The Gang's All Here

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One night this past August, I found myself skinny-dipping after midnight in an exquisitely landscaped pool on a Mexican estate with a bunch of girlfriends, drinking wine out of the bottle and singing "Kumbaya."

Though three of us had already celebrated our 50th birthdays, though one is a respected professor of marketing, another a mother of five, somehow this didn't stop us from giggling, splashing, swigging, sharing confessions and making professions of undying friendship -- until thoughts of early flights home the next day finally sent us, dripping, to bed.

Reunions with friends from the past seem to bring some of the carefree energy of those times with them, as our group found out during a rejuvenating long weekend at Hacienda Petac in Yucatan, Mexico.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if such gatherings have quite a bit more carefree energy than those involving extended family, which tend to combine your heart- warming joy with your eye-rolling aggravation.

Travel with your friends and you travel with people with whom you are highly compatible and who treat you with respect and civility. Travel with your family and -- well, it's your family -- you tell me.

Reunion travel -- dubbed "togethering" by travel trend watchers Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell -- is hot. Almost eight out of 10 active leisure travelers took a trip with extended family or friends in the past five years, says Dennis Marzella, YPB&R; vice president, and "spending time with friends" is now rated as one of the top factors in making vacation plans.

My own informal Internet survey quickly turned up scads of old-friend travel groups with stories to tell (four are profiled in the boxes at right and on Page 5R). Typically, these pals grew up in the same town, went to the same summer camp, roomed together in college or met at work. In our case, the gang formed in the mid-'80s in the hallways of a start-up software company in Austin, Texas, called Tymlabs.

The Tymgirls, as the nucleus of women who worked there became known, trace their origins to an afternoon in 1985 when our boss good-humoredly scolded a bunch of us who were chatting outside his office. "Hold the hen party after work," he said. Shortly thereafter, I issued invitations to the first official Tymgirls Hen Party.

The Tymgirls turned out to be an institution with legs, outliving the company that spawned us by more than a decade so far. Tymlabs was swallowed up by bigger fish in the high-tech food chain in the early '90s, but the Tymgirls stayed friends. Some continued to work together at various spin-off companies, some formed an investment club, others deepened their friendships by helping one another through divorces, deaths, births, illnesses and other life changes.

I became particularly close to Judy Frels, who ended up moving to Washington around the same time I moved to Pennsylvania in 1999.

By the time I left Austin, I had ceased attending Tymgirls' occasional functions, but Judy was still in touch with our old friends. How's Denise? I would ask her. How's Nancy? How's Cathy Jean?

One couple I was especially sad to have lost track of was Chuck and Dev Stern. Chuck got me my job at Tymlabs in 1984, and though his chromosomes precluded him from membership in the Tymgirls, his hilarious, razor-sharp and whip-thin wife, Dev, had been his proxy, an honorary member of the group though she never worked with us.

This past spring, out of the blue, I got an e-mail from Dev, inviting me and Judy and Cathy Jean and Denise and Nancy to visit her and Chuck's new hangout / business venture, Hacienda Petac. Having finally finished the renovation of the estate, Dev was about to open it for weekly rental to groups of up to 10, and she thought we could help give it a test drive.

I asked if I could bring Jane, my 4-year-old, and Dev said it was fine -- even though her son is grown, everyone else in the group is childless and, according to the Web site (www.haciendapetac. com), the hacienda does not allow children.

But making exceptions is what old friends are for, right? So Judy and Jane and I flew from Baltimore-Washington International Airport; Denise, Nancy and Cathy Jean boarded a flight from Austin; and, unbeknownst to us, Chuck's friend from the erstwhile U.K. office of Tymlabs, Dave Draycott, got on a trans-Atlantic jet. (Chuck had apparently decided he might need some Y-chromosome support.)

And one sultry, flower-scented night in August, we all converged beneath the Moorish arches of the hacienda's patio, where we were welcomed by Chuck and Dev and their platoon of Mayan maidens in embroidered white dresses, carrying trays of pale-green margaritas and rose hibiscus tea.

