When Teresa Novacek and Andrew Allen of Minneapolis told friends and family about their plans to spend their honeymoon volunteering in an impoverished village in Tanzania, Africa, they were met with a mixture of congratulations and disbelief. Why on earth would the couple forgo their right to cavort on the beach and sip umbrella drinks, and instead opt for three weeks of dusty bus trips, hard beds and no running water? "All along, we had our hearts set on a different sort of honeymoon," says Teresa, who, with Andrew, yearned for something off the well-beaten path of all-inclusive beach resorts.
The idea came to Teresa after she read a friend’s journal of her volunteer vacation in India. "Her experience—which she described as the best but hardest thing she had ever done—made me long for something similar with Andrew," Teresa, a marketing service manager for an insurance company, recalls.
Andrew decided on a monthlong volunteer honeymoon to Africa because it would allow them to travel to a faraway locale, immerse themselves in the culture and, most importantly, have a genuine impact on the lives of people in need. Tanzania, the largest country in East Africa, is home to the safari-traversed plains of the Serengeti, the turquoise-lapped beaches of Zanzibar and awe-inspiring Mt. Kilimanjaro. While these natural wonders are a magnet for adventure-seekers, Teresa and Andrew were touched by the human realities: extreme poverty, high infant mortality, poor health care and low literacy rates. They worked with nonprofit Global Volunteers to plan a trip that included building a new library for children in the city of Pommern, teaching local students conversation skills and computing basics, and assisting the village doctor and dentist.
While slinging hammers, spreading mortar and treating the sick may not be every couple’s notion of an ideal honeymoon, such endeavors do have rewards for those seeking a meaningful, culturally rich travel experience. So popular they are now called "voluntours," volunteer vacations have become an increasingly appealing option since 9/11, the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Nonprofit travel organizations such as Global Volunteers, i-to-i, and Globe Aware have seen a sharp rise in enrollments—and now newlyweds are getting in on the trend, using their honeymoons to engage a powerful desire to give back and make a difference. "We believed a unique honeymoon, dedicated to making a contribution, would be the perfect way to set our life together on its proper course," says Andrew, a musician.
But volunteer honeymoons are not for everyone. "I remember being exhausted from the flights, then trying to communicate with a largely non-English-speaking population," adds Andrew, who, with Teresa, endured oppressive heat, occasionally unpalatable food and a lack of running water—including one entire week without a shower. "But at the same time, these are the elements that make for vivid memories that are extremely precious to us."
Another pair of humanitarian honeymooners, Sandra Miller and Mark Santello of Arlington, MA, chose to spend their first week as newlyweds in Quito, Ecuador, working at a school for disabled children, many of whom were in wheelchairs. Some could not walk or speak, while others had emotional issues that kept them from attending a regular school. Virtually all were from families living at or below the poverty level. Together, Mark and Sandra fed the children, played with them and assisted them in getting around. In addition, they scraped and painted classrooms, built a wheelchair ramp and hauled cement alongside other work crews. "It was all of the children who made the trip more meaningful than any trip we had ever taken before or have taken since," says Sandra, a freelance writer and teacher. "Truly, no other vacation can touch the experience of letting those kids into our hearts."
Isn't It Romantic
Scraping paint and hauling cement—not exactly moonlight and champagne. But romance on voluntours is almost always present in another form. Newlyweds Jena and Kristopher Douglas of Bar Harbor, ME, chose a two-week volunteer stay in Chennai, India, for their honeymoon. While there, the couple helped orphaned and abandoned children, once homeless or living in extreme poverty, by teaching them English and giving them the affection and attention kids crave. "I don’t know how to explain what it was like to work with these kids," says Jena, who, like her husband, manages a restaurant on an island off the Maine coast. "All I can say is that we absolutely fell in love. We talk about them as if they were our own children. Leaving was emotional, to say the least, but we felt like we made a genuine difference in their lives."
"This was certainly not your traditional romantic honeymoon," Jena continues, "but I couldn’t think of anything more rewarding than working as a team to help others. It gave us a sense of closeness, and it was such an adventure! And seeing Kris with the kids helped me gain so much more respect for this person I already loved."
