Girls Just Want to Have Fun

The Baltimore Sun

THE KIDS BICKER, THE DOG IS SICK, the inbox at work never clears. Dirty clothes are breeding in the laundry hamper. And what's for dinner?

There's only one response to this chaos: road trip!

For decades, men carved out time to be with their guy friends and get away from it all. They've had bowling night, poker night, golf tournaments and Vegas weekends. Now, more and more women want "girlfriend getaways."

"The relationships we build are 'snippet relationships' -- a little bit here, a little bit there," says Traci Williams, 41, of Dallas, who does regular getaways with three other women. "When you're a mother and a friend and a wife, you're interrupted all the time. Men will take their time. But in order to get quality time, women need getaways."

A survey last year by AAA found that 24 percent of American women have done a girlfriend getaway in the past three years, and 39 percent plan to do one in the next three years. An American Express Travel survey of agents in June found similar results.

"They're getting away, they're doing it in style and they're saying, 'I'm away. Don't bother me,'" says Audrey Henley, vice president of marketing for American Express Travel.

"Everybody's lives are getting busier and more complicated, and I think there's just a sense of people wanting to connect with each other," she says.

The Fine Living Network plans to launch a series next month called All-Girl Getaways, and Williams and her friends will be featured in one episode. The industry is taking notice, too; many travel agencies cater to women travelers.

April Merenda, founder of Gutsy Women Travel, said the concept of "gutsy women" was "to indulge in that women's spirit of wanting to invest some time into themselves. It's not about climbing Mount Everest. It's saying, 'You know, I nurture everyone in my life, everyone in my circle, and I need to do something for me.'"

That theme of deep friendship echoes among women who go on girlfriend getaways. So does trust.

"In our society, mothers tend to judge each other -- parenting styles, working versus nonworking, breast versus bottle, whatever," says Kelly Brown, 39, of Silver Spring, who goes on getaways with three female friends she met in high school.

"In this environment, even though the four of us run the gamut from stay-at-home to full-time work or primary-income person, we let go of the judging and see each other for who we truly are and realize that it's no different for any of us -- the struggles, the complications, the stresses."

Lisa Baldwin, 44, of Leesburg, Va., gets together regularly with some of her sorority sisters, all members of Alpha Phi whom she met at the University of Maryland, College Park. They call their gatherings "Estrofest."

"More than anything, you get a reconnection with people who really get you," says Baldwin.

Williams and her friends -- Dana Davis, 38; Michelle Kneeland, 36; and Cheryl Brown, 38 -- took a Caribbean cruise last July and tried just about everything offered, including the onboard surf pool and zip-line excursions.

"We let our hair down. We're free," says Davis. "Women lose spontaneity, adventure, relaxation. By having girls that you get along with and encourage you, you get that back."

Baldwin went on a getaway to New York City recently that started out with plans for appetizers at a friend's place in Chinatown, followed by dinner. "We never made it out of her apartment," she says. "We ended up -- like only women can do -- we ended up talking."

To which her husband, Tom, said, " 'Lisa, I'm glad you had fun, but here's the deal, you guys could have gone to the Comfort Suites in Leesburg and saved a hell of a lot of money.'

"And I said, 'Yeah, but it wouldn't have been the same.' Sometimes, you just have to not be at your house. You have to be away from your regular life."

Gutsy Women founder Merenda travels constantly with her tour groups, but she goes on her own girlfriend getaways, too, including a week every year at a timeshare in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

"I just love being able to open up to my friends," she says. "We all have pressures, a lot of things women are going through right now -- we're all caretakers. My mother is 86 years old and needs a lot of attention.

Many women enjoy the more upscale adventure, according to the American Express survey from last June.

Girlfriend getaways don't have to be expensive and distant, though. Locally, Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City offers girlfriend weekends.

Kelly Brown and her friends started out on the high-end side. "We went to a hotel that had an Elizabeth Arden spa," Brown says. "We did spa treatments all day, and we sat up until 3 in the morning and talked. And it was like we hadn't left the student lounge in high school."

But soon, the concept evolved to "well you know, let's just stay at somebody's house because it's more comfortable and easier and cheaper," Brown says.

"It's become a way of rejuvenating that supersedes any spa treatment that we could have gotten," Brown says. "It's the connection that's larger than ourselves."

The connection "larger than ourselves" is another recurrent theme. The fun, talking and laughter often mix with tears.

Lisa Baldwin's first husband, Taylor, who played basketball at UM, died of brain cancer several years ago. Her Alpha Phi friends all came for the funeral.

