From yoga retreats in Mexico to grand tours of India, dozens of women-only travel companies have made it possible for women to be in their own element while exploring the world. Not every woman has weeks of vacation time at her disposal or the money to travel overseas, though. Luckily, there are plenty of short, affordable women-only tours in the U.S. that promise empowerment, relaxation, and adventure for a fraction of the cost—and time commitment—that other more far-flung trips require.
Luxury spa getaway in upstate New York
Provider:The Women's Travel Club
The great prices The Women's Travel Club offers for luxury spa getaways (thanks to group discounts) may be what gets you to book a trip with the company, but it's the camaraderie with other like-minded women that past clients say you'll value most once the trip is over. "I have found the groups are comprised of intelligent, motivated women who truly enjoy travel," says Chestnut Ridge, New York, native Eunice Stern, who's been on three Women's Travel Club trips. "If the groups were not small and made up of the type of person they are I would not continue to travel with this organization."
The Women's Travel Club, which has been running trips since 1992, has made spa trips part of its repertoire for years, including visits to some of the country's top destination spas like Red Mountain Spa in Utah and Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. This March, the Club is planning its first trip to The Lodge at Turning Stone in Verona, N.Y.
During your three-night stay at the AAA Four Diamond resort, you'll be given full access to the Turning Stone's spa facilities and classes along with a $345 credit for treatments and a $300 KN Karen Neuburger gift bag. With your group, you'll also partake in several Native American arts classes with members of the Oneida Indian Nation, the tribe that operates Turning Stone.
This trip runs March 27 to 30. The $1,599 price covers suite accommodations, daily $124 meal allowance, $345 spa credit and use of spa facilities, native arts classes, and transfers from the Syracuse airport. Airfare and a $35 Women's Travel Club membership fee are extra, but you must be a member for at least three months to avoid a vacation surcharge. Both KN Karen Neuburger and The Women's Travel Club will donate $100 each per booking to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Hiking in Zion and Bryce national parks
Provider:Adventures in Good Company
Pampering is nice, but sometimes a girl just wants to get outside and go on a kick-ass adventure. Women high on energy but short on time should look at some of the trips operated by Adventures in Good Company, a women-only tour operator that runs affordable active trips around the world.
"The company plans amazing adventures for low prices, and I trust them," says elementary school teacher Sydelle Hoffman, who's been on five trips with the outfitter so far. "Every trip has been well-planned, balanced (time with group vs. time alone), and enjoyable because the guides really knew the areas we were exploring. I enjoy the very small group interaction of women of all ages from across the continent."
One of Hoffman's favorite vacations was a week-long hiking trip in Utah's national parks. This year, Adventures in Good Company has created a modified four-day version of that popular tour. Using the Zion Lodge in Zion National Park as your base, you'll go on four- to six-hour day hikes in Zion or Bryce National Park each day, logging about 25 total miles of trail.
Some of the hiking is strenuous, but the views make the effort worth it. "The Angels Landing trail [in Zion] is probably one of the most spectacular hikes I have done in a national park," says wilderness guide and Company Founder Marian Marbury. "The high point is this flat area with a gorgeous view that indeed looks like a good place for angels to land. Another highlight is Bryce Canyon National Park. The brightly colored hoodoos (rock spires) provide a unique and colorful landscape that literally took my breath away the first time I saw them."
This tour starts November 14 and is inclusive of accommodations, all meals, ground transportation, entrance fees, and guides. It starts and ends at the Las Vegas airport.
Shop like a local in Manhattan
Length: Half day
Price:$36 to $63
Some people come to New York for theater and the arts; others come to see the sights, to eat at trendy restaurants, or to explore the city's diverse neighborhoods. But for many women, New York's legendary shopping is the main (or even sole) draw.
New York might be a shopper's paradise, but finding good deals on fashionable designs can be a challenge. If you're a Manhattan neophyte, it's easy to wind up wasting your time lost in massive department stores, pondering why anyone would want to spend $50,000 on a dress made of feathers or a diamond-encrusted cellphone.
That's where Shop Gotham comes in. Owned by New Yorker Marla Hander, the company runs two- to three-hour walking tours of some of the city's top shopping districts, including SoHo and the Garment Center. "Insider" guides lead shoppers to hidden boutiques, showrooms, and sample sales where it's possible to nab designer accoutrements discounted by as much as 50%. The tours are co-ed, but the vast majority of people who sign up are women.
