American women have come a long way since the days when “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” were popular TV shows, when most women were too busy with their domestic lives to think about jet-setting. Today, however, women are the leading consumers in the travel market. Now women, young and old alike, are forging their independence, trying out new activities, and gaining a stronger sense of self through travel. Not coincidently, women-only tours and travel experiences are on the rise.
“Women-only travel is definitely a growing trend. From when I started in the early 90s, I’ve seen an over 200 percent increase in the number of women’s travel companies,” says Evelyn Hannon, editor of Journeywoman, the first and largest online travel resource for women.
Teresa Rodriguez Williamson, founder of TangoDiva.com, an online travel magazine and community for women, says that there are presently about 75 established women-only travel providers, with more options cropping up and diversifying into niches within the women’s travel market. “Now you have companies and individuals who focus on women’s specific interests—say cooking, hiking, painting, and surfing,” says Williamson. “By next year you will easily find tours custom-designed for everything from women who love to knit and hike to women who enjoy painting and meditating.”
To help you to determine whether a women-only vacation is right for you, I asked women’s travel experts and ordinary women who have been on women-only vacations to discuss the benefits. I also looked at vacation providers that offer these types of trips—both tour companies which dedicate all of their business to women-only trips and other providers that run occasional women-only programs—and have highlighted here some of the best options I found.
Why go on a women-only vacation?
- It’s a great way try out challenging activities in a non-competitive environment: Many women, particularly more mature women who grew up before women’s sports were widely available, feel more empowered to participate in challenging activities without men around. It’s no surprise then that the majority of women-only vacation providers focus on adventure and outdoors travel.”With women-only tours, women are trying more adventure travel because they get the chance to do the hard work and learn new skills, whereas when men and women travel together, the men usually do the hard jobs of portaging the canoes, setting up camp, that sort of thing,” says Hannon. “Now women are proving to themselves that they can do the challenging work too.”
Being athletic and trying out new activities in a non-competitive atmosphere is also a bonus. “Women experience the outdoors differently [than men], and they tend to want to enjoy the experience and not worry about who is getting to their destination the fastest,” says Susan Eckert, founder of the tour company AdventureWomen.
- It’s a safe and affordable choice for women traveling by themselves: If you don’t have a traveling partner for whatever reason—you’re single, divorced, widowed, or prefer traveling on your own—or your partner is too busy or not interested in going on the sort of trip you’d like, women-only group vacations can provide you with a sense of security. “For many women who have never ventured out alone, safety is the driving force,” says Williamson. “I find so many women who are afraid to travel alone or without a man, and I say, ‘try a tour first.'”If you do go alone on a women-only trip, you likely won’t be the only one; many women’s travel companies report significant numbers of solo travelers on their vacations. “You’re more likely to find plenty of other solo travelers on a women’s trip—we average about 75 percent solo travelers,” says Deanna Keahey, founder of the Adventurous Wench tour company.
Because of the large number of single-women travelers, most women-only travel companies don’t charge a single supplement. Unless you want private lodgings, you’ll most likely be matched up with a roommate to share a double room, unless you want private accommodations.
- It’s a way to celebrate milestones and rejuvenate after major life events: “I think travel has become a ritual of sorts for women, a coming of age that women are using to mark the special occasions in their lives,” says Hannon. In addition to using women-tours to celebrate positive milestones like upcoming weddings, new jobs, and graduations, women are also traveling as a way to rejuvenate themselves after difficult life events. “Travel can mark a fresh start. We’re now seeing women traveling after a divorce or after the death of a husband,” says Hannon.
- There’s a special type of bonding that takes place in women-only groups: Women who’ve been on female-only trips tend to find that there is a more open and creative dynamic than in co-ed groups, and it’s easier to make friends.”When you’re with all women, you can talk freely about a lot of topics that you may not otherwise be able to in a mixed crowd—things you’re going through physically, mentally, psychologically, at work, at home, with family, alone,” says Joanne Marshall, a traveler who’s been on two trips with the women-only adventure tour company Canyon Calling. “The bonding that can happen in such a short time comes from spending 24 hours a day together, day after day, with like-minded women.”
