Born to be wild Travel: More and more women are leaving the men behind to set out on adventure vacations, one of the fastest growing travel options.

November 02, 1997|By Story and photos by Judi Dash | Story and photos by Judi Dash,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

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.

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