The pounding beat of the Gipsy Kings' Bamboleo bounces off the white walls of the high-ceilinged art studio. Bottles of local Merlot and Chardonnay chill in a cooler next to a plate of chocolate truffles.
Retired hospital executive Carol Kierstead executes some expert salsa steps before picking up a paintbrush and asking aloud whether she has made the sand on her seascape too yellow.
Color it whatever you feel, advise other women hunched over canvases to create potential masterpieces during a late-night painting party that's part of the three-day "Intuitive Abstract Painting" session from Artista Creative Safaris for Women.
The package, which includes lodging, some meals and yoga (plus daily wine to get creativity flowing) in this artists' mecca south of San Francisco, blends two travel trends: learning vacations and gals-only getaways.
A TripAdvisor.com survey of 2,500 travelers found that 32% plan educational activities on vacation in 2008. That's up 7% from last year. Such trips have been taken by more women than men (55% vs. 43% ), the survey found.
Girls-only getaways aren't officially tallied, but they're proliferating "because women are better educated and paid (than in the past), and they have more discretionary income," says Marybeth Bond, women's travel expert and author of 50Best GirlfriendGetaways. Today, women are jetting off for more than bachelorette parties, spa retreats or shopping vacations. "It's about learning something, too," she says.
Honing skills while shedding back-home responsibilities is "incredibly empowering" for women, says Bev Sanders, founder of Artista vacations. She also started female surfing and golf camps.
Empowerment, self-expression and bonding are the ideas behind Artista's abstract painting "safari," which started 2½ years ago in a dropcloth-draped hotel conference room and now is offered almost monthly in its own studio. Here's how a recent session shaped up:
6 p.m. Monday
Artista enrollees walk past dogs and owners socializing in the bar of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn, co-owned by screen icon and Carmel resident Doris Day. Here to unleash the artist within, they assemble in a private dining room and introduce themselves over crispy fried artichoke and calamari dipped in a garlicky sauce.
Students range from Indiana University senior Yaffa Wagschal, a painting novice whose mother, Sara, organized the trip as a spring-break bonding experience, to Kierstead, 65, a veteran of non-abstract art classes. The energetic blonde, who lives in Orange County, Calif., has taken trips to paint in Europe under instructors' supervision.
The evening's host, 48-year-old Artista general manager Chris Sanders — gregarious husband of founder Bev — loosens up students with a Carmel trivia quiz. Can you name its most famous mayor? (Actor/director Clint Eastwood, elected in 1986.) Under his rule, Sanders says eating ice cream in public was legalized in the upscale, virtually litter-free shopping, golf and art-gallery destination.
Sanders introduces artist Lauryn Taylor, 46, the "safari guide." Over the next few days "we will see doors unlock," the instructor assures her charges.
9 a.m. Tuesday