"After the funeral was over, we all went over to Bentley's in College Park and sat there and had lunch, and kind of had a mini-girlfriend getaway," she says. "And it was the best thing."

The story of Bonnie Ayers' getaways involves loss, too -- but also inspiration for women and their friends.

It was 1993, and Ayers, a public information officer for Montgomery County, had decided to visit a friend from her UM days who was living in Washington state. She mentioned the trip to Pattie Mallonee, another college friend in Virginia.

"And she gets this gleam in her eye," Ayers, 66, recalls, "because Pattie had the true pioneering spirit. She always liked to see what was beyond the next hill."

Mallonee had multiple sclerosis, though for a long time that didn't slow her down. On their first trip, the women decided on a whim to drive farther north than they had planned and ended up in Canada. They didn't know it, but they were pioneers in girlfriend getaways.

They traveled every year after that, always in the West. By 1999, Mallonee's illness had progressed, and she was in a wheelchair all the time. Still, the three women were up for every adventure they could find and decided to visit a glacier in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.

"This one bus that went out to the glacier had a lift in it," Ayers says. "The bus drove onto the glacier, and we got out and rolled her around on the glacier. And it was great; it was fantastic."

That was their last trip together. Mallonee died in the fall of 2006.

"After losing Pattie, we thought, you know we take things for granted," Ayers says. "You don't think about anything ever ending.

"We realized that if you're going to do these trips, you need to stop talking about them," she adds. "You just need to go and do them, because you just never know."

So the two remaining friends ventured out last fall, exploring new places but also revisiting some they had seen with their friend.

"On one of the beaches by one of the lighthouses that we had visited before, we had our own little memorial ceremony," Ayers says. "We picked some wildflowers, and we just cast them out on the water, and we had our time to be thankful for the time we had with her on all these trips."

Mallonee kept a diary on their trips, and after she died her family included it in a book of her writings. In one excerpt, she wrote: "There are times in our lives for staying home ... tending to careers, the kids, the house, whatever. But, at some point in our lives, there's a time to tend to yourself and to indulge some dreams. It's time for 'goin'."

IF YOU GO

PLANNING

Create your own girlfriend getaway by heading for the beach in the off-season, where you'll have lots of time to talk and laugh. Or take advantage of the weekend rates at hotels in Baltimore and Washington, and design a list of fun things to do. Here are some other ideas for local girlfriend getaways:

Turf Valley Resort, Ellicott City:

Includes dinner, room-service breakfast, a spa treatment and a Spa Cuisine lunch. 888-833-8873; turfvalleyresort.com.

Loews Annapolis:

The hotel has a couple of girlfriend getaways, including the Winter Sale promotion that includes an overnight stay, lunch for two and $25 Nordstrom gift card. The package, valid through March 30, starts at $179. 410-263-7777.

Colonial Williamsburg:

The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg has a spa escape package, including a 60-minute facial or massage, that makes a perfect girlfriend getaway. Women can pamper themselves at the spa, play golf, walk nature trails, rent bicycles, shop and dine. Rates start at $209. 800-447-8679.

Fairfax County:

This area of Northern Virginia, with its plentiful museums, arts and shopping, markets itself as a great place for "girlfriend getaways." 800-732-4732; fxva.com.

Hershey, Pa.:

Both the Hotel Hershey and the Hershey Lodge offer the Chocolate Spa getaway, including a massage and a gift certificate to be used toward spa products or services such as the whipped cocoa bath or chocolate fondue wrap. Prices vary depending on lodging. 800-437-7439.

ASSISTANCE

Gutsy Women Travel:

A travel agency that specializes in travel for women. Gutsywomentravel.com for coming tours and itineraries.

BudgetTravel.com and GoGirlfriend.com:

These Web sites have lots of information, including destinations and deals, for girlfriends on the move.

Best Girlfriends Getaways Worldwide, National Geographic, $15.95:

This new book is the second from writer Marybeth Bond to focus on girlfriend getaways. The book includes suggested destinations, from Thailand to Provence, France, and also tells stories about best friends who have traveled around the globe.

TIPS

Women who wrote in to BudgetTravel.com about girlfriend getaways suggested these tips:

Pool money for group expenses such as taxis and meals so you don't have to figure out each person's share at every stop.

Sarongs are lightweight, washable and morph into everything from a beach cover-up to a picnic blanket to an emergency towel.

Share the planning: Once you know where you're going, make a list of the things you'd all like to do and have each member in the group take responsibility for one item on the list: research, reservations, directions, etc.

[Sheila Young]

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