- You get to focus on yourself, not your family or work: “As a woman in your daily life, you are constantly multitasking which doesn’t allow you to think about yourself and your needs,” says Hannon. “But when you travel, all that gets shut off—there are no more kids or bosses that need your attention, and no more Internet or phones. It’s the best therapy. You’re allowing your mind to be free so you can think about yourself and where you are going.”Besides self-reflection, going on a women-only trip can allow you to do the things you really like, whether they be antique shopping or horseback riding, something that might not be possible when you’re trying to keep your spouse and kids happy. “We all know that women have a tendency to enjoy some things that most men or their children don’t,” says Cathy Miller, who’s traveled with Gutsy Women Travel. “It’s also a terrific way to meet future traveling companions with similar interests.”
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
There’s something about the beauty of the Western landscape, the grace of horses, and the camaraderie of ranch life that make being a cowgirl a fantasy many women share. At the upscale Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in southern Montana, living out that dream, and stumbling upon unexpected friendships with other women who are in search of the same ideal, is possible, if only for a few days.
Located about 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, Mountain Sky sits on 6,000 acres in Paradise Valley, nestled between two mountain ranges with peaks over 10,000 feet. Mountain Sky is a working cattle and horse ranch, but it has been hosting guests since 1929.
Through much of its open season (May through mid-October), Mountain Sky caters to families. But, since 2004, five days in the spring are set aside for the “Wild West Women Adventure,” a gathering of about 25 aspiring cowgirls of all ages—even grandmothers who never dreamed they’d be able to ride on horseback through the Montana wilderness.
“You haven’t lived unless you’ve experienced a trip like this,” says Shari Jackson, an archivist from Atlanta who has attended the Wild West Women Adventure twice, this year with her mother. Shari’s mother Colette adds: “There were women from their 20s to 60s from all different occupations and life circumstances. The differences didn’t matter—we all just had a fantastic time.”
The $1,100 cost of the Wild West Women Adventure is all-inclusive, with airport transfers, four nights’ accommodations, all meals, evening entertainment, riding, and other ranch activities included. The ranch staff also make personal attention and high-quality service part of the package. “Someone was always taking care of everything we would need so that we could relax as much as possible. An example: picking up our luggage on our cabins’ porches on our last day so that we could go have a relaxed breakfast before heading out for the airport,” says Kathryn Pace, a massage therapist from Atlanta who attended this year’s women’s trip.
On the first evening of the trip, a wrangler meets with you to discuss your riding experience and preferences and then matches you with an appropriate horse, which you can keep for your entire stay. Most days there are morning and afternoon rides. The wranglers split guests up into several riding groups based on experience level so that beginners can enjoy leisurely trail rides while more advanced riders can try trotting or even loping (running at an easy gait) across meadows in the high country.
On the second full day of the trip, you can ride from the guest ranch to the Mountain Sky’s working cattle ranch, where you can watch (and participate, if you like), in a cattle roundup and calf branding. There’s also an option for an all-day ride on the third day.
Besides riding, you can go on twice-daily hikes that cover some of the 50 miles of trails that criss-cross the area, take fly-fishing lessons in the ranch trout pond, or go on a day trip to Yellowstone, where you can spot newborn buffalo calves, fawns, and other baby animals. There’s also afternoon yoga, massage (available for an extra charge), and a pool with a hot tub.
Meals at the ranch are gourmet, a trip highlight for many. “The food at Mountain Sky is fabulous. The meals could rival anything in Manhattan,” says Esta Mann, a New Yorker who designs leather goods for Ralph Lauren. For breakfast, there’s a buffet with fresh fruit, pastries, and cereals, plus heartier options like huckleberry pancakes and eggs benedict. Casual lunches are served outdoors if weather permits, and more formal multi-course dinners are held in the main lodge. Expect entrees like filet mignon, leg of lamb, and broiled halibut with butternut squash sauce, plus decadent desserts.
Evenings during the Wild West Women Adventure can be some of the most fun parts of the experience, with nightly entertainment such as hayrides, Western music, and dance lessons with the cowboys planned. And, in the lounge area in the main lodge, good conversation, laughter, and even bar-top dancing (just ask Shari’s mom) are commonplace after dark.
The next Wild West Women Adventure will be held from May 5 to 9, 2007. Prices do not include airfare. Visit the Mountain Sky website to learn more.
Canyon Calling, Adventures for Women
Based in Sedona, Arizona, Canyon Calling was founded in 1996 by native New Zealander Cheryl Fleet, making it one of the veteran women’s travel companies to “come of age” in the 1990s. Fleet, a former jeep tour guide in Arizona, decided to found the company when she noticed that women on her tours in co-ed groups did not speak up or share their opinions as freely as women in female-only groups.