"Each tour offers something different," says Hander. "In the Garment Center for instance—be it the showrooms or the sample sales we visit—the discounts are a minimum of 50% off current-season goods. Visits are to a combination of wholesale showrooms, which give us exclusive access. In SoHo, the discounts are from retail stores (12 specially chosen boutiques) and they run from 10 to 20% off. However, we also know and head for the worthwhile sales in the area." Tours include a bit of historical and architectural insight as well.
The two-hour SoHo tour ($36) runs Fridays through Sundays and the three-hour Garment Center tour ($63) runs Wednesdays and Fridays from September through June. Private, custom tours can be arranged with advance notice. Tours include guides and shopping discounts. All other travel expenses including accommodations and transportation are extra. Rates for three-star hotels in Midtown Manhattan in mid-February start around $147 per night. If you're flying to the city, you should check rates at all three New York area airports.
Kayaking with orcas in the San Juan Islands
Orca whales, bald eagles, harbor seals, and great blue herons are just a few of the majestic species you can hope to encounter on Adventure Associates' three-day women-only kayaking trips in Washington's San Juan Islands. Adventure Associates has been running women-only adventure tours around the world for 20 years (about half its trips are women-only), but its San Juan kayak excursions are among its most popular, with numerous departures scheduled throughout the spring and summer months.
Alice Gifford of the Seattle-based outdoor outfitter describes a typical morning like this: "Imagine waking up to a crisp dawn inside your cozy tent. After breakfast, we carry our sturdy double-kayaks to the cove and slip off into the still morning water. Harbor seals soak in the sun on exposed rocks and lift their heads to see who enters their sleepy domain. As the current picks up and the ebbing tide gets stronger, porpoises play farther offshore. And if we're lucky, we'll hear a big ... PSHWSHH! A male orca whale with a six-foot high dorsal fin is approaching with five or six others behind him. We have had spectacular shows: spy hopping (raising head and body out of the water to have a look around), tail slaps, and even a few breaches. They move quickly, but the water-level experience is like no other."
Based out of a forested camp on the main San Juan Island, you'll learn and practice sea kayaking skills and then venture out each day in hopes of observing some of the Puget Sound's resident orca whales, as well other marine mammals and birds—close and personal. In the evening you'll be able to relax, talk, and eat dinner together.
"For most people, encountering the orca whales of Puget Sound is the biggest draw and the biggest highlight," says Gifford. "However what they often bring home with them is a renewed sense of self, a spirit of rejuvenation and lifelong friendships."
Marthalee Galeota of Seattle, who's been on the women-only kayaking trip with Adventure Associates, agrees: "There is a unique opportunity for camaraderie, conversation, and challenging oneself in a safe and wholesome way. The inner strength of each of us became more apparent—I liked exploring that strength in myself and appreciated a more core connection with other women."
Departure dates are scheduled throughout May, June, July, and August. The $495 trip price covers kayaking and camping equipment and fees, guides, meals, and transfers to and from the base camp. Trips meet at the Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal on San Juan Island. You can reach the island by taking a ferry from Anacortes on the mainland. One-way fares are currently $10.95 per adult, but will go up in the summer months. The closest airport, Seattle-Tacoma, is a 95-mile drive from Anacortes.
Golfing in Coastal California
Good news for those who want an active women-only vacation without roughing it: You now have more options, thanks to Serendipity Traveler, a relatively new women's travel company that specializes in small-group luxury getaways. To ensure travelers don't feel like they're on a package tour, company founder Peggy Coonley creates each itinerary and accompanies each of the dozen or so trips Serendipity Traveler provides throughout the year, which range from gastronomy and exploring Tuscany to yoga retreats on Dominica.
"Peggy is a terrific travel planner and organizer," says past Serendipity Traveler client Leslie Sands, a psychotherapist from Massachusetts. "She cares deeply about the women she is traveling with and will do whatever she needs to, to insure that you have a wonderful travel experience."
There are several shorter outings on the company's 2008 calendar, including a new golf trip to California's Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley, home to some of the country's finest courses.
"I have collaborated with the local golf pros in Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley to choose courses that will be exciting for varying levels of play and experience," says Coonley. You'll play a different course on each full day of the trip, including the Robert Muir Graves-designed course at Quail Lodge, the Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed course at Poppy Hills, and the newly restored Pete Dye-designed golf course at Carmel Valley Ranch. A variety of other activities are planned so you can experience the surrounding area, such as a wine tasting at a local vineyard, a Big Sur coastal outing, and a gallery stroll in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
This trip runs May 1 to 5. Rates include upscale shared accommodations at Quail Lodge, continental breakfast, lunch at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, and specified additional activities. The trip also includes round-trip transfers from the Monterey Peninsula airport. Airfare and greens fees are extra.
