"After years of being scared of drowning, I made the decision to learn to surf on vacation," says New York-based acupuncturist Michelle Helfner. "I wanted to learn in an environment that would be supportive. I had considered co-ed surf camps, but I truly wanted this trip to be about my empowerment and relaxation. The idea of choosing a women-only camp ideally meant being surrounded by like-minded women. In co-ed surroundings there can [sometimes] be too much testosterone or a sense of competition and always the potential for drama. None of that appealed to me."
Eventually, Helfner booked a weeklong package with Pura Vida Adventures' surf camp based in Malpais, Costa Rica. She was drawn to the camp's promise of a women-only environment, a safe destination, and surf instruction coupled with yoga, healthy meals, massage, and other activities.
"The trip was challenging and life changing," says Helfner. "The [instructors] all made me feel comfortable and safe. Once over my fear of the ocean, I felt accomplished at facing a fear and moving right past it. It was amazing to be in the water surrounded by a group of the most supportive women. The best part of the trip was the group of women I met—my 'surf chicas' who I still surf with today. The Pura Vida vibe is still with me a year and a half later. I cannot recommend this trip strongly enough."
Helfner is one of a growing number of women who've discovered the joy of women-only vacations, a travel trend that's been strengthening since the early 90s. Her feelings about why she chose such a trip also echo the thoughts of others, who've cited having the chance to try something new—an adventure sport, a spiritual practice, immersion in a different culture—in a noncompetitive, supportive environment.
Women-only tours also appeal to solo women travelers. Not just those without a travel partner, but women with lots of personal and work commitments who want to be in an atmosphere where they can express themselves more fully, free from the requirements and judgments of everyday life. "I find seeing the world from a woman's-only perspective to have fewer boundaries, less inhibitions and to be much more supportive," says Ellen MacDonald, a Colorado nurse who's gone on several women-only trips without a companion.
With these factors in mind, I've selected 10 women-only providers and trips that promise to give female travelers an empowering and rejuvenating vacation experience.
Surf camp in Costa Rica
Provider: Pura Vida Adventures
Price: from $1,675
The fact that adventure activities tend to be at the heart of many women-only vacations comes as no surprise to Tierza Davis, founder of the Costa-Rica based Pura Vida Adventures surf camp. "I think it's now acceptable to be a girlie girl and a sporty girl at the same time," says Davis. "I always have women at camp saying that they grew up at the beach watching the boys surf, never trying it themselves, but now they want to."
Davis, like other women-only travel operators, also knows that women approach sports differently than men, so she created an active vacation experience that's empowering and well-rounded, not a test of physical prowess. On a typical seven-day Pura Vida camp, you'll receive surf instruction tailored to your level (including private sessions) interspersed with daily yoga classes, massage, freshly prepared meals, and cultural activities like Spanish lessons and salsa dancing.
"Pura Vida is a spectacular vacation, one that will keep bringing a wealth of inspiration, empowerment, and pleasure long after your vacation ends," says Wanda Simmons, another acupuncturist and Pura Vida alumna. "I tell all my friends to book now, no thought necessary, it's an excellent investment for your soul and well-being."
Packages cover shared accommodations, surf instruction and equipment, all meals, a one-hour massage, and yoga and cultural activities. Trips run most weeks November through April. For the lowest prices you must prepay 60 days in advance. Winter flights from Miami to San Jose, Costa Rica's main international gateway, start at $138 round-trip plus taxes on American. Shuttle bus transfers from San Jose to the hotel cost $35 each way.