yourself a profile, you’re ready to discuss all kinds of topics, most of them centering around how much you hate the new name. “Rather than make an effort to explain what an ‘Exploritas’ is, I’ll continue to tell others about Elderhostel,” writes Janice. “Click on this link to hear James Moses pronounce the name,” writes Andy.

A participant named Janice says she’d “like to trade in your catalog with the geographically-challenged maps,” which hints at an accuracy question that could prove troublesome in international travel. One of the package tours, titled “Quebec,” is sub-titled “Boston to Montreal: A Cultural and Historic Journey.” A trip to Virginia mentions “wildflowers, Thomas Jefferson, and 100 Years of Comedy in Film.” There are two women-only programs with confusing names — one is a “Wellness Retreat: Renew, Relax and Reconnect” while the next entry down is a “Women’s Retreat: Restore, Refresh and Renew.” Which is it going to be? You can’t have it both ways.

Finally, I’ll mention a pull-down that offers Last-Minute Adventures, featuring programs that are fast approaching their enrollment deadlines. There are some great values in expeditions to China, Polynesia and Honduras, though you have to be packed and ready to go within days of your sign-up. In addition to saving a few dollars, this seems like a great option for elders who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and can’t be sure they won’t slip from Level 5 to Level 0 in the coming weeks.

Though I think this website is a little overly ambitious for an audience not as tech-savvy as a younger population might be, it had lots of great information and excellent opportunities for seniors to break out of their everyday routines and explore the world around them. Just be sure you notify the day nurse before you leave the property.

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7 Responses to “Website Review:”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    Omg! I can’t wait to visit this website in person. I’ve always wanted to visit the nation of Africa.

  2. tychy Says:

    sad to hear of the name change. my employer – the university of edinburgh’s pollock halls – provides accommodation for elderhostel during the edinburgh festival – and the elderhostel folks are always utterly charming. they tip well too.

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  6. Penny Says:

    Loved this dissertation on Exploritas. I am getting ready to pay for my 31st trip – have met others who have done over 180. Unless you bring your own child (grandchild) you are basically banned from doing ones with kids. Not too fond of the Moses pronouncement myself. Most the time I get great value for my money — everything is covered from meals to tips. Rules include NO SHOPPING and no passing the envelope for tips. Have met adventurous and intelligent men and women. There is always a paucity of men, I got to this blog when I came off a Smithsonian travel site.

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