Hiking and kayaking in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Provider:Wildside Adventures for Women
After falling in love with backpacking during her six-month journey along the Appalachian Trail in 1996, Melody Blaney started leading wilderness trips for both men and women. In 2001, however, she came to the conclusion that many of her female clients had better experiences in women-only groups, so she co-founded Wildside Adventures for Women with fellow outdoorswoman Patti Landovek.
"It was amazing to me the difference between the dynamics on the co-ed trips and the women-only trips," says Blaney. "Women were much more relaxed and would take risks or challenge themselves in ways they wouldn't do if men were present."
The company now annually runs about 30 two- to five-day backpacking, kayaking, and biking trips around the U.S. designed to help women become comfortable in the outdoors without having to spend a lot of money. "My goal when we started this business was to get women (especially those who can't always afford the high-end trips that are out there) outdoors and exposed to something new," says Blaney. "My ultimate goal is to provide them with the skills they need to go solo or share their skills with a friend."
This June, Melody and Patti will be running a new trip in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains that entails hiking to the summit of Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and kayaking the French Broad River. "From Calloway Peak on Grandfather Mountain we will have incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range. The kayaking portion of this trip will offer us the opportunity to float through the Biltmore estate and to observe wildlife along the way."
This trip starts June 12 in Weaverville, North Carolina. Rates include accommodations, kayaking equipment, two dinners, entrance fees, and guides. Transportation to Weaverville and other meals are extra. The town is a 30-minute drive from the Asheville, N.C., airport.
Rafting and yoga in Utah and Idaho
On its women-only summer retreats, the adventure tour outfitter Holiday Expeditions promises whitewater rafting, yoga and meditation, and chocolate at every meal. Running co-ed rafting and biking trips in the West since 1966, the company led its first female-only rafting trip in 1994. Over the years, Holiday Expeditions added spiritual activities and top-notch cooking into its women's trips, and made the decision to keep groups small and the guides all female.
The concept has worked so well the company expanded its women-only offerings and earned a loyal following of repeat travelers. "Holiday Expeditions has my vote for value, safety, memorable highlights, and diversity, in addition to the best of the best food on any trip I've ever been on," says Salt Lake City grandmother Sandy Dain, who's been on six trips so far.
Rafting is certainly a big part of the experience, but so is learning stress reduction techniques and bonding as a group. Each morning at the campsite on the river bank, you'll practice Hatha Yoga and meditation together. In the evenings, instructors will give and teach massage and other relaxation practices. "These trips provide a safe place to come together, create bonds, share experiences, and enjoy the serenity of the river," says Karen Johnson of Holiday Expeditions. "From the very first meeting the women [going on the women-only trips] bond almost immediately, whereas with a regular trip you usually have families and various smaller groups that take a while to come together."
In 2008, the company plans to run women's trips on the San Juan and Green Rivers in Utah and the Lower Salmon in Idaho. "The San Juan trip in June is the mellowest of the three—low on whitewater but huge in scenic wonderment, hiking, and Indian ruins," says Johnson. "The July trip is the Green River through Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument. This trip offers intermediate whitewater, plenty of hiking, wildlife, waterfalls and off-river exploration. The August trip is in Idaho on the Lower Salmon, which has the most whitewater and large sandy beaches perfect for yoga and sleeping under the stars."
The San Juan River trip starts June 10, the Lodore Canyon trip starts July 17, and the Lower Salmon starts August 2. Rates include rafting equipment, all meals, ground transportation during the trip, guides, and certified yoga and meditation instructors. You can rent sleeping bags and tents or bring your own. Travel from the trip base is extra. If you're flying, the airport in Salt Lake City is the closet to the departure points for the San Juan River (Blanding, Utah, 310 miles) and Lodore Canyon (Vernal, Utah, 180 miles) trips. For the Lower Salmon, you can fly to the airport in Lewiston, Idaho, a 72-mile drive from the trip start point in Grangeville, Idaho.
Photography workshop in Savannah, Georgia
Price:$895 (hotel extra)
With its massive live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, antebellum mansions, hidden gardens, and atmospheric cemeteries, Savannah, Ga., poses countless opportunities for photographers to capture great shots. It's also a comfortable place for novice female shutterbugs to hone their skills: The old city is easy to get around, the locals are generally friendly and never in a big hurry, and, this April, teachers from Radiant Vista will be running a women-only photography workshop there.