Fleet started with women-only tours in the Southwestern U.S., and now operates more than a dozen U.S. and international trips every year to destinations as diverse Wyoming and Morocco. Currently, prices range from $1,450 to $3,975 per person, which covers all accommodations, meals, land and sea transport, internal flights, guides, and entrance fees and activities.
Trips tend to focus on one country or region, so travelers can get the most out of each destination. And, unlike most adventure tours, which are often limited to one type of activity, such as hiking or kayaking, Canyon Calling’s trips are all multi-activity. “We do something different every day and get to enjoy the outdoors from lots of different perspectives,” says Fleet.
Although it’s recommended that you be moderately fit and nonsmoking, no experience is necessary to sign up for Canyon Calling trips. Relatively experienced adventurers and novices alike will find a supportive atmosphere. “No competition, no pressure, just fun,” says Joann Marshall of her experience on Canyon Calling trips in 2003 and 2004. “Those who had done a particular sport before helped those who hadn’t, and we all learned from each other.”
Group size is limited to 12 women, and the average age of attendees is 48, although women as young as 26 and as old as 80 have traveled with the company. About 80 percent of the company’s guests sign up alone, so women rotate with different roommates in double rooms throughout a trip.
If you’re seeking the ultimate multi-sport experience, Canyon Callings’ 18-day “Fiji and New Zealand” itinerary provides the chance to explore New Zealand, a country that many call the world’s top adventure destination. Plus, Canyon Calling boasts the only women’s trip that visits both the North and South Island of New Zealand. “New Zealand is very stimulating for outdoor travelers because of the great variety of topographical zones it has in a small area—mountains, volcanoes, coastline, glaciers, and fjords—we call it ‘the world in a shoebox,'” says Fleet.
It’s also a good place try out optional “extreme sports” like paragliding and bungee jumping in an environment that is particularly female-friendly. “New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote (1893), and New Zealand women have been very outdoors-oriented for years—many adventure guides here are women,” says Fleet.
“I couldn’t believe how much I did on that trip” says Marshall, who lists white-water rafting, bungee jumping, paragliding, and glacier-walking as just a few of the activities she tried on the 2003 New Zealand trip. Other highlights include attending a traditional native ceremony on a Maori homeland—something most New Zealanders don’t even experience—hiking the Tongariro Crossing across volcanoes, and spending a full day on Fiji.
This trip next departs February 20, 2007, and costs $3,975 per person, which is all-inclusive, except for the cost of airfare from the U.S. to Fiji. To learn more about this and other Canyon Calling trips, go to the outfitter’s website.
Gutsy Women Travel
Not all women-only vacations are adventure-based. Gutsy Women Travel, which operates both land and cruise vacations in the U.S. and overseas, has tours that cater to a wide range of interests such as arts and culture, fine dining and wines, shopping, and even spiritual journeys. (There are soft adventure options, too.)
The company’s trips focus on a theme, like the sacred Celtic sites of Ireland or the homes and gardens of Savannah and Charleston, and combine a variety of activities that appeal to different interests. Trips also always include a unique, intimate cultural experience that would be difficult to arrange on your own, such as taking a cooking class with a local food writer or having a private reception with a prominent artist.
Gutsy Women Travel tends to attract mostly women in their 40s to 60s who are either single or who have different travel interests than their partners. “Being a widow, it is meaningful to go with women who have the same interests,” says Alice Furgeson who’s been on four Gutsy Women trips. “[It’s] always nice to meet new people from all over the country and from all walks of life.” President and Co-Founder April Merenda adds: “Women travel differently than men—let’s face it, we love to talk, ask questions, linger in new places, and just absorb the whole experience. We can do that at our pace when we are on a women-only vacation.”
Trips are usually seven days or less, and prices average out to $150 to $250 per day. Costs include accommodations in four-star or better boutique hotels, some meals, a tour manager and local guides, gratuities, and private tours and sightseeing. As a division of the package tour company Gate1Travel, Gutsy Women clients also have access to competitively-priced airfares that can be purchased with a tour package.
Gutsy Women’s six-day Paris tour is a popular choice and one that goes beyond typical sightseeing trips offered by other companies. While the trip gives a good overview of Paris’ top attractions such as the Louvre, Champs Elysees, and Eiffel Tower, its highlights focus on two of the French capital’s other draws: shopping and food.
