Vacations were short and simple for Mary Kay Conlon and Chip Plumb in their fast-track corporate days. "One phone call, no planning, never more than a week," says Conlon. "We'd just plop on the beach somewhere." But to celebrate their early retirement last year, the Evanston, Ill., couple rented a spacious Paris apartment for six months. "We always regretted that neither of us had done a junior year abroad," says Conlon, 48, a former health-care-industry executive who was eager to immerse herself in another language and culture.
Shopping in local markets, picnicking in the Luxembourg Gardens and jogging around the nearby botanical park, they soon felt at home in the Left Bank apartment they rented for $4,500 a month. As Conlon became a familiar face, butchers shared culinary tips and cheesemongers gave her extra samples. Plumb, 49, became a habitué of a hole-in-the-wall café frequented by local tradesmen and accompanied Conlon on explorations around the city. "Chip discovered walks through Paris were even better than walks around a golf course," says Conlon.
Homesickness wasn't a problem either. The three-bedroom, two-bath flat overlooking a Roman amphitheater was a powerful draw for visitors. A high-speed Internet connection simplified paying bills, e-mailing friends and maintaining the monthly investment e-newsletter Plumb had started writing after retiring as a managing director of a financial-advisory firm. "It was like living a dream," says Plumb. "We finally got our semester abroad."
Settling down in a short-term rental--rather than dashing around from hotel to hotel--is gaining ground as a style of travel, says Pauline Kenny, who trademarked the term Slow Travel and runs slowtrav com a website of classified listings and rental reviews. Midlife and older adults don't want to race through six countries in two weeks, checking off a list of must-see sites, says Kenny, 51, who is based in Santa Fe, N.M. Experiencing a country as its residents do offers an attractive alternative.
That more relaxed approach to travel grew out of Italy's slow food movement, which emphasizes home-cooked, authentic cuisine to counter the proliferation of fast-food restaurants. Slow travelers, says Kenny, prefer a "concentric circle" approach to tourism: go out the front door and explore the neighborhood and nearby towns, get to know the locals instead of slavishly following guidebook itineraries. Kenny and her husband Steve Cohen, 59, were in a Munich art gallery filled with Rubenses when it struck her that seeing all the standard tourist highlights was exhausting and there must be a better way to get to know a foreign city. "I hit the wall--I couldn't look at one more painting," she says. To make their travels more manageable and enjoyable, Kenny and Cohen now focus their vacations on one subject--say, French tapestries or Renaissance church frescoes in small Italian towns.