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Educational travel: Peabody is popular ‘Elderhostel’ spot

Seth Kibel, a Peabody Institute Exploritas faculty member, demonstrates klezmer instruments during a recent class.

Eli and Lila Robinson, 79 and 78 years old, recently traveled from their Long Island home for a week of music lectures, recitals and socializing at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. It was their third time at Peabody, which is part of a broad network of travel offerings most people know as Elderhostel.

Through the program — which this month changed its name to Exploritas — the couple has gone bike-riding in Holland and traveled to Austin for an exploration of President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. Eli Robinson said he and his wife are avid concert-goers and presidential buffs who like the combination of travel and learning that Exploritas offers. “We like the subject matter,” he said. The Peabody program “gives us more understanding of the music and the composers,” she added.

The not-for-profit Elderhostel program was founded in 1975 to offer reasonably priced travel and learning experiences to people 55 and older.  It eventually grew to offer educational programs in all 50 states and more than 90 countries around the world, ranging from watercolor workshops in California to exploration of ancient ruins on the Easter Islands. Many of the trips cost less than $600 per person, meals and lodging included.

Starting this month, the requirement that participants be 55 or older was dropped and the name was changed to Exploritas, a word that combines “explore” with the Latin word for truth, “veritas.”  Officials with the organization say the name was changed because Elderhostel conveyed images of frail age and Spartan accommodations that did not accurately reflect the experience.

The programs will still be marketed to visitors middle-aged or older, but the idea is to expand the customer base, and perhaps lower the average age of attendees.

In Baltimore, retirees Katharine Bamberger and her husband, Clinton, have traveled to Spain, Italy, Turkey and elsewhere on Elderhostel trips. “It’s a fascinating way to learn and to see other cultures,” she said. “There are always interesting people who want to do the same thing. The food is always good and the accommodations are fine.”

Exploritas programs in Maryland include ones for Appalachian trail hiking or biking the length of the C&O Canal. But the most popular are the ones offered at the Peabody, which collectively rank in the top 40 among all Exploritas programs offered worldwide, said Carol Lidard, the Exploritas-Peabody program manager.

The Peabody Institute offers as many as 75 in-town programs a year, on themes such as Brahms’ symphonies or Women in Music. Typically, 35 to 40 people enroll in each weeklong program, and Lidard said the return rate is 35 percent.

Participants stay at the Peabody Inn, a pre-Civil War building on the Peabody campus with 50 rooms. They eat in the cafeteria with Peabody students and attend Peabody recitals. They can attend as many as three classes a day, each about an hour and 20 minutes long.

They are also encouraged to visit the Walters Art Museum, which is across the street, and otherwise indulge in Baltimore culture. “They don’t come here to shop,” said Lidard. “They are here to learn. Our reputation is built upon the strengths of our teachers.”

One class this month featured a demonstration of klezmer music. During another, perhaps 35 participants sat in hard-backed chairs arranged in rows as Mark Allen McCoy, a music director and conductor at the Loudoun Symphony in Virginia, wrapped up his presentation on Dvorak. All wore name tags with their first names and the state they are from.

When McCoy had finished, several approached him with questions and comments. He said he has been teaching at Elderhostel for about 10 years, and tries to tailor his classes to the interests and knowledge base of his audience. Most are music lovers who don’t necessarily read music or play instruments, but are hoping to add to their appreciation of the concerts they attend.

“I try to do my classes so everyone gets something out of it,” he said. “A lot of it is just listening to great music we love.”