I’d done the climb — endlessly, it seemed, up a rope ladder. Now I got to do the time — in the crow’s-nest of the Star Flyer. The best seat in the house if you wanted to drink in the glorious Mediterranean scenery.

The panoramas were as advertised: stunning. And in the evening light, the setting began to seem downright surreal.

But the sight that really stunned me, the one I could barely believe, was right below me, as I peered over the railing of the crow’s-nest. My friend Lisa, head down, knuckles white, slowly climbing the narrow rope ladder toward me.

Lisa, who gets her adrenaline rushes within the safe confines of museums and good restaurants. Lisa, whose favorite outdoor activity is tanning. Lisa, who I’ve never seen ascend anything higher than the 10 steps between her den and her second floor. Well, she’d broken that record about 15 rungs ago.

Just then she looked up — no doubt wondering just how many more of those stupid rope rungs she had to deal with. Her white jacket hood was tightly cinched against the wind, leaving only her face and the expression on it: a mixture of fright, determination and what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here.

I knew that look, those feelings, only too well. Been there, sweated and cursed and shook with fear and doubted my sanity — done all that — thanks to a lifetime of travels.

Because that’s when these crazy what-am-I-doing-here situations seem to most frequently occur. When you’ve walked out your front door and headed for somewhere — anywhere — else. It could be Kathmandu or it could be Kansas. It’s unfamiliar, full of strangers, and your daily routines are completely irrelevant. Travel provides the perfect opportunity to reinvent, or at least reconsider, yourself, your life, your direction. In fact, more and more of us are seeking out just such transformative vacations and experiences.

No doubt many of you have had a few of these pivotal experiences. A time when you’ve found yourself stepping outside your normal behavior and your usual comfort zone and doing something a little scary. Doing something you’d never imagine you’d actually do.

It could be jumping from a plane.

It could be stepping up to a long, long rope ladder — even with benefit of a safety harness — and putting your foot on first one rung, then the next.

As my friend Lisa was doing on that memorable Wednesday in May in the Mediterranean.

Experience is the word

Today’s word is … experience. Or experiences, or experiential.

Travelers want to experience, not sit back and go sightseeing. At least, in theory, they want to get out of their comfort zones by trying new things, meeting people of different cultures, eating strange food and engaging in activities that might be a little … scary. (The proliferation of zip-line courses is one example of a little scary.)

So travel providers are coming up with ways to meet these wants. Hence, the mast-climbing aboard the Star Flyer cruises. Or, on the 4,000-passenger variety of cruise, activities such as kayaking excursions or land tours by mountain bike to remote villages.

Hotels are jumping on the trend, too. Once set on keeping their guests entertained on-site, they now serve as portals to the local community and culture. Four Seasons Hotels now offers its Extraordinary Experiences programs, with a local’s perspective on the destination. For instance, in Japan, guests can climb Mount Fuji with a personal guide selected by the hotel. At Four Seasons Maldives, they can swim with manta rays in the company of marine scientists.

MGM Resorts International offers members of its M life club a long list of exclusive activities through its new M life Moments — experiences, like diving with sharks at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino or participating in a marshmallow-tossing lesson with members of the experimental musical theater troupe Blue Man Group.

Other chains, including Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts and Marriott Hotels have started similar programs, organizing anything from a hot-air-balloon ride to apprenticing with a local chef.

Travelers today may be on the right track with this experience stuff.

Recent research seems to indicate that money can buy happiness — if you spend it on the right things. And that doesn’t mean “things” as in possessions but as in experiences.

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Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, found that while both material and experiential purchases might initially make people happy, the joy of the object soon faded, while the experiences continued to provide happiness through memories long after the event.

A little discomfort is good

When I’d first told Lisa that one of the activities on our cruise was climbing to the crow’s-nest, she just laughed. As in “why?” When she told her husband about it, he said, “What are you, 10 years old in summer camp?” Nor had she changed her mind as I left her to get in line for my turn to climb.

What happened?

“I looked at everyone else doing it,” Lisa later explained, “and I thought if they could do it, so could I.”

It may just be the thrill of doing something a little risky and living to tell the tale. But most of the time, the payoff is something more. A realization, a shift in perspective, a memory that makes you shake your head every time you revisit it.

Like the day I went tandem hang-gliding from a 1,400-foot cliff on Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula with my guide, a bear-like man who spoke no English and who had just come from lunch at a bar. A few false starts, but finally I ran off that cliff and into thin air. Afterward, I sat on the beach as night approached and watched the seagulls, this time knowing how they felt with the wind beneath their wings.

Or the time I held a leopard in my arms on a rescue run with AfriCats in Namibia. A farmer had live-trapped the animal instead of killing it as he had done with past predators on his sheep farm. He called AfriCats, the organization that had offered to relocate these big cats free.

After a vet hit the huge creature with a tranquilizer dart and it was out cold, we got close enough to touch its paws, to watch it breathe, to wonder over its muscles and glistening coat and whiskers and wet nose.

You’d think that would be enough. But then everyone wanted a picture of themselves holding the cat. I thought it was stupid and not a good thing for the leopard. Until I was standing there — staggering really — 200-pound leopard draped over my arms and the picture was snapped. I can conjure the weight of that leopard and his massive, solid body to this day.

Later, the leopard we rescued gnawed his way out of his crate.

The same night, we went camping in the desert. The leaders of our group had said we would get to spend a night “under the stars” in the desert during my stay.

I thought: “Pigs have wings.” I couldn’t imagine that with my fear of snakes — and they have big and deadly ones in Namibia — I would actually stay outside where snakes might slither. A week later, that was exactly where I was. Pigs didn’t fly, not one, that night, as I gazed up from my sleeping bag in the Namibian desert at a sky so heavy with stars I expected it might come crashing down on us all.

Hey, anything can happen, when you’re traveling.

A little discomfort may be good for you.

The so-called happiness hormone dopamine is released by the brain when we experience something new. It aids in learning and also helps form memories. And at least some researchers say that participating in such new activities can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

An estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of Americans have low levels of serotonin, a hormone the body needs at sufficient levels for emotional stability, a positive outlook and outgoing social behavior. Sunlight, spending time in natural places such as forests, parks, mountains, or the shore, and engaging in revitalizing activities all increase serotonin levels. In other words, researchers have found that a vacation — especially of the transformational variety — will get that serotonin spurting.

Comfort and sticking to the status quo are deadly to creativity, productivity and motivation. Your brain needs novelty to grow and remain challenged. Mind exercises such as crossword puzzles and sudoku go only so far — they depend on stuff you already know.

Psychologists and researchers say your mind needs to learn new things and face new challenges to stay healthy. When you try new experiences or step up to new challenges, your mind grows — actually, your brain grows, literally making new connections, visible on a brain scan.


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