When in Rome, do as the Romans did.
Pull on a tunic, fasten your rope belt, raise your sword, and prepare to fight.
And yes, you’re still on vacation and at a pretty nice hotel, too: Gladiator training is among the activities available at the Rome Cavalieri hotel. If you’re seven or older, you’ll be led out to the hotel’s private park, where for two hours instructors from Rome’s Gruppo Storico Romano will teach you combat moves with a real gladius or wooden training sword, not one of those kiddie pugil sticks favored by American Gladiators. The instructors will also give you an earful about what life was like for gladiators back in the day when Rome was capital of the sprawling Roman Empire and not just tiny Italy.
If you want to get your Kirk Douglas or Russell Crowe on in a slightly more authentic setting, take a 25-minute cab ride, Rome traffic permitting, to Gruppo’s headquarters right off the Appian Way. It’s not far from the Colosseum where your fellow gladiators fought to the death a couple of thousand years ago. On the Gruppo’s sandy grounds your combat training will include weaving, Spartacus-style, among pendulum-swinging sand bags.
After your lesson you’ll be allowed to keep your tunic and rope belt, and will get a certificate - in Latin, of course - proclaiming that you passed your training. If you take your lesson at Gruppo headquarters (recommended) you’ll pay $420 per person. If you’d rather train at the hotel, the lesson runs about $675. And if you’re not in prime gladiator shape, the hotel has a $950 per person deal including the lesson and a four-handed massage, evidently involving the nimble fingers of two people.
If clashing like a titan is not your thing there are, of course, other unusual ways to learn on a trip.
Best trip for walking the line: Wine Camp, Long Island, N.Y., $899.
When you hear “Long Island” your thoughts may turn to alcoholic iced tea or Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher or a hundred other things. But wine? Fuggedaboutit.That may change, though, if you head to a sleep-away camp for grown-ups on Long Island’s North Fork.
At Wine Camp you can plan on getting your hands dirty. You’ll plant and prune vines, sort through grapes, and mix wines. You’ll even get a chemistry lesson, learning how acidity, pH, and sugar levels figure into the ripeness of grapes. But the most taxing aspect of your 4-day/3-night camp experience likely will be climbing in and out of a chauffeured bus without stumbling, as the heart of camp is tasting, tasting, and more tasting at eight of the region’s wineries. As you’re schooled about tasting techniques you’ll also learn about pairing during several meals, the most flamboyant of which is a five-course, six-wine event at Castello di Borghese Vineyard – yes, you’re still on Long Island, and don’t you forget it. And to make sure you don’t, the camp’s parting gift is a 12-bottle case of Long Island vino. Cost is $899 per camper, who must be 21 or older. The camp runs on selected dates in spring and summer.
Best trip for channeling your inner duffer: Get Golf Ready, Wyndham Rio Mar, Puerto Rico, $99.
If your mastery of golf is limited to the mad skills you’ve honed playing Wii Sports, there isn’t anything wrong with that, because Wii golf is awesome. But if you yearn to improve your game beyond the 10-foot space in front of your TV and you’re due for some sun anyway, wing it to Puerto Rico’s Wyndham Rio Mar for the Get Golf Ready in Five Days program. As the name of the program implies, you’ll need to commit to a stay of five nights or more to get golf ready, which you’ll do under the watchful and patient eyes of a Caribbean Golf Program instructor. You’ll join a group with as few as four but not more than eight wannabe golfers for an hour each day. The first day covers fundamentals, including how to dress on the course – no collarless shirts or “short” shorts, please – and includes a little putting. Day two will find you chipping your way out of a bunker and on day three you’ll be cut loose on the fairway with your irons and will learn the finer points of repairing divots. Day four gets into heavy-duty teeing off and club choice, and on your last day you’ll put it all together by playing an entire hole and learning how to score it, too. Flight and hotel stay are separate costs. A $99 fee covers the lessons and if you don’t have your own clubs or golf shoes you can rent them from the Rio Mar Golf Club. All your practice balls are free.
Best trip for learning how to say it in French: Hilton Arc de Triomphe Language Immersion, Free.
Remember that horrifying moment when your language teacher informed you that from here on out you were to speak to her and your classmates only in the language you were learning in class? Well, consider the 272 employees at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe in Paris your new classmates, because once you start wearing a little pin provided by the hotel, the staff will communicate with you only in French, and you’re expected to follow suit. Guests willing to foot the bill for a three-night minimum stay are eligible for the immersion, for which you’ll be issued your pin and complimentary French guidebook at no cost. And while the rest of Paris may not be quite as friendly as the Hilton’s employees, you’ll want to continue practicing your language skills throughout the city, whether you wear your pin or not.
Best trip for preparing for takeoff: Astronaut Training Experience, Kennedy Space Center, FL, $145.
Before an inevitably bad remake of “I Dream of Jeannie” gets to the big screen, try to remember how cool it was that astronaut Anthony Nelson drove to work in a Pontiac GTO, noodled with rockets and computers at a NASA facility in Cape Kennedy, and drove home to a genie in Cocoa Beach. Well, the real-life details are a bit off, but lose the genie and the GTO and you could find yourself in Titusville’s Kennedy Space Center (not far from Cocoa Beach or Cape Kennedy, now Cape Canaveral) where you too can play with rockets and computers during an Astronaut Training Experience (ATX).
A half-day affair for budding astronauts 16 and older, the core of the ATX is three simulations. During a simulated shuttle launch, you can either man the consoles at mission control or attempt to land a mock-shuttle. I did the latter, having one shot at getting an onscreen computer blip to “land” on the bottom of the screen. I approached way too fast and failed. I didn’t do much better in the 1/6-gravity chair, where you’re harnessed into a seat suspended from the ceiling and bounced like a yo-yo, with the expectation that you’ll be able to make contact with the mats below, a simulation of walking on the moon. If you can make both of your feet touch the ground for at least a second you’ll do better than I did. Requiring more fortitude than skill, perhaps, is the multi-axis trainer, which is sort of like being strapped inside a big ball with a skeletal metal frame and spun around mercilessly. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like. Keep your eyes open, like the astronauts are expected to in space. If the simulators are any indication, all of these experiences are far tougher than the astronauts make them look, and perhaps that’s the point.