A funny thing happened on my first all-women trip: I had a good time.
I hadn't planned it that way (the all-women part). Divorced two years, I had signed up for a hiking excursion through the Hawaiian Islands run by an adventure outfitter that catered to both sexes. I figured I might meet some nice, rugged eco-guy and a rain-forest romance would bloom. Alas, so did the 18 other women who showed up at our Kauai campground on orientation night. The only male was our guide -- and his assistant guide was his girlfriend.
We were not amused. But as our group hiked, kayaked, commiserated and laughed our way through two weeks and four islands, many of us developed close bonds that still hold fast today, relationships I doubt would have evolved so strongly from a co-ed trip.
Today, my happenstance all-girl gathering has become a popular wing of the adventure travel business -- one an increasing number of women seek out with great enthusiasm, creating a boom in organized trips for women only.
These women have decided that while it might, as the saying goes, be nice to have a man around the house, that doesn't necessarily hold true on an adventure vacation.
Outfitters say the reasons for wanting to travel guyless
range from the spiritual -- the joy of bonding with other women, for example -- to the practical. Some trip leaders maintain that women conceptualize and master certain skills, such as navigating a sailboat or scaling a mountain, differently from men, and accomplish more in a learning environment geared specifically to them.
Age, too, can come into play; several companies state outright that their trips are for women over 35 or 40 who may be new to the physical rigors of outdoor adventures and don't want to have to keep up with fitness buffs in their 20s. They prefer to get their feet wet, so to speak, with other beginners in similar life situations.
"Many of these women have always traveled with their husbands and kids," says Marion Stoddart, owner of Outdoor Adventures for Women Over 40, in Groton, Mass. "Now their kids are grown and off on their own; they may be widowed or divorced or their husbands may not be interested in this type of adventure experience. As these women see the big zeros in their lives -- 40, 50, 60 -- they are realizing their own mortality and that there are some things in life they cannot postpone doing any longer or they'll never do them."
Women-only trips are just the latest twist in active vacations, which are the fastest growing part of the travel business, with 5,000 adventure companies nationwide offering hiking, cycling, rafting and other outdoor excursions around the world. More than 60 percent of participants in all group adventure trips, including co-ed programs, are women, many of whom find the increased security and guaranteed companionship of a group a comfortable way to go. (Many men, on the other hand, are inclined to travel on their own or independently with a buddy or two.)
Women also relish the fact that all the details are handled by the outfitter. The participants just need to pay their money, pack and show up.
Suzanne Pogell, president of Womanship, a 13-year-old sailing school in Annapolis, says in the beginning "Guys accused me of being sexist in excluding them from my trips, and the women thought I was suggesting they are somehow dumber than men and need special handling. But none of that's the point.
"The truth is many women need an opportunity to develop competence and confidence without the pressures and even well-meant protections that men often provide.
"In sailing, we've found that women's way of learning is different from men's -- more global, with a lot more explanation and hands-on demonstration," says Pogell. Her company offers live-aboard learning cruises out of its Annapolis base as well as other American marinas (Florida, the Great Lakes, New England, Pacific Northwest and San Diego as well) and international locations (the British Virgin Islands, Greece, Turkey, New
Zealand and Ireland).
"Women learn faster and feel more confident when taught by and among other women," she says, adding that Womanship's motto is "nobody yells."
Susan Eckert has logged 15 years in the business of women's travel as owner of Rainbow Adventures in Bozeman, Mont. This year, in addition to offering her usual array of soft adventures for women over 30, she has had to dream up new programs for clients who have been with her since she started and want more of a challenge.
"Women's adventure travel has really gone wild. It's finally come into its own, especially for older women," she says. "I've had women who have been with me 15 years. When they first came, they smoked, they were overweight. Now they are going on high-energy trips because they say they've shed their past selves and want something physically challenging."
For them, Eckert this year launched a "Women Born to Be Wild High Adventure Series," featuring gorilla trekking in Uganda and rafting in Patagonia, Chile.
For women new to adventure travel, Eckert offers plenty of easier programs.
"Many beginners want an adventure experience without physical encumbrances that may be just too much for them, especially if they are not particularly fit," she says. "For them we have trips where, wherever we go, camels, llamas or Sherpas carry the gear."
Whether canoeing on Utah's Green River, horsepacking in the Canadian Rockies, or hiking northern Italy's Lake District, "the emphasis is on the beauty of the environment, not the stamina of the participant," Eckert says.
Stamina-building is an integral part of the women's trips run by the Sierra Club and Outward Bound -- particularly the latter, whose name is synonymous with rough and tough wilderness challenges.
At 53 years old, Outward Bound, based in Garrison, N.Y., has grown mellower and more tolerant with age, no longer espousing a strictly survival-school stance. While the courses are physically demanding, individuals are encouraged to go at their own pace, competing with no one but themselves.
Every program, from alpine mountaineering to dog-sledding, canyon trekking and whitewater canoeing, is offered several times a year as an all-women trip to make the experience even more user-friendly for neophytes.
Carol Hake, a 66-year-old Sierra Club hike leader, has spent 11 summers teaching women from 17 to 74 how to tote a 35-pound backpack cross-country without hurting backs or necks.
