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Machu Picchu in Peru is among the early stops on the winter trek of Susan Macdonald and her husband.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

When Susan Macdonald and her husband leave Toronto behind this winter, they're starting an adventure that's a lot different than the typical snowbird sojourn.

"We're embarking for many months to learn about part of the world that we have wanted to know about and have not visited," says Macdonald, a senior Ontario civil servant.

To finance this trip, Ms. Macdonald is using a workplace plan that allows her to take an extended work leave using money she has her employer set aside from each paycheque.

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The couple, in their early 60s, hopes this will be the first part of a plan to visit new places as they edge toward retirement.

In the old days, their trip would be considered a Grand Tour, though many parts of it are anything but grand. They will visit Central and South America, stay in out-of-the-way places in Asia and bunk in with friends for part of the time.

She and her husband, a graphic designer who asked not to be named, are starting their journey in Peru.

"We will follow the Inca Trail through the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu," says Macdonald.

"Then we go to the Galapagos Islands for a week, followed by two weeks in Ecuador discovering the rain and cloud forests, the Amazon, Andes and more, and from there we visit Costa Rica."

That's just the first part of this winter's vacation. Macdonald, still a few years from retirement, and her husband, a freelancer who can choose his hours, are using this winter as a template for the way they hope to spend future winters – seeing the world.

"We want to really push the envelope while we're still healthy and have resilience," she says.

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"The South and Central America part is bucket list stuff for us," Macdonald adds. She has never been there although her husband, who travelled extensively in his youth, has been to Costa Rica twice.

"These are things I thought we've never get to do. Frankly, to do them well, you need more time than a quick trip."

For time's sake they will spend much of their time in the Western Hemisphere on packaged tours, hoping that they'll see some places they would like to revisit later on their own.

The second part of their snowbird journey will be even more significant, Macdonald explains.

The couple will return to Toronto for Christmas and check in on her aging parents, and in January will spend two months in Rajasthan, India.

They will stay there with a Canadian friend who has been living in India for 35 years and working as a community organizer.

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"For so many years she challenged us and said, 'When are you coming to India?' An important part of our time this year is to go there, to see her work. We had thought about a volunteering program but this will be more personal," Macdonald says.

"We'll experience her work, do a little touring and then visit another friend who is also an organizer, working with landless people."

After India they will spend two months in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia and they will finish their winter with five weeks in Japan.

Both Macdonald and her husband say the planning for a trip like this is complicated and must be done with patience – and a lot of time online. Macdonald left most of the planning to her husband, who enjoys the challenge and, she says, has become quite skilled at designing itineraries.

"At times it's overwhelming. Of course, the Internet enables you to plan carefully and book with military precision if that's what you want. It's tightly organized, but we did it ourselves," he says.

"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," he adds. A part of him longs for the old days, when travellers would wing it.

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"When I travelled in my 20s around the world, one of the joys was the absolute serendipity of the unknown," he says.

"You didn't know where you were going to stay. When I was in the desert oasis of Siwa in Egypt, nobody knew where I was either. But at this age I'm not sure I want to go not knowing where I'm going to lay my head."

They have decided to finish this winter's trip in Japan because Macdonald's father, a corporate lawyer, has done business with Japanese companies for years and has long spoken fondly about the country.

Macdonald anticipates that Japan will contrast sharply with the more rustic and less developed places they visit. "The contrast sharpens your understanding," she says.

This winter will be a lot different than the last one. "We stayed at a friend's condo in Florida, by the pool," she says. "We liked that, too. It was awesome."

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