Benefits of a Staycation
For many Americans, summer means time for a vacation getaway, a tranquil retreat from the daily grind of work. Mental health professionals agree that setting aside planned time for rest and relaxation is an essential part of modern life, but many find it more and more challenging to plan around busy schedules, much less save enough expendable income for an extravagant trip outside the state or country. Among those without the time or finances to make their vacation dreams a reality, many are opting for the “staycation,” a vacation at or nearby home. In fact, the phenomenon has become so common in recent years that the word itself, whose first known use appeared in 2005 and surged during the economic recession that followed, was recently added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. And luckily for New Orleans area residents, few regions offer the range of opportunities that sit right here in our backyard.
In the City
“Last year 9.5 million people visited New Orleans, so we live in a tourist destination,” said Kristian Sonnier, spokesman for New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s really an embarrassment of riches.”
According to Sonnier, the New Orleans metro area offers more than 37,000 hotel rooms, including luxury French Quarter boutiques, charming bed and breakfasts and major hotel towers. And because the city’s historic landscape naturally caters to the tourist dollar, local residents can jump right in and enjoy its countless options. Although the vibrant nightlife can offer a playground for adults—world-renowned cuisine, classic cocktail bars, live music clubs, a major casino and more— it’s easy to forget the city’s family-friendly options.
“You can have family days where dad plays golf, mom relaxes at the spa, young kids go to the aquarium, the teenagers go shopping, and everyone’s happy,” Sonnier said.
From historic tours to antique shops, from an insectarium to riverboat cruises, the city has it all, and locals have the advantage of choosing dates to suit their wishes depending on how readily they want to join ranks with actual tourists on vacation. For those who want to avoid crowds and save money, July through September are generally lighter months for out-of-town leisure tourists, allowing easier restaurant reservations and more affordable hotel rates. Others may prefer to staycation during major events like French Quarter Fest, Essence Fest and Satchmo Summer Fest, or sporting events at the Superdome and Smoothie King Arena, when tourism spikes along with the excitement of larger crowds. On either end of the tourism spectrum, however, the staycationer benefits by avoiding the stress, expense and time commitment of travel. As Sonnier put it, “You can take a great vacation just staying home, and you can leave all the hassle of packing and traveling behind.”
But as mental health research shows, in taking any form of vacation—whether at home or abroad—it’s important to disconnect as fully as possible from the root causes of stress, which appear for many working people in digital form. Emails, text messages, social media and all manner of smart phone notifications can infringe on the very purpose of the physical escape. To come back feeling refreshed and energized, experts say, the mental and emotional retreat can be just as important as the physical one.
“Taking a break is a necessity,” said Ellen Levitov, a licensed therapist who practices in New Orleans. “In our environment now, more people can work remotely and make their own hours, so it appears to be more leisurely, but actually there’s less separation between work and play.”
In 2015, given a work setting that’s becoming increasingly electronic—with fewer people clocking in and out of a 9-to-5 schedule—it’s even more critical to take a vacation and to establish boundaries between work and relaxation. According to Levitov, people should unplug entirely by avoiding electronic communication, or by setting strict limits on when to check it. One recommendation is to check email at the end of the day, and maybe not every day. “If you check it in the morning, you’ll be more likely to be thinking about all the work-related issues throughout the day, when really you should be focusing on unwinding,” she said.
Also, staying in the city poses the risk that other people may not think of us as being gone, Levitov said. Because the value of a vacation is greatest when we take a real break, we need to think of ourselves as being on vacation and make it clear to friends and associates that we’re off the grid.
Outside the City
One solution may be to leave the city limits but restrict travel to a short drive just outside the metro area. One of the nearest is the Barataria Preserve, a site in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve in Marrero. Only a 27-mile drive from downtown New Orleans, the 23,000- acre preserve offers a sample of Louisiana’s wild wetlands, with trails and boardwalks that lead guests through bayous, swamps, marshes and forests, offering glimpses of indigenous wildlife—alligators, nutria, and over 200 species of birds, among others.
With oceanfront acreage within a three-hour driving distance eastward, well-known beaches, seaside restaurants and major casinos stretch across sections of three neighboring states, from nearby Gulfport and Biloxi to Gulf Shores and Pensacola, offering an easy getaway. But even closer to the city are countless opportunities for outdoor relaxation and exercise. Just across the Causeway on the North Shore, bike rides along the Tammany Trace lead through quaint downtown Covington, culminating in picnic areas along Fontainebleau State Park on Lake Pontchartrain. About 30 miles beyond that—and still only 85 miles from downtown New Orleans—a staycationer can go tubing down the Bogue Chitto River in Washington Parish, staying in nearby cabins or camping under the stars.
Scott Williams, a graphic designer living in New Orleans, has become an avid staycationer, embarking on as many as a dozen day and weekend trips each year with his fiancée or small groups of friends. His favorites include jaunts through Cajun country in Southeast Louisiana and camping excursions throughout the region. Near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a number of family-owned companies lead swamp tours on Lake Martin, which also offers fishing as well as natural beauty in places like Cypress Island Preserve, a 20,000-acre nature conservancy. Just south of Lafayette sits Avery Island, home to a 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary called Jungle Gardens, whose rich history ties to the McIlhenny family of Tabasco sauce fame. And along the way, the regional tourist can enjoy authentic Cajun music.
“There’s morning Cajun dancing at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou on Saturdays, and Sunday afternoon dancing at Whiskey River Landing in Henderson, where the back window behind the band faces the Atchafalaya Basin at sunset,” Williams said. “You can come back on River Road and do Plantation Tours like Houmas House Gardens.”
For those who like to rough it in nature, the region offers myriad opportunities for camping along its countless waterways. The Big Black River Basin in west-central Mississippi extends 155 miles in length, with camp sites scattered along its banks.
“Camping along the Big Black River, you can exercise, play and soak up the beautiful scenery, and it’s not too crowded,” Williams said. “The water is easy to navigate, and there are soft sand bars to camp on. Nature wakes you up, and you can build a fire and cook on it.”
Staycation Is Vacation
In essence, the vicinity in and around the New Orleans metropolitan area offers a full range of vacation opportunities, affording residents the luxury of escape with minimal travel. But regardless of local tourists’ scope in planning a staycation, mental health professionals remind them to delineate a clear separation between work and play to maximize the health benefits.
“Even if you’re just staying close to home, it’s a good idea to announce to everyone that you’re going on vacation,” Levitov said. “Tell your employer, coworkers and friends that you’ll be unavailable, and if necessary set up an automatic email reply indicating the times you’ll be away.”
With proper planning, and in keeping with the true meaning of a retreat, then, New Orleans area locals can easily transform their own home into an exciting and relaxing vacation destination while experiencing the rich history and scenery of their native land. And because mental and emotional separation remains ultimately more important than physical withdrawal, by arranging the details to make the most of the break, one can seamlessly turn a staycation into full-fledged vacation.