These sentiments are shared by Molly Jacobson and Michael Grossman, of Arlington, MA, who also volunteered in India for two weeks as part of a six-month around-the-world honeymoon. The couple recall their service as being romantic—because of what they learned about each other. "Volunteering itself isn’t necessarily romantic," says Molly, who teaches seventh-grade history in Wellesley; her husband is the director of finance at a private school in Boston. "But watching Mike teach is something I delighted in—he was an inspiration. I thought often about the aspects of him that I fell in love with."
Time for Play
That’s not to say volunteer honeymooners can’t also enjoy leisure activities and romance in the more traditional sense. Most voluntours allow for some downtime, including day trips and weekend adventures to local cultural and scenic attractions.
Jena and Kris, for example, took short trips to nearby places of interest in India, such as the temples, mosques and beaches of the ancient city of Pondicherry. While in Ecuador, Sandra and Mark traveled by bus to the mountain town of Otavalo, known for its handicrafts market, and climbed the 19,347-foot-tall Cotopaxi Volcano. And during their time in Tanzania, Teresa and Andrew made it to the summit of 19,335-foot Kilimanjaro.
Like Teresa and Andrew, Kristin Stohner and Brandon Dion of Los Angeles planned their volunteer honeymoon to Tanzania, focusing on building a school for orphans as well as teaching AIDS/HIV awareness to the community. Working with i-to-i, they planned a trip that included not only service but some well-deserved self-indulgence, too.
Their trip began with a one-week stop in Zanzibar, which gave them time to relax and get to know the culture a bit before beginning their service. There, they explored the island’s beaches, snorkeled and even got henna tattoos on their feet. The couple stayed in an oceanview bungalow at a luxe resort, where they enjoyed dinners of champagne and such local delicacies as barracuda. One evening, the couple returned to their bungalow to find that the hotel staff had moved their bed out to the balcony, made it up with mosquito netting and sprinkled it with flowers. That night, they slept beneath the stars.
This was quite a contrast to the couple’s accommodations during the three-week volunteer portion of their honeymoon: a house shared with 12 other volunteers (although the staff gave them a private room). "The showers have only cold water, and there are ants in the house," Kristin wrote in her journal. "But we are surrounded by poor villages, so we feel that the accommodations are quite luxurious."
The third phase of the couple’s honeymoon was a four-day safari. After traversing the Serengeti and seeing animals in their natural habitat—lions, cheetahs, hippos, zebras, monkeys and more—the two returned to their lodge for an in-room massage. "Ending our trip with this safari was definitely the right thing to do," the couple wrote in their travel blog. "We are so relaxed, and have plenty of time to reflect on everything we did here in Africa and everything we plan to do when we get back home."
In fact, these humanitarian honeymoons can leave such an impression that many couples choose to continue their trail of service after they return home. Kristin, a lawyer, and Brandon, a business analyst and entrepreneur, plan to start a nonprofit in the United States to help create more orphan schools in poor African villages. After her honeymoon in India, Jena decided to travel with her mother to Tanzania to do more volunteer work. And Sandra and Mark were so affected by their experience with the children in Ecuador that they are planning to return to the country in February.
"It was an incredible beginning to our married life together," says Sandra. "It gave us a sense of appreciation for all we ourselves have and how little effort it takes to make the world just a bit better."
Where to Go
With the growing popularity of "voluntours," there are hundreds of opportunities worldwide, from saving sea turtles in Costa Rica to aiding orphans in China to rebuilding areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
What It Will Cost
One-week programs start in the $1,000-per-person range. Costs typically do not include airfare but cover expenses such as meals, accommodations and insurance. If you work with a nonprofit to plan the trip, most expenses are tax-deductible.
Whom to Contact
A wide variety of travel agencies and tour operators now offer such trips: Online giant Travelocity has even gotten on board with its Travel for Good program. Or consider working with a reputable nonprofit, such as Global Volunteers or Globe Aware, both of which have years of experience. Some organizations, such as Britain-based i-to-i, offer volunteer trips tailor-made for newlyweds. More recently, the W New Orleans partnered with Hands On New Orleans to offer a package that combines a day of service with accommodations and pampering amenities (package from $239 per couple; 504/525-9444).