"We go short distances, just 3-4 miles a day the first couple of days, and the women learn that by correctly packing and carrying well-designed packs, they don't ever have to be in pain," says Hake, whose weeklong trips are in the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, south of Yosemite National Park.
Though she says no one has ever turned back on one of her trips, she has had a few cases where women divested themselves of their packs.
"One year we had a woman who was very unfit," Hake recalls. "She was just a kid -- 52 -- but her legs were weak and it was hard for her to keep her step up. We divvied up her gear, and she concentrated on building up the strength in her legs; the trip went fine."
Hake says her biggest thrill is watching her charges gain confidence in their own strength and endurance abilities.
"My reward is in watching the evolution of the group on my trips, which are about so much more than mere hiking," she says. "I remember one of my most self-doubting group members saying suddenly during a steep ascent up a mountain pass: 'I'm beginning to trust my boots,' and another one shouting: 'I'm beginning to trust myself.' I just beamed with joy."
The Sierra Club women's trips often are as much about winding down as moving along, says Hake.
"So many of these vigorous women are burned out from their jobs or home stresses and spend much of their time stretched out by a creek, splashing nude in a fresh mountain pool and sketching the wildflowers."
While all women's trips involve a high level of female bonding, this is especially true of the leadership courses run by Woodswomen, a Minneapolis outfitter. The company runs weeklong expeditions during which women learn how to run outdoor trips for women, emphasizing building of confidence and self-esteem through skill mastering.
Participants learn how to plan routes and daily activities as well as camp skills. Graduates can become Woodswomen apprentice guides and work their way up to trip leadership positions, where they, in turn, become adventure mentors for other women.
"There's a very special empathy among women that could not be experienced if men were in their midst," says Hake of the Sierra Club.
L Here is a selection of outfitters with trips for women only.
* Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40, Box 200, Groton, Mass. 01450; 508-448-3331. Trips include hiking in the Canadian Rockies or Copper Canyon, Mexico. Outward Bound, Route 9D, hTC R2 Box 280, Garrison, N.Y., 10524; 800-243-8520. Alpine mountaineering in the High Sierras, Calif.; desert and canyon explorations in Joshua Tree National Monument, Calif.; whitewater rafting in Utah.
* Rainbow Adventures, 15033 Kelly Canyon Road, Bozeman, Mont. 59715; 800-804-8686. Hiking in the Grand Canyon, float trip in the Yukon, safaris to Tanzania and Uganda.
* Sierra Club, 85 Second St., San Francisco, Calif. 94105; 415-977-5522. The club runs several hiking and backpacking trips for women only each season. One or two usually are for beginners.
* Wild Women Adventures, 107 North Main St., Sebastopol, Calif. 95472; 800-992-1322. Domestic and international tours for small groups of women, with an emphasis on cultural immersion.
* Womanship, the Boathouse, 410 Severn Ave., Annapolis, Md. 21403; 800-342-9295. Weeklong learning cruises in the British Virgin Islands and Florida's Gulf Coast, live-aboard courses in Annapolis and Great Lakes in season.
* Women for Sail, 1035 W. Belden Ave., Suite 3, Chicago, Ill. 60614; 800-346-6404. Learn-to-sail courses operate in Florida year-round, and run seasonally in Maryland, Michigan, the British Virgin Islands and Thailand.
* Woodswomen, 25 W. Diamond Lake Road, Minneapolis, Minn. 55419; 800-279-0555. Weeklong expeditions during which women learn how to plan routes and daily activities as well as camp skills, which bring confidence and self-esteem. Special leadership courses include: a rock-climbing leadership course in Joshua Tree National Monument, Calif.; camping and canoeing in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Area; mountaineering and navigational skills at Mount Olympus, Wash.; and Grand Canyon hiking.
* Christine Columbus, 800-280-4775. Mail order company with travel products specifically geared to women, from back-friendly shoulder bags to a half-slip with concealed pockets for valuables and a palm-sized hair dryer.
* "Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road, edited by Marybeth Bond (Travelers Tales, Inc. $7.95). A pocket guide with everything you need to know from traveling with children to health and hygiene.
* "A Journey of One's Own: Uncommon Advice for the Independent Woman Traveler," by Thalia Zepatos (Eighth Mountain Press; $16.95). Practical tips on combating loneliness, safety precautions and strategies for avoiding single-supplement surcharges are interspersed with lyrical essays on outer and inner adventures around the world.
* Maiden Voyages, 800-528-8425. Quarterly magazine, also available at newsstands, with first-person travel narratives, a calendar of women's tours and operators, and other resources. Cost: $20 a year.
* "Travelin' Woman," 800-871-6409. Monthly newsletter with features, interviews, news and safety tips for women business and leisure travelers. Annual subscription is $48.
* "Smart Woman Traveler," 800-250-8428. Newsletter with articles of interest to women travelers. Published 11 times a year. Cost per year: $39.
* Women's Travel Club, 800-480-4448. Miami, Fla.-based group organizes excursions with an emphasis on cultural interaction and publishes a monthly newsletter. Cost to join: $35.
Pub Date: 11/02/97