On the third day of the trip, you’ll be treated to a tour of Avenue Montaigne and Avenue George V, where many of Paris’ top fashion houses are located. Here, you’ll learn about the history of Paris haute couture and the city’s famous designers.
On the fourth day, you’ll go antique hunting in the Sixth Arrondissement with a shopping guide, and later take an evening cooking class. “The hands-on cooking class at the Ritz Escoffier School, where many of the world’s famous chefs have trained, was an incredible experience,” says Cathy Miller, who went on the Paris trip this April. “Even if you don’t cook at home, after the class you wanted to return from the trip and impress all of your friends with what you’d learned.”
Tour rates, including round-trip airfare from New York, start at $2,479 for the September 12 departure and $2,089 for the November 28 departure. Taxes and fees are extra. Flights from other cities are available for different prices. To learn more, go to the Gutsy Women Travel website.
Known as the “Grande Dame” of women-only adventure travel companies, AdventureWomen was the first organization of its kind in the country, and remains one of the most popular options for women today. “In the early 80s there were no adventure travel companies that catered just to women,” says Susan Eckert, who founded the company in 1982. “Fresh out of the U.S. Peace Corps and graduate school, I saw this as an opportunity for me to create a niche market in a travel specialty (adventure travel) that was just in its infancy.”
The company specifically targets women over 30 who are confident, physically fit, and want more than mainstream tours can offer. “Time and again, our guests tell us that they like to travel with us on our adventure travel vacations so they can meet new people and challenge themselves by learning a new skill or activity,” says Eckert. “They want a vacation package that is out of the ordinary. They want to be physically active and venture out on their own, unfettered by the responsibilities of home and work.”
Eckert personally plans the details of every trip, and these preciously laid out itineraries, along with her philosophy of connecting with the self and others through travel, have earned her a steady following of women travelers—nearly 70 percent of her guests are repeat customers.
AdventureWomen has more than 20 different trips to destinations around the globe. Some focus on an adventure activity, such as rafting through the Grand Canyon or hiking in Italy, while others have more of an emphasis on unique cultural experiences and even humanitarian work. The “Bhutan Cultural and Humanitarian Adventure” trip, for example, includes work on three separate volunteer projects along with hiking and sightseeing. Trips are rated as “Easy,” “Moderate,” or “High Energy,” but all place an emphasis on comfort, safety, and luxury.
Trip prices range from $2,295 to $7,000. Inclusions vary, but rates usually cover accommodations, airport transfers, all internal transportation, most meals, sightseeing and entrance fees, an AdventureWomen escort, and local guides.
If you really want an out-of-the-ordinary trip, AdventureWomen is leading its first ever trip to Myanmar (Burma) in Southeast Asia, a place very few American travelers—women or men—have ventured. Although Myanmar has been ruled by a repressive military regime since 1988, the country is relatively safe for travelers and offers the chance to experience one of the most exotic, untouched, and friendly cultures in Asia.
Buddhism, not commercialism, is the dominating influence in Myanmar, which is also known as the “Land of Golden Pagodas.” Trip goers will have the chance to experience this influence through visits to numerous ancient temples and archeological sites and interactions with local people. In addition, the trip includes treks to visit some of the country’s ethnic minority hill tribes.
The 11-day trip departs February 10, 2007, and costs $3,995 per person, which covers round-trip flights between Bangkok and Myanmar, and all internal flights. Transpacific airfare is extra. Go to the AdventureWomen website for more information about the company and its trips.
Artista Creative Safaris for Women
Besides physical challenges, women are tackling new creative pursuits on women-only vacations. On Artista Creative Safaris, women create abstract paintings on an all-inclusive vacation in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, a coastal artists’ colony that looks more like a European village than a Pacific beach town.
The painting safaris, says Artista founder Bev Sanders, “are geared for the never-evers,” women who may have never even held a paintbrush. However, “a lot of them are closet artists, and the safaris have changed their lives,” says Sanders. “We had one woman who quit her job and opened her own studio.”
Artista Creative Safaris was started two years ago by Sanders at the suggestion of several travelers who participated in her other women-only enterprise, Las Olas Surf Safaris, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. Sanders used the experience she gained teaching women of all ages and abilities to surf to create a similarly empowering program for prospective artists.