An online "creative community" founded by professional photographers to help educate others about photography, Radiant Vista leads multi-day courses in locations around the U.S. This Savannah class will be their first women-only workshop. "In past workshops we've seen women 'holding back' because of what is perceived as the sometimes competitive nature of men in [the classes]," says instructor Marti Jeffers. "We hope to provide an environment where competition is temporarily shelved in the spirit of community, cooperation, and inspiration for such women who are aspiring to improve their photographic skills, make new friends, and have fun with their photography."
The class is intended to provide a solid foundation for women advancing to digital SLR photography from automatic digital or film cameras. Through lectures, class critiques, and one-on-one attention, you'll learn the technical aspects of using your camera in manual mode and learn techniques for creating quality compositions.
This workshop is scheduled for April 23 to 27. Costs cover course instruction. You must bring your own digital SLR camera. Accommodations, meals, and transportation are extra. The workshop is held at the Promenade Hotel, where workshop students will be offered discount rates. Regular rates in late April are about $199 per night. The Savannah/Hilton Head airport is about a 15-minute drive from downtown.
Learn to surf in La Jolla, California
Price:$150 (hotel extra)
Eleven years ago, avid surfer Izzy Tihanyi and her twin sister Coco opened the first women's surf school, Surf Diva in La Jolla, Calif., after being inundated by requests for lessons from female friends and acquaintances. "Taking a lesson [at a co-ed surf school] back then was very intimidating for women, who often found themselves being the only woman in a group of mainly teenage boys," says Izzy Tihanyi. "I think guys just want to get in the water and give it a try. Women want to know the safety basics so that they feel more comfortable in the water, too. They also don't want to be judged or feel too competitive."
Surf Diva has since been joined by numerous other women's surf schools around the world, but remains at the forefront, running private, weekend, and week-long clinics year-round in La Jolla, as well as Costa Rica surf vacations. The company also has its own line of women's surf gear and apparel.
Attending a two-day weekend clinic with Surf Diva is a good way for beginners to get started. "The conditions in La Jolla are perfect for beginner to intermediate surfers," says Tihanyi. After a discussion about equipment and safety, you'll practice basic techniques on the beach with instructors before moving out to the water. "Once everyone is completely comfortable and confident, the large group is divided into smaller groups and an instructor is assigned to each group, for closer attention," says Tihanyi. You'll try catching waves on your own and one-on-one with an instructor over the next day and a half, gradually working up to more challenging waves and techniques as your confidence grows.
After taking a class with a co-ed surf school that left her "feeling like a drag," Patricia Blake, a doctor from Florida, found that a weekend clinic with Surf Diva was just what she needed to feel self-assured in the water. "I think women feel empowered and emboldened when learning around women," says Blake, who was up and riding waves on her first day with Surf Diva and has since returned to the company with friends for more lessons and week-long surf vacations.
Two-day clinics run almost every Saturday and Sunday as long as there are at least three participants. Prices include a rental surfboard and wetsuit and instruction. Accommodations and transportation are extra. Prices for stays at the nearby Hotel La Jolla start around $129 per night. La Jolla is a 25-minute drive from the San Diego airport.
Mount Rushmore and the Badlands
Provider:Women Traveling Together
For more than 10 years, Women Traveling Together has worked to create a travel business that feels more like a wide circle of friends who vacation together than a corporation. The tour company has hundreds of members (although membership is not required to go on a trip) and runs dozens of trips each year, ranging from dog-sledding adventures in Minnesota to European Christmas Market tours. While the focus of each trip varies greatly, all share small group size, attentive group leaders, use of carefully selected accommodations, and a good balance of activities.
This summer, Women Traveling Together is planning a new trip to a beautiful but often overlooked part of the country: South Dakota. "This trip is a slice of Americana that many of us have never seen nor experienced," says company Founder Debra Asberry, who got the idea to plan a trip centered around Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills region of South Dakota.
"We've designed a tour that includes Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument (also a mountain carving still in the making), Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, a stay at a resort in Custer State Park, and a visit to a woolly mammoth fossil excavation site," says Asberry. You'll tour each site as a group and have some free time for hiking, horse-back riding, and other activities.
This trip departs August 11. The full tour price is $1,695, but if you pay the $45 Women Traveling Together annual member fee, the price comes down to $1,620. Even if you're not interested in other member benefits, you'll save $30 by joining. The trip cost covers accommodations, airport transfers from the Rapid City airport and ground transportation, admission fees and sightseeing, some meals, and a tour leader.
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