For the next four days, we basked in the renewed pleasure of each others' company. There was so much to catch up on -- the unlikely stories of various Tymlabs alumnae took days to unfold. We learned how Cathy had found love in her retirement in a cottage in the woods, how Denise started a booming business selling collectibles on eBay, how Nancy had a full-time job helping one of our most successful ex-colleagues administer his foundation and coordinate his travel.

A particularly fertile topic of discussion was our former boss, the man who had brought us together, a leader of incredible charisma and perspicacity who had chucked it all to teach macrobiotic cooking classes.

The 80 acres of Hacienda Petac provided ample room for our meandering conversation. Though not far from heavily touristed hangouts in Cancun and only 25 minutes from the Merida airport, it lies in an unspoiled region of emerald jungle, exotic wildlife and ruined temples (there are Mayan artifacts all over the estate).

Petac, like other haciendas in the area, was built on cattle and sisal fortunes in the 17th and 18th centuries and designed to support what was at the time perhaps the most luxurious lifestyle on earth.

As the Tymgirls were soon to find out, Chuck and Dev had done their best to restore not only the buildings and grounds but the lifestyle as well. We found ourselves staying in breathtaking rooms in what was once the machine house of the plantation. The rooms had 30-foot ceilings and sumptuous bathrooms with light-filled showers and tubs hand-built from local marble. Fresh flower petals were arranged in artful designs on the bathmats, as well as on our beds.

My daughter Jane, who was carried in asleep the night we arrived, awoke the next morning to take in our new digs.

"We're princesses, Mommy," she said. And as the maids brought in the clothes we'd worn the day before, already laundered and pressed, I had to agree.

The best night of the trip was Chuck and Dev's 27th wedding anniversary. We gathered secretly in the game room before dinner to create what we hoped would be an unforgettable tribute -- suffice it say it was sung to the tune of "I've Got You Babe" and included lines such as, "so put your little hand in his cause now you're in the hacienda biz."

Chuck, however, had one-upped us by hiring a trio of mariachis to serenade us on the back terrace during cocktails. And nature then one-upped him by putting on the most unbelievable purple-skied lightning show I have ever seen.

Just as Carly Simon sang back in the blush of our youth, these are the good old days.

As we sadly left Petac that morning after our swim, we vowed to make the reunion happen again -- but could we ever find somewhere as special as Hacienda Petac?

When I get home, I thought, I'm going to look into it. I used Internet postings to track down other groups of old friends who had made a regular event of getting together, and got their advice on great venues for reunions. Here they are, along with their snapshots.

Good Guys of America: Friends from the class of '57

These nine members of the class of '57 had their own "secret society" at Yale. Dedicated to responsibility, individuality and fun, the Good Guys of America had their official photo taken in black suits and bare feet.

Forty years after graduation, the Good Guys all made it for the first time to an official Yale reunion, where they found that as grandfathers, they still had much in common. In that spirit, they resolved to continue yearly get-togethers on their own, spouses included, rotating through the home regions of the members.

Great destinations:

Tides Inn By-The-Sea, at Goose Rock Beach, Kennebunkport, Maine: The first Good Guy gathering focused on long walks and singalongs on the beach outside this seasonal Victorian lodge. www.tidesinnbythesea.com.

Hamilton Turner Inn, Savannah, Ga.: An insider's tour of the locations of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was the highlight of this Southern experience. www.hamilton-turnerinn.com.

Kohler Village, Kohler, Wis.: Good Guy Mike Kohler invited the group to this elegant destination resort developed by his family's plumbing company. www.destinationkohler.com.

Gramercy Park Hotel, New York City: The gang loved this rundown favorite of Europeans and musicians, and chowed their way through Chinatown and the Theater District. www.gramercyparkhotel.com.

Magic moments:

"We spend almost no time reminiscing about Yale," says Chuck Leahy, a New Hampshire-based Good Guy. "We talk about the present and the future, with the same skeptical, challenging dynamic as always."