Artista schedules three- and five-day painting safaris throughout the year. You’ll stay at the Cypress Inn, a historic, Mediterranean-style hotel owned by Doris Day and Dennis LeVatt, that also welcomes pets. In the mornings, you’ll have breakfast at the Inn, and then head across the street to Artista’s studio for a morning painting session. You’ll get your own workspace and be provided with canvases, paint, brushes, and all the other equipment you’ll need.
After lunch on your own in Carmel, you’ll return to painting for the afternoon. Painting instructors demonstrate techniques and assist students, who are free to create whatever they like.
Throughout these laid-back painting sessions, ample Chardonnay and hors d’oeuvres are available to get your artistic juices flowing. Artista runs daily afternoon yoga classes on all trips, and on five-night trips, you also get a one-hour massage, a guided hiking tour and gourmet picnic at Point Lobos State Reserve, a beach bonfire, and an art reception and dinner when you’ll be able to display your work in Artista’s gallery.
Double-occupancy rates start at $1,225 per person for three-night trips and $1,995 for five-night trips. Prices cover airport transfers from Monterey, accommodations, daily breakfast, all painting workshops and supplies, a welcome reception and dinner, wine and hors d’oeuvres, a late-night painting party, and the activities noted above. Lower prices are available for those who wish to stay in more casual accommodations. Airfare is extra.
Currently, a three-day painting safari is scheduled to start on July 17, with the potential for more dates to be added later in the year. Five-day trips commence August 6 and September 10. Visit the Artista Creative Safaris for Women website for more details.
A relative newcomer to the women-only adventure travel market, Adventurous Wench designs trips for women who want excitement without having to rough it—think Greek-island-hopping by luxury yacht or exploring the Costa Rican jungle while staying in upscale lodges.
The company was founded in 2003 by adventure travel enthusiast Deanna Keahey when she found herself “suddenly single.” “As I became part of the world of single women, I discovered more and more people in the same situation,” says Keahey. “I no longer had a travel partner, and during this difficult time, I connected more with my girlfriends, and gained a new realization of how important the support of other women can be. The combination of all of this led me to found Adventurous Wench.”
Single women will indeed find kindred spirits on Keahy’s trips, as about 75 percent of her guests travel by themselves. Past guests ages have ranged from their 20s to 70s, with the biggest number being in their 40s and 50s. Whatever their age, most Adventurous Wench travelers tend to be fun-loving and interested in making new friends. This is made easy by the company’s emphasis on small groups, which never include more than 12 people. Adds Keahey: “A unique benefit is that the name Adventurous Wench attracts women with a sense of humor. In a restaurant, our table is apt to be the one with peals of laughter coming from it.”
Currently, Adventurous Wench offers about 10 different itineraries, evenly split between U.S. and foreign destinations. Prices start around $775 for short trips and range up to $5,000 for multi-week international vacations. Inclusions vary, but trips typically cover accommodations, most meals, activities and sightseeing, ground transportation, and trip leaders and local guides. Airfare is extra.
Adventurous Wench’s British Virgin Islands sailing vacation is a good choice if you want to experience a thrilling adventure but still have the chance to laze about in the Caribbean sun. On this weeklong trip, seven guests and three crew members sail aboard a trimaran yacht, visiting beaches and reefs by day and dining and sleeping aboard the ship in the evenings.
Traveling by yacht may be the best way to see the laid-back islands Tortola, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and the smaller islets of the BVI. “You can get into tiny secluded harbors that most other people will never be able to see,” says Keahy. “You’re close to the water, and can just jump over the side for a swim when you want.”
The trip’s flexible schedule also allows guests to tailor port stops and activities to their own interests. “The captain will work out the itinerary based on what our guests want to do,” says Keahy. “Want to go scuba diving? Hike around the island? Try water skiing? Lie out on deck with a rum punch? Whatever you want, we’ll plan around that.”
Besides helping out with sailing (if you want), you can engage in water sports such as snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing, or explore the islands themselves. The yacht’s chef serves freshly prepared meals each day onboard with wine, beer, and other non-premium liquors included. Some evenings you can visit beachside bars or resorts on the island, such as the famous Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda.
Prices for this trip’s February 4, 2007, departure date (other dates are sold out) start at $2,595 per person for a shared cabin. Transportation to and from Tortola is extra. To learn more about this and other trips, go to the Adventurous Wench website.