Call it an adventure if it feels like one to you

When a friend of ours returned from a vacation in Key West recently, her eyes danced as she announced her latest accomplishment. "I went parasailing!" she exclaimed.

For many tourists, that would hardly be a remarkable feat. But this parasailor happens to be a long-retired widow with six grandchildren and a halo of white hair framing her face. Probably few of her friends could have imagined her gliding through the air above the Gulf of Mexico, pulled by a motorboat and waving to her family below.

Until that day, she couldn't have imagined it, either. "How would anybody have the nerve to do that?" she wondered. But when her daughter and teenage granddaughters suggested it, she asked the boat operator, "Do you think it's OK for me to go?" He told her he had recently taken a 97-year-old woman up. That emboldened her. She thought, "By golly, if she can do it, so can I."

Add her to the ranks of vacationers in the "mature market" who are defying stereotypes and spreading their wings in unusual ways. In the past two decades, a record number of midlife and older travelers have found pleasure - and new views of themselves and the world - in alternative vacations, travel experts say.

Say "adventure travel" and you might think of white-knuckle experiences - rock climbing or white-water rafting. But adventure takes many forms, from ecotourism and cultural explorations to volunteering.

For some cautious travelers, adventure might be as simple as forsaking the predictable amenities of a chain hotel for the quirky charm of a B&B. For others, adventure could mean driving in England for the first time, on the "wrong" side of the road in a rental car with a stick shift.

A retired teacher in Missouri expanded her horizons by camping out during a trip to Morocco. "What an awesome adventure, sleeping in a tent in the Sahara and seeing the stars before tucking into my warm sleeping bag," she wrote in an e-mail when she returned.

A friend in Scotland, an avid hiker, finds adventure on long hikes with friends from her local over-50 walking club. On one of her frequent postcards she wrote, "Went walking in Glencoe [in the Scottish Highlands] with five friends over New Year. Very little snow, but plenty of dark clouds, rain, sleet & wind! Water gushing everywhere! - and plenty of bog & mud underfoot! Had a good time, though!!"

I read her cheerful cards longingly, wishing I could be there with them, climbing craggy paths and savoring panoramic vistas high in the rugged hills. But then I think about staying in Spartan hostels, as they often do, and my enthusiasm wavers. Even adventurers are entitled to a few creature comforts at the end of a long day, aren't they?

This month, as millions of vacationers pack their bags and head off to their chosen destinations, who knows what new experiences they'll be able to describe on their postcards to family and friends?

Whatever the activity, whoever the adventurer, what matters is not so much the nature of the challenge, but the spirit of adventure that, at any stage of life, propels a participant. It's a spirit that involves curiosity, along with a willingness to consider new ideas and cast off old limitations.

The reward? A new sense of what's possible, an exultant feeling of "I did it!"

"Stretch yourself," the parasailor urges. Blending courage with common sense, she offers a philosophy that applies not just to travelers but to everyone. "I believe in doing whatever comes your way that you can do," she says. "Life should be lived."

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