The group's resident philosopher, Tink Thompson, who is also a private investigator and an ex-Navy Seal, often poses a question for the group to consider. Most recently, it was, "Do you ever think about failing?" Almost uniformly, Leahy remembers, the answer was no.

Tips:

Good Guys don't work well by committee, Leahy says, so one person plans and executes each year's gathering -- held almost always in late September, when the weather is pretty good throughout the United States. "They can plan whatever they want," Leahy says, "but at some point, there's got to be a good restaurant in the mix."

East Side Boys: After 40 years, party pals still have a great time

This gang of cut-ups met in the early '60s in elementary school and junior high in Long Beach, Calif.

"We had some of the smartest guys in the school and the most major goof-offs," remembers Don Gabor, now of Brooklyn, N.Y. Group antics ranged from toilet-papering people's lawns to dancing around in underwear to holding high-school parties still remembered in the region.

Connections survived informally until 1998, when one of the dozen suggested a group cruise on the first weekend after Mother's Day, and a tradition was born.

Great destinations

Royal Caribbean cruise to Baja and Ensenada, Mexico: On this first group outing, there was nothing to do but "eat, drink, and b.s." -- and it was perfect, Gabor says. www.rccl.com.

Shadow Mountain Resort and Club, Palm Springs, Calif.: Here the group discovered preparing meals together as a focal activity -- the barbecues overlooking the desert were unforgettable. www.desertresorts.com.

Big Bear Cabins, Big Bear, Calif.: Three return visits to a cabin at Big Bear have failed to match the hilarity of a high-school party given 30 years ago nearby -- but maybe that's for the best. www.bigbearvacations.com.

Magic moments:

"One of the highlights of every trip is always the beginning -- getting there, watching the guys roll up one by one, realizing that we did it again. We catch up, we fix dinner, we sit down and look around the table and realize that we go back 40 years. What a feeling," says Gabor.

Tips:

On the first two trips only, wives came along, but "they really didn't want to hear the same stories a million times," says Gabor, who as the author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends could be considered an expert on storytelling.

Renting a cabin together has proved the most conducive setting for the "catching up, getting away and regressing" the group enjoys -- and making the reunion the same weekend each year has allowed members to plan to attend.

Elon Roomies: Good eating and good planning are the keys

In 1986, six freshman honor students unpacked their trunks in a suite on the campus of Elon College in, Elon, N.C. Twenty years later, they're still unpacking together -- on the reunion trips they take once a year.

The original nucleus expanded to include a few other college friends, but spouses and children are prohibited.

Great destinations:

The Inn at Perry Cabin, St. Michaels: Luxurious small hotel on the Chesapeake Bay where the gals had a private lounge area where they could stay up all night playing cards. www.perrycabin.com.

Palace Hotel, New York City: The roomies shared these highly post-collegiate digs for a long weekend of shows and restaurants and a carriage ride through Central Park. www.newyorkpalace.com.

National Parks adventure: A subset of the gang left in a rented car from Spokane, Wash., and wandered through Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier, looking for great road food and cool wildlife. www.nps.gov.

Magic moments:

At the Inn at Perry Cabin, on a sunny, freezing January day, the women returned from a walk and enjoyed hot chocolate and scones in front of the fire.

"Eating is our thing," says Valerie Owen of Westfield, N.J. "That's what we did back in college, and whenever we start stuffing our faces with sugar and caffeine it's just like old times, everybody talking at once and laughing."

Tips:

These ex-honor students are a little obsessive, Owen admits, and they have a system for planning their trips. After group e-mails and conference calls to get a sense of where and when they'll be going and who can make it, they split up the research -- hotels, cars, points of interest, restaurants -- and somebody puts it all together in an itinerary.

"We decide up front whether we're going luxury or budget and about how much each person will have to spend," Owen says. "We each lay out whatever's convenient on our credit cards, then we tally and split it up at the